Turkish metal artwork dates as early as the 2nd and 3rd century BC in central Asia. In Anatolia, the oldest existing Seljuk piece of metalwork is a silver tray with the inscription “Alp Arslan is the Greatest Sultan” and a silver candle stick dated 1137. Both pieces are at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Metal artwork reached its pinacle in the Ottoman Empire with the making of weaponry, such as swords, helmets, armour, dagger and knives. For domestic ware, copper or copper/zinc (tombac)was the material of choice although bronze, silver and gold were also used. A mass of copper would be beaten with a hammer (dogme) and turned into a slab, which would then be shaped by an artizan to the desired form.

The choicest specimens of Seljuk and Ottoman metalwork can be seen at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. Like the other branches of art, the Ottoman art of metal at the outset took over the Seljuk cultural heritage, with the result that it became a melting pot for a variety of trends as befits an empire that combined many lands and peoples. The widespread implementation in the 14th century of the art of repoussé, familiar to us from Seljuk metalwork, is one of the outstanding features of the period

The 15th century, when the Ottomans embarked on the path towards becoming a world power, and the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 especially, constituted a turning point in the art of metal as in many other fields. With the conquest especially of the Balkan lands, which were rich in gold and silver, the Ottomans acquired metalworking artists who possessed not only the raw material resources but also a long-standing tradition. Mamluk influence is observed in the oil lamps in the shape of hexagonal pyramids in a group of works typical of the period. The countless examples of such lamps, decorated with openwork, repoussé and intaglio and adorned with rumî and hatayî motifs, that have survived to our day show that they were produced abundantly in the second half of the 15th century. Candlesticks also occupy an important place among the metal work of this period.

Among the Ottoman metal work that has survived to our day, a plethora of objects dating to the period of Sultan Bayezid II stand out. Although Bayezid II’s passion for valuable objects has been viewed by historians as prodigal, its impact on art was positive, and it is a fact that the creation of new works was a compelling force in the encouragement and patronage of artists. The Ehli Hiref or craftsmen’s organization, which served as a school for every branch of Ottoman art, was established in this period. Subsumed under it were the coppersmiths (‘kazganciyan’), who made metal objects; the goldsmiths (‘zergeran’), who produced jewelry of all kinds including gold; the gold inlayers (‘kûftgeran’ or ‘zernisan’), who produced gold inlay and other decorations, and the ‘hakkâk’ who cut and set precious stones. All these divisions of the Ehli Hiref had a role to play due to the great diversity of decorative techniques employed in the art of metalwork.

As a result of the cooperation and work of the masters who brought diverse traditions and concepts of art to Istanbul from various parts of the Empire following the conquest of Tabriz and Egypt in particular, the Ottoman art of metal was purged of manifest influences in the mid-16th century and found its own unique style. A number of decorative techniques were generally employed on the decorative objects made in this century including intaglio, repoussé, filigree, chasing, niello, embossing and metal plating. But the group that best represents the overall character of the period is without doubt that of the metal objects known as ‘murassa’ (studded with precious stones). It became fashionable in this period to embed precious stones in metal surfaces such as swords, daggers, book covers, slabs of emerald, natural crystal and even porcelain by using the technique of stone inlay. In contrast with the ostentatious style of the 16th century, there are also plain examples which stand out simply for their harmonious proportions and fine workmanship.

Flowers also begin to appear alongside the classical 16th century styles in the decorative motifs of the 17th century. Emerging under Western influence, these are composed of floral motifs worked in Turkish style. Besides the traditional motifs such as the plaited frieze, tree of life, Seal of Solomon and fish observed on copper objects of the period decorated mostly using the intaglio technique, naturalistic designs such as tulips and pomegranate blossoms, familiar from silver objects of the period, are also encountered. The Ottoman art of metalwork, which is observed to have remained bound, in part at least, to the traditional forms at the beginning of the 18th century, continued the naturalistic style of the 17th century as well. Besides the western-oriented quest for form and motif, there was also a tendency to maintain the classical tradition. Late 18th century and 19th century metalwork in contrast appears to reflect entirely western taste.

The classical Ottoman shapes and motifs of the 16th and 17th centuries eventually gave way to Baroque and Rococo forms and designs imported from Europe. The Ottoman art of metal, which was attempting to emulate Western products in this period, is observed to have been particularly successful in the technique of intaglio, of which it created fine examples in pieces such as the coffee sets, ewers, trays, jugs and mirrors that were so popular during the period. When examining the ‘Turkish Rococo’ products of the Ottoman art of metal, we see a transformation in taste. Pearls and cut diamonds supplant colored stones such as the ruby, emerald and garnet of the classical period in jewelry and inlaid work, and enamelling also becomes popular. Similarly, embossing with a mould replaces the more demanding technique of repoussé using a graver, which requires skill. As for the floral compositions, which are still used, these now take the form of sumptuous baskets with enormous bows and garlands made in keeping with contemporary fashions. The changing political and economic fortunes of the 19th century Ottoman world naturally affected Ottoman art as well. The gradual weakening of the Ehli Hiref organization in the palace and its complete disappearance in the 19th century spelled the end of the brilliant evolution of Ottoman art. As the state, with increasing frequency, sent the gold, silver and even copper objects in the Treasury to the Mint to be melted down, the extant specimens of the Ottoman art of metal, which had been based on the recycling of materials for re-use, began more and more to belie the richness cited in the sources. The objects that were able to be preserved in the Palace Treasury and other extant specimens, most of which survive only because they were donated to tombs and mosques.


From the 15th century onwards such precious metals as gold and silver came into widespread use in the Ottoman palace, and gradually in the major cities of the Empire.

It is known, for example, that Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) and his son Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) both learned the art of jewelry-making as princes in Trabzon, and that when they became sultans they had workshops established for the Istanbul jewelers. Both sultans were staunch patrons of jewelers and during their reigns even jewelers outside the Palace produced objects for the Palace in keeping with imperial tastes.

Like the other palace artists and craftsmen, the jewelers belonged to trade guilds, known as Ehl-i Hiref. The goldsmiths were known as ‘zergeran’, workers in gold repousse as ‘zernişani’ and other jewelers and workers in precious stones as ‘hakkakan’.

The objects produced by these masters generally have the same features. In the 16th century in particular, the palace jewelers, whose numbers varied from period to period, created their own school, producing work of extremely high quality. The most well-known of these masters was Mehmet Usta. Unfortunately, however, we lack detailed information about the famous metalworkers of the Ottoman period owing to the small number of signed objects.

The art of jewelry-making underwent extensive development during the reigns of Selim I and Süleyman the Magnificent, a phenomenon in which the importance of a factor like the existence of silver mines on Ottoman territory in the Balkans, must not be overlooked.

As in many branches of art, Istanbul was the major center for metalwork. Regions such as Damascus, Aleppo and Diyarbakır emerged as important centres in their own right. Damascus work, for example, was known in İstanbul. Damascus masters worked in the capital, and even a distinct Damascus school developed.

Important centres of metalwork in Anatolia included Trabzon, Diyarbakır, Erzincan, Kayseri, Erzurum, Sivas, Van and Gümüşhane.

The minorities resident in the imperial lands, such as Armenians, Greeks, Iranians, Arabs, Slavs and Jews, occupied a prominent place among the artisans. The Greeks in particular were known for their fine enamel work.

Embossed silver was popular among the Byzantines and was later adopted by the Ottomans.

Objects made of copper, bronze and iron, which the common folk tended to use, were even widespread among palace circles for everyday purposes, the most important reason for this no doubt being economic considerations. Nevertheless, the tombac wares so widely used during the Ottoman period more than compensated for the absence of gold objects, at least as far as appearances were concerned. This process, which is known to have been in use in Asia already in the earliest Islamic periods, entails the coating of copper and bronze objects with a thin layer of a substance (tombac) consisting of eight parts gold to one part mercury. The plate thereby obtained, which was gold in appearance, lasted for centuries protecting the metal beneath. Since exposure to mercury, a toxin, is harmful to the tombac worker, this technique was later abandoned.

Housed today in the Topkapı Palace Museum, the most important examples of Ottoman metalwork offer an unparalleled display of metal objects of all kinds, extremely original in both form and design. Some of these objects, which are found in the Palace Treasury, represent genres that never filtered down to the common folk and are conspicuous for their elegance and superior craftsmanship.

An important group of metal objects preserved in Topkapı Palace but as yet little discussed are the objects found in the chamber where the mantle of the Prophet Mohammed is kept. All of these objects, beginning with the gold and silver chests in which the mantle was stored in various periods and including the lock and keys to the Kaaba, the containers of the sacred relics and the swords of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions are regarded as masterpieces of jewelry-making. The silver sword scabbards found in the same chamber, together with the other scabbards in the Palace collection, though little discussed in the literature, are important metal objects for the fine decorative work they exhibit. No doubt because of the purposes for which they were intended, most of these objects were made of gold and silver and plated with these precious metals as well.

Metal objects enjoyed a wide range of use among the Ottomans, the varieties employed being abundant, colorful and ostentatious. Objects were made of all kinds of metals. Nevertheless, the objects made of gold and silver and decorated with precious stones, such as weapons, helmets and armor as well as table settings and cloths, were produced mostly for show or to be used only for brief periods during special ceremonies. Practicality was therefore not their strong point. Instead, these objects were created for a refined taste and fall into the category of decorative objects that circulated among Palace circles as costly gifts.

At the same time, weapons of all kinds from swords and daggers to firearms were fashioned with a delicacy of taste, and their shafts, hilts and sheaths were decorated with precious metals or gems. Among these objects, Turkish swords and helmets merit special attention. Standards, which were used mainly for religious and military purposes, are among the most important examples of Ottoman metalwork.

Personal ornaments, which are entirely products of the jeweler’s art, are not limited merely to men’s and women’s jewelry but also include the mirrors and other accessories that were used together with them.

The Seljuks’ traditional use of bronze did not end with the coming of the Ottomans but continued until the 17th century when it began to decline. Ottoman oil lamps and candlesticks are similar to their Seljuk predecessors though of larger dimensions. Lighting fixtures such as lanterns and candlesticks as well as rose water flasks and censers were used frequently in all periods both in homes and mosques.

Turkish bath bowls and ewer basin sets are additional examples of elegance. With their functionalism overshadowed by their superior aesthetic qualities, they lent an ornamental richness to the rooms in which they were used. In addition to metal ewer and basin sets, these objects were also made frequently of porcelain or glass. China and the European countries often manufactured such sets, either of metal or of porcelain in the Ottoman style to be sent to Turkey either as export items or as gifts.

Another special group of metal objects were the canteens used for water or sherbet. Made of gold, tombac or bronze and decorated with the motifs of the period, these Ottoman canteens draw attention because of their interesting shapes, for which they are more properly termed “flasks with shoulders”.

Other metal objects which adorned Turkish kitchens and tables, were silver and copper trays, pots and pans, both with or without lids, jugs, sherbet vessels, bowls, and mortars and pestles.

Many objects used in making the traditional coffee, hookahs and pipe smoking were also made of metal, often enamelled or exhibiting niello work. These objects, which included braziers, long-handled Turkish coffee pots, cupholders, water-pipe accessories and ashtrays, were also examples of the art of jewelry-making. Yet another category of objects that merits attention for their display of the arts of metalwork and of jewelry is equestrian equipment.

Traditional metalwork continues to thrive today on a larger scale, mostly with the production of copper kitchenware. In many villages and towns, copper pots and pans are still fashioned using the old techniques. The demand for them remains high. The widespread use of copper throughout Anatolia is only natural, considering the abundance of this metal in the region.


The floral motifs and arabesques of the Seljuk period and the principalities that followed were also used starting with the earliest period of Ottoman history. Human and animal figures on the other hand disappeared under the Ottomans.

A certain amount of Mamluk influence is also discernible in the earliest periods.

One prominent characteristic of Ottoman decorative objects is that the same motifs were generally employed in the art of tile-making, textiles, bookbinding and metalwork. The introduction of innovations that later became traditional is also observable. For this reason, despite minor deviations, we can trace the use of traditional Turkish decorative motifs on metal objects almost unchanged over the centuries. Even in their shapes, for example, metal vessels often resemble their porcelain counterparts.

The abundance of vegetal, particularly floral motifs is striking among the decorative motifs used in metalwork. The Ottomans developed such a distinct style that their work is easily distinguishable from that of the Arabs and Iranians, and even from that of the Seljuks. Four flowers in particular, the carnation, rose, tulip, and hyacinth, were so often used by the Ottomans that they have almost become synonymous with the period. The relative absence of inscribed objects intended for religious purposes it is also worth noting. With only a few exceptions, objects used in everyday life exhibit the tiny marks which indicate the name of the artisan and the date it was produced.

The classic vegetal designs of the earliest periods of the Empire were revised and reinterpreted in later periods. The “hayati” motif, for example, which consisted of arabesque-stylized leaves and branches incorporating as well bamboo leaves of Far Eastern origin, interwoven on the entire surface of the design, together with floral rosettes and entwining branches, was widely used, as was the “rumi” motif, which consisted of stylized animals and delicate, twinning branches. These motifs were sometimes used to cover the entire surface of an object and sometimes merely for borders or the insides of medallions.

In subsequent centuries, blossoming branches and, beginning in the 18th century, baroque and rococo motifs came into vogue. Floral bouquets, flower baskets, ribbons and bows were some of the other decorative motifs popular with the Ottomans. Cyprus, pomegranate and floral motifs, still in use today, are observable on copper pots used by the common folk.

On silver vessels in particular the artist sometimes gave the surface of the object the appearance of a woven basket. At the same time, objects such as water pipes and cooling vessels were often made of woven silver wire.

During the Ottoman period, jewelers in the Balkans produced liturgical objects in keeping with the ancient Byzantine tradition but exhibiting Ottoman-style decorations.


The Seljuk Period

The Seljuk dynasty, founded in the mid-llth century, settled in the Near East taking Iran, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia briefly under its hegemony. When it came to an end in 1157, its cultural and political traditions were sustained by the principalities that succeeded it.

As the Turks enriched their already existing metalwork tradition with new forms and processes, they did not ignore the traditions of the Islamic peoples with whom they were coming into contact. In their new creations, however, it was necessary to strike a harmonious balance between these new influences and the culture they had already possessed. The fact , that they had succeeded in doing this is an important point readily observable in the art of metalwork.

Among all these factors, a rule originating in one of the hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have especially affected the art of metalwork. According to this hadith, the use of such materials as gold, silver and silk is to be avoided by Muslims since they are regarded as luxury items and are therefore in contradiction with the Islamic ideal of simplicity.

It is debatable to what extent this hadith and certain verses of the Koran expressing a similar prohibition actually influenced the use of precious metals. What we do observe is that the use of such metals was reduced to a minimum in the Seljuk period, either for the religious reasons noted or because gold and silver were scarce and therefore costly. The same cannot be said of the Ottoman period however. Parallel to the prosperity of the Empire, the use of gold, silver, si Ik and precious stones increased, especially in the Palace.

The Ottoman sultans, viziers and high-ranking statesmen showed an avid interest in jewelry made of these materials both for gift items and, less often, for their own use. The Venetian Ambassador Ottoviano Bon reports in 1608 that golden vessels and silver-embroidered tableclothes graced the sultan’s table and that these were replaced by green porcelain (celadon) during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

The infrequent use of precious metals in the Seljuk period resulted in a concentration of metalwork in the other metals, and enamel work, originally Byzantine, even showed considerable development during this time. As a result, the kind of copper, bronze and brass masterpieces produced by the Seljuks became relatively fewer in number under the Ottomans, though still produced; while objects made of silver and precious stones in contrast attained a high level of quality and aesthetic value.

Differences in the interpretation of Islam also emerge in another aspect of the art of metalwork. Like the use of precious metals, the depiction of humans and animals was also prohibited according to Islam, a ban more frequently observed in the Ottoman period and less frequently under the Seljuks, on whose metal objects we see a large number of human and animal figures. Beginning with inscriptions of Islamic prayers and verses from the Koran on vessels in the l2th century, this tradition, continued to develop culminating in the , creation of highly ornamental and masterfully executed calligraphic inscriptions in which the connecting lines and final decorations were often adorned with such figures. The fact that the Seljuk metalworkers who produced such work were originally from Central Asia is readily observable from the considerable similarity between these figures and motifs and those used earlier.

The bulk of Seljuk metalwork preserved today in museums and private coIlections came from Iran and northern Mesopotamia. Khorasan in particular was a major center of metalwork in the llth and l2th centuries and under the Zangid principality the region around Mosul and Artukid was regarded as the center of metalwork in southeastern Anatolia. Recent finds confirm that the traditionally high level of achievement in this field of art was maintained uniformly both under the Anatolian Seljuks and the period of principalities that followed.

Style, Decoration and Form

The abundance of human and animal figures on the metal objects produced in the Seljuk period has already been pointed out. These motifs, which derive in general from the Central Asian animal style, are based on certain shamanistic beliefs and notions. Through reconciliation with Islamic practices, such beliefs were kept alive for a long time in works of art. Motifs employed included symbols of the moon, figures and symbols representing power and good fortune, and certain mythological and heraldic animal figures. Among these, the most frequently depicted were harpies, griffins, double-headed eagles, sphinxes and dragons. Compositions incorporating zodiac signs or rulers sitting cross-legged holding a pomegranate in their lap are also frequently encountered.

The figures and the many diverse symbols used in conjunction with them are an expression of a variety of religious beliefs. The depiction of human and animal figures on objects was avoided in mosques and mausoleums.

Another important and innovative development was the use of calligraphic inscriptions of Islamic prayers and expressions on metal objects. A salient feature of such inscriptions was that they were often used in compositions incorporating human and animal figures and vegetal motifs. This practice, which was first observed in Khorasan in the l2th century, may be termed “figurative calligraphy.” The inscription itself, which usually adorns a vessel or other object as a border or frieze, generally expresses a dedication or good wishes. Because the words are often abbreviated, such inscriptions, which most frequently employ the Kufic or Naskhi scripts, may be difficult to read. Sometimes the name of the artist and the place and date the object was made were also inscribed.

After the year 1220, geometric designs begin to be observed, consisting of interlocking rectangl’es, polygons and circles. These motifs are often so expertly joined that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins, thereby giving expression to a concept of infinity.

Around this time, too, Mosul emerges as an independent school allowing the uninhibited depiction of scenes from everyday life such as musical entertainment, dance and acrobatic exhibitions and polo games. Objects depicting such scenes thus have special value for the insight they give into palace social life at the time.

The objects produced by the Artukids are important representatives of the southeastern Anatolian art of metalwork, both for their quality and for their dates and dedicatory inscriptions.

Metal objects from the Seljuk period and of the principalities that followed are found in various museums and collections.

Owing to the scarcity of extant objects, it is as yet not very clear to what extent articles made of the precious metals such as gold and silver were popular with rulers of the Seljuk period. Furthermore, the major sources of gold and silver in this period have not yet been identified conclusively.