Ottoman Imperial Tents
–by Prof.Dr.Nurhan Atasoy

The Ottoman tents having a big importance in Ottoman culture and art have never been seriously studied and not enough is known about them. Yet, besides their many other very valuable collections, the TopkapY Palace Museum and the Military Museum own tent collections which have the potential to expose a very interesting characteristic of the Ottoman culture.

The tents in these collections draw attention, first with their embroideries. Then, they evoke the need to learn more information about their structures and uses. And then, they bring up the curiosity about their status in Ottoman life and with connections made, they gain more meaning. Within Ottoman cultural values, as connections are made with the past, the circles of progress intertwine. The studying of Ottoman tents bring the roots of the progress through history to very old times, and geographically all the way to Central Asia.

We encounter tents in Ottoman military campaigns, state ceremonies, daily outings or picnics of both the sultans and the public, and even though rather thinned out, in the daily lives of a few nomadic tribes in Anatolia. That the tents used for military occasions should be different than the ones used for sports and outdoor entertainment, festivals and other occasions, might be a logical thought at first. Both the studying of these tents and the studying of archival documents in which no such distinctions were made, have erased this possibility.

An investigation of the military organization in relation to the tent culture is necessary in order to evaluate the major military campaigns of the Ottoman State throughout its history, starting at its founding. Besides the victorious conclusion of Ottoman campaigns and the addition of new lands to the empire, that the Ottomans reached lands at such great distances with such a big army is a success on its own. Once compared with the armies of the Crusaders, that mostly disintegrated because of the difficulties encountered during their travels, the success of the Ottomans in this field is put in better perspective. The frequent and broad of usage of tents by the Ottomans, is an indicator to the experience and traditions of nomadic tribes moving collectively with the their homes, the tents, from one location to another, continuing in Ottoman culture.

In the frame of the Ottoman Army that used to be admired for its discipline and organization by the foreigners, the military campaigns were prepared for by planning the smallest details. Before the campaign, all the needs of the soldiers, from their food to the care and repair of their equipment were planned for and the necessary precautions were taken. Even that the soldiers' shoes might be damaged while in campaign and that repair might be necessary was thought of and it was arranged that the proper tradesmen join the campaigns. In an organization such as this one, the encampments formed by the tents that the sultans, their high and even the lowest rank officials lived in, displayed an impressive plan.

The sultan's tent complex, "OtaÛ-Y HŸmayun," included everything the sultan needed in his palace. A tower, in function resembling the Tower of Justice , a tent for the treasury, a tent for the holy relics, a tent for the Council of State, a tent of solidarity, kitchen tent, storage tent, bath tent ., and even toilet tent. All these tents were surrounded by a curtain-wall of fabric, called "zokak." Just like the palace being surrounded by ramparts... This way, the sultan's tents, the men wondering about and going in and out of them were concealed; and security was provided by the guards put among these tent. Around this complex, tents of the Grand Vizier, the viziers, and other sate officials were placed, differing in size according to the occupants' ranks. The soldiers' tents around these, enhanced the security even further.

Two sets of "OtaÛ-Y HŸmayun" were prepared for the campaigns. One of them was sent ahead to be set up at place on the campaign route, chosen by special members of the imperial guards, called "BostancYlar" according to weather, security and other conditions. Thus, the sultan found his mobile palace ready upon arrival.

In the "Surname" miniatures that depict the circumcision ceremonies of Ahmed III's sons, held in 1720, all these aspects of the "otaÛ-Y hŸmayun" are depicted. (ill. 1)

In earlier miniatures such as "SŸleymanname," (ill.2) dated1558, or Sefer-i Sigetvar (ill.3) dated 1568 or the one describing the Conquering of Eger (ill. 4)the depiction of the "zokaks" with (teeth DENDANLI) as ramparts, display the relation of the "otaÛ-Y hŸmayuns" to architecture.

This relation can also be observed on the pattern of the tent walls. These walls were formed by rectangular panels higher than the average human height, lined up next to each other. As we learn from written documents, poles were put in the fabric sockets, called "kovan," that were on either side of the panels called "hazne" or "hazine." In the decorative scheme of the fabric, over the sockets, columns were embroidered; and an arch connected the two columns thus the panels were turned into units consisting of an archway with columns on either side. (ill.7)

The number of the panels varied according to the size of the tents. In written documents, this is the reason for the description of the size of the tent depending on the number of its panels. Aside from this, terms such as "single poled," for a tent with a conical roof , or "double poled," for a tent with a roof with sloping on both sides of the axis betwen the two poles, were used to roughly described the size of a tent. The term "mŸnakkaß" meant that the tent was decorated. Yet, it should not be thought that tent types, that we can not include as a topic in this short lecture, consisted of only these since we have determined that the various tents we have studied have many different characteristics and are of many types.

Except from a few simple tents, almost all of them are made of two pieces of fabric consisting the inner and outer layers of the tent. For the inner part of the tent a generally red, linen or satin was used. This part carries the inner decorations of the tents. The structure of the Ottoman tents was planned to be really very strong. We know that the fabric of the outer layer, which generally was the color of rusted copper, was called "cengari." This part, that is a kind of tent material, also provides the base to carry the structural skeleton of the tent. On the "cengari" linen, cut and sewn together, in accordance with this skeleton, very strong cords were sewn, in order to prevent the tent from ripping at the points of tension. These cords form the skeletons of the tents. They were placed under the rings that hold the ropes holding the tent up, the buttons holding the pieces together, in short under every point of tension.(ill.8)

Ottoman rulers have not only provided themselves with good shelter with tents but also they have had these tents turned into works of art through their decorations. The sultans or their representatives were able to create the impression they were used to creating in their palaces, on their surroundings. Especially during ceremonies, an imposing stage effect was created and this effect has been more dazzling in some cases.

The research we have done up to day show that the tent examples that have survived to our day do not date earlier than the 17th century. The miniatures give more valuable information, about the development of the Ottoman tents in earlier periods.

It is understood that the "yurt" type Central Asian felt tents were more widely used during the early Ottoman period for both shelter and ceremonial purposes. (ill.5) In miniatures depicting some receptions by the sultan as well as some serving high officials, it is seen that by opening the doors and thus exposing the decorated insides rather than the plain outsides, an impressive stage was created. The canopies set around also enhanced this effect. The enthronement ceremony of Prince Selim, who was immediately called for, after the death of his father, Suleyman the Magnificent, during campaign, was held at Belgrade on such a stage created with tents.

Generally enthronement is an event lived along with the death of a sultan. There is not a designated location for the deceased sultan to be washed and prepared for burial according to Islamic ways, in the palace. These preparations were done in a tent set in the second courtyard of the TopkapY Palace. A tent would be set over the spot that the deceased sultan was buried, waiting for the completion of the building of a "tŸrbe," that generally was not ready at the time of death.

In some reception scenes depicting the pashas that went on campaigns on behalf of the sultans, the interior furnishings of the tents, shown open in the front, are not clearly exposed. It is visible that there were carpets on the floors and "minders," cushions, were put to sit on, and for some ceremonies a small throne was set up. The fact that the private belongings in the tents are not depicted even though the tents are depicted open in the front, is an indicator of Ottoman social life and behavior. Private belongings should not be exposed. When the front of a tent was opened, a beautiful curtain was drawn at the immediate front of the pole. It is because this curtain, that creates the backdrop of the stage, covers the poles that in the miniatures only their tops are shown. We have found such a tent curtain at the storage of the Military Museum.

Besides tents that have domed tops, conical single poled tents are also often encountered in miniatures. Two poled tents start to be seen in miniatures dating to periods after the 16th century.

The tents belonging to the sultans were richly decorated. Besides the tent artisans making tents for the public, the ones making tents for the sultan and his surroundings were divided into groups according to their specialties. Part of them would sew the tents and part of them would embroider them.Since these tents were regarded as small pavilions, their walls were decorated to resemble tile panels. These decorations, generally consisting of a floral composition, made with different colored pieces of fabrics were applied in two different techniques. (ill. 6) In one technique, the edges of the pieces of fabric were folded and sewn according to the shape of the pattern. To form this pattern, pieces of different sizes were generally placed one on top of the other. Mostly these pieces could count up to 4-5 layers. The decorations were completed with a round piece of leather sewn in the centers of the flowers. These silver or gold guilded pieces of leather gave the impression of jewels, when shining under sunlight. Leather is also encountered in larger scales in the "rumi" motifs of some tent decorations. Aside from this type of appliquZ work that was made with thick fabrics such as linen and is called "folded appliquZ," in appliquZs that were made using materials like satin or silk, the materials were cut according to the shape of the motifs but they were sewn without folding the edges in. (ill.7) A contour was formed by a generally darker colored silk cord sewn along the edges of the materials in order to both prevent running and conceal the cut edges. We call this type of appliquZ "corded appliquZ." (ill. 7) Other types of rich needle work was used as well.(ill, 8)

When it is considered that among these pieces of art works, were even tents for horses and toilet tents for each tent group, it becomes obvious that tents, in the hands of Ottomans, were transformed out of being an expression of a simple nomadic culture and developed to be that of a high civilization and an imperial life.


1. Topkapý Palace Museum , Library A.3593, Book of the Festival "Surname-i Hümayun of Ahmed III"

2. Topkapý Palace Museum , Library H.1517; Süleymanname

Otað-ý Hümayun of Süleyman during the Siege of Belgrade

3. Topkapý Palace Museum , Library H.1333, Sefer-i Sigetvar, funeral of Süleyman

4. Topkapý Palace Museum , Library H.1609 , Eðri fetihnamesi (conquest of Eger),Otað-ý Hümayun

5. Topkapý Palace Museum , Library H.1339 , Nusret el Esrar el Akhbar der Sefer-i Sigetvar, Süleyman receiving the Hungarian Delegation.

6. Military Museum in Istanbul

7. Military Museum in Istanbul

8. Topkapý Palace Museum

8 The tent sent to Washington

9. Interior of a Tent .

10. The Military museum in Üstanbul

In the few months after this lecture, "Osmanlý Çadr Sanatý-XVII-XIX yüzyýl; Ottoman Tent Art-XVII-XIX centuries," Ankara 1998, by Tacer Onuk was prepared upon the investigation of 29 tents taking their decorations as a point of depart. It is far from studying the tents in every aspect.

I.H. Uzunçarþýlý, Saray Teþkilatý , Ankara 1984, 453

Library of Topkapý Palace Museum A. 3593

Topkapý Sarayý Müzesi Ktp. H.1517,109a

Topkapý Sarayý Müzesi Ktp. H.1339, Nuzhet al-akbar der sefer-i Sigetvar,16b

Topkapý Sarayý Müzesi Ktp. H.1609, Sehname-i Mehmed III , dated c.1600 27a

One page of the scene in Topkapý Sarayý Müzesi Ktp. A.3595 dated 1581 and the the other in Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 14.694]

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