In Istanbul, two unique private museums reflect the visions of the collectors who founded them.
By Jonathan Kandell
Divided by the Bosporus between its European and Asian halves, Istanbul balances its cultural debts to sthe West and the Middle East. A good way to explore this dichotomy is by visiting the city’s two best private museums, each founded by the scions of Turkey’s wealthiest families. The Sakip Sabanci Museum, created by the late tycoon and philanthropist Sakip Sabanci (1933–2004) from his villa on a lushly wooded hillside overlooking the Bosporus, gazes back fondly to the Islamic underpinnings of the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922). Closer to the old Istanbul center on the Golden Horn, the even wealthier magnate Rahmi Koç has created an eponymous museum that is a paean to Western technology and industrialization.
Citizen Kane had his Rosebud—a simple sled that unleashed a flood of childhood memories and marked the turning point in his life. And Rahmi Koç, patriarch of Turkey’s greatest business family, had his model Marklin set, an elaborate electric locomotive pulling freight cars across tracks that wound through rolling landscape and tunnels spread across his playroom. “I have been interested in collecting since I was a child,” says Mr. Koç, now 82, whose Rahmi M. Koç Museum displays more than 10,000 industrial and scientific objects amassed by its founder over the last seven decades. “When I was just four or five years old, my father gave me a Marklin train.”
As a young man being groomed for chairman of his family-controlled conglomerate, Koç traveled abroad on business and began purchasing models of ships, motor vehicles, airplanes, engines, chronometers, compasses and other scientific instruments in Great Britain, France and Germany. A visit to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan (Koç has a joint venture with Ford to assemble cars in Turkey) inspired him to open a museum of his own in 1994. And now that he is retired, Koç devotes even more time to expanding his museum’s collection. “We have consultants abroad who undertake research for us,” he says. “They keep track of sales of objects in which we are interested at auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.”
The museum, in a formerly derelict and still gritty neighborhood, originally occupied an Ottoman era anchor foundry, the Lengerhane, constructed in a building whose 12th-century foundations were laid in Byzantium times. But as the collection mushroomed, the museum took over the adjoining former Hasköy Shipyard, erected by a ferryboat company on the shores of the Golden Horn. Today, the Rahmi M. Koç Museum sprawls over an area larger than St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.
Guided by Bruno Cianci, an Italian journalist and yachtsman who handles foreign media inquiries for the museum, I begin my tour of the premises on the docks where full-scale historic vessels are harbored. There are pleasure sailing and steam-powered craft, a tugboat and even a submarine. But I’m particularly drawn to the early 20th-century classic Bosporus rowboats that ferried commuters across the watery strait between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. The boats, some 15 feet long, have high-arching bows that sliced through the choppy waves but still left commuters drenched.
Nearby, several pre-1950 airplanes are on display. For me the most intriguing is the partially restored wreckage of a B-24 Liberator – a four-engine bomber that my father flew as an Army Air Force navigator in World War II. This particular plane participated in the famous August 1943 raid on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania that fueled the German Wehrmacht. After bombing the target and being crippled by a German fighter, the B-24 tried to reach the British air base on Cyprus, but ended up ditching into the Mediterranean off the Turkish coast. The airframe was salvaged in 1995 and along with the reconstructed cockpit section was put on display at the museum with the help of Roy Newton, one of seven survivors of the crash.
An entire wing of the museum is dedicated to scores of antique automobiles. A favorite of World War II buffs is the 1941 black and white convertible Mercedes Benz Cabriolet once owned by the notorious Nazi spy Cicero, an Albanian whose real name was Plyesa Bazna and who worked as valet for the British ambassador in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Cicero made a copy of the key to the ambassador’s safe, photographed documents it held, sold them to the Germans, and fled Turkey to the plush tropical life of Rio. The story was the subject of the still riveting 1952 thriller, Five Fingers, starring James Mason as the spy.
The scale models at the museum come closest to being real works of art. There is a 2.5-foot long 1908 model of a French taxi, with a working gasoline engine, clutch and gearbox. One of the finest of many marine engine models on display is a 1-to-10 scale model of the main engine in the steamship Sussex Trader, built in Sunderland, England in 1947. Also impressive is a one-fourth-full-size working scale model of a portable saw milling machine built in Northampton, England in 1922. “All these scale models were used as marketing tools by the manufacturers,” says Cianci.
Koç’s fascination with the historical development of technology finds ample expression in the remarkable collection of scientific instruments. A 19th-century Grand Orrery, built in London, uses ivory balls – representing the then known planets together with their satellites and some major asteroids – to demonstrate all these bodies rotating at their correct relative speeds in the solar system. A mid-19th-century marine chronometer, manufactured in Liverpool and encased in a handsome metal-trimmed wooden box, kept accurate time at sea, despite the stresses of motion and temperature change. And a late 19th-century, Dublin-made Wimhurst machine—looking like a Rube Goldberg invention, with gong, attached wires and cylinders—was an early type of electrostatic generator capable of attaining high voltages for electrical research.
In contrast to this passion for Western science and technology, Sakip Sabanci was motivated to build his museum by nostalgia for the Ottoman era of his parents. Born in a village in Anatolia in the Asian heartland of Turkey, he and his siblings spent summers in Istanbul in a villa acquired by his father, a cotton broker, in 1950. When his parents died, Sabanci moved into the mansion in 1975 and almost immediately began contemplating its transformation into a museum. Stocked with Sabanci’s personal collection calligraphy, Korans and other objects, the museum opened to the public in 2002.
From the outside, the Sakip Sabanci Museum still radiates the luxury and grace of a villa. A bronze horse greets visitors at the entrance. Inside, the recorded sounds of children at play and adults dining and conversing over the tapping of cutlery on dishes evoke carefree domesticity. From the terrace—now occupied by a first-class restaurant serving updated Ottoman-era dishes—the cold, blue Bosporus is in full summer glory, with sailboats swerving around Black Sea Russian freighters en route to the Sea of Marmara and thence through the narrow Dardanelles Strait to the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.
Up the elegant stairway lies the heart of the museum’s collection – a stunning assortment of calligraphic panels, Korans, prayer books and illuminated manuscripts extending from the end of the 14th century to the mid-20th century. Among the most beautiful items is a circa-1500 Koran with a double frontispiece illuminated in black ink, multicolored paint and gold leaf. “It represents Ottoman arts of the book at their finest,” says Ayşe Aldemir, head of the museum’s calligraphy section. Making full use of technology, the museum offers visitors individual I-pads that simulate the turning of the Koran’s pages to view any part of the Book besides the displayed frontispiece.
From the 18th century onwards, calligraphic panels, called levha and hung on walls, replaced books as the main medium of Ottoman calligraphy. “This new trend led to innovative writing techniques because the scale of the lettering required for these panels was far larger than that used in books,” says Aldemir. Holy and profane art exist side by side in contrasting calligraphic panels that decorated walls of residences. “My achievement derives only from God,” states one pious panel in gold lettering on a blue background from the early 1800s. A few feet away a 1940 panel in black ink lettering against a gilded background, offers more hedonistic counsel: “Drink wine and love well, if you have the wits to do so.”
One of the most popular museum exhibits is a room devoted to the process of bookmaking, including the preparation of paper and ink, the techniques used for illustration and binding, and the various calligraphic styles. The samples of writing equipment are themselves works of art: divits or cylindrical pen boxes with attached inkwells that itinerant calligraphers used to carry their writing materials from one court to another; paper shears with long, thin metal blades inlaid with gold floral designs; polishing stones to give paper a smooth, flawless surface; reed pens, penknives and maktas (tablets with grooves to split the nibs of reed pens); and writing boxes in which all this equipment was stored. Aldemir points out a notable early 19th century writing box with Istanbul and Bosporus landscapes painted on both the inside and outside of the lid. “These landscapes reflect the Western influence on Ottoman art that began in the 1700s,” she says.
The impact of Western influence is even more apparent in the permanent paintings collection, covering works from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. This late Ottoman era is shown to be open to cultural currents from Europe, especially the salons of Paris. Traditional Ottoman miniature painting was largely abandoned in favor of paintings on canvas, including portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Portraits of women by Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910) and Halil Paşa (1852–1939)—both trained at Paris art schools – marked the beginning of a new visibility for women in Ottoman society in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hamdi Bey’s undated Portrait of Naile Hanim, an oil on canvas showing his wife in profile, was a startling break from the more conventional portraits of sultans. Halil Paşa’s Madam X, an 1889 oil and pastel on cardboard, even more daringly shows an upper-class woman displaying her figure in modern, European dress. Interestingly, Halil Paşa was one of many Turkish painters with a military background. “Military academies gave courses in drawing as training in cartography,” explains Ipek Yeşildağ, the museum official guiding me through the paintings collection.
Even more momentous than portraits was the appearance of drawings and paintings of nudes in the late Ottoman period – a genre never before allowed to be publicly displayed and one that might stir controversy in today’s Turkey outside of Istanbul and a few other cities. The museum includes a circa-1881 set of four nudes—a man, woman and two boys—in charcoal on paper by Halil Paşa.
A later wave of Turkish painters who studied in Paris had to return to Turkey with the outbreak of World War I. Known as the 1914 Generation, they focused on pure colors and sensitivity to light, earning for themselves the sobriquet, Turkish Impressionists. Lady in Pink on Chaise Longue, a 1904 oil on canvas by Nazmi Ziya Güran, is a portrait of a woman napping under a tree that could easily have been inspired by a Paul Signac painting set in the French countryside.
The permanent paintings collection slips into the Republican era that began in 1923 after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938) ended the six-centuries-old Ottoman Empire and set about modernizing Turkey with decrees ordering the replacement of calligraphy with the Latin alphabet, the use of Western clothes, and a national drive towards industrialization. The new ethos is perfectly illustrated by a 1935 oil on canvas, Taksim Square, by Ziya Güran, in which every woman and man is in European attire, milling about a limousine with Western architecture in the background. And to this day, Taksim Square remains the epicenter of European Istanbul.