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Fine Arts on the Bosphorus:
Sakıp Sabancı Museum

Emirgân is one of the loveliest spots on the Bosphorus, and one whose traditional character is best preserved. Emirgân Park, with its ancient trees, pavilions, and bright displays of tulips in spring, comes first to mind perhaps, or sitting in the open air coffee house beneath the spreading plane tree watching the anglers along the shore tossing their lines into the strait and daydreaming as they wait for the fish to bite. In Emirgân there is now another place bringing together nostalgic images of life on the Bosphorus in the past with an institution worthy of a modern city. The mansion which was home to one of Turkey's leading industrialists Sakıp Sabancı for many years, popularly known as the Horse Mansion because of the familiar statue of a horse inside the main gate, has now become one of Istanbul's finest museums. Passing the horse, visitors find themselves in the magnificent garden overlooking the Bosphorus. Climbing the steps into the house, you find yourself in the hall, where two large paintings, at the foot of the staircase and on the landing, draw you up to the first floor.

These paintings are so familiar that you feel not as if you are in a museum, but paying a visit to your neighbours. One is 'Woman Carrying a Pitcher' and the other Fausto Zonaro's 'Young Girl Carrying a Pumpkin'. As you enter the first room, the sound of Turkish classical music is heard in the half-light. Here the works of calligraphy are displayed, protected from the strong light to which they are sensitive. The 'letters in gold' include Korans and prayer books in glass cases and framed calligraphic inscriptions and historic documents on the walls. Calligraphy was the most highly esteemed of Ottoman arts, and that which Sakıp Sabancı loves best. The first piece which he purchased for the collection with the encouragement of Prof Memduh Yaşa was a calligraphic panel by Sultan Mahmud II (1808- 1839). Since then the collection has grown to over four hundred works of art under the guidance of Emin Barin, an authority on calligraphy and a calligrapher himself.

Selected works from the collection have been shown at an exhibition entitled Letters in Gold which recently toured the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Los Angeles Art Museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University, the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim Museum in Berlin and Frankfurt Art Museum.

Magnificent documents bearing the imperial monograms of Sultan Murad III (1774-1795) and Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481), a gold plated plaque bearing the monogram of Sultan Abdulaziz, and hilye-i şerif or descriptions of the Prophet Muhammed by such eminent calligraphers as Hasan Rıza, Çömez Mustafa Vasif and Yedikuleli Seyit Abdullah are among the exhibits. One of the most precious items is a Koran by the 16th century calligrapher Ahmed Karahisari. Beyond this darkened room with its bewitching golden letters is a room flooded with sunlight.

The spectacular view of the Bosphorus from the windows here for a moment seems like an inscription drawn by nature. Returning to the ground floor you now visit the two drawing rooms and dining room furnished with antiques, figurines and ornaments as they were when the Sabancı family lived here, and now known as the Sabancı Family Memorial Rooms. A fourth room is devoted to Sakıp Sabancı himself, with several personal possessions, and medals, awards and photographs filling the walls. To reach the art gallery you pass through the conservatory, where there are chairs and tables for visitors to relax before seeing the other parts of the museum. Let us take advantage of this interval to listen to the story of the house. Towards the end of the 19th century Prince Mehmed Ali Hasan purchased the land where the famous waterfront palace of Khedive of Egypt Ismail Pasa used to stand, and commissioned Edouard de Nari to build this mansion here in 1923. In 1951, Sakıp Sabancı's father purchased the mansion for 300,000 Turkish liras from its owner Iffet Hanim. A number of antiques which he purchased with the house sparked off his own interest in antique collecting, and soon afterwards he purchased the bronze statue of a horse cast in Paris in 1864 which had previously stood in the house of Mahmud Muhtar Pasa in Moda.

The second statue of a horse at the entrance of the garden was brought from Italy in 1957. The sculptor of this statue was inspired by the horses drawing the chariot of Helios, a sculpture in Venice which in Byzantine times had stood in Istanbul. Following the death of Haci Ömer Sabancı in 1966, the mansion stood empty for a while, before becoming the home of his son Sakıp Sabancı and his family. In 1998 the mansion became the property of Sabancı University, and was opened to the public as a museum housing the Sabancı fine art collections in June 2002. Now it is time to move onto the gallery, whose plate glass façade overlooks the garden. In the abundant light the paintings by mainly Ottoman and Turkish artists glow with vivid colour. They date from the 19th century to the present day. Classical music plays in the background as an Ibrahim Çalli appears. All the other major artists are here: Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, Fikret Mualla, Feyhaman Duran, Seref Akdik, Ruhi Arel, Sevket Dağ, Nazmi Ziya and Osman Hamdi.

A single visit to this marvellous collection will not suffice, and it will draw you back to Emirgân again and again.

Skylife 08/2002
* Ersin Toker, freelance writer
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