Istanbul on display in Paris

PARIS – The glories of Istanbul have arrived in Paris. From white marble statues of Greek and Roman gods to gleaming medieval Christian icons to a huge red Ottoman tent, an exhibition devoted to Istanbul seeks to expand French awareness of the city’s multicultural heritage in a country deeply skeptical of Turkey’s European aspirations. Some 300 works of art from museums in 14 countries in Europe, Turkey and Qatar cap two years of work to create the exhibit «From Byzantium to Istanbul» at the Grand Palais. Some of the pieces from Turkish museums have left their country for the first time. Bathed in subdued red light, the exhibition takes the visitor through 8,000 years of history of the «city of a hundred names» known as Byzantium, then Constantinople and now Istanbul. It focuses on its role linking Europe and Asia as «one port for two continents.» The exhibition, opened earlier this month by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Turkish President Abdullah Gul, is the centerpiece of the «Year of Turkey,» a panoply of some 400 Turkish cultural events over nine months offering everyone a chance to become better acquainted with Turkey’s culture. «[Istanbul] always has been a multicultural city, with many different languages, ethnicities, religions,» said Nazan Olcer, director of the Sakip Sanci Museum in Istanbul and curator of the exhibition. «I wanted to bring also this colorful face of the city to the exhibition. Maybe, you know, you cannot change all the prejudices with one exhibition only, but at least you can try to open a window to the visitor, to ask him to think differently,» she told The Associated Press in an interview. Olcer says she has collaborated on many international exhibitions that included art from Turkey. Some had focused just on Ottoman art, some on different periods of Turkish art and sometimes just one period of the Turks. The decision to extend the time span and to focus on Istanbul gives the visitor insight into the array of cultures that have shaped the city, as well as its major role as capital of the Christian Byzantine and the Islamic Ottoman empires. «The strategy was this. We all sometimes tend to simplify many things. Byzantium was a Christian capital, so we think it’s been only a Christian capital. If we say after the conquest, after the fall, all of a sudden it has become an Islamic capital. No. It was not like this. Istanbul has been always a multicultural city,» she said. The visitor begins by looking at artifacts from the Neolithic era and glides into the 8th century BC, when Greek settlers developed a flourishing port they called Byzantium. A stern marble head of the Greek god Hercules stares out, a stark reminder of the city’s classical heritage. Next, a bust of the Roman emperor Constantine, who transformed Byzantium into the capital of his eastern Christian empire in the 4th century. Golden icons and crosses as well as chalices elaborately decorated with precious stones and pearls evoke the long centuries of the city’s Christian era when it was known as Constantinople. Key to understanding the exhibition is a striking section devoted to Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453 at age 21 and ended Byzantine rule. His childhood notes written in Turkish using Arabic script and a letter he wrote to the Italian painter Gentile Bellini inviting him from Venice are displayed alongside a 13th-century copy of Homer’s «Iliad» in Greek, one of the seven languages Mehmet knew. The exhibition includes portraits by Italian painters of Mehmed and his successors, including Suleyman the Magnificent, a testament to European fascination with the East. Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities long present in Istanbul do not figure prominently, but they are not absent. Engraved stone funeral steles in Armenian, Hebrew and Greek document the city’s diversity. The exhibition ends on a contemporary note with a room devoted to a slideshow of color photographs of the city today and a remarkable display of artifacts of an ancient Byzantine port discovered in 2004 during the construction of an underwater metro station. «Maybe this exhibition also can open new windows for [visitors] by looking at the old city with all of its secrets,» Olcer said. «From Byzantium to Istanbul» runs through January 25, 2010.