Chinese Porcelain At The Topkapi Palace, Istanbul


After lunch at Konyali, we browsed quickly through the jewelry collection at the Topkapi Palace which took 10 minutes total (a bit blah), and as a final stop, I wanted to take a quick look at, what else but the royal kitchens… Not much remains of the kitchens except the massive exhaust towers above the building and the cavernous interiors where I imagined hundreds of people slaved over a singe meal service. But what IS on display today, is an UTTERLY STUNNING collection of Chinese porcelain from the 13th to 18th centuries! I know, many folks would have a big fat ho-hum yawn when seeing yet another display of blue and whites and celadons, but bear with me for a couple of paragraphs for some interesting history (albeit the ten second abridged version)…


My grandmother was a collector of chinese porcelain (from the 14th to 18th centuries), mostly from grave diggings in Cebu and neighboring islands. She was buying plates and bowls and other vessels in the 1950’s through the early 1980’s. My siblings and I have inherited some of these plates, but many are not in what you would call “pristine” condition. Often, the 300-400 years spent six feet under the ground, then the subsequent (often crude) excavations damaged many of the items. In Philippine waters, many plates found intact by the thousands on sunken galleons fared much better, often restored to looking as good as new, the ceramics barely affected by centuries in salt water. The point being that, in this country, many of these ceramics were not kept in cupboards and/or used for 400-500 years to be handed down through 15 generations or so…


The Ottoman sultans apparently took a liking to Chinese porcelain, and started importing these pieces for meal services starting in the 13th-14th centuries. They went on to buy several thousand pieces of Sung, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain, and rather than bury them with dead relatives, they used the porcelain in the Palace. Today, there are still some 10,000+ pieces of porcelain in the Topkapi Palace collection, and the ones on display were in FABULOUSLY good shape. This must be one of the most important collections of chinese porcelain in Europe. The pieces on display were in beautiful shape, not what you would expect from something that was in use or at least near their kitchens and dining rooms of the palace for some 400+ years! Imagine what breakage and pilferage was like, and the number of pieces they originally purchased if some 10,000+ still exist today?!?


It never occurred to me that there would be plates similar to the thousands found here in the Philippines (and many Asian countries) at burial sites, but left above ground all this time. It seems the plates were sent by ship from Southern China and onto the Middle East, then were transported up to present day Turkey. One of the other fascinating things about these plates is that many were just ENORMOUS. Many pieces from the 14th-17th century were typically small, plates, included, but apparently the Ottomans were such key customers that Chinese kilns may have custom made large plates because the manner in which the Ottomans dined differed dramatically from the Chinese or other neighbors in Southeast Asia. Think of large steaming platters of grains and stews all together on that wonderful large blue and white plate up top (at least 20-22 inches across)… China meets Turkey, but nearly half a millenium ago… I just find that type of historical linkage incredible! Mind you, I am likewise blown away that tempura was originally influenced by the Portuguese who brought the concept of deep frying to Japan in the 16th century…but that is another story altogether… :)


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10 Responses

  1. oh, my god, those plates are absolutely beautiful! thanks for the historical information, mm. i truly find this very interesting. i, myself, am very particular with the plates i use
    when serving my dishes. after all, you eat with your eyes first…as the saying goes.

  2. No ho hum here. That was my point of going to Turkey aside from visiting the locales that were all too familiar from movies such as From Russia With Love and the Pink Panther and all its parodies. In the Metropolitan Museum in NY they actually display, side by side, original Chinese pieces and Ottoman copies. The copies were probably what they used from day to day and one of the reasons many of the original pieces survived. Well worth the detour to old Constantinople, imho.

  3. Lola started collecting in the 20’s, unfortunately she traded the older pieces when she was in her 80’s. For another wonderful collection of Indo-chinese pottery and china don’t miss the Guimet Museum in Paris, before or after Dehillerin.

  4. What a stunning vollection!
    When I first came to Japan I was fascinated by the antique blue and white ceramics that are being disposed of by the younger Japanese generation in favor of American and European antiques…. I started buying. Many of the ones I have are from the Meiji period. Now there are a lot of fake ones floating in the market..made in China of course…

  5. what beautiful china! I was lucky to inherit a few Sung pieces from my mother in law, and im grateful that she had it authenticated at the National Museum. It really is worth the trouble and i believe would give your treasured pieces much more value. (although some antique experts in the Philippines are not very impressed with our curators) :-)

  6. Isn’t it astounding too that Chinese industry even at that early date was already acutely market sensitive. The stock in trade was not limited to porcelain, vast territories of the Ottoman empire was traversed by the silk road. They produced whatever was demanded by any particular cultural group. Just as now with us, close to any object that members of the Ottoman sultans’ household picked up at that time must have been made in China. Did you notice too that designs and motifs remained unaltered and it mattered little that they were applying them on the radically different shapes that the Ottoman culture demanded? But there were also numerous other particular markets that Chinese manufacturers custom catered to. The American, English and European markets (blue Canton and Famille Verte), the Portuguese and Brazilian market where the heavily decorated and vividly colored Tobacco Leaf patterns was particularly coveted and then there were the generations of Siamese royalty for whom a particular set of shapes and gilded decorative style called Benjarong was for a long period of time supplied from China.

    Remember the sunken ship ballasted with China Trade porcelain destined for Holland that they rescued from the deep a few years ago? Well part of the reason why industry and agriculture were not developed during most of Spain’s watch over the Philippines was that they were preoccupied with this lucrative China trade and this far-flung outpost of the Spanish empire (us) was essentially controlled and kept as a mere entrepôt.

  7. Iran has a magnificent collection that covers the same exact time span of the Topkapi collection.
    There is a book by John Alexander Pope that documents this collection: “Chinese Ceramics from the Ardebil Shrine”

  8. leyla, thanks for that, if IRAN ever opens up and its safe to visit, I am sure they have some fabulous treasures to be viewed! Apicio, yes I was amazed by how quickly they adjusted their items to meet the demands of buyers… it is a trait that has done them well over the millenia, apparently. Soon everything manufactured in the world will be made in China…

  9. Being in the “Diversed city” of Houston, chinese and vietnamese stores are around. I have seen these kinds of plates sold in these stores, kaya lang hindi ko tiyak kung bago man ito or antique. And if its new, does it have same quality of that good china? I have seen kasi in some chinese cooking that they used this dish plate in some deep fried fish, wherein they poured boiling oil on top. Kasi I liked these plate that I saw, and its not that cheap (pero affordable naman), kaya nga lang I am not sure if it breaks easily.

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