Traveling about in Istanbul, I finally made it to Sulanhamet and then the Topkapi Palace.
Now, while I hate to skip over a description of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, you can find descriptions and pictures of these buildings anywhere. I need to speak not on the sightseeing experience, but one room I saw in the innermost courtyard of the Topkapi Palace: the armory.
The group I was with saw swords that were jeweled along the hilt with stones in every imaginable color. We saw curved swords, impossibly sharp daggers, sheathes that sparkled with gold inlay even under the harsh museum lights. We saw guns over four feet long and strung up behind glass. There were great-swords with hilts over a foot wide and blades at least six feet long. The artistic peak at the top of the helmets never ceased to amaze and armor made for horses lay flat on black velvet, the eye sockets blindly staring.
It was breathtaking. It was jaw dropping. It was violence done up in finery.
You forget (or you make yourself forget) that each of these weapons was a weapon. It’s purpose was never to sit in a museum to but to stain itself with blood or gun powder and always to kill. Even the ceremonial weapons were not innocent because ceremonial weapons exist to perpetuate and glorify violence and war.
I do not seek to make judgments on Turkey’s past or present. But upon exiting the museum, the people I was with began talking about their “weapon of choice” still lost in the fantasy of war heroics and the glory bestowed upon warriors. If it registered with them that these are dangerous objects, I couldn’t tell. The group was irreverent toward the history we saw but burned with desire and laughed and joked about what they could do with their weapon of choice. They chose their swords and their daggers and I had to struggle not to choose with them.
I understand the temptation to equate heroics with violence and I understand that our world showers glory upon the heroism of battle. I’m a Lord of the Rings fan, I know how breathtaking and appealing it can be to imagine yourself as the hero wielding a sword, or a bow or an ax. But this temptation is dangerous and perpetuates the myth of glorious warfare and masculinity on the battlefield.
The exhibit needed to address the wars these weapons were used in. We needed more than a small placard telling us the type of sword and the century. We needed to be turned away from our fantasies with the bloody facts of what war really is.
Museums should value history over violence. Museums should take responsibility to educate its patrons that though violence and history have gone hand in hand, this does not need to be the future and it should be no one’s fantasy.