Piety, Power, and Politics in Turkey

Ankara's Traveling Korans


Anyone in Washington trying to understand the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey today could do worse than starting with a visit to the Smithsonian’s Sackler gallery. On display there, until February 20, is “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.” The exhibit features a number of lavishly decorated Korans collected by the Ottoman Empire during its six-century rule over much of the Muslim world. One, seized by Suleiman the Magnificent from the tomb of a long-dead Mongol ruler, has sprawling gold medallions set amidst lines of multi-colored calligraphy. Another, read with unknowable results for the salvation of Selim the Second’s soul, features whimsical foliage-like shapes interlocked above a deep lapis lazuli background.

But beyond the beauty of the books on display, their history is also illuminating. Whereas commentators frequently describe modern Turkey as torn by a rivalry between secularism

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