Whenever someone asks about my dissertation topic and I answer “Ottoman tents,” their first thought is usually of Anatolian nomads, or perhaps ruthless Turkish conquerors and their vast armies. For this reason, I always show them a photo, to make clear that the kinds of tents I work on are actually appliquéd, embroidered, fringed, gilt, sequined, and otherwise extraordinarily ornate silken palaces. My dissertation examines these luxurious imperial tents used by the sultans in the last century or so of Ottoman rule (from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th). This period was a time of modernization in the Ottoman Empire, which witnessed the advent of photography and railroads, as well as changes in imperial aesthetic tastes, which have been described as Turkish “Baroque” or “Rococo,” and which likewise appeared in fabric architecture.
With the generous support of several grants including the Rackham Merit Fellowship, the Rackham International Research Award, the Rackham Graduate Student Research Grant, and a nine-month research fellowship at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Istanbul—altogether I spent two summers (2013 and 2015) chasing tents across Europe, and a full academic year (2015-2016) in Istanbul to study the tents, archives, and architecture in the Ottomans’ capital city.
Ottoman tents found their way to Europe through various means over the centuries—from being won in battle and taken as war booty or simply purchased from Istanbul, or in some cases, European artisans made their own tents in the style of the Ottoman sultans’. While in Europe those two summers, I studied tents in various national and palatial museums, local collections, and historic chateaus in Vienna, Warsaw, Kraków, Tarnów, Kórnik, Berlin, Dresden, Karlsruhe, Lviv, Stockholm, Madrid, and Athens. Each place presented its own challenges, and its own rewards, and of course, more than a few surprises. Whenever a museum was generous enough to allow me access to their “backroom” (whether a dusty storeroom or a large warehouse off-site from the museum proper) I felt a rush of adrenaline as the appliqued, embroidered, and gilt fabric was unfurled before me. Then would begin the process of furious note taking, photographing, and sketching its every detail and overall character.
But nothing could have prepared me for my research experience at the Military Museum in Istanbul. I had worked there before—in summer 2013—but at that time I was given access only to the library and the tents that were installed in the galleries. This year, however, after having built a relationship with the institution over the intervening years (helped along with gifts of homemade sweets), I was allowed access to their tent depot. I was shocked to discover that the Military Museum housed upwards of two hundred specimens, which the curatorial staff is currently in the midst of cataloguing. To put that number in perspective, the tents that are in the Topkapı Palace collections number around thirty.
The magnitude of this discovery hit me only when I saw row upon row of rolled up tents stacked into mountains of heavily decorated cloth. My first thought was of Hanger 51 in the final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark. I knew then that this project might in fact be a lifetime of work, and that my dissertation is only the beginning. After having visited dozens of collections across eight countries and collected hundreds of archival documents, hundreds of historical photos, and taken thousands of my own photographs, I will return to Ann Arbor in the fall to immerse myself in the writing process.