Teutonic interest in Turkish delights started long before the tasty döner kebab came to German street corners everywhere.
This Sunday, Dresden's Royal Palace will open the Türckische Cammer, or Turkish Chamber, as part of ongoing renovations of the city's historic quarter overlooking the Elbe River.
The chamber is a permanent space devoted to Ottoman weaponry, textiles, horse trappings and armour collected by the rulers of Saxony beginning in the early 1500s. Over 600 objects – from tents and pennants to helmets, swords and elaborate folding leather cups – are on display in a 750-square metre space.
Closely controlling the lighting, temperature and humidity makes it possible to display centuries-old textiles in the open. At the centre of the exhibition is a massive tent, 20 metres long and six metres high. Elaborately embroidered in deep red, gold and blue on the inside, the tent is a pale blue on the outside. It was acquired by the most powerful ruler of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, in 1729, and used at official events including royal weddings and military parades.
“The tent looks like it did 300 years ago,” says exhibition curator Holger Schuckelt. “It's not just a display, but a trip to the past.”
Visitors can walk under and through the massive tent, which survived centuries in the state vaults and was nearly lost in 2002, when severe flooding filled the storerooms of Dresden's museums with water. Restorers spent more than a decade carefully cleaning and preserving the tent's fabric.
Many of the original Turkish Chamber's treasures weren't so lucky. Wood horses used for centuries to display the jewel-encrusted riding equipment (themselves based on live Arabians given as gifts to the Saxon royalty) were burned in World War II, and had to be re-created by a master woodcarver for the exhibit. “They cost about as much as a real horse,” says Saxon State Museum Collections official Dirk Syndram. “But they last a lot longer and they don't cost anything to feed.”
In addition to gold and silver horse trappings, highlights of the exhibition include swords encrusted with sapphires, lapis lazuli and opals and engraved in Arabic, elaborately inlaid rifles and embroidered velvet pennants.
Some of the items on display date back nearly five centuries. Beginning in the 1500s, the ruling classes in some parts of Europe were obsessed with Turkish culture and art. According to curator Schuckelt, European rulers were deeply impressed by the Ottoman Empire's military prowess and a little bit jealous of the sultan's unbridled power. “The Saxon electors had a mixture of fascination and fear when it came to the Orient and Turkey,” Schuckelt says.
As Turkish armies defeated western European forces in battle after battle throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the fascination grew into an obsession. Captured weapons and tents were proudly displayed and copied; rulers dressed their elite soldiers in uniforms inspired by the Turks.
A climactic clash outside of Vienna in 1683 – ending in a resounding defeat for the Ottoman forces – did nothing to diminish the phenomenon. Gradually “the Orient” became synonymous with luxury, sophistication and decadence. European craftsmen were inspired by Turkish design and architecture. Nobles had their portraits painted wearing caftans and curved Ottoman-style swords. The fanciest parties of the year were masquerade balls where everyone came in Turkish costumes.
As a result, most of the art and weaponry on display was bought at great cost by the Saxon kings or given as gifts by ambassadors or Polish and Saxon aristocrats, Schuckelt says. Only a small percentage was actually seized in battle – and there have been no calls to return any of it to Turkey.
Museum officials hope the exhibition, which opens to the public on Sunday, can help teach visitors about the long history of German-Turkish relations. It's also a way to engage the many people of Turkish descent who live in Germany. “In a time of xenophobia, when Dresden is too often in the news for negative reasons, it's great to have an opening like this,” says Martin Roth, director of Saxony's state museums. “This is a cultural corridor that may help bring many Germans of Turkish background to Dresden for the first time.”
Organisers have reached out to nearly 3,000 Turkish cultural groups and foundations to spread the word. And the museum arranged for nation-wide advertising on a modern example of German-Turkish fusion: Over the next few months, 4.5 million specially printed döner kebab wrappers will serve as mini-billboards for Dresden's latest Turkish delight.
Türckische Cammer in the Residenzschloss
10 am to 6 pm, closed Tuesdays
Tel: +49 (0)3 51 / 4 91 42 000