Adornment Archives: Turkish Treasures
Digging through my jewelry box for the right accessory, my thumb hits my cherished tughra pendant from Turkey. The gold pendant, a calligraphic monogram of a 19th century Ottoman sultan, hangs from a rope chain. It’s one of those perfect pieces – unique, full of history, yet simple enough to layer with anything else in my collection. I fasten it around my neck and it nestles in next to my grandmother’s 1930s high school shuffleboard and trumpet award medals that I wear each day – the happy meeting of these golden charms is charged with symbolism. As they jingle around my neck, I’m transported to Istanbul, 2001. My international shopping rules were passed down to me from my jewel-collecting grandmother: “If you see it and you know you need to have it, buy it. You never know when you’ll be back there again.” Grandma happened to be with me on this trip, so her influence was especially strong.
It was a hot day in July when we strolled the Grand Bazaar, captivated by nazars, silver coin necklaces and belts, and beaded tassel necklaces topped with ornamental domes. The nazar (a term derived from the Arabic word for “sight” or “seeing”) is an amulet intended to protect the wearer from the evil eye and the ill effects of jealousy. This centuries-old symbol is still very present in contemporary Turkish society – you can find nazars worn around necks, displayed in homes, and dangling from cab mirrors. The coin necklaces and belts are typically used as belly dancing adornments. Historically, as is the case in many other cultures, coins were strung on necklaces and worn by Ottoman women as a sign of wealth and prestige. The domes atop the intricately beaded tassels are miniature versions of those seen in traditional Ottoman architecture, symbols of power. The tassels themselves are contemporary representations of those that adorned Ottoman furniture and accessories.
We continued our hunt for traditional Turkish adornments at the fine jewelry market. It was here that the gold tughra, stunning in its simplicity next to diamond-encrusted pendants and large ruby and emerald rings, caught my eye. I asked the man selling this finery to explain the symbolism to me. I learned that the name of the sultan was written on the bottom part of the tughra, called the sere. The loops on the left are called beyze (the Arabic word for egg), and signify the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The three vertical lines on the top of the tughra, the tuğ (flagstaff), represent independence. The zülfe (S-shaped lines) symbolize the winds that blow from the east to the west. Lastly, the extended lines to the right reference a sword and indicate power. I put on the pendant, Grandma nodded approvingly, and it remained around my neck for the rest of the trip.
The next day, as we explored the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque), the Valens Aqueduct, and got lost in this city so rich with history, I was enthralled with the style of the Turkish women I saw. As my travel journal notes attest, “They seem to effortlessly mix the old with the new – traditional jewels with tight jeans, heavily embroidered scarves with strappy dresses, a tailored suit paired with an evil eye pendant, an understated, pulled-back hairstyle with a dramatic red lip … and gold, always lots of gold.” (Istanbul, 2001)
The looks I encountered were more than just incredibly beautiful, they were indicative of how the role of the woman has shifted in Turkey, how ideals of beauty, sexuality, and personal/professional power continue to evolve and, in some ways, remain rooted in the past. During the contemporary Turkish feminist movement in the 1980s, Turkish women worked to ensure the safety of and opportunities for women within business, politics, and other major facets of society in Turkey. Since that time, there have been diverse movements, definitions and manifestations of feminism in Turkey. Today, it is widely recognized that there are many ways to construct female identity, and Turkish women seek to define themselves as individuals within the larger framework of Turkish culture and history. It was an eye-opening experience for me, observing how the adornment practices of these women revealed their individual values, aesthetic preferences, and places in society. This rich aesthetic mix of traditional Turkish adornments and Western influences provided a point of departure for my grandma and me to talk about our own experiences of womanhood and how we adorn ourselves to reflect our roles, preferences, and goals.
During my time in Turkey, I realized that personal adornment practices paint a picture of how we perceive ourselves (and how we wish to be perceived), our places in the world, our desires and our purpose. These experiences whet my appetite for more aesthetic journeys, near and far – an appetite that, fourteen years later, is far from being sated. With each trip I take, each piece I add to my jewelry box, and each observation I jot down in one of my well-worn notebooks, I learn more about the human condition. To me, this is even more valuable than the treasures in my jewelry box.