Hidden faces of the east

East and West are not separated only in geographical terms. 

These two concepts have been used for centuries to describe different understandings, different religions, different lives and identities. 

Lord Cromer, who ruled Egypt for 25 years on behalf of Great Britain, writes the following while describing the eastern people: “Orientals lack symmetry, their reasoning is sloppy. Ask any Egyptian to explain a phenomenon. His speech is boring in length and uncertain. The oriental mentality is far from certain.”1

German staff officer Franz Carl Endres came to Istanbul in 1912, for training to Ottoman Army, has wrote his memories penned and says in describing the Turkish identity; “thoughtlessness in action one of the most important features of the Turks. For this reason, many planned things are not implemented, many are delayed or so limited that it would be better not to do it. The thing you will hear most is “slowly.”2

Differences in religion, education and mentality Eastern and Western people as people of two different worlds. This difference changes the way things look, people and concepts. Eastern people are always exotic, so unorthodox. Clothing and artworks will inevitably be different. When the Venetian writer Marino Sanudo described the passage of the Ottoman ambassador Sergeant Ali Bey from St. Mark’s Square in February 1514, he says, “Everyone ran to the square to see him”. He writes how magnificent the exotic clothes on the Ottomans looked. The Venetians who gathered in the square saw for the first time a Muslim who came out of the Ottoman palace. They were looking at the representative of the East with Western eyes.

However, for the people of Venice, the relationship with the East was never new situation. Moreover, the invincible ruler of the East, Mehmed II (Fatih Sultan Mehmed), decided to have his own paintings made as a patron who protected art and the artist and chose an Italian as a painter.

Gentile Bellini (1429-1507) arrived in Constantinople in September 1479. When the ship carrying him entered the inner harbor of the city from Sarayburnu, Bellini had come to the deck for the first time and saw this legendary city, which he read as the capital of the eastern sultans for years. We can only imagine how he was feeling at that moment.

Range of East, Perspective of West

The mentality of the West goes back to ancient times. The difference of opinion, whose foundations were laid in the Greek civilization and reflected in the statues in the site states, is evident even today. Aristotle says that the person who speaks in his book Rhetoric should pay attention to three points. These; conviction, form and order.

While the Western world was establishing a world through form and order from the very beginning, the East gradually lost the order it originally provided. While the East lags behind in science and art as a result of the increasingly misinterpretation of religion and religious books and a male-dominated social class describing everything as sin, the Western world continues its progress. The Christian world succeeded in re-establishing the freedom of thought and expression, which was destroyed in the Inquisition courts of the Middle Ages, with the invention of the printing house and the secularization of all institutions, and it was able to return to the civilization march that started in ancient times. Before the printing press was found in Europe, only nobles and clergy could read and write. Non-literate citizens learned the words of God from church pictures or icons. It was extraordinary for the villagers to see biblical miracles portrayed on portraits and walls. Jesus and Mary were almost everywhere in front of them as a painting or a statue, as a necklace and a painting, and always at home as a trinity. Although depicting saints and iconism caused controversy between eastern and western churches, painting was purely religious-based as a visual unity and soon became an important part of Western civilization. In the papal court, religious power was based on both the power of knowledge and the legitimacy provided by faith. The love of God was combined with divine wisdom with roots going back to ancient Greece. Holland, France, Venice and Florence were home to dozens of painters and sculptors. The church, nobles, and rulers were their most important customers. Bellini was one of them.

On the other hand, the Eastern religion was suffering in a bigotry. The idolatry rites performed in polytheistic times, which Muslims call “the age of ignorance,” continued to be alive in minds. For this reason, depicting, sculpting and drawing were prohibited. However, there is no such prohibition that is clearly explained in the Holy Book of Islam, the Quran. What is strictly prohibited is the worship of idols, just as in Christianity. The idolatry of the polytheistic days is strictly forbidden in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic and biblical religions, and is one of the greatest sins. It is stated that although the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, destroyed the idols in the Kaaba, he did not destroy the picture of Mary and Child Jesus.3

However, the Islamic geography has approached painting and sculpture with the comments of the clergy. Hadiths (religious interpretations based on the Prophet), which began to be written after the eighth century, almost banned depictions. Ebu’l Mahmud Fergali writes that such a ban was on the agenda because of the prevalence of depictions and images being worshiped at that time. However, drawing flowers, various patterns, writing and making shadows are allowed. Drawing a human face and making sculptures is considered a sin. As stated above, although there is no such command in the Quran, this situation is still de facto valid in the Islamic world.

Although the art of painting was prevented for religious reasons, it expressed itself with another art in the Islamic world. Those who make this art called miniature are called nakkaş. Nobel prize winner Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in his novel My Name Is Red. wrote the story of the miniaturists. Nakkaşlar were dealing with and painting topics such as weddings, victories or ascension to the throne. These pictures are drawn in gold water on the pages of the books written to praise the sultans, as well as in simpler forms. Miniatures did not contain perspective, which is considered an important painting technique. Some miniatures draw fantastic creatures, while others tell about religious events. The most important miniature work of Islamic history is the Siyer-i Nebi miniatures drawn in the Ottoman palace. These miniatures describe the events in Mustafa Bin Yusuf Bin Umar’s work dated 1388, which tells about the life of Muhammad. The writing and drawing of Siyer-i Nebi in miniature started in 1594 with the order of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III and the whole life of the prophet was illustrated. There are 814 miniatures in the six-volume book completed in 1595, and none of the miniatures show Muhammad’s face. In all drawings, the face of the prophet is covered with a white veil. In addition, there is no record in any of the volumes and pages as to which miniatures were made by the artist. Because, according to Islamic discipline, signing a painting is considered a shame because it emphasizes personality. Perfection belongs to God, and he did the best of lines by creating man. Signing is unacceptable, as it means taking on God. This is a behavior that partially explains the fact that individuality and creativity in the Islamic world are not very developed even today. The 1st, 2nd and 6th volumes of this book, which is considered to be the greatest illustrated work describing the life of the Islamic Prophet, are preserved in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul, the third volume in the New York Public Library, and the fourth volume in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. The fifth volume is missing.

Mehmed’s Vision and Bellini

Italian painter Gentile Bellini was invited to the palace just after he got off the ship that brought him to Constantinople. Sultan Mehmed II, who took the city and ended the Byzantine Empire 26 years ago, had a real artist who was waiting for a long time to portray himself as the Conqueror. Sultan Mehmed II knew that there was no painter like Bellini in his own country and other Islamic countries, and he was aware that the West was much more advanced in painting. Mehmed II’s first encounter with Western culture was during his princehood in Manisa. Immediately after he became the sultan and conquered Constantinople, he started working on making it a world city. Bellini would not be the first Italian she worked with. As early as 1454, Ciriaco d’Ancona, an Italian humanist, was at his palace and taught him Roman history. According to the envoy of Milan in 1465, he had advisors from Florence, Genoese and Ragusa. The names of other Italians Angelo Vadio, G. Stefano and Emiliano, who were next to Mehmed, are known.4

During the conquest of Constantinople, 30 thousand manuscripts, which were plundered by Ottoman soldiers and carefully preserved in Byzantine libraries, were destroyed in the fire. Sultan Mehmed II wanted to make up for this and demanded that new books be translated. Palutarque’s Lives of Famous Men and Ptolemy’s Geographia and Homer’s Iliad were some of the books translated from Greek. Of the 50 books on Western culture in his personal library, 42 are in Greek. Mehmed used to think that he was the ruler of a universal empire and the continuation of Eastern Rome, and therefore he cared a lot about Western civilization. The Ottoman sultan, who visited Athens in 1458, toured the Acropolis and praised the Greek civilization. Sultan Mehmed II did not hesitate to have Bellini made his portrait in the lands where drawing or making a copy is still considered a sin. There is no doubt that if Sultan Mehmed II was alive today, the Islamists would not have liked him so much.

Bellini stayed in the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 2 years. During this time, he made the portrait of the sultan and medallions printed in his name. He also adorned the walls of the palace with Renaissance-style frescoes. He had conversations with Sultan Mehmed about history, art and the state of Europe. His special relationship with the Sultan has been the subject of some books. Written by the French writer Louis Thuasne (1854-1940) under the name Gentile Bellini et le Sultan Mehmet II, the book was translated into Turkish by Ahmet Refik in 1907 under the name Fatih and Bellini. According to what we learned from Thuasne, Sultan Mehmed II’s son Beyazıd II, who took the lead after his death, removed all these because he found them against Islam and had them sold in the bazaars. Three of the paintings known to belong to Mehmed were taken abroad for this reason. The best known of those portraits is in the National Gallery in London.

Sultan Mehmed’s Portrait Turned to Istanbul

It is not known how many Sultan Mehmed portraits were drawn by Gentile Bellini in his palace and workshop. But the three remaining Fatih number of statements from Bellini’s default table today, and one of them out of the workshop was brought to Turkey in recent days. Istanbul Municipality bought the painting, which shows Sultan Mehmed with another person and made in 1480, from an auction held in London on 25 June 2020 for 770.000 pounds. The official name of the painting, which was opened to the public in the municipality building: The Conqueror and His Son. It is controversial whether the person in the portrait, which is painted as an oil paint on wood, is a prince or not. Moreover, it is unusual for a painting depicting the sultan to have another person drawn in equal lengths. It is thought that the male figure without a beard but dressed in Ottoman clothes could be one of the three sons of Mehmed II.

Still, experts seem sure that this picture came out of Bellini’s workshop in Italy..

Buying the portrait and bringing it to Istanbul caused some political controversy. Islamist circles argued that it is unnecessary to give so much money to a painting while the urgent needs of the city remain. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu said that the painting returned home and they were proud of it.

Hiding The Life

4 months after Gentile Bellini left Istanbul in early 1481, Sultan Mehmed II died. After his death, the frescoes made by Bellini were removed and the oil paintings hung on the walls were sold for being anti-religious. While some of the priceless artifacts that fell on the market went to Europe, some were lost forever. The prohibition of making pictures and copies, which are not written in any religious books, was accepted as a sin based on some hadiths and the interpretations of the self-styled religious leaders. The striking part of this is that this ban continues today and no institution or person in the name of Islam says it is true. Moreover, these prohibitions and censorships are not only carried out with religious concerns and do not only cover painting and sculpture, regardless of the general public. In almost all Islamic countries, women are censored, different political parties are closed, and opinions other than the dominant view are banned. There is no media and legal environment where everyone can express their opinions. You will remember that an Islamist terror organization fighting against the regime in Afghanistan blew up all the statues in the Bamyan Valley, while another Islamist terror group fighting in Syria shattered the ancient city of Palmyra. Employees of a humor magazine recently published in France were attacked for publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

When Sultan Mehmed II was alive, he posed for a painter and bravely had his own portrait made. All the mosaic paintings of Hagia Sophia, the biggest Byzantine temple of the city he conquered, are closed today. A similar pattern occurred in Turkey. The statues in Ankara and in the city of Kars in the east of the country were removed at the pressure of politicians.

Not only Turkey, Islamic countries in the face of their own people, they continue to hide even from their people and their artists. Eastern societies fear the liberating power of art and free speech. A fanatism, who forgot to question continues to cover the face of the whole Islamıc East like a veil.

Although 539 years have passed since the death of Fatih Sultan Mehmed.

*Murat Erdin, writer and lecturer, living in Istanbul


1. Said, Edward. “Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient” Translation to Turkish: Berna Ülner. Metis Publications. Istanbul. Fifth Edition. July 2010. p.48

2. Carl Endres, Franz “Turkey and Turks” Translation: Güray Beken. Dharma Publications. Istanbul. May 2006.  p.37

3. Hemiş, Özlem. “Eye Range. Adventure of Perspective in Islamic Geography” Vakıfbank Publications. Istanbul. July 2020. p.131

4. Encyclopedia of Islam. 

Murat Erdin