The Ottoman Vase of Ester / The History of Romania in One Object

Photo 1: The Ottoman vase of Ester

This beautiful artifact comes from an area of ​​great interest from an archaeological point of view, namely the medieval settlement of Ester, situated near the modern commune of Târgușor in the Gorges of Dobrogea (Eastern Romania). Back in the day, the city stood on the main road of the province and was also known as Ester Abad - the City of Gardens.

Photo 2: The presumed location of Ester on the map of Dobrogea

The vessel, a wonderful, skillfully made vase dating back to the 18th century, was discovered in 1999 in the ruins of a house which had burnt down. It was produced in one of the ceramic workshops of the great economic center of Kutahya, a city in Western Anatolia, Turkey. The vase has a floral decoration, a watery blue background on its entire surface, as well as thick black outlines.

Photo 3-5: The Ottoman vase of Ester, detalis

At its size (12 inches high with walls of around 0.2 inches in thickness), the vase, ornated with specific patterns, may have been one of the small objects created in the workshops of Kutahya. Although it is fragmentary and damaged by fire, the piece has managed to retain its shape and decoration thanks to the quality of the kaolin, of the coloring substances and of the lead enamel which were used at its production. It is possible that, due to the rudimentary floral design executed with thick black lines and watery blue color (drained from the contours it was supposed to fill), the vase may have been produced in the Kutahya style by other workshops, either in the Balkans or somewhere else in the Ottoman Empire.

Photo 6-7: Examples of ceramic objects created in Kutahya

Photo 8: The present city of Kutahya in Turkey

The objects produced in the Kutahya workshops differ according to the quality of the kaolin used, which came from various mining areas, the substances employed to make the paste, and the decorative patterns and colors applied. While in other great manufacturing centers like Iznik there were mandatory rules and patterns to be followed in making dishes or decorative plates, at Kutahya such barriers did not exist.

Ester, the place where the vessel was discovered, is a long-lost city, a mysterious settlement of the Middle Ages often mentioned in historical sources, which for decades has stirred the archaeologists’ imagination.

Photo 9: Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Photo 10: Voivode Petru Rareș. Votive painting at Moldovița Monastery. Photo by Marius Burlan (pinterest)

The first written mention of it dates from around 1502, but much more concrete information comes from 1538 when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent passed through Dobrogea on his way to Moldova, where he wanted to punish the voivode Petru Rareș who ruled between January 1527 – September 1538 and February 1541 – September 1546. The sultan's military diary mentions that he stopped at Ester Abad, after initially passing through places like Carasu (now Medgidia), Bulbul (now Ciocârlia) or Kara Muratlî (now Kogălniceanu).

Photo 11: Evlya Celebi

However, a rich description of Ester came from the famous Turkish geographer Evlya Celebi, who first passed through the city in 1652, on his way from Babadag to Istanbul, and then in 1657 in the opposite direction, travelling to Northern Europe. In his Book of Travels, Celebi writes that the already a century-old Ester was a very important city in Dobrogea yet still subordinated to the administrative capital of Babadag. Most notably, the famous writer mentions that it was inhabited almost exclusively by Christians, "with many gardens and vineyards, inns, pubs, hundreds of shops and many Christian churches." Celebi believed that it had about 1500 beautiful buildings, which means that it may have been an intensely populated settlement for those times.

The Muslims who lived in the city were part of the Ottoman administrative or military apparatus. The fact that a Capitan of Janissaries had his headquarters in Ester is certain. It is possible that the Ottoman vase may have belonged to the him, adorning a room in his house. Of course, the object may as well have belonged to any other wealthy inhabitant of the city, Muslim or Christian.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the city appears in the writings of some Western travelers who speak of the city of Vistuar or Wister, from the Visterna river flowing nearby.

But by this time Ester's glory had faded. At the end of the 18th century, Dobrogea became a battlefield of the Russo-Turkish wars. During this time, the city is referred to as being "ruined and desolate". It had been deserted by its inhabitants, who went looking for quieter, more secure places, and it slowly sank into oblivion. It is possible that the vase survived those times of destruction and death.

Fortunately, thanks to new archaeological discoveries, the third millennium has brought Ester back on the map of the cities of Dobrogea and with it amazing objects like this beautiful Ottoman vase.

Text by historians Aurel Mototolea and Cristian Cealera (with additional information from Niculina Dinu, Ceramică otomană descoperită în Dobrogea [Ottoman Ceramics Discovered in Dobrogea], Pontica, pp. 323-345, 2009). Video presentation by curator Andreea Andrei. Film concept by Cristian Cealera and Constantin Țițineanu. A project developed together with the Museum of National History and Archaeology in Constanța.

The building of the Museum of National History and Archaeology

You can't say you have visited Constanta if you didn't stop, for an hour at least, at the Museum of National History and Archaeology, the monumental building located in the Ovidiu/Ovid Square. Here, in the imposing construction erected exactly a century ago (in 1921) one can easily find evidence of a fascinating history, vestiges that help reconstruct the stories of the millennial city which in the Ancient times used to be called Tomis.

From 1921 until 1977, the building was home to the City Hall and, in the interwar period, was known as the Communal Palace, as Constanţa was at that time an urban commune, municipality and county seat. The edifice became the museum's headquarters on December 25, 1977, with ancient artifacts finally finding their well-deserved home, after endless pilgrimages through various other locations.

Today, the Museum of National History and Archaeology is visited by tens of thousands of tourists from around the world, eager to learn the stories of a settlement two and a half millennia old. A city that was founded and developed by the Greeks of Miletus, which flourished under Roman and Roman-Byzantine rule, survived the troubled times of the Middle Ages and continued to exist during Ottoman rule in Dobrogea, Romania’s south-eastern historical province. Today's Constanţa tells us both the stories of the ancient Tomis, and of a stylish city that became part of the modern Romanian state in 1878.

However, treasures of the region are also hosted by regional museums such as Histria, Adamclisi or Capidava, all administered by the History Museum in Constanța. This project highlights six exquisite objects which tell the fascinating story of Dobrogea.

Our online series THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, developed in partnership with some of the most important history museums in the country, evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from artifacts or vestiges with powerful symbolic, representative value.

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