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Sugar Sculpture and Gardens

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Posted 20 March 2005 - 21:41

Elephants, giraffes and elaborate gardens were among the eye-catching sugar sculptures carried at Ottoman festivals. The idea that pictorial art is forbidden by Islam is a widespread but mistaken view. In fact the Koran contains no such proscription, and all kinds of figurative representation were to be found in Ottoman Turkey, which was an Islamic state, including miniatures, wall paintings, pictures on tiles and so on. In particular miniatures illustrating many subjects were painted over the centuries. The six-volume 'Siyer-i Nebî' about the life of the Prophet Muhammad is illustrated with no less than 800 miniatures, and there are hundreds more miniatures in other religious books. Marble and stone fountains, tombstones, architectural relief decoration and dovecotes are some examples showing the skill of Ottoman craftsmen at carving. Although these stone sculptures can still be seen, others made of less durable materials and representing human and animal figures have not survived.
Three-dimensional figures were a feature of celebrations and festivals, as we learn both from written accounts and from miniature illustrations. Celebrations on the occasion of the circumcision of Ottoman princes, the marriage of a princess, or the birth of a royal child sometimes lasted for weeks, and the entertainments included automata, displays of fireworks attached to figures of people, animals and fabulous creatures, giant puppets, and sugar sculptures in the form of coloured statues of animals and huge gardens. Some of these could be carried by a single person, while some required four people or more, and others were so large that they had to be carried on carts.

Sugar sculptures were also a feature of Renaissance festivities in Europe , where they were known as 'sotteltes', 'zuckerwerk', 'suttelties' and so on. In Turkey the confectioners who produced these sugar sculptures were known as 'sükker nakkas' or sugar decorators.


The most magnificent of all these festivities was that held in 1582 to celebrate the circumcision of the future Mehmet III, son of Murad III. The celebrations lasted 51 days and nights, and a contemporary document tells us that 171 kantars, that is 9.7 tons of sugar, and 100 kantars or approximately 5.7 tons of flavourings and colourings including cinnamon, cloves, aniseed and sour oranges were used for the sculptures. At first sight it might seem that such enormous expenditure on sugar sculpture alone to celebrate the circumcision of a prince was a waste of money. But there were various reasons for this. In economic terms the money paid to tradesmen and artists for such festivals generated employment and enlivened the economy as a whole. The display impressed foreign guests with its demonstration of the power of the Ottoman state, and the citizens had the chance to enjoy themselves in a carnival mood.


This legendary festival included the following sugar figures: one pavillion, three mermaids, seven cypress trees, two fountains, five peacocks, one stork, eleven cockerels, ten galleys, nine lighthouses, ten large phoenixes, one giraffe, one rhinoceros, 43 horses, three mules, two cows, three rams, three dogs, 35 monkeys, 877 flowers, 308 narcissi, 281 roses, a church, and four elephants. One eyewitness reported seeing nine elephants, seventeen lions, nineteen leopards and tigers, 22 stallions, 21 camels, fourteen giraffes, nine sea monsters each carried by four people, 25 hawks, falcons and buzzards, eleven storks, eight ducks, a fountain three metres wide carried by 20 people, a castle and a devilish monster, five wild peacocks, five candlesticks, sixteen pots, seventeen ewers, six small vases, nine monkeys, and two complete chess sets. Some of these are illustrated in two miniatures.

It might surprise today's reader that the animals depicted should have included giraffes, rhinoceroses, lions, tigers and leopards, but although these animals were not familiar in 16th century Europe, they were known to the people of Istanbul , because live examples were sent to the sultan from all over the empire. Some of these animals were trained, particularly the elephants. In 1530 Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent held a celebration lasting three weeks for the circumcision of his four sons. One miniature illustrating this festivity shows gigantic sugar sculptures. In front of Ibrahim Pasa Palace at the lower left corner of the miniature acrobats are performing, and in the lower right corner is an elephant, two people and a couple of buildings, all made of sugar, while above are two sugar animals resembling horses. Their feet cannot be seen, as if they were standing in water. Although no miniatures were painted illustrating the festival held in Edirne for the circumcision of two sons of Sultan Mehmet IV in the 17th century, a foreign witness who saw the two-week festival describes two rows of people holding sugar animals on plinths.

These animals, whose height varied from 76 to 91 centimetres, included ostriches, peacocks, swans, pelicans, lions, bears, greyhounds, deer, horses, elephants, rams and water buffaloes. While in the 16th century these sugar sculptures were made by local confectioners, in the 17th century 200 confectioners were brought from Venice to make them.

The most important festival of the eighteenth century was the circumcision celebration for the four sons of Sultan Ahmed III. This festival was illustrated by 277 miniature paintings from two different painting studios, and two of these miniatures depict sugar gardens. One miniature by the famous 18th century miniature painter Levnî also shows several of the sugar sculptures: a white ram, two deer, one white and one gold cockerel, two green pheasants, and leopards with gold spots, a gold lioness, a pair of white pigeons, a blue peacock, two bowls of walnuts, and a bowl of fruit. Probably there were even more sugar sculptures than

depicted here at the festivities. Of even greater interest are the miniatures depicting sugar gardens. Four sugar gardens, one for each prince, are portrayed in two miniatures. The gardens were evidently heavy, as the bearers are carrying them by means of broad straps crossed over their chests. The figures with whistles in their hands are giving instructions to the bearers. The gardens are surrounded by railings and contain trees in fruit, vines, large flowers, and birds, sometimes in cages and sometimes in the branches of the trees. One has a pond with a boat, and another a fountain from which sherbet instead of water flows. There are also gardens containing a castle, a pavilion and mansions. The ground is of black and white granulated sugar, and the pebbles are painted sugar almonds. After these sculptures and gardens had been seen by everyone they were distributed to the guests, beginning with the highest in rank and foreign visitors, and ending with the common people.


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