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Exhibition: The Civilizations of Turkey, Emperors in Istanbul

Turkey is known as a “brother country” to Korea. There is much debate about the origins of this expression but some facts are undeniable: relations date all the way back to the 6th century with the Goguryeo-Turkey alliance, an immense number of troops were sent from Turkey to aid in the Korean War, and the third-place football match in the 2002 World Cup was a display of brotherly sportsmanship. There has always been an amiable vibe between the two countries.

On August 1, 2012, the Korea-Turkey Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Besides the enactment of the FTA, 2012 marks the 55th year of official diplomatic ties between the two countries, with various cultural and academic exchange programs going on throughout the year.

The Emperors in Istanbul exhibition is currently being held at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. More than 150 artifacts and works of art were assembled from Turkey’s major museums to give viewers a comprehensive look into Turkey’s long and diverse cultural history. Turkey’s culture is particularly fascinating as it truly combines the cultural aspects of both East and West. Visitors can experience the exhibition with four major themes in chronological order: the ancient civilizations of Anatolia (Asia Minor), the Greek and Roman era, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the splendor of the Ottoman Empire.

Trojan artifacts from the Bronze Age, the iron works of the Hittites, and the legend of King Midas are the main attractions of the first theme. Located in Northwest Anatolia, Troy is considered one of the oldest settled civilizations. The Hittites introduced the Iron Age to the region and were probably best known for their written peace treaty with Egypt; a replica is on display.

Alexander the Great of Macedonia makes his appearance in the next theme, bringing in the Hellenistic period. Greek and Roman style was harmonized into the existing culture. Marble sculptures of a young Alexander as well as Greco- Roman gods and goddesses such as Athena and Eros showcase this era’s characteristics very well; the figures are captured in a more realistic and natural state than simply being statuary.

Emperors in Istanbul exhibition at the National Museum of Korea

The Anatolian peninsula was truly the bridge between East and West. The capital city of Constantinople was established by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century where the cultures of Greece and Rome and the Orient met and flourished. The impact of Christianity can be seen in all aspects of the culture and art such as Byzantine gold medallions and wall sculptures depicting the life of Jesus.

Crystal ladle (photo courtesy of the National Museum of Korea)

The highlight of the exhibition is most definitely the last, where you can meet the “Emperors of Istanbul,” ie the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul is a renamed Constantinople, and you can look into the sultans’ lives of luxury through various objects from the 15th to 19th century.

Turban ornaments are dazzling with gems and jewels, and the sword of Sultan Suleiman -- the most prized artifact of this exhibition -- is embellished with gold and black diamonds. Napkins and towels are embroidered in fine threads; clogs meant to be worn in Turkish bathhouses are also heavily decorated. Delicately adorned coffee cup holders were meant to cradle tiny cups of very strong Turkish coffee. Large silver plates are inscribed with verses from the Koran; moveable tables and plate holders are reminiscent of a nomadic life. The scent of roses was captured in silver perfume bottles and incense burners.

Sultan Suleiman's sword(photo courtesy of the National Museum of Korea)

A heavy Chinese influence can be noted in the porcelain and celadon, although in later years the Ottomans added red and green pigments to the traditional China blue for their own unique style. This is also present in their decorative tiles. Arabesque design and calligraphy were also frequently used.

Grandeur is notable even in the objects used for religious purposes: books of the Koran are brilliantly and delicately painted, Koran chests are decorated with mother-of-pearl and precious stones, and prayer rugs and carpets are intricately woven.

The exhibition is like a crash course in the history of Turkey. Between the displays of artifacts, there are paintings, photographs, and screenings of historic sites. There is so much to take in all at once. Fortunately, the museum provides audio guides and guided tours with well-informed docents. There is an English tour every Wednesday afternoon and group tours may be arranged in advance.

The Civilizations of Turkey, Emperors in Istanbul exhibition runs until September 2, 2012 at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, and then moves on to the Busan Museum in Busan. The Busan exhibition will run from October 9, 2012 to January 27, 2013.

For more information check out the following sites:
* Exhibition official site - http://www.istanbul2012.co.kr
* National Museum of Korea - http://www.museum.go.kr
* Busan Museum - http://museum.busan.go.kr

By Suzy Chung
Contributor/The Korea Blog Blogger

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