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 and Islamism, this exhibit inadvertently reveals the complex ways in which the two ideologies always co-existed. In Turkey, as elsewhere, religion has always been important to even the most secular governments, and power remains important to even the most religious.
The Smithsonian website offers a set of interactive maps showing the “long-distance travels” that brought the books in the exhibit from the diverse cities where they were first created to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, where they now reside full time. “Ottoman sultans, queens, and viziers acquired some of the most precious [Korans]… through purchase, gift, or war booty,” the curators explain, then “endowed these cherished works to public and religious institutions to express personal piety and power and to secure prestige.”
For anyone interested in piety and power in contemporary Turkey, the more recent history of these holy books, leading up to their current presence in Washington, is equally telling. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as in Ottoman times, the ownership, transportation, and display of famous Korans continue to demonstrate everything from allegiance and modernity to national
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