In my previous shorticle , I briefly mentioned how the organ didn’t have a prominent place in the Ottoman Empire as a secular instrument and how its use stayed within the Churches of Christian minorities, but I approached the topic from a modern perspective and focused on how this lack of an organ culture has affected modern day Turkey. This time, I wish to take you a few centuries back, to the late 16th century, and we will take a look at a very special organ, namely “the Sultan’s Organ”.
What makes “the Sultan’s Organ” special has a lot to do with how technologically advanced it was, and a lot more to do with how well-documented its journey from London to Constantinople is. On the other hand, what makes this special instrument important is neither of these things, but its political significance. The organ was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I as a gift to Sultan Mehmed III of the Ottoman Empire. By commissioning this gift, the Queen aimed to make the Ottoman Empire her ally against the Spanish, and merchants of London wanted to gain trading concession.
A “gift” of this nature was necessary to form diplomatic relations and gain allies, and the Queen herself knew just any gift wouldn’t suffice. It had to be worthy of a Sultan of a world superpower. So, she was rather picky with her commission. After much contemplation, she hired Thomas Dallam, who’s made a name for himself with the automated organs he built, which were technological wonders of his time, and commissioned him to create an organ intricate enough to impress the Sultan.
The end product was a clockwork organ around 3 meters high and 1.80m in width. The panel was painted wood that had birds that sang and fluttered when music was playing. The organ could play four to five songs on its own for six hours or could be played manually. It could tell the time through an animated head and showed the position of the sun as well as the phases of the moon. It was a clockwork organ way ahead of its time.
After a 6-month voyage, the organ, as well as Thomas Dallam, reached Constantinople. He first settled in the ambassador’s house in Galata to set up the instrument and then moved the installed instrument to Topkapı Palace.
There aren’t any documentation on how the organ was welcomed in the Ottoman sources, and all the knowledge we have on the instrument comes from Thomas Dallam’s journal which he kept during his visit to Constantinople. He explains in his journal that the instrument debuted in Topkapı Palace with at least four hundred people there to witness what sounds this magnificent instrument produced. The looks of the console arose great interest and the Sultan himself was very pleased with his gift, and amazed by the show, just like the audience.
The organ, although welcomed into the palace with great joy, was destroyed by Sultan Mehmed III’s son Sultan Ahmet I who claimed the throne 4 years after the organ was gifted. The very reason why it was celebrated by Sultan Mehmed III became the reason it was destroyed, as for Sultan Ahmet, recreating images was idolatrous. The Sultan’s Organ played a big role in diplomatic relations between the Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire and fortunately its effects lasted longer than the organ itself.
Linhart Wood, Jennifer. Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, University of Pennsylvania Press, Volume 15, Number 4, Fall 2015, pp. 81-105
Dallam, Thomas. Trans. John Mole, The Sultan’s Organ: London to Constantinople in 1599 and Adventures on the Way, Fortune, 2012