Turkish Art

Turkish Art

Turkish art encompasses some of the most fascinating forms in the world. It showcases the culture and lifestyle of Central Asian tribes and the Seljuks, as well as the art of preceding cultures such as the Hittites, Ancient Greeks, and Byzantines. The earliest forms, like felt making date back to the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, and it is known that Hittites and Uighurs used felt in their daily life.

Ottoman art, such as calligraphy and other decorative forms was widespread in the 16th and early 17th centuries, the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Turkish art was influenced by contemporary European styles.

The 20th century marked a transition from Ottoman artistic traditions to a more secular approach. Many painters started to seek unique representations away from the Western influence.

Below is an introduction to Turkish art reflecting the diverse cultures that flourished on the territory of Anatolia. Throughout the Ottoman period, Turkish art has typically featured Islamic style in architecture and decoration of manuscripts with miniatures and illumination. A Plethora of weavers, potters, metalworkers, calligraphers, and others have produced beautiful works, contributing to the artistic heritage of Turkey.

Turkish Calligraphy

Calligraphy in Turkey emerged after a long period between the VI and X ages, along with the advancement of the Arab script. In addition to the six standard styles of Islamic calligraphy, Turks invented their own based on the Persian cursive called “talik.” Turkish calligraphy continued to thrive in the XIX and XX centuries. However, with the adoption of the Latin script in 1928, it ceased to be a popular form of art and transformed into traditional art taught in specialized schools.

Some of the best examples of Turkish calligraphy are the decorated tughra of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520), the description of the Prophet Muhammad by calligrapher Hafiz Osman, and calligraphy decorations on the main dome of the Blue Mosque and at Topkapi Palace.


Miniature art involves creating small paintings on textiles, books, rugs, and more. It was often limited to the manuscripts' decorations.

The Seljuk Turks emphasized miniature painting. During the Ottoman Empire, the Seljuk and Persian trend was prevalent until the 18th century. Famous miniature artists of that time were Mustafa Celebi, Suleiman Celebi, and Levni Abdulcelil Celebi. The work of Levni became a turning point in the history of Turkish miniature. He developed his unique style leaving behind traditional concepts. In the 19th century, The Ottoman miniature experienced changes under the influence of Western art.

The ancient art of miniature of the Ottoman Turkish was called taswir or nakish. Over time, miniatures have gradually given way to modern art as we understand it today.


The term “illumination” describes the art of decorating manuscripts with gold or silver. “Tezhip” is a Turkish term derived from the Arabic “dhahab” (gold).

The history of the Turkish miniature goes back to the 9th century. The Seljuk brought this technique to Anatolia, which culminated during the Ottoman period, especially during Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottoman illumination declined when the flaky décor replaced classical patterns. The Western influence could be observed in the art of Turkish illumination in the 19th century.

The earliest example displayed at Topkapi Palace Library is a page in the Quran from 1131. The Bazaar of Istanbul Arts still has craftsmen who have preserved the technique of illuminating manuscripts.

Paper Marbling “Ebru”

Ebru is a Turkish art of marbling, which is about creating colorful patterns by sprinkling and brushing pigments on water and then applying the patterns of flowers, leaves, ornament, mosques, or moon on paper. It is so unique and ancient that UNESCO added the art to its intangible cultural heritage list. There are masters in Turkey who continue this tradition.

The art of Ebru originated long before the Islamic period, approximately in the 13th century, and continues to be used to decorate religious texts and books. Ebru derives from the Persian word “ebri,” meaning “nebular, cloudlike.”

Nechmeddin Okyay, one of the last Ottoman masters of Islamic art, created a new form of calligraphy using Ebru. Okyay employed script calligraphy with glue, dried it, and then used a calligraphy pattern to transfer the marbling.

Among modern artists engaged in the art of Ebru are Ozden Aydin, Eda Ozvbekkangay, Duygu Orak, Tuzin Tiryaki, Turk Kagidi, and Tuba Bacioglu.


Glasswork was a prominent art among Turks in Central Asia. They took their skills with them to newly conquered territories. Anatolian Seljuks highly valued stained glass. For example, one of the favorite glassware was a honey-colored plate in gilded glass with a curved edge and rim. Such a plate was found during the excavations of the site of the Kubadabad Palace of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I on Lake Beysehir.

The glasswork technique was improved during the Ottoman rule. Moreover, glass masters represented a powerful guild under government protection.

The art of designing glass items with unique patterns and the secrets of glass blowers from Beykoz have survived to the present day. That knowledge was used to make oil lamps, vases, sugar bowls, goblets, and stained glass.

Those interested in the process of making glass items can visit the Glass Furniture Foundation Center located in Beykoz, Istanbul.


Tilework was usually developed along with architecture. It’s believed that Turks brought art to Anatolia. Turquoise was the main color of glazed tiles used for decorating palaces, mosques, and tombs. Beautiful examples of tiles are at Topkapi Palace and Iznic (ancient Nicea). Among mosques are the tiles of the Rustem Pasha Mosque.

Iznik tiles were considered the best ceramics in the 15th and 17th centuries. Kutahya was the second most important center for tile production between the 17th and 18th centuries. Today both cities continue to produce ceramics and tiles.

Carved Woodwork

The art of woodwork matured in Anatolia during the Seljuk period and came up with its unique features. The Seljuk were excellent wood carvers and used wood to decorate mosques interiors and cabinet doors. Floral or geometric motifs are dominant. Minbar of the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya, Manisa Grand Mosque, and Birgi Grand Mosque are the most beautiful examples of the Seljuk woodworks in Anatolia.

Ottoman artifacts feature a simpler technique. The woodworkers usually employed wood to make household furniture and various housewares and architectural elements like windows, doors, beams, consoles, ceilings, minbars, etc.

Sedef Art

The 14th and 15th century woodworks were under the Seljuk influence. However, new decorative ways, such as Sedef, were emerging. “Sedef,” meaning “mother of pearls” in Turkish, was used as an inlay in traditional arts. Apart from pearl shells, artisans often used tortoise shells, camel bones, and ivory to decorate Sedef furniture.

Gaziantep is one of the places to see the hand-made art of the mother-of-pearl inlay tradition.

Anatolian Kilims

The term kilim is of Turkish origin and denotes carpets and rugs made in Anatolia and adjacent regions. Together with flat weaving kilims, Anatolian rugs are an essential part of regional culture, which is understood today as Turkish culture.

The advent of Islam and the development of Islamic art had an impact on the decorative motifs of Anatolian carpets.

Turkish tribes from Central Asia introduced rug weaving in Anatolia. Consequently, Anatolian rugs make a group of Ethnic Turkish rugs. Some of the earliest examples are the surviving artifacts made by the Seljuk Turks in the 13th century. These pieces again contain geometrical and floral patterns in red, yellow, green, orange, blue, brown, and black colors. They were woven in Sivas, Kayseri, and Konya provinces.

Rugs during the period between the Seljuk and the Ottoman (the 14th century) include animals, albeit very few of these survived until the present day.

The period of Classical Ottoman Rugs or Palace Rugs began in the 16th century, featuring tulips and other flowers, leaves, and twisting branches.

The third period in Turkish carpet history covers the period between the 16th and 18th centuries and is known as Transylvanian Rugs because they were discovered in churches in Transylvania.

Finally, at the onset of the 19th and 20th centuries, kilims made in Hereke (nearby Istanbul) became globally popular. These were originally intended only for the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. The finest silk kilims in the world are still being made by hand in Hereke today.

Turkish Embroidery

The art of silk embroidery in Turkey is attributed to Turks, who migrated to Turkish soil from Central Asia between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Three hundred years later, the Ottoman Turks stimulated the production of divine embroidery and luxurious textiles. The textile was created in the sultan harems of the Topkapi Palace. Embroidery was extremely widespread in the Seljuk and Ottoman armies.

One can see similarities of Turkish embroidery with that of Persia and Central Asia. Floral and pomegranate designs are very common. With the Ottoman decline, Turkish embroidery had new influences from Europe. Small flowers of bouquets replaced large flowers and patterns.

Despite cheap technology affecting hand-made textiles, this craftsmanship is still alive. The Black Sea resort of Sile near Istanbul produces embroidered cotton clothing, towels, and tablecloths.

Felt Making

Felt-making is probably one of the oldest textiles. Although Mongolia is believed to be the home of this unique craftwork, other Central Asian nations, including Turks, developed their own traditions and techniques. There’s evidence that Uighurs in Central Asia and the Hittites in Anatolia made rugs, tents, hats, shoes, and many other items for their daily needs.

Authentical felt-making involves hot, soapy water and friction to mat, condense, and press wool fibers together.

Istanbul offers a few workshops on felt making. One of them is a studio run by Mehmet Girgic – a famous felt-making master in Istanbul.

Stone Carving

Like wood, stone was the main material to build constructions and decorate mosques, turbes, madrasahs, caravanserais, and tombs. Figurative and ornamental patterns were the most common. By the 13th century, designs became more complex and intricate, featuring angular geometric patterns and inscriptions with the name of God or the ruler, called Kufic.

The Ottoman decorations were simpler and mostly resembled architectural elements. In the 18th century, stone carving moved towards stucco decorations and baroque motifs.

Seljuk Turks were big fans of using stones to decorate secular and religious reliefs. Apart from floral patterns, they often carved animals, servants, hunters, wild beasts, and eagles. One may ask, “How could this be possible with the prohibition in Islam to draw images?” The truth is that the law was issued in the 9th century, but it wasn’t strictly enforced until the 15th century. Some of the carved symbols ascend to shamanistic beliefs. One of them is the belief that eagles are holy birds that protect souls. Some tombstones have an eagle on them, alluding to soul transformation after death in the form of birds. A well-preserved double-headed eagle can be found on the Konya Citadel, dated 1221. Twin Minaret in Sivas contains the same symbol. Human motifs were rarely used; these usually were human heads in groups, reflecting the Seljuk belief in astrology.

Turkish Jewelry

The archeological excavations reveal that the art of Turkish Jewelry on the Anatolian land dates to the Neolithic period (8000-5500 BC) when the Hittite, Assyrian, and other ancient societies made gold and silver earrings and rings.

The Seljuk Turks in Anatolia were great craftsmen, who used a variety of stones and materials, such as rubies, pearls, turquoise, gold, silver, and bronze. The floral shapes of items reflect their nomadic nature.

Turkish Jewelry in the Ottoman Empire reached the highest level. Bejeweled earrings, bracelets, necklaces, pearl-shaped or long dangling rings, and other precious pieces were the true art of that time.

Ottoman sultans and their court members adopted aigrettes as their symbol of power. These were often adorned with precious gemstones of floral or drop shapes. Rubies, sapphires, and emeralds were favorite stones, and common patterns included violets, roses, tulips, birds, and butterflies.

Like many facets of Turkish art, jewelry production saw unseen success during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The Grand Bazaar became a hub of jewelry production and trade. The bazaar still has many jewelry shops with superb products.

Following the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace is the second place to see the exceptional jewelry collection of the Ottomans.

The rich tradition of top-notch craftsmanship continues to be part of contemporary designs. One can find extraordinary pieces, which are a combination of traditional art and modern touches. Minimalistic designs are prevailing, featuring diamonds and emeralds with gold and silver.

Turkish Painting

Turkish painting commenced only in the 19th century when the Tanzimat Reforms were proclaimed in 1839 and advanced until the First Constitution of 1876. Many aspects of Turkish art flourished and were also open to Western influences. A portrait of accomplished calligrapher Sultan Abdlmecid by Ferik Ibrahim Pasha became the first painting in the Ottoman tradition. The subsequent Sultan Abdulaziz, a keen protégé of calligraphy and art, set up a striking collection of paintings at Dolmabahce Palace.

Turkish painters during that time went to Europe to receive Western education and many European painters worked in Turkey as well. Miniature painting shifted to canvas painting. Osman Hamdi Bey and Halil Pasha were trained in Europe and painted not only sultans but ordinary people. Other prominent painters of the Ottoman period were Seker Ahmet Pasha, Suleyman Seyyid, Osman Hamdi, Halil Pasha, Ruhi Arel, Ibrahim Calli, and Hikmet Onat. The Academy of Fine Arts opened in Istanbul in 1883. They primarily were engaged in creating landscape paintings.

In 1919, the Ottoman Society of Painters arranged their first exhibition in Istanbul’s Galatasaray. Later, painters tended towards impressionism, and the most prominent among impressionist painters was Halil Pasha.

The abstract and cubist movements influenced Turkish painters in the subsequent years. The works of Sabri Berkel and Hlil Dikmen are good examples of this genre.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, young artists such as Refik Fazil Elikman, Cevat Dereli, Mahmut Cuda, and many others paved the way for modern art in Turkey.

A glance at Turkish artists of the 21st century proves that art in Turkey is a dynamic force that embraces new trends and genres dictated by a new time.

Pinar Yolacan is a contemporary Turkish artist currently based in New York City. She created eye-catching portraits of elderly women in garments from raw meat and animal parts. 
Taylan Unal is a high-profile Turkish abstract expressionist based in Istanbul. Inspired by the ideas of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the American artist Jackson Pollock, he uses the deformation of paintings in his artwork.

Among Turkish contemporary feminist video artists are Nil Yalter, Sukran Moral, and Ramize Erer, who emphasize gender inequality. Erer was honored with the 2017 Creative Courage Award for raising feminist issues in her cartoons. Nil Yalter is the first Turkish female video artist.

Turkish Photography

The invention of photography inevitably contributed to the development of modernity in the 19th century. Foreigners traveling through the Ottoman Empire first introduced it to the court. Italian brothers Carlo and Giovanni Naya were the first to open a professional photography studio in Istanbul in 1845. Five years later, the Ottoman Vasilaki Kargopoulo set up another studio. I 1860, the number of studios increased significantly in the surrounding areas of the Pera and Kadikoy districts in Istanbul.

The art of photography became viral during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Under his order, photographers took numerous photos showing the political life of the Ottoman Empire and sent them to the Library of Congress in the United States and the British Museum in England.

One Turkish photographer to follow is Servet Kocyigit. Based in Amsterdam and Istanbul, his awards include the 2016 Shpilman International Prize for Excellence in Photography and The New Best Photographer of the Year at the Lianzhou Festival 2012.

New digital culture gave birth to a new genre known as media art. And Turkey wasn’t left behind. A notable Turkish-American new media artist and designer is Refik Anadol. He leverages artificial intelligence algorithms to create abstract and surreal environments. Some of his most significant artwork include Unsupervised, Museum of Modern Art (2022), Machine Hallucinations, Hong Kong (2021), Seoul Haemong, Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul (2019-2020), and Infinity Room, Istanbul (2015).