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The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin

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Editorial Review

hen Diplomatic Gifts Were a Weighty Matter

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

In his now-infamous gift exchange with the prime minister of England, President Obama presented Gordon Brown with a boxed set of DVDs. Queen Elizabeth II didn't fare much better, scoring an iPod from the president, albeit one loaded with show tunes and accompanied by a rare book signed by composer Richard Rodgers.

My, how times have changed.

By way of comparison, take a look at some of the 16th- and 17th-century swag on view in "The Tsars and the East: Gifts From Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Golden scepters. Luxurious textiles and drinking vessels. Helmets, shields and horse trappings sparkling with gemstones. They are, for the most part, diplomatic gifts, presented to the Russian tsars by emissaries of the Ottoman sultans of Turkey and the Persian shahs of Iran. Few have been seen outside Russia. All are, in the words of Massumeh Farhad, the museum's chief curator and its curator of Islamic art, designed for "maximum visual impact."

That's putting it mildly.

Meant to grab the attention of the recipient and wow the audiences before whom these mainly ceremonial objects would have been paraded, the 65 artifacts still dazzle modern eyes. At times, it's hard to know where to look.

It might be helpful to start with three pairs of objects in particular: two helmets, two shields and two maces. One of each pair is from Iran and one from Turkey. They're not displayed side by side -- a separate gallery is devoted to Persian gifts, another to the Ottoman -- so you'll need to go back and forth. But it's worth it, as a way of teasing out the stylistic differences that characterize the work of the Turkish artisans and their Iranian counterparts.

Take the helmets. The Iranian version is far from simple, featuring a fully contoured face mask that would have been hinged to flip up and out of the way. With its generic, up-turned mustache and fierce expression, it's the 16th-century equivalent of Michael Myers's mask from the "Halloween" movies.

Now look at the one from Turkey, made in the late 16th or early 17th century. No mask here, but this one has a lot more detail: carvings, gold inlay instead of gilding, touches of silver and silk, and an ornamental extension rising up from the visor like an abstract stop sign.

A mace, or ceremonial staff, from Turkey is similarly in-your-face. Its garnet-, emerald- and ruby-encrusted head is almost a parody of a monarch's power-tripping regalia. Who wouldn't respect someone holding this thing?

But check out the gift from Iran. Like the Turkish model, this mace is also gold, but it doesn't need gems to throw its weight around. Its lines are cleaner and more uncluttered, almost closer to what we think of as modern design. If the Ottoman mace is "over the top," to use Farhad's term, this one is just under it.

Starting to see a pattern? It's echoed again in the shields, both of which feature a similar motif of undulating lines, radiating from a central point. But while each has been decorated with gemstones (rubies, turquoise and, in the case of the Persian shield, pearls), there's a kind of restraint to their use on the Persian model.

You'll find the subtle but significant differences again and again. Sometimes on a single object, as in the case of a ceremonial dagger and sheath, the steel of which was forged in Iran, with the ornate handle and sheath of nephrite, gold, diamonds, rubies and enamel coming from Turkey.

Most everything is remarkably well preserved, having been little used. A notable exception is the Turkish chain-mail shirt once owned by Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich (1596-1645) and worn by his son during Russia's wars with Poland and Sweden. It's a fine piece of craftsmanship, but in its slightly battle-worn condition, it won't grab you from across the room.

Maybe DVDs and an iPod are apt symbolic gifts between world leaders in a recession, especially from an ostensibly ethics-obsessed president. But the eye candy in "The Tsars and the East" is a guilty pleasure, a reminder of what one might call the Golden Age of Lobbying.