Flower power

Visual art - Richard Cork is seduced by the visual pleasures of the Ottoman courts

Across a thousand-year era, from 600 to 1600, the Royal Academy's "Turks" show tracks the restless, aggressive, ambitious and resourceful vitality of peoples from central Asia to the Balkans. The survey reaches a resplendent climax in the Ottoman empire, focused above all on treasures from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, but it begins with the epic emptiness of the steppe-lands. From the darkness, an elemental stone statue rises up clutching a cup associated with funeral rites. The vessel suggests he once stood guard over a grave, marking the death of an important figure in the early empire that flourished in western Eurasia.

The Chinese dismissed the Turks as barbarians, but many of the oldest exhibits are strikingly oriental in style. The fragments of wall paintings, recovered from Buddhist temples in caves hollowed out of sandstone outcrops, are alive with the gentle lyricism of Chinese art. However, a host of other influences impacted on the work on display. Exposed to the diverse cultural objects travelling along the Silk Road between China and the west, the makers of these wall paintings celebrate plump female deities holding bowls of flowers or making music. And just as we feel tempted to conclude that everything is harmonious, demons erupt from stone carvings or miraculously preserved ink drawings.

The Great Seljuks of Iran established themselves, after the decisive Battle of Dandanqan in 1040, as "sultans of orthodox (Sunni) Islam". For all their military prowess, they encouraged a flowering of the arts. Double-headed creatures abound, and eagles mingle with sphinxes in a world where the divisions between reality and fantasy are constantly dissolving. One of the most arresting exhibits is a bronze incense burner in the shape of a feline yet ferocious animal ready to devour the infidel. When smoke poured out of this burner, it must have terrified unsuspecting worshippers. The scientific skill needed to construct mosques and schools is also reflected in some of the illuminated manuscripts. Here, hydraulic and pneumatic devices are delineated with exactitude long before Leonardo da Vinci.

Until the 14th century, the makers of these exhibits are anonymous. Then an outstanding group of paintings is attributed to an artist nicknamed Muhammad of the Black Pen. A master of ink and gouache, he was obsessed by the wandering tribes who lived in the steppes. On one sheet of paper, he depicted a scene with deftly observed horses munching food while emaciated dogs bite each other and a nomad crouches anxiously by a fire. Muhammad also indulged in fantasy, and his gesticulating demons are defined with such conviction that they appear as real as the scenes drawn from everyday life.

The threat of death is never far away. Whether friend or foe, Muhammad's human figures seem defensive, eyeing one another with well-founded wariness. Warfare abounded, and after Genghis Khan's death, Timur came to power by defeating all his many rivals in central Asia. His military success is lauded in a series of exquisite miniatures painted during the summer of 1436. They show Timur besieging a castle, taking Baghdad and presiding over a feast after capturing Delhi. His empire was immense, yet he and his successors knew how to develop a coherent, homogeneous culture.

Artists and writers moved from the diverse regions under Timur's control and converged for patronage on Samarkand. There, intricate artefacts were produced with astonishing skill. Jade, textiles, metal and ceramics were all fashioned into objects proclaiming the enlightened sup-remacy of the Timurid courts.

So it comes as a shock to discover, dating from 1480, a frankly Venetian portrait of Mehmed II, the Ottoman ruler who had captured Constantinople almost 30 years earlier. Painted by Gentile Bellini, who had been sent from Venice by the doge, it identifies Mehmed as "Conqueror of the World". Bellini portrayed the sultan as a dignified sage, and Mehmed does look irreproachably gentle in a small painting attributed to Shiblizade Ahmed, in which he holds up a rose in his bejewelled fingers and sniffs its petals. Even so, the brutal oppression underpinning Mehmed's power is implied by his silk satin kaftan, which turns out to be lined with armour.

When Suleyman became ruler in 1520, he inherited a swathe of subjugated territories. During his long reign, art and architecture arrived at a mature Ottoman style. Buildings, textiles, ceramics and books were all embellished with decorations inspired by serrated leaves as well as lotuses and peonies. On Suleyman's sword, a dragon and phoenix can be detected fighting amid foliage and flowers, but they are almost engulfed in the richness of the natural world, and a nearby dagger carved from rock crystal looks no more threatening than the hair of the Prophet Muhammad preserved in an elaborate reliquary. When images of battle do appear, they are confined within the pages of scholarly histories outlining the "admirable conquests" of the Ottomans.

The emphasis is on the pleasures of the court. A pair of doors inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell were made for the pavilion of Sultan Murad III in the palace's harem. They were designed by Sinan, who also created an outstanding mosque complex for Suleyman. Sinan knew how to foster ornamental splendour within a framework of classical rigour. The outcome is, quite simply, irresistible.

"Turks" is at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1 (020 7300 8000) until 12 April

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, An election riven with contradictions