Nina Ergin

Session 2A, Friday 13th, 10:50-12:20 pm
Location: University of Alberta, Lister Conference Centre, Wild Rose Room

Session 8, Saturday 14th, 3:20-4:50 pm
Location: University of Alberta, Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, Room 1-140

The Soundscape of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul: Ear-Witness Accounts from the Centuries


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Many embassy members and travelers, as well as several palace employees of European origin have left us descriptions of the Topkapı Palace in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and historians have thoroughly mined these texts for information about architecture and court ceremonial.  The sonic environment within the palace, however, has received only limited attention, even though especially one of its aspects—silence—was a source of great astonishment for the above-mentioned writers.  For instance, in 1559 Baron Wenceslas Wratislaw commented on the absence of sound coming from the assembled officers in the exalted presence of the sultan: “Although there were some thousands of people there, nevertheless, there was no shouting, no conversation, no moving hither and thither, but all stood so quietly that we could not help wondering; nay, even the Janissaries, although furious and licentious people in war, here observed great[..] obedience […], standing as quiet as if they had been hewn out of marble.”  In fact, this emphasis on silence also resulted in the employment of deaf-mute attendants and the introduction of sign language to be used around the sultan’s person, even by hearing attendants.  These sound-centered courtly tradition had developed since the erection of the Topkapı Palace under Mehmed the Conqueror (r. 1444-46, 1451-81), together with the writing of the Kanunname, a text that, among other government-related practices, codified court ceremonial.  Taking its cue from the significance that the Ottomans ascribed to sound-related practices and following the lead of composer R. Murray Schaefer, sensory anthropologist David Howes, and historian Alain Corbin, this paper will examine the soundscape in the Topkapı Palace, both in terms of everyday life and ceremonial, as presented by contemporary eye- (or rather ear-) witnesses.



Nina Ergin is an art historian specializing in the history of Ottoman architecture. Holding a doctorate from the University of Minnesota (2005), she now is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Archaeology and History of Art at Koç University, Istanbul.  While she has published on Ottoman hamams and soup kitchens, her most recent work focuses on the soundscape of Ottoman Istanbul (“The Soundscape of Sixteenth-Century Istanbul Mosques: Architecture and Qur’an Recital,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 67/2 [2008]: 204-21; “A Multi-Sensorial Message of the Divine and the Personal: Qur’anic Inscriptions and Recitation in Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Mosques,” Calligraphy in Islamic Architecture: Space, Form, and Function, ed. Mohammad Gharipouri and Irvin C. Schick [Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2013]; “Ottoman Royal Women’s Spaces: The Acoustic Dimension,” Journal of Women’s History 26 [forthcoming 2014]; and “A Sound Status among the Ottoman Elite: Architectural Patrons of Sixteenth-Century Istanbul Mosques and their Recitation Programs,” Music, Sound and Architecture in Islam, ed. Michael Frishkopf and Federico Spinetti).

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