Hasan Mert Kaya is a renowned historian, curator and expert on Islamic art and heritage. Passionate about conservation, restoration and preserving the past for future generations, Hasan is committed to raising the profile of the rich history and heritage of Islamic civilizations.
We talk to Hasan about heritage, history, identity and the future of Islamic art and culture.
You are a well-known journalist, history & urban researcher and museum expert, can you share your career journey with us?
My undergraduate background is a bit of a mess. I studied European Union, Economics, International Relations, and TV Journalism at different universities. However, I can say that I found my area of interest during my graduate years. I was born and raised in one of the historical districts of Istanbul. That could partly explain why I was so interested in history and archeology. I listened to my heart for my master's and completed my degree in Museum Specialization. In 2008, I worked with late science historian Prof. Fuat Sezgin in the establishment of the Istanbul Museum of Islamic Science and Technology. The project’s architect was Muharrem Hilmi Şenalp, who has created many qualified works outside Turkey. I then worked with Hilmi Bey on the Ottoman Archives Museum project.
In the meantime, I worked as a history editor and an editor-in-chief (each for five years) for Skylife and Skylife Business, the in-flight publications of Turkish Airlines. I am still the editor-in-chief of Al Dana magazines published in Qatar, and Dergi 1868 published in Turkey. In 2013, I organized a digital map exhibition in Istanbul and Ankara on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the famous Ottoman navigator and cartographer Piri Reis, drawing the Map of America. It was the largest digital map exhibition ever held.
In 2016, I held six different exhibitions, four of which were related to Islamic arts, in Washington, D.C, Maryland, U.S. After the exhibition on Thomas Allom’s Istanbul engravings at London Somerset House in 2017, I did content studies for different museums in Istanbul and Ankara in 2018 and 2020. Last year, I curated the exhibition The Sacred Way, Coverings of the Kaaba from the Ottomans to the Present and Memories of Hajj at the Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. This exhibition can still be visited virtually at www.mukaddesyol.com. In the field of communication, I have 10 prestige books, in the process of publishing, on prominent restoration projects, for which I am the editor-in-chief. I also have a book titled 100 Coins of Istanbul, of which I am the author.
Islamic history is an area of expertise for you, why do you feel a connection to this especially?
Islamic history is more than just a specialty for me; it is a passion and an integral part of my life. I breathe with it and go on a journey into history every night. I owe this to the early Islamic historians and travelers. Tabari, Gregory Ebu'l Faraj, Ibn Bibi, al-Kalanissi, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Jubair, Ibn Fadlan, El-Belazuri, Evliya Çelebi, and many others. As a child, I was shown the family tree, preserved like a precious heirloom and religiously recorded by the family for centuries, and learned that my ancestry comes from Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Abdullah ibn al-Abbas, one of the leaders of the Abbasid revolution against the Umayyads. I learned, with a sense of curiosity and interest, that my grandfathers had the right to wrap black turbans and that they had some privileges from the state during the Ottoman period. I have confirmed these from different sources and archives once I grew up. This sense of closeness evoked a great sense of curiosity and a love for research in me. Working as the editor and editor-in-chief of an airline magazine has been a great opportunity for me. I saw the places mentioned in history books and had the chance to do comparative readings in the libraries of Europe and the U.S. All this has led me to study the history of Islam, especially early & medieval Islam, with inexhaustible curiosity.
You are interested in cultural heritage, conservation and restoration. Why is preserving the past important for you?
I believe that both our verbal and tangible cultural heritage are our title deeds in the geography we belong to. For years, I have been to Andalusia every chance I get. How strong would our bond be without the Alhambra, Albaicin and other Islamic period monuments in Granada today? The Great Mosque in Cordoba, Medina al Zehra, founded by Abdurrahman ibn Muawiyah, the Eagle of Quraysh, traces of Islamic culture in Seville and Toledo connect us to Andalusia and create a memory for us. This is very important. Therefore, the past has not passed and tradition is our future. The important thing is to bring the values of the past together with the needs and demands of today. Our cultural heritage makes us who we are, creates our identity and memory. This awareness of cultural heritage determines our view of life and things. It is our most important duty and burden to raise awareness by making future generations love these values.
Can you share some heritage projects you have worked on?
I was involved in the restoration processes of Turkey's most important artworks, and I compiled them all in book form. Suleymaniye Mosque was an incredible experience that lasted for seven years, and it felt like another university I finished. Ortaköy Büyük Mecidiye Mosque as one of the most iconic works in Istanbul's cityscape, Piyale Paşa Mosque as one of the last works of Mimar Sinan, Beşiktaş Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque, Kastamonu Kadı Nasrullah Mosque, Yenikapı Mevlevi Lodge, Okçular Lodge, and Bebek as one of the most beautiful and largest mansions of the Bosphorus. I took part in the restoration projects of the Egyptian Consulate and Presidency Tarabya Huber Mansion. Moreover, I worked in the restoration of the tomb and mausoleum of Abu Ayyub al Ansari, one of the most important historical sites in Istanbul, where Ottoman sultans had their ceremonies of enthronement with swords. Abu Ayyub al Ansari came to Istanbul with the first Islamic army besieging the city during the Umayyad period and died here. Therefore, it was very exciting for me to be involved in this project, which is directly related to the early Islamic history in Istanbul. We will publish this work in a few months as a 1,000-page book, including 30 documents that will be published for the first time. We are happy and excited to be part of the team and to follow and publish the recently initiated restoration and conservation process of Hagia Sophia, which was reopened as a mosque in 2022. This will be a huge experience for us.
You are an expert in numismatics and have a collection of coins, what can coins tell us about history and society more widely?
Coins are living examples of our past and, not unlike architectural works, they are the proof of how we belong to this geography, like a title deed. Coins have never been purely an element of economic value. It has become a medium to express cultures, beliefs, power, war, peace, unity, separation, patience, resistance, art, and aesthetics. Ancient coins provide continuous and definitive evidence for many scientific fields such as history, culture, sociology, archaeology, architecture, maritime, warfare, and art history.
First Islamic Coin Dinar
Coins minted in a city provide important and solid information about the economic situation of that city as well as its architectural and cultural structure. The Anatolian land, where coins were invented, always emphasized grandeur, majesty, and power until it was introduced with the Islamic coin tradition. Although the Anatolian-Islamic coin tradition continues the power and grandeur of these lands, it also brought tolerance, morality, and compassion. The Islamic coin tradition, founded by the Umayyads and diversified with the Abbasids, was also preserved and enriched by Islamic states for centuries. Coins have been small in size but extremely large in meaning, and serve as valuable examples of Islamic design and cultural aesthetics, with different writing styles, beautiful motifs, and various stacking styles. In the Islamic Coin Tradition, coin is a tool for promoting good morality and solidarity!
Crusader Coin Minted
What are some of the most interesting coins in your collection?
My collection is registered at the Istanbul Archeology Museum. All the coins in this collection are valuable to me because they are witnesses of their period. However, the earliest examples of Arabic-Sassanid, Arabic-Byzantine, Umayyad, Abbasid, and Andalusian coins are especially meaningful to me. There are important names that we all know who changed the course of Islamic history or have a special place in our hearts and have coins minted in their name such as Ömer ibn Abdulaziz, Tarık ibn Ziyad, Abdurrahman ibn Muaviye, Salahaddin Eyyubi, Nur ad-Din Zengi, Sultan Kilij Arslan IV, and Mehmed the Conqueror. I think the most sophisticated part of collecting is to make publications about them. Since a serious collector examines coins as well as books, he becomes a part of history and interprets a concrete finding. It could be a different phrase from the coin, or an unknown new mint or coin unit. Islamic coins, especially compared to ancient Greek and Roman examples, contain a lot of information that is still undeciphered.
What is the connection of the coin collection to Islamic history?
Many esteemed personalities mentioned in our history gain a concrete visuality on coins. Coins tell, step by step, the history of 1,400 years of Islamic history. These small works of metal are like newspapers of their period. Islamic coins enable a clear and striking grasp regarding the history and cultural transformation of the region where they were minted in addition to a direct perception of history, without intermediaries. There is always a political or ideological reason behind the verses, prayers, and many special phrases on the coins. So, none of these phrases are coincidental.
Turkoman Artuqids Copper Coin Fakhraldin Karaarslan
Coins are also concrete indicators of cultural interaction and wealth between civilizations. For example, figurative elements can be found on the early Umayyad copper coins minted in Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, and on the coins of the Anatolian Turkish states. Undoubtedly, this is a result of interacting with the previous local cultures there. Again, we come across Arabic and Islamic phrases on the coins of the Crusades and on the coins minted after Islam in Andalusia and Sicily. Here, too, is a cultural interaction. Shiite or Sunni Islamic discourses can be easily observed on coins throughout history. In fact, coin research and collection is a journey towards the flow of the entire Islamic history, ranging from design to motifs, typefaces to used phrases.
Do you hope to share this knowledge and collection of coins with the wider public?
I have a published book named 100 Coins of Istanbul. I also prepared inventories of the collections of some important museums and state institutions in Turkey. From time to time, I assist museums in classifying the coins obtained during excavations in Istanbul and Anatolia. I am currently working on a book about the “Special Prayers, Verses and Phrases on Islamic Coins.” When finished, it will be the first and most comprehensive book work in this field. I also aim to organize a calligraphy exhibition. I will translate the phrases on 30 coins, the historical meaning of which I will be studying, into calligraphy, remaining faithful to the original font and stack. I will make my collection public online and on social media.
Umayyad Andalucia Dirham I.Abdurrahman minted Al Andalus
Is there a particular period in Islamic history that interests you?
I mainly work with books, coins, and field research on the first four caliphs and the following Umayyad, Abbasid, Muluk at Tawaif, and Andalusian periods. I have visited the cities of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, and Andalusia many times. Ibn al Asakir's History of Damascus, Al Belazuri's Futuh al-Buldan, and Gregory Abu'l Faraj and Tabari's histories are my go-to books. Let me give you an example: While browsing books or travelogs, I learned that Tariq ibn Ziyad had minted a small copper coin before moving to Andalusia and distributed it to his soldiers. The phrase on it read, “An Nafiqa fi Sabelillah!” meaning “The alimony to be spent in the way of Allah.” I look for information that is in detail but which is very valuable to me in essence. Likewise, I am working on historical sources, coins from both sides during the Crusades, and the period of the early Turkish principalities that spread Islam in Anatolian lands. The coins from this period are also highly different. These coins are not very legible in writing. While preparing the patterns, the rules of Arabic spelling were not fully followed. They are almost like puzzles. However, the moment you solve it, you illuminate a dark corner of the period, a place where you reach the general from the details. These two periods are my main interest.
First Ottoman Gold Coin Minted in Istanbul 882AH
What can Ottoman history teach us about the present day?
The examination of the reasons and factors that necessitated the emergence of the Ottoman Empire bear importance as well as the examination of the causes and factors regarding its collapse. The developments and achievements of the Ottomans during the period when they were strong in state organization and in the field of science and technology are quite impressive. The weaknesses observed in the ensuing stagnation and regression periods are just as instructive and exemplary. Today, we desperately need a religion and worldview that is open-minded, values tolerance and different ideas, and is free from prejudice, bigotry, and superstition. Ottoman wisdom collapsed because it lost wisdom and put rumors before the mind. When we evaluate it in terms of art, the originality of Ottoman works in almost every field comes to the fore. This originality is so strong, and its influence so deep, that even today the majority of mosque designers and artists from classical art schools in Turkey actually imitate the Ottoman styles. There are almost no original designs in which tradition is stylized. So, the effect of the fascinating beauty of Ottoman art is still valid! However, it is clear that we need more creative designs and artistic works that feed on the past but reflect the lines and emotions of today.
Art and artefacts from the Ottoman Empire are found across the world in museums, galleries and libraries. What are your thoughts on the provenance of these artefacts in collecting institutions?
There are two ways to look at this. The first is the works of people who came to Ottoman geography and had various works made through legal and legitimate means or bought them and took them to their country. For example, it can be a traveler or a diplomatic officer who orders a Kutahya or Iznik tile panel and takes it back to their country. If there is no legal problem in the source of this type of artifacts, the presence of the artifacts there is not a problem. The second way includes the attempts to steal these works from mosques, madrasas, and tombs while law deems otherwise. This is literally theft. The vast majority of Ottoman artifacts that we see at European museums are artifacts obtained through theft and belong to this second group. Therefore, we can call it museums as much as we want, but these are spaces of crime. Can you imagine that the sword of King Richard the Lionheart was stolen from England and exhibited, in the name of art, at museums in Egypt or Turkey? Or would anyone agree to have Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa stolen and exhibited, in the name of art, anywhere in the world? Our works are not worth less than theirs. This mentality that plunders the works of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey must come to an end. I would like to point out again that this is only the case for stolen artifacts. We have nothing to say about art objects whose source and provenance can be shown and which went by trade or as a gift.
Which historical architectural monument, mosque or building is your favourite and why?
Divriği Great Mosque and Hospital is one of the historical buildings that impressed me the most. Dating to the first half of the 13th century, the building is truly unique both in Anatolia and anywhere else. With its architectural form, crown gate, geometric ornaments, and other figurative elements, it is almost timeless. Another structure is the Suleymaniye Mosque, with its grandeur and the aesthetic and symbolic meanings in its details. Last but not least are the extraordinary mihrab and arches of the Cordoba Mosque, a marvel of design.
What stories does architecture tell us about Islamic history and culture?
I would like to answer this question by quoting architect Hilmi Şenalp, whose ideas have always impressed me when studying architecture. Civilization is a whole. Culture, art, literature, music, and architecture are a matter of civilization, like the links of the same chain. Architecture and goods are the mirror of the soul. Architectural production is how the soul penetrates the object. Space provides visual pleasure and a spiritual balance by evoking certain feelings and influences in people. Islamic Art and Architecture opens the way to contemplate the hidden geometry of nature through stylization. Therefore, a vision that does not recognize cultural depth and excitement cannot produce creative works. The city is a poem of civilization with its religious and civil architecture and its understanding of streets, squares, and gardens. In the Islamic architectural tradition, shapes and objects mirror the meaning of matter. The worlds hidden in the essence of things are left to anyone’s comprehension. The dynamics that create the peculiarities of our architecture have created other branches of art and works together with architecture.
The essence of the matter is the cause that creates it or, more accurately, the influence that establishes our civilization. The French socialist philosopher Jean Leon Jaures said, “Tradition is not to keep the ashes, but to keep the fire alive.” When we look at the traditional Islamic architecture as a whole, it is immediately understood as a deep reflection of a different conception of civilization, understanding of the universe, and consciousness of existence. At this point, the question to be answered is how this civilization looks at things. The thing, that is, the being, does not show its own reality as it seems. In fact, shapes are objects, and all beings are mirrors to the meaning of matter. Nature is contemplated not directly, but with signs and references. Mortality is veiled, reference is made to eternity. For this reason, by discovering the hidden geometry existing in nature in our civilization, the worlds hidden in the essence of things and the geometry in their constructions are presented to human comprehension with the style of isolation (abstraction). At the core of all our traditional arts, together with architecture, is the dialectical dynamic of stylization.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I am proud of the knowledge and experience I have earned from all the museum projects I was involved in and from all the teammates that I met and worked with during these projects. The Istanbul Museum of Islamic Science and Technology was a first for me. Additionally, my prestige books on restoration are also highly valuable to me as they provide information and data to people and are constantly used. However, I believe that the part of my career which taught me the most and contributed to my pursuits in other fields was being the editor-in-chief of Skylife and Skylife Business, the in-flight magazines of Turkish Airlines. During that time, I had an experience covering 93 countries, from the Far East to Latin America, African countries to Canada, some of them more than once over the course of a decade, and I believe this has provided a lot to me.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you and how can the study of history help develop its future?
The cultural heritage and works of art that make up Islamic art should not remain as objects on display in museums. This approach symbolizes a period that happened, lived, and passed. However, Islam exists and lives and, therefore, its art must also exist and live on this day. It should affect us, make us think, and guide us. It should have a decisive weight in our view of life and events. For this, we should adopt an approach that is both rooted in the past and can respond to today's conditions, criteria, and expectations. We must not forget that the past has not passed, and that tradition is our future.
For more information follow Hasan Mert Kaya on Twitter https://twitter.com/kayamerthasan_
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.