At the turn of the sixteenth century, a young boy, the son of a Greek Christian sailor from Parga, was forcibly taken from his home, sold to a widow in Manisa who educated the intelligent child and taught him the violin, an instrument he learned to play “to perfection”. Later, he would become the property of a young prince who was born the very same week as himself, a youth who would become Sultan Süleyman I. Such were some of the tales of origins that were told by and about this intriguing Muslim convert to Christian ambassadors who wrote with fascination about the powerful, trusted official of the sultan, İbrahim Paşa (1493/4?–1536).

To read the reports of those Christians, İbrahim Paşa never lost his interest in the Christian world that vied with the Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterranean at this period. They noted optimistically the tastes of the sultan’s wily grand vizier for luxury art and design from the West and of friendships cultivated with Christian advisors.

After the 1526 Ottoman victory over the Kingdom of Hungary, led by its young king, Lajos II (1506-26), at the Battle of Mohács, in which İbrahim Paşa had played a leading role, these same Christian commentators rarely failed to note the erection just opposite the grand vizier’s palace in the Atmeydanı, formerly Constantine’s Hippodrome, of a new set of monuments, a remarkable cluster of statues.

Figure 1. A monument of three human figures is visible to the left of the Obelisk. After Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Procession of Sultan Süleyman through the Atmeidan from the frieze Ces Moeurs et fachons de faire de Turcz, 1553, Woodcut, 35.2 x 87.3 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art (US), Public Domain.

Christian contemporaries described the unusual additions at the Atmeydanı in text and image as variously one, two or three figures — male and/or female, young and/or old, naked and/or clothed, sometimes but not always described as covered in iron chains, in a group composition and/or as independent figures — perhaps Pallas Athena, Venus, Apollo, but, most regularly, as the Roman demi-god, Hercules. A print after the Flemish artist and visitor to the Porte, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, depicted a magnificent procession of the sultan from the Atmeydanı to Ayasofya, and appeared to show a group composition of male and female figures, at least one of which, the woman, appears to be naked. (Fig 1) Ottoman contemporaries saw sculptures that they could not easily described, they were simply ‘remarkable’. How could this monument that was before their very eyes engendered such different interpretations?

These statues numbered among the myriad objects that passed through new hands as a result of these conflicts of the age, and which, in their new locations, generated new emotional and political reactions. What becomes clear is that precisely what the newly displaced statues were depended very much on who was looking, what meanings they ascribed to them, and what emotions this identification provoked in them.

For many in the West, the attribution of Hercules was logical given the works’ arrival from Buda. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, Hunyadi Mátyás(Corvin), as King of Hungary (1458-1490), had steadily embellished the city of Buda with an array of marble and bronze statues. Mátyás’ favoured identity with Roman Hercules had been fostered by Italian and Dalmatian humanists, artists and craftsmen who were creating the kingdom’s significant cultural program from the ideas and models they knew from their homelands. Hercules had thus been displaced from his Roman cultural origins to the royal palaces of Hungary. But the king’s depictions of the classical hero also made another kind of displacement, one through time, for his representation of a Roman mythological figure appears to be the first since antiquity.

What possible meaning could a Roman figure such as Hercules have in the Ottoman context, into which İbrahim Paşa had now inserted him? The grand vizier’s contemporary, >Kemalpaşazâde (1468-1536), considered that the sculptures had been erected:

  • for the sake of learned and interested people, and their sight served as a reminder to philosophers. […]
  • They will not forget this campaign
  • These sculptures, while standing, remind us of them.
  • How wonderful that these silent sculptures
  • Even without words describe miracles!

The Hippodrome had long served as a space that housed trophies from antiquity. This function remained unchanged by the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. But İbrahim Paşa was the first to add to this historical promenade of kings and sultans.

Certainly, the Battle of Mohács had proved a decisive moment that signalled Ottoman military superiority in the long-running conflict that wrought the Mediterranean at this period. Yet what did it mean for the Paş>a to erect figurative images contrary to the Islamic tradition? Criticism of the grand vizier’s addition to the Atmeydanı brought swift retribution, as Ottoman sources recounted. As the chroniclerİbrahim Peçevi (1572-1650)recounted, in 1532 Ramazan of Trabzon (?-1532), a poet better known by his pen name Figânî,had composed a couplet about the paşa’s statues: ‘Two Abrahams came into this church called the world; one destroyed icons, the other erected them.’ The circulation of Figânî’s verses accusing İbrahim Paşa of idolatry brought a prompt response; the poet was arrested, before being exhibited on a mule and strangled at the city’s fish market in Eminönü.

However, for other Ottoman and Christian chroniclers writing after these events, the statues were also connected to İbrahim Paşa’s own death. In March 1536, the Empire’s most powerful grand vizier was strangled and buried in an unmarked grave upon the Sultan’s orders. While no one suggested that the statues caused İbrahim Paşa’s own death, unlike that of Figânî, the arrival of the sculptures became part of the unwise paşa’s actions and symbolic of an over-weaning ambition that foretold hisfate in Ottoman and Christian narratives written after the period.

A visit to the Atmeydanı today still bears memory of İbrahim Paşa’s glory days; his palace remains as the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. However, the paşa’s bronze symbol of ambition — perhaps glorifying himself, perhaps his master, perhaps the empire, and the potential of them all to dominate the early modern Mediterranean — is no longer. To Christian onlookers, Hercules at the Hippodrome had signalled Christian defeat and Ottoman triumph, but thepaşa’s act of displacement had in the end provoked equally hostile responses among local viewers at the Porte.

However, the Ottomans had brought back more than these statues from their victory at Buda in 1526, including a young boy from Viganj in southern Dalmatia captured, converted and trained, like the grand vizier before him, as a janissary. The boy would go on to become a trusted paşa to Sultan Selim II, known as Piyale Paşa (c 1515-78). He would wage war on his master’s behalf across the Mediterranean, from which he too would bring back the spoils of war. But Piyale Paşa had learned at least one of the lessons of İbrahim Paşa’s example: reputedly he chose not statues but bronze bells as his trophies, not to honour himself at the empire’s heart but to honour his faith in the mosque he created, Piyale Paşa Camii, where the bells were melted down to form bronze window frames.

The story of these objects, the stories and emotions attached to them, and the powerful men who wanted to control them and through them, form part of repeated cycles of displacement across the Mediterranean at this period and in the centuries to come.*


Susan Broomhall is Professor of History at The University of Western Australia. Her research explores women and gender; emotions; science, technologies, and knowledge practices; material culture; cultural contact and global encounters; and the heritage of the early modern world.

* This blog stems from a much expanded and fully-referenced version essay that will be forthcoming shortly.