Monday, February 25, 2013

Hagia Sophia Museum's latest addition: a sundial

The new sundial placed in the gardens at Hagia Sophia was engraved in glass by archaeologist Ahmet Demirtaş. (Photo: Today's Zaman, Turgut Engin)

Setting aside all the heated debates over whether or not Hagia Sophia ought to be opened for prayers, what sort of reverberations will be caused by other changes to this ancient site?
A sundial that has been painstakingly designed over the past year by İstanbul Technical University Professors Atilla Bir and Burak Barutçu as well as İstanbul University Professor Mustafa Kaçar was recently installed in Hagia Sophia's garden.

While it remains unclear whether the installation of a sun dial in the museum's garden will spark any serious controversy, any complaints that might be voiced have already been answered, in a sense, by these words from electrical engineer Professor Bir: “I am neither religious, nor am I a historian. Mathematics, however, does attract my attention and sundials are based on mathematics. Sundials not only meet daily needs, they can also be used to see the hours for namaz [prayer]. We are following up on the placement of sundials not only in the garden of Hagia Sophia but in the courtyards of other mosques as well. I would like to see people who visit mosques reintroduced to sundial culture. This was a culture that persisted until the 19th century.” 

Muvakkithaneler, or sun rooms, made an important contribution in Ottoman times. These were sites, generally built right next to the mosque, where the motion of the sun could be tracked to determine the time for prayer. These special rooms were always run by qualified individuals who had received training in a madrassah, who had passed special palace astronomy tests and who knew much about astronomy and mathematics in general. Though the muvakkithane of the Hagia Sophia Museum is now being used as an administrative building, it is slated to open soon as a museum exhibit of this original tradition. When we asked Bir where the idea first came from to put a sundial in the Hagia Sophia gardens, he told us about the famous Italian architect Gaspare Trajano Fossati, who took on the restoration of Hagia Sophia that occurred in the 1800s, as well as many other projects.

Fossati's task

Hagia Sophia had been damaged by earthquakes before Fossati's restoration efforts and when the main project was completed, Fossati gave himself another task, noting, “All of these mosques have muvakkithane, let's do the same for Hagia Sophia.” Saying this, the famous architect designed an octagonal muvakkithane that faces the exit gates. During the early years of the republic, however, the building was taken over and converted for other purposes, its contents emptied out and divided among other museums. Other mosques' muvakkithaneler were to face the same fate.

The new sundial placed in the gardens at Hagia Sophia was engraved in glass by archaeologist Ahmet Demirtaş. The production, design and calculations involved in the creation and completion of this sundial had all three professors -- Barutçu, Bir and Kaçar -- involved from start to finish.

During the Ottoman era, clocks were designed in two ways, vertically and horizontally. Vertical sundials were engraved in stone walls and horizontal ones were placed on pedestals. In designing Hagia Sophia's sundial, trends and styles from past eras were kept in mind, although it is completely new. Barutçu explains: “Most likely, Hagia Sophia had a horizontal sundial that belonged to its muvakkithane. That type of a pedestal was found, but the lines on it are no longer clear. In other words, it has basically disappeared. We can't do anything to alter the original stone that had been engraved, since it belongs to the museum, so instead we decided to place an engraved glass face over it that will illustrate its function. We used the horizontal sundial at Topkapı for the basis of the design.”

Fatih Mosque's sundial is mistaken

Fatih Mosque's long restoration was completed one year ago and included a sundial that stands at its western entrance. This sundial was cleaned up and the rods that create the sun's shadows were replaced, since they had broken. But unfortunately, the sundial does not show the proper time. There were some miscalculations made during the restoration, says Bir. Aware that a mistake had been made, the careful Professor Bir told the heads of the restoration project about the error but was unable to convince anyone that it should be fixed. Bir and Barutçu are both members of a team formed to see the reintroduction of sundials into mosque courtyards and gardens around Turkey. The two professors are responsible for three such sundials envisioned for the gardens of the Beyazıt Mosque, but Bir warns: “I am still very angry with the restorers. If they don't fix the mistake at Fatih Mosque, I will not be drawing anything up for Beyazıt.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ottoman History Podcast: Turning listeners into history buffs, one download at a time

24 January 2013 / CLARE BUSCH, İSTANBUL
After most expats visit Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace, they begin to develop an interest in Ottoman history. Some satisfy their curiosity through the steamy kitsch of “Muhteşem Yüzyıl,” a weekly soap opera that has come under fire from Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan for distorting Süleyman the Magnificent's life. But thanks to a joint creation by Georgetown University Ph.D. student Chris Gratien and current İstanbul Bahçeşehir University history professor Emrah Safa Gürkan, there is an interesting, in-depth and free way to learn more about Ottoman history.
Speaking with Gratien, I learned about the creation and development of the “Ottoman History Podcast,” a weekly podcast download available for free from the iTunes Store. The two men discussed working together while Gürkan was a post-doctorate student at Georgetown. They knew they wanted to do something on the Internet related to Ottoman history but initially had no set plans. At the time Gratien had been listening to other podcasts and noticed the dearth of ones focusing on the Ottoman Empire. As simple as that, the two began work collaborating on a podcast in the spring of 2011. Now, nearing their second year, the weekly podcast has featured topics ranging from a three-part series on malaria in the Ottoman Empire to slavery in the Mediterranean.

The first topics were ones that Gratien and Gürkan had studied and were therefore able to bring a detailed perspective to. They began by discussing early modern Mediterranean history and people who were able to flit between Muslim and Christian worlds. When asked about the specialized nature of the podcasts, Gratien said, “We didn't necessarily go out of our way to choose a topic; we just went with ones that we and the guests found interesting.”

Despite creating the podcasts without a set list of topics or disciplines to cover, it is clear that they aren't trying to lay out a clear, historical narrative for the entirety of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the initial criticisms from podcast listeners were the lack of timelines or development narratives, but Gratien and Gürkan eschewed traditional narratives to focus on what Gratien describes as “emerging areas of study… that people are newly investigating.”

Recruiting guests for the show

After covering their own fields of study, Gratien and Gürkan moved on to professors and fellow students at Georgetown University to draw on their expertise. In addition to engaging with the community at Georgetown, the two began to recruit new guests through academic conferences and contacts. Gratien describes the process of reaching out to new guests as informal: “Wherever we go, whomever we meet, we propose the idea [of being a guest on the show]. It's mostly by personal connections.”

Taking a look at the podcast's website is a good primer for what to expect. Each podcast's title is highly specific and accompanied by historic documents. For example, in episode 82, titled “Zanzibar: Imperial visions and Ottoman connections,” the guest host was Jeffery Dyer, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College. Three historic photos of Zanzibar and a selected bibliography accompany the post, which includes a short description of the podcast. One of the best features of the podcast is its ability to pique your interest in unusual topics and at the same time, provide suggestions for further reading. Any dabbler in Ottoman history will appreciate way the podcasters facilitate listeners' continued research.

At the end of last year, Gratien and Gürkan attempted to put together a “Best of 2012” list, but found it difficult to choose between the podcasts. When asked about his personal favorites, Gratien listed episode 81, “Osman Hamdi Bey and the Journey of an Ottoman Painting” with guest Emily Neumeier, episode 86, “Indian Soldiers and POWs in the Ottoman Empire during WWI” with guests Vedica Kant and Robert Upton, and episode 70, “Ecology and Empire in Ottoman Egypt” with guest Alan Mikhail.

While listening to the podcasts, not only is the level of expertise apparent, but so is the amount of work that goes into each one. Gratien estimates that each episode takes about five to 10 hours, with “the biggest variable being how long the recording is.” Recording may take from only 30 minutes to an hour, but then Gratien begins editing the audio. Hopefully in coming months, the Ottoman History Podcast will expand to include new hosts in different locations. When asked about the challenge of recording in different locations, Gratien emphasizes the mobile nature of the podcast, saying: “I have my own recording equipment. … We just go to the guests.” In fact, they have already recorded in 50 locations.

Podcasts in Turkish

A new feature of the podcasts is episodes recorded entirely in Turkish. Gürkan functions as the host for these episodes, which came about after seeing the large number of Facebook fans of the podcast who are Turkish speakers. So far there have only been three episodes produced in Turkish, but according to Gratien, the new format has been “very well received” and there are definitely more coming soon.

Although the existing partnership between Gratien and Gürkan will hopefully expand to include different scholars, the creators have no intention of changing the two key pillars of the podcast: its collaborative nature and free access. Gratien's closing remark stressed that the podcast is “completely non-profit and not intended to make money.”

Tools for exploring Ottoman history

Almost all the podcasts are available for free from the podcast section of the iTunes Store and from the official Ottoman History Podcast website,, where you can also find selected bibliographies and scans of historic documents.


Monday, February 4, 2013

NEW enrollments starting early April 2013

NEW enrollments starting early April 2013 for next round of classes.

Don't miss out. If interested please contact


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