A sultan's hoard

S"ULEYMAN the Magnificent was the dazzling sultan of the Ottoman Empire, a ruler dubbed ``the Lawgiver'' for his legislative wisdom but also a poet and patron of the arts. Now a stunning exhibit, ``The Age of Sultan S"uleyman the Magnificent,'' which opened recently at the National Gallery here, recalls his glory days in objects dripping with gold, rubies, emeralds, and in other splendor. But one of the most memorable items isn't one of the crown jewels. It's the little lime-colored caftan that the future sultan wore as a 10-year-old child. There is something poignant about the caftan's matching trousers, which protectively end in the covered feet often seen on toddlers' pajamas. The silky outfit was made for the little prince in 1510 in Istanbul.

The 1964 movie thriller ``Topkapi,'' starring Melina Mercouri and a giant diamond, may be the most familiar reference to Turkish treasures for some Americans. In the film, the sultan's Topkapi Palace is the scene of a carefully calibrated jewel heist. Much of the king's ransom of jewels in this collection also comes from that palace, built in 1459.

The items on display here are securely shielded by thick glass and an alarm system, which rang suddenly during a recent visit when a curious museumgoer peered too closely at a treasure. But the very nature of the collection makes you want to touch the objects, so thickly encrusted with gems and gold.

Among them is a long, lozenge-shaped pen box carved from rock crystal, paved in gold, and cobblestoned with rubies and emeralds. It dates from the second half of the 16th century.

Perhaps the most sumptuous canteen ever to slake a thirst belonged to Sultan S"uleyman. Shaped like a fat pear, it is hammered out of gold and features a curved spout ending in a dragon's head; two smaller dragon heads peer out above it, one biting a large emerald, the other a pearl. A large ruby crowns the top, while pale green jade, emeralds, smaller rubies, lavender and purple stones (which appear to be amethysts), almandites, and sapphires add further glitter to this 16th-century canteen, known as a matara.

Perhaps the most formidable of these treasures is a massive steel helmet, Bismarck style, decorated with inlaid gold and big hunks of turquoise and rubies, from the mid-16th century.

The wide-ranging exhibit also includes lavishly bound manuscripts and editions of the Koran, textiles, embroideries, rugs, porcelains, antique earthenware, drawings, swords, daggers, and other arms.

In what looks like the triumph of hope over experience, there is even a wicker shield.

This show, while exotic in its own right, cannot be compared, however, to the massive and breathtaking ``Treasure Houses of Britain'' show, which the National Gallery exhibited to SRO crowds in 1985.

J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, noting that this is the first time in over 20 years that Turkish art has traveled to the United States, says, ``The artistic legacy of the Ottoman Empire is one of history's richest and most enduring.''

This exhibit of Turkish treasures would not have been possible until last year, according to Dr. Esin Atil, guest curator, because a Turkish law prohibiting the loan of objects to other countries was in effect until then.

The 210 works of art and artifacts in the exhibition will be on view at the National Gallery through May 17. Then they will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they will be exhibited from June 13 to Sept. 6; and finally they will go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for an exhibition running from Oct. 4 until Jan. 17, 1988.

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