Prof.Dr. İlber Ortaylı

“Managing Topkapı Museum is extremely difficult,” says renowned historian and museum director, Prof. Dr. İlber Ortaylı. “It's a great responsibility, but I must confess that it is also a very great honor.”

The telephone never stops ringing, the string of visitors is neverending... Most important of all, he is loved and respected. That a green, young student who has chosen to major in history comes to the museum just to meet him in person because he has seen him on TV and been impressed says a lot already. The new generation have come to appreciate history and take an interest in it thanks to him. If history has come down off its dusty shelves and become something to talk about and discuss, this is due in no short measure to Prof. Dr. İlber Ortaylı.
As he told us about the museum's rich collection and the new discoveries we knew nothing about, Prof. Dr. Ortaylı also shared with us some concerns. Pointing out that a new group of people curious about history was growing up in Turkey, he explained what needs to be done to better understand and give meaning to history and the past.

You lament the fact that there are no Latin and Greek specialists in Turkey. Is this what lies at the root of our failure to assimilate western culture completely?
The Islamic Cultural Circle of which we are a member reached its highest level of achievement by absorbing and reinterpreting Greek and Roman culture. It is therefore essential for us to know Latin. We are Ottomans, we conquered this land, but before that this was the Byzantine Empire. We need to examine closely the empire that preceded us and to know Greek well in order to make sense of the Greek texts. We have the richest Greek and Roman ruins here in Turkey, but we will always be handicapped in understanding them unless we know Latin and Greek. You can be good at archaeology but lacking in philology. That is why Ataturk was such a great man. We will identify what is universal in human culture, he said, and then we will follow suit.  I don't think modern Turkey quite comprehends this. We trained good doctors, engineers and managers during our 80-100 year period of reform, we modernized our army, but we are still way behind when it comes to the fundamental western disciplines of philosophy and philology.

What is the level of interest in history and the study of history in Turkey today?
The younger generation is quite open-minded about history now. I see doctoral dissertations on Russian history. There is a sizable group teaching Spanish and examining that history. Some people are working on Persian and Arabic.

And while their numbers
are small, some Turkish Byzantinists are even starting to emerge. We couldn't have imagined such a thing in my day.

This is a sign of change, of course. A culture of studying history is slowly developing. But people naturally will not read every work that comes out. I know this from my own case; they don't read my monographs. The Ottoman Municipality, Ottoman Family Law and so forth... they are hard reading. But they do read some things and you have to write accordingly.

Although Topkapı Museum is a modest museum, it has very rare collections. Could you tell us something about them?
Our museum is indeed very rich in terms of its collection. The 12,000-piece Chinese porcelain collection, for example, is the envy of the museums
of China. We also have a 17,000-piece collection of manuscripts, rare paintings, Quranic commentaries and miniatures. What's more, there are numerous works in Latin, Greek, Hungarian and the Slavic languages in addition to those in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. There is also a non-trivial collection of Saxony porcelain. The museum is packed with diplomatic gifts. Modest but extraordinarily beautiful.

The fame and attraction of Topkapı is endless. Being the director of Topkapı Museum is difficult and exhausting. It is a great responsibility but, at the same time, I have to admit that it is truly a great honor.

What misconceptions do we Turks have about Topkapı Museum?
A lot! One writer talks about the ghost of Topkapı. Another is unable to distinguish between Italian majolica and Iznik ceramics. Unfounded rumors circulate to the effect that things have gone missing.

Among the things you discovered at Topkapı, was there any one thing that amazed you the most?
Of course! How could there not be? There are some very interesting documents on Algeria in the archives, for example. Algeria was an autonomous principality. You assume it was just over there, on its own. But no, its interior affairs spilled over here and decisions were taken here in Istanbul. It's astonishing... Another day you discover an unexpected architectural element or feature. There is so much yet to be discovered.

Interest in museums has grown with the growth of tourism. This is encouraging on the one hand but worrying on the other, is it not, because of the increased risk of damage to the artifacts?
Museums today are overburdened. Museums all over the world have started to panic. The development of tourism has impelled museum officials to come up with new solutions both for security and for protecting the artifacts. The churches of the Kremlin, for example, are saying that fewer people have to come in or else the frescoes are going to be destroyed by their breathing. Scientific studies have shown that in any case. So what about the situation with the churches of Cappadocia? They are going to suffer damage from human breathing if thousands of people go in and out every day. There are various ways of preventing this. Consequently, the whole world has now begun to wrack their brains to come up with way of protecting these historical monuments from human beings. I have no objection to large numbers of visitors, but of course there is benefit to be had in introducing some regulations and restrictions.

You have written a lot of books and are very prolific. Are you working on any new projects?
I have several projects on which I'm working, things I have had to start from scratch and develop. I also have a couple smaller projects. When I complete them, I think it will be time for me to leave the museum. I'm getting to that age now...