The vast arc of territory that runs from the old Ottoman empire – Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and then beyond through the whole of Central Asia as far as Xinkiang, down through Afghanistan and into India – has two common threads in its common culture: story-telling and music. Perhaps a third thread is carpet-weaving, but it’s definitely in third place. Beautiful music was produced by elegant instruments, embellished with ivory, ebony, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell underlaid with gold-leaf to make it glow. The forms of the instruments have not changed much through the ages, as we can see from miniature paintings in which musical instruments often feature. There are subtle changes over time, often because a particular musician had specific demands. But in general these instruments have remained much the same – on the basis, I suppose, that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel. These instruments are often objects of great delicacy and beauty, particularly from the territory that can be described historically as the Turkic domain.
Over the years I have handled a number of elegant Persian instruments, specifically kermanches from Tabriz, made of ivory and ebony, but apart from them the instruments from the Persian world are rather dull, while their music is sublime, and their poetry unsurpassed. This echoes the prayer beads made in Persia, which are pedestrian compared with the Turkish equivalents. More surprising, because calligraphy in Persia achieved an unrivalled refinement, their calligraphers’ tools have nothing of the beauty of the Ottoman calligraphers’ knives for cutting their reed nibs, the plaques on which they cut them, the burnishing tools for gold and paper, the cutters for the leather bindings, even the mortars for grinding the colours. It seems odd for a culture so refined, but there we are.
We tend to think that the older something is, the better it is. My impression, in terms of musical instruments, is that this is not the case. Most of the instruments illustrated were made in the second half of the 19th century, or in the early part of the 20th-century. There seems to have been a revival of musical culture during this period that these instruments reflect. The ivory Sarinda from Bijapur is the exception, whereas the 18th-century Ottoman Tanbour is noticeably less refined than its 19th-century descendants.