Sensory Explorations in Ottoman Architectural History

Although all types of Ottoman architecture—whether palace, mosque complex, or tomb—have been thoroughly surveyed in terms of its formal characteristics and therefore its visual aspects, neither its aural dimensions in the form of Qur’anic recitation and prayer, nor the customary deployment of fragrances by means of incense burners distributed throughout these spaces have received the attention they deserve. Qur’anic recitation and purchases of aromatics for incense can be reconstructed with the help of the relevant endowment deeds preserved in the Archives of the General Directorate of Endowments in Turkey, as they document the employment and qualification of reciters as well as perfumers. Travelers’ accounts, narrative literature and poetry provide further evidence of the ways in which Ottomans experienced and enriched their architectural spaces. Moreover, incense burners removed from the monuments, but kept in various museum collections, present clues as to the smellscapes of these buildings.

Drawing on the theoretical frameworks of sensory anthropology and soundscape studies, this lecture will investigate the interplay between the visual, the aural, and the olfactory in three major Ottoman monuments—the Topkapı Palace, the Süleymaniye Mosque, and the Tomb of Sultan Ahmed I. It will argue that Ottoman monuments presented a sensory environment that could be manipulated for the purpose of propagating specific political messages and programs, while simultaneously hinting at Paradise, as described in the hadith and the paradise narrative genre.