Zoom Into Osman Hamdi Bey's 'The Tortoise Trainer'

What do these tortoises mean? Take a tour of this late-Ottoman masterpiece from the Pera Museum collection and find out

By Google Arts & Culture

The Ottoman Empire was nearly 600 years old when Osman Hamdi Bey was born in 1842. During his life it gained the reputation as 'The Sick Man of Europe', an empire in terminal decline as it struggled to administer its economy, military, and civil society.

Working as a civil servant, intellectual, and painter, Osman Hamdi's position within the administration allowed him to make unusually accurate observations.

The Tortoise Trainer, made in 1906, was not understood or exhibited much at the time. But in later years it came to be seen as a satire of the repeated, late, and ultimately failed attempts to reform the empire.

The painting shows an anachronistic, fictional scene of a Sufi dervish - recognisable by his robes and hat - attempting to train tortoises within the walls of the Green Mosque of Bursa.

However, the tortoises at his feet seem more interested in munching lettuce.

Osman Hamdi was known for his naturalistic, detailed paintings. While the scene is fictional, he draws on actual traditional dress. He depicts the dervish carrying a ney flute in one hand, and wearing a naqareh drum slung over his back.

In fact, the calm, quiet temperament of the dervish, and the shell-like drum on his back, seem to suggest that he himself is tortoise-like.

The ridiculousness of the scene makes it easy to see it as a satire. But what is it suggesting? It's notable that the dervish is attempting, and failing, to use music, a human art, to train the tortoises…

… and above his head is a decorative tiled panel. Translated, the Arabic text says, "The healing of the hearts is meeting with the beloved". Is Hamdi suggesting that arts and culture alone can't solve the empire's problems, that force is needed?

The Tortoise Trainer (1906) by Osman Hamdi BeyPera Museum

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