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Historian Kiel spends half century tracing history of Ottoman art

Zaman Newspapaer, Turkey
August 27, 2008

Historian Kiel spends half century tracing history of Ottoman art

"Like Evliya Çelebi, I have traveled the entire Balkans throughout the last five decades. I have reported the heartbreaking situation of the Ottoman works to the authorities.
I was beaten up and even jailed because I photographed ruins and remnants during fieldwork. I am fighting against barbarity, and you should join me -- because if no measure is taken, in 10 years there will not even be a single artifact left in the Balkans."
These are remarks by Dutch art historian Dr. Michael Kiel -- not a Turkish citizen. Kiel has dedicated his life to researching Ottoman works and documents in the Balkans, and is an admirer of Ottoman architecture. Despite his advanced age, he frequently does fieldwork in the Balkans, at every opportunity he gets. He has been doing Balkans studies for 50 years, starting when he was 21, back in 1959. His focus on both archives as well as fieldwork has brought him success in his research.
Not a single sentence without seeing the pieces themselves
He became more successful because of a rule he established for himself: not to write even a single sentence about a work without actually seeing it. He occasionally criticizes European historians. He is competent in Ottoman Turkish, as well as German, English and French, and he also learned Serbian and Bulgarian for research purposes. He made it to college owing to his ambition, without ever actually attending secondary or high school classes.
His efforts paid off; he was offered privileged teaching posts at prestigious universities, including Harvard, Munich and Durham. He has retired from his post at Utrecht University, but is still doing research in Ottoman archives. He has authored 230 articles and 12 books during his 50-year career. At 70, Dr. Kiel is known as an impartial authority on the Ottoman artistic works in the Balkans.
Born in Amsterdam's Wormerveer village in 1938 to Jan, the captain of a small ship, and Cornelia, a housewife, Kiel attended the village primary school, where he first became acquainted with history. However, he eventually entered business because his grades were not high enough for him to continue with his education. At 14 years old, he went through hard times with his family: "I worked in a lot of jobs after school. We needed money. I even worked in wall making. During this work, I became familiar with architecture. I had a knack for this. This contributed a great deal to my works later. I also began reading books on art history. Everything came from curiosity and attention."
In later years, he was to combine his affinity with history and craftsmanship to become an authority in art history. He first encountered Ottoman works and artifacts in Yanya of Greece, where he traveled to work on the construction of a water canal and sewage system in 1959, when he was 21. There, he found the opportunity to compare European architecture with the Ottoman style: "I was impressed by the Ottoman works in Yanya. In the same year, I also had the opportunity to examine an Ottoman mosque in Belgrade. Then I realized that there were a lot of Ottoman works, including mosques, baths, tombs and water springs, in the entire Balkan region because the Ottoman state brought service and civilization to every place where it established domination. But these were subjected to destruction in the Balkan Wars. I headed to a place where there was an Ottoman work. I traveled Yugoslavia for six months. I went to Albania three times. I made trips to Macedonia many times. I took notes, photos and drew blueprints of the artifacts. That did not happen so easily. The police never left me alone. I was beaten up and even jailed. This was how my first fieldwork took place. I have never broken my connection with the Balkans since then. Back then, nobody was paying the area any attention. But I did."
Attended college in his 30s because of interest in history
He decided to get a college education when he realized that fieldwork would not suffice to gain expertise in art history. He made it to college without even having a high school education. "In the Netherlands, everybody who was able to speak three languages was admitted to the university placement exams. I spoke three languages and I used this opportunity. I studied and passed the exam. I studied art history at Amsterdam University. I received my doctorate at age 45 in 1983 from the same university. But I never ceased working. I traveled the entire Balkan region between 1970-76, thanks to the scholarships I got from different institutions. I also continued my works in the Ottoman archives in İstanbul, Ankara, Sofia, Athens and Thessaloniki. These archives are pretty important. I found very rare and precious documents there. I became a professor at Utrecht University in 1993. Back then, there was nobody else [concentrating] on the Ottoman works in the Balkans. I [performed research] on photo documentation as well as archival searches. Then I traveled from the Balkans through Iran by hitchhiking. During these travels, I also examined works in Anatolia."
'Ayverdi hosted me at his home in Fatih, İstanbul'
In 1973, he came across articles by Ekrem Hakkı Ayverdi on the Balkans. He wrote a letter to Ayverdi, expressing interest in formally meeting and working with him. Ayverdi replied positively. Kiel would later describe Ayverdi as a very bright young man. "We first met through a letter I sent to him. A few times, I made him transcribe the works I found. He helped me a lot, hosted me in his house in Fatih. He did a lot for me. Nobody else like him has ever come to this world. … If I had a supporter like Ayverdi, I would have been more prolific in my studies."
Artifacts still being destroyed
Sometimes he tastes the excitement and pleasure of encountering a new artifact during his fieldwork in the Balkans, but at other times he is saddened when encountering ruins. He is especially proud of taking part in the restorations of some big artifacts, like the Sarı Saltuk Tomb in Romana, the Gazi Evrenos Poorhouse in Albania and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Mosque in Bulgaria. He currently serves on the advisory board for the restorations sponsored by UNESCO in Bosnia. "I feel the Ottoman state in Sarajevo. Currently, restoration works are envisaged in 20 spots, including two mosques, one bath and a number of Ottoman houses. But I will never forget the moment Mostar Bridge collapsed. It was a horrible loss not only for the Turks but also for all of entire humanity."
EU membership will facilitate the protection of artifacts
He notes that Ottoman structures in the Balkans remain subject to a destruction campaign. In every international or local meeting he attends, he informs authorities on those structures that are in poor condition: "At every platform, I ask for attention and consideration for this situation, because some [sites] need urgent action without wasting time. Most of the madrasas have already been destroyed; mosques, bridges and others suffer from lack of attention. For instance, there should be 22 mosques in the Vidin of Bulgaria, according to the archives. However I was able to locate only four. Now there is only one. I noticed that 54 mosques were destroyed in Sofia in the last 100 years. The traces in the Ottoman Castle were removed and the castle was turned into a Bulgarian artifact. While I am impartial, Bulgarians call me Pan-Turk because I wrote about all this. There is an ongoing destruction because of natural reasons, lack of vision and barbarity and excessive nationalism. Measures should be taken immediately to stem this."
While some states, like Bulgaria, pay no attention to the Ottoman structures, Kiel recalls that Hungary and Croatia take good care of Ottoman architecture, adding that many Ottoman structures are still in use in some areas. But he stresses that Turkey needs to play a greater role in protecting these sites: "There is no interest in these structures in the Balkans. They have no idea of what they are losing here. We will lose most of these works in 10 years if no measures are taken."
Noting that the Greek government received substantial amounts of funds from the European Union by putting an emphasis on "multiculturalism" and repaired these works, Kiel also says: "If Turkey becomes an EU member, it will be easier to be attentive to these works. I am hopeful on that matter." And he makes another remark, one that should evoke a sense of shame in Turks: "I have realized, though, that there is not much of an interest in some historical artifacts in Turkey. People should inherently have this." The situation is actually no different than the situation in the Balkans, he says.
You can sense Kiel's affinity with all things Ottoman in his home in Gümüşsuyu, İstanbul. The house is adorned with plates and other pieces in Ottoman Turkish. He proudly mentions that his wife, Hedda, who works at Bonn University, has authored 40 articles on Ottoman civilization. His daughter must have been influenced by him as well, as she became a ceramic artist.

 

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