The Topkapi Scrolls

May 2022

Held at the Topkapi Palace Museum Library, Istanbul

This remarkable set of architectural drawings was first brought to public attention in 1986 by Filiz Çagman of the Topkapi Palace Museum Library. The scrolls were probably intended for an architectural scheme that was never actually realized (which is why they have survived in such relatively good condition), but the reason why they finished up in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, having originated in Timurid-Turkmen Iran, is obscure. The drawings do not appear as finished decoration in any existing building in Iran, but are stylistically close enough to surviving design features to be able to date them to the late 15th - early 16th century (8th-9th AH).

The Scroll consists of just over a hundred drawings, some 59 of which involve the constructions for muqarnas (the decorative system of hanging niches in Islamic architecture); 16 are for calligraphic panels; and 44 show the repeat units of geometric patterns.1 Most of the drawings are fairly well-preserved, although there is some minor damage. The collection, which in its present form would have been too large for practical use as a set of working drawings, is believed to have been assembled using two or more original sets of material, pasted together (in a somewhat haphazard order) by an Ottoman Royal Librarian. It seems very likely, however, that all the drawings originated from the same studio. The entire collection was pasted edge to edge, then at one end to a wooden rod, and at the other to a leather flap which acted as a protective cover.2

The drawings were made with a reed pen, using black ink, with highlights in red and the occasional use of other colours. The underlying construction lines (of grids, arcs and radial lines) were made with a metal point, leaving barely visible lines – the traditional method. The paper itself is sturdy and high-quality, of a kind that is known to have been made in Iran during the 15th c. (8th AH).

In 1995 the Topkapi Scrolls were published, together with an account of their history and their place in Islamic architecture and its decoration, in a masterful dissertation by Gülru Necipoglu.3 In this book Necipoglu propounds an account of the origins of the Islamic geometric mode as a sort of house-style of the ‘Sunni revival’. (see Background Notes #7)

  1. The focus here is on the latter two of these categories
  2. This form of binding, in Arabic, tûmâr, was probably unfamiliar to the original Topkapi preservators
  3. Necipoglu, Gülru; The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and ornament in Islamic Architecture; Getty Centre for the History of Art and the Humanities; 1995 ISBN 089236335