Anne Gardom sees Jesus in a kaftan

Turks – a Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600 at the Royal Academy is a very large and diverse exhibition. It covers a long period of complex religious and cultural history in an area stretching from Western China to the Balkans. The exhibition is arranged chronologically and shows how the Turkic people coming from the East absorbed and adapted the cultures with which they came into contact. Along the Silk Road, the only overland route between China and the West, travelled silks, ceramics, jewels, spices, merchants, priests and armies, forming a rich mix of faith, arts, architecture and fierce power struggles.

The first room, with comprehensive maps of the region has huge wall-mounted photographs of palaces and mosques. The vast domes are brilliantly blue with complex flutes and curves in the mosaics and tiles.

In the following rooms are fragments of wall paintings from the area around the Taklamakan desert, where there were very early settlements of Buddhist monks. Twenty years ago I saw some of these paintings, often desecrated by Muslim fanatics, in the abandoned cliff monasteries of the Taklamakan desert. They seem to speak from the remote past then, and these faded and delicately painted fragments have this same quality. There are books here of great antiquity and remarkably well preserved. In the Book of the Dead (made in about 1350) the black Uighar script is as strong and flowing as if it had been done last week. The 12th century statue of a Court Guard from a tomb, still has some of the original red and blue pigment, and the features on his moonface (a sign of beauty) are still to be seen.

Carpets from this area have, of course, been known and prized all over the world for centuries. There are many extremely old carpets here, mounted high on the walls, so it is possible to admire their still vivid colour and complex designs. The red of a large thirteenth-century carpet found in a tomb is brilliant still; prayer-carpets dating from the 15th century have the distinctive niche or arch design, some single, some large with multiple arches. The early carpets have stylised cockerels and lions in vivid colours.

There is an enormous variety of books and manuscripts – poetry, religion, legend, and genealogies, proclamations and histories. Many of the bindings are very elaborate and in an excellent state of preservation. The flowing scripts – Arabic and Persian among many others, are beautiful and decorative in themselves. The stylised patterns and borders, or often complete pages, are painted with such delicate and minute flowers, rosettes and arabesques that they seem to be jewelled. Some pages are completely covered with hair-fine patterns in two shades of gold. The books of history and legends have lively illustrations. There are immense books of genealogy with ancestors traced back as far as Adam and Noah. In one very large book entitled Cream Of Histories and dating from 1580, there is a depiction of The Ascension of the Prophet Jesus in a turban and a star-spangled kaftan.

Gold-sprinkled paper from China is used for books of poems. They are written in flowing script on cream and rose coloured gold speckled paper, making books poetic both in content and appearance!

The works of Muhammad Siyah Qalam (Muhammad of the Black Pen) are both beautiful and baffling, and have a whole gallery to themselves. His paintings, made at the end of the 15th century, are mounted in large albums and are one of the treasures of the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. They are grouped seemingly at random with sheets of calligraphy and other paintings, like pages from a gigantic scrapbook. Some of them show domestic and rural life, others courtly scenes of hunting and ceremonial. People sit round a camp fire, feed their horses, meet each other. Other paintings show demons, hairy and grotesque, but laddish and irrepressible rather than evil. They are shown fighting, eating rather nastily, carrying palanquins of very unconcerned lords and ladies – the pictures full of activity and animation. Scholarship has yet to unravel the mystery of what they were made for, or what stories they tell.

Turkish, and particularly Iznik ceramics are world-famous. The Topkapi Palace Museum has a very rich collection of ceramics and the pieces shown are magnificent. There are a number of friezes with flowing elaborately carved backgrounds, glazed in blues and greens, superimposed with flowing Arabic scripts. One, coming from a tomb, asks that God ‘may perfume his dust and grant him entry into Paradise’. The case of eight-pointed star-shaped tiles has wonderfully free designs of running horses, double-headed eagles, and strange fantastic animals. An architectural scroll, dating from the late 1400s, shows exactly how a tiled floor or wall decoration was designed and could be followed today without difficulty.

There are some splendid pieces of ceremonial ceramics from the Topkapi Museum, very large blue and white bowls and plates with formal and elaborately interlaced leaves, flowers and scrolls. Other pieces are decorated in reds and blues with the traditional tulips, roses, carnations and hyacinths in free and elegant designs.

The ceremonial clothing on display is an awe-inspiring indication of the magnificence of court life at the time of the Ottoman Empire. The garments are in a splendid state of preservation – many of them are at least 500 years old – and are displayed in large flat showcases, which makes them very easy to see. There is a silk brocade and silver thread kaftan, lined with sable, a coat of chain-mail encased in a yellow silk jacket, lined with red silk and frogged with silver. One kaftan has a lining (let alone the outside) where the silk appliqué was so finely done that it looked as if it had been painted on rather than stitched, a kaftan, designed for mourning, is entirely made of black silk with one dramatic red motif on the lining.

Elsewhere the luxury goods give an idea of the sophistication and opulence of the Ottoman Court. There are jewelled decorations for the top of turbans, magnificent swords and daggers with rock crystal handles decorated with emeralds. Beautiful china and jade bowls, enriched with decorations of gold wire and set with rubies and emeralds in gold petal settings. These were considered so precious that they seldom left the Palace, and if they were given as a gift it was expected that they would be returned on the death of the recipient. A chess-set in rock crystal has two sides differentiated by a ruby or an emerald set in gold on the top – surely the ultimate must-have.

This very large exhibition is full of rare and beautiful things. A visit to it really needs time, and preferably a break for refreshment in the middle. The political, religious and artistic development of the area is comprehensively explained in the handout and on the wall-displays – but in the end, it is the beauty and sophistication of the objects themselves that fill the eye and remain in the memory.

Entry £11, £9 concessions.

Royal Academy until 12th April

Anne Gardom is the Arts Correspondent of New Directions