Triumphal Tents

Ottoman Tents, European Trophies, and Remembering the Battle for Vienna

guest contribution by Ashley Dimmig, University of Michigan

[1] Three-poled Ottoman tent, ca. 17th-century, Tent gallery, Türckische Cammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (David Brandt, SKM).

On the thirteenth of September 1683, Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland, sat in the tent of the recently vanquished Ottoman Grand Vizier outside the city of Vienna, writing a letter to his wife to tell her of his victory in battle. He marveled at the scale and magnificence of the tents in the Ottoman camp, describing them being “‘as large as Warsaw or Lviv within the walls’” (Atasoy 240-41, Żygulski 165). [i.e., Figure 1] By Sobieski’s count, many tents were seized in the aftermath of the battle for Vienna—perhaps as many as a hundred thousand—although this estimate is most likely generous. Subsequently, the spoils of war, chief among them the magnificent seventeenth-century Ottoman imperial tents, were dispersed among the allied victors, in particular Poland, Germany, and Austria.

[2] Museum of Military History
 [Heeresgeschichtliches Museum], Vienna (Unless
noted otherwise, all photos by the author.)
While the largest number of Ottoman imperial tents that survive today are in Turkish collections—namely the Topkapı Palace Museum and the Military Museum—the majority of these tents are from the 18th and 19th centuries. But because of European victories and their distribution of spoils after the wars, to this day the best place to see Ottoman tents from the earlier periods (16th and 17th centuries) is in Europe. Thus, my pursuit of Ottoman tents led me first to Vienna—to the Museum of Applied Arts (Museum für angewandte Kunst) and the Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum). 
[Figure 2] 

[3] Ottoman banners in the “War Against
 the Ottomans” permanent exhibition,
Museum of Military History
(Heeresgeschichtliches Museum), Vienna
At the Museum of Military History, the permanent exhibition entitled “War Against the Ottomans” fills a grand hall and several additional rooms beyond. [Figure 3] The vaulted ceiling is adorned with several Ottoman flags or banners—which were exhibited as trophies throughout the centuries, and in so doing came to signify the victory at Vienna. (Karl) Indeed, this instance of exhibiting fabric trophies from the Relief of Vienna is by no means new, and in fact began long before the banners and tents were ever accessioned as museum artifacts. For example, some “Oriental” tents that today reside in the Museum of Applied Arts were exhibited in the universal exhibition held in Vienna in 1873.

Furthermore, exhibitions marking the centennial, bicentennial, sestercentennial, and tricentennial of the Relief of Vienna were held throughout greater Poland and elsewhere.  While the tents gained immediate fame upon their capture, it was over the subsequent centuries that their role as icons of the great victory was established. For example, in conjunction with the exhibition and festival held in honor of the 200th anniversary in 1883, the organizers published a pamphlet that situated these monumental fabric structures in a historical narrative. According to the account of the Battle of Vienna in the pamphlet, King Sobieski and the allied army arrived on September 11, 1683 to a marvelous and terrifying encampment surrounding the city. On the following day he “had given for the day all hope of the grand struggle, when the provoking composure of Mustapha, whom he espied in a splendid tent tranquilly taking coffee with his two sons, roused him to such a pitch, that he instantly gave orders for a general assault. … He himself made toward Mustapha’s tent, beating down all opposition…”  (author’s emphasis, Sobowleski 22). Looking to this account, by 1883, it seems that the Ottoman tents had gained even more symbolic importance than they had had in 1683. In other words, according to the retelling of the story on the 200th anniversary, not only was Sobieski’s taking the Grand Vizier’s tent representative of the allied victory, but it was in fact the tent itself that had actually caused it. Seeing Kara Mustafa Pasha relaxing in his ostentatious tent was what had motivated Sobieski to attack, and subsequently win the battle. Regardless of this story’s veracity, the circulation of this pamphlet in conjunction with the display of the historical tents wove a narrative that further established their meaning in European cultural memory.

[4] Ottoman imperial tent wall, ca. 17th century, “War Against the Ottomans” permanent exhibition, Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum), Vienna 
[5] Detail of Figure 4 

At the Museum of Military History in Vienna, the first tent displayed in the exhibition’s narrative is not a full structure, but just one wall of a tent, framed by a large glass display case, and accessorized with a row of rifles in front. [Figure 4] While it is near impossible to ascertain which if any of the surviving tents actually belonged to the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha, and subsequently King Jan III Sobieski, this tent is executed in the finest appliqué work in a seventeenth-century style. [Figure 5] The faded crimson ground is covered with multi-colored appliquéd flowers organized in a series of fabric arches—a typical composition for Ottoman imperial tents of that time. However, it is difficult to get the full effect of the totality of such structures from one wall, regardless of the fineness of detail.

[6] Ottoman imperial tent wall and conical roof,
ca. 17th century, “War Against the Ottomans”
permanent exhibition, Museum of Military
 History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum), Vienna
In the next room, off of the main vaulted gallery, the exhibition winds through large paintings and full display cases until the golden finial atop a large canopy begins to peek out from behind. [Figure 6] While this tent is also fragmented, its display as almost whole aids the visitor in imagining how the tent may have originally looked—even though this method does sacrifice clarity of detail. [Figure 7] Regardless, zooming in, you can see that this tent’s appliqué and embroidery work are also of the finest quality. [Figure 8]

[7] Detail of the conical roof of the tent in Figure 6, “War Against the Ottomans” permanent exhibition, Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum).
[8] Detail of the wall of the tent in Figure 6,
“War Against the Ottomans” permanent
 exhibition, Museum of Military History
 (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum), Vienna 

In the Ottoman Empire, ostentatious tents were taken on hunting expeditions, military campaigns, and diplomatic missions. They functioned as mobile palatial architecture, wherein sultans and other high-ranking dignitaries received guests. And when the situation arose, they also served as ceremonial stage settings for imperial rituals such as accessions to the throne, and even as temporary mausolea. After their capture in 1683, they were used for largely the same purposes, with the Habsburgs, Polish nobility, and other European elite replacing the sons of Osman. “Oriental”-style tents (among other material objects) were particularly appropriated and assumed into the visual cultures of Poland and Austria, and even played a part in the visualization of their national identities. Old tents were conserved and restored, others were bought and imported from Istanbul, and even new tents were made in an “Oriental” style in European workshops. [Figure 9]

[9] Ottoman-style tent, applique, circa 18th century, likely Brody (a city where one of the tent workshops was established in greater Poland), now in the Regional Museum of Tarnów

[10] Children’s birthday party, “War Against
the Ottomans” permanent exhibition,
Museum of Military History
(Heeresgeschichtliches Museum), Vienna

Ottoman imperial tents—whether as fashionable commodities or hard-won trophies—made a significant impact on central European visual and material culture, especially in the eighteenth century and after. The narratives woven around these triumphal objects re-presented historical artifacts as lived history and timeless legend. Even as the tents were used, re-used, and re-fashioned over the next three centuries, they continued to denote the great victory over Vienna. Even today, the tents associated with the Relief of Vienna are on display throughout the region, in Kraków and Dresden, in addition to Vienna. In fact, in the Museum of Military History, these narratives of victory are being relayed to a brand new generation. As part of their community programming, the museum offers to host children’s birthday parties wherein “armours and noble garments await brave time travellers, who would like to transform into knights, damsels, and hearty Musketeers. During a side-trip to the far-away orient, many a strange thing is discovered, and a visit to the Turkish tent will surely remain unforgotten.”  [Figure 10] Whether a child playing make-believe or a young scholar exploring dissertation topics, Ottoman imperial tents remain as awe-inspiring and all-consuming in the twenty-first century as they must have been for Turks and Europeans alike before and after the battle over Vienna.

For a fun video on the 2009 installation of the Ottoman tents in Dresden, see "The Return of a Dream" :

**Ashley Dimmig is a PhD student in the History of Art at the University of Michigan. She is currently conducting preliminary research for her doctoral thesis on Ottoman tents. 

ATASOY, Nurhan. Otağ-ı Hümayun: The Ottoman Imperial Tent Complex (Istanbul: Aygaz, 2000).
KARL, Barbara.Ottoman Silk Flags as Objects of Propaganda in the Conflict Between Habsburgs and Ottomans during the 17th and early 18th centuries,” (paper presented at the biannual meeting of the Historians of Islamic Art Association, New York, NY, October 20, 2012).
SOBOLEWSKI, Paul. John Sobieski: The King of Poland, Conquers the Turks Under the Walls of Vienna September 12th, 1683, and Forever After Relieves the Whole Christian World from the Iron Yoke of the Turks (Chicago: Edward C. Rozanski, Edward. J. Moskal, Tony Szplit, 1983).
ŻYGULSKI, Zdzisław, Ottoman Art in the Service of the Empire (New York: New York University Press, 1992).


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