Friday, January 6, 2012

Turkey's 19th-century Renaissance man

Osman Hamdi Bey's "The Tortoise Trainer"
Maybe it's all the bad knock-offs of his most famous painting, "The Tortoise Trainer," for sale on İstiklal Caddesi and around the Galata Tower, but I always found it a bit hard to understand what all the fuss was about Osman Hamdi Bey.

Turns out painting was probably the least of the sad-eyed, long-faced Ottoman intellectual's contributions to Turkish culture. As the exhibit "Osman Hamdi Bey and the Americans" details, old Osman Hamdi essentially invented Turkish archaeology, conducting important digs at Nemrut Dağı in central Turkey, Assos along the Aegean coast, and Sidon in modern-day Lebanon.

The small, well-put-together exhibit -- which admittedly is likely to be of most interest if you've visited some of the places Osman Hamdi excavated -- ends this weekend at the Pera Museum but the fruits of his labors can be seen in perpetuity at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums across the Golden Horn in Sultanahmet.

Chillin' at Nemrut Dağı
Now one of the most important institutions of its kind, the museum's "collection" was essentially just a pile of booty from Ottoman military campaigns when Osman Hamdi was appointed director in 1881.

His focus on scientific classification and protecting antiquities turned the museum into what it is today, while the enacting of the Antiquities Law he wrote kept Ottoman treasures within the empire at a time when they were being increasingly hauled off to Europe by whoever found them. (Whether the famous Alexander Sarcophagus and other discoveries from Sidon should now go back to Lebanon is, I suppose, another question altogether.)

And for my money, his richly detailed painting "The Fountain of Life" (also on display at the Pera Museum) runs rings around that damn tortoise trainer any day.

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