Remember those old pirate movies in which the intrepid hero at last opens the treasure chest to reveal a treasure beyond compare: gold and diamonds and rubies and emeralds and sapphires… Well, I experienced such a moment last April in Istanbul when we visited the Topkapi Palace.
For centuries the Turks were a power in the Middle East and cut a wide swath through Asia and Europe. The Turkish Empire in it’s heyday rivalled any that the world has ever seen and it exacted enormous amounts of tribute from the conquered territories. The choicest loot wound up with the Sultan and is on display in the Treasury of the Topkapi. The treasury is in the innermost courtyard ; one building contains rare porcelain, another houses the silver. In the third are displayed the gold and jewels and this of course is where the tourists flock. The treasures are displayed in glass fronted cases ranged along the walls of each room and we gawk at them as we slowly file past. There are golden crowns encrusted with diamonds and rubies , swords with bejewelled hilts and cradles, reliquaries, bibelots, a cradle, scissors and all manner of everyday objects fashioned out of gold and studded with precious stones. There are several thrones, among them the famous Peacock Throne, looted from Delhi by the Persian adventurer , Nadir Shah, and then sent to the Turkish Sultan as tribute. There is the Topkapi Dagger made famous by the film of the same name. Some visitors point at the pearshaped 86 carat Spoonmaker Diamond, so called because it was found in a rubbish heap by a poor man who traded it to a spoonmaker for three wooden spoons. Later it passed through several hands before it was offered to the Sultan who graciously accepted the ‘gift’. There are several large emeralds, and rubies as big as pigeons’ eggs. But after awhile it all begins to pall. There is too much of everything and it is not displayed to its best advantage.
Years earlier, when I had visited the Tower of London I had seen the crowns, scepters and other treasures of the British Royal family. In quantity and value, what we saw that day was not a patch on the treasures of the Topkapi. But it was far more impressive. The gold gleamed and the diamonds sparkled under the bright lights.
At the Topkapi the gold does not gleam, jewels do not sparkle; the emeralds in particular look like soap.And all of a sudden, I see them for what they are, pieces of stone, pieces of glass. I think of all the lives that were lost, all the havoc that was wrought in acquiring them. I read how the Sultan visited the treasury only once a year and reflect on how little pleasure they must have given him.
Outside, in the bright sunlight, the courtyards are awash with a sea of color from the serried ranks of tulips. Istanbul is a city of tulips , three million of them having been planted there. Our Turkish guide tells us that tulips were grown in Turkey before they became famous in Holland. I do not know the truth of this but those masses of tulips, red and yellow and orange and purple and white are what I will remember about the Topkapi, not the other stuff.