Enver Beşinci: An influential collector shedding light on education history

Published 24.06.2019 00:10
Daily Sabah Culture and Arts editor Zeynep Esra İstanbullu and collector Enver Beşinci having a conversation on the history of ijazah licences.
Daily Sabah Culture and Arts editor Zeynep Esra İstanbullu and collector Enver Beşinci having a conversation on the history of ijazah licences.

Enver Beşinci is a collector of educational documents from the Ottoman Empire which have now been compiled into a book. His work helps shed light on the history of education thanks to the original documents he has collected over the course of 20 years

Collector Enver Beşinci's book entitled "Osmanlı'dan Günümüze, İcâzetten Diplomaya" ("From Ottoman to Present, From Ijazah to Diploma"), a work revealing the education system of the Ottomans, has been published by Culture Inc. Publications, which is affiliated with the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.

Ijazah, a word of Arabic origin, means permission, authorization. An Ijazah license means a certificate confirming that a student has received the relevant education – a "diploma" in today's world.

The Ijazah concept, which has a long, deeply rooted history, contains ijazah licenses that Beşinci has collected for 20 years along with detailed information on each document.

In this respect, the book addresses history enthusiasts, collectors and academics working in the fields of education and history.

This compilation is a comprehensive source on how ijazahs, which were sealed by various educational institutions providing education in the fields of art, religious sciences and positive sciences during the Ottoman period, were transformed over the years in line with the period and various fields of education.

I visited Beşinci in his office to see the original ijazahs that were given a place in the book and to talk about many things on his journey of collecting, to the content of the documents, from the education life in the Ottoman Empire and on education in Islamic civilization and how it affected the world history.

The office, which looked like an ordinary apartment from the outside, was tastefully decorated, reflecting the spiritual world of Beşinci. The office, which is almost like a small museum, was decorated in such a way that you can chronologically view the documents.

Examples of ijazah licenses released in various times during the Ottoman era.

Beşinci said that his interest in collecting was triggered by a watch his father had sent him in his childhood; he still wears the nearly 45-year-old watch. "We all have sacred goals and emotions in our inner world. Everybody has a secret, a kind of spiritual pregnancy. When you have the opportunity to give birth to it, you create a work. These feelings will not be revealed unless the right place and the time have arrived. It was like this for me. During my primary school years in our village in Trabzon province, my father was working in Istanbul. He sent me a watch as a souvenir from there. In those times, schools used to function from morning to night. I got permission from the school to be there at the delivery of the watch by a minibus from the city center. While waiting at the minibus stop, my teacher and my school principal appeared next to me. My teacher said, 'Hasn't it arrived yet?' That question aroused great excitement in me because I understood this watch was so precious. Their excitement was a turning point for me in terms of valuing my goods. Then, when we moved to Istanbul, I wrapped the glass we used in the village with papers. I have been keeping that glass for 40 years." At this moment, I saw the thin glass in the showcase at the office.

Beşinci continued, "After that, I attributed value to all my goods. In time, what my teachers told me about the Ottoman sultans in my education period opened a new horizon for me. I started to collect black and white photos of the sultans. When my economic opportunities improved in the future, I started to accumulate state orders. In this process, I started to contact collectors and antique dealers from all over Turkey. When I was talking to a late friend in Bursa province, he said to me that he will give me something very important. It was not a state order but a very important Ottoman document."

Meeting with ijazah

"When I told him that I was not collecting documents, he insisted I take it and hang it on the wall in my house. It was 1999. I could not understand what that document was about when I opened it and looked at it. I closed the package and brought it with me to my home. When my precious friend Sertaç Kayserilioğlu saw the document, he said, 'It is a perfect document. It is an education document belonging to the Ottoman period, that is, it is a diploma.' The value that he attributed to this document was the second turning point for me. As I also had seen the obstacles in collecting state orders, I started to collect historical education documents of the Ottoman period since then."

What ijazah tells about history

Ijazah is normally a certificate indicating that a person graduated from a certain educational institution. "However, it reveals the history of the education of a country in chronological order when deeply examined and classified. Then it becomes a cultural treasure that will be socially prominent and shed light on the past."

Enver Beşinci's office is like a small museum that displays a part of his rich collection.

Ijazah is a concept that started with the Islamic civilization. "In Islamic civilization, education started at mosques. Children began their education at mosques at early ages and went to madrasahs as they grew up. We see the first written text of Islamic civilization in the discipline of hadith. The information narrated by Prophet Muhammad, known as hadiths, became a discipline after his death. Abu Hurairah, one of the companions, said at a controversial point of a speech in a community, 'Let me go and see look at my chest.' He took out a hadith written on a piece of leather from his chest. We believe that this is the first written text in the culture of ijazah. Over time, lessons were given at madrasahs in the fields of hadith, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and kalam (science of discourse). In the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, Islamic civilization built a science civilization that illuminated the path of humanity."

Inspiration for modern diplomas

Beşinci said that the main source of today's diploma is inspired by ijazah according to professor Fuat Sezgin and professor George Makdisi. "It is an important issue highlighted by these two masters and many Orientalists in the world that the source of the college concept in Western civilization is madrasahs. Today, the word chair in universities is inspired by madrasahs in Baghdad in the seventh century. Under the pillars of these madrasahs, the circles of students were called chairs. In a mosque, different lessons were given as the chair of kalam, philosophy, fiqh and Islamic sciences at the same time. There are very important indications that today's concept of chair originated from this."

First university founded in Morocco

Underlining that the first university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman in Morocco, Beşinci stressed, "Even if it is known that the first university was established in Bologna, Italy in 1088, it was founded nearly two centuries before this one by Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya in Morocco. The Turkish Historical Society held a symposium that recognizes Al-Fihri as the founder of the first university, and many researchers presented their notes there."

Witnessing history through ijazah

It is accepted that the first written text in the history of ijazah started in the field of hadith. "Depending on the development of civilizations over time, the materials and styles used in ijazah have also changed. The use of paper and technology also evolved. There are documents written on leather pieces, while it is possible to see some written on the boards. There are some others written by calligraphers on paper before the invention of printing. In the process evolving toward lithography, printing and modern machines of today, ijazahs changed shape and turned into today's diplomas. In fact, diplomas and ijazahs show the economic, social and cultural characteristics of every society."

Beşinci briefly mentioned how ijazah evolved over time: "Since the ink and paper in ijazahs were produced in natural ways in the old era, it is difficult to read today. The conditions of countries and time reveal themselves in written texts. If there is economic welfare in the society, the gold leaf in the ornaments increases. The paper size also gets bigger. Today, although the technological and economic opportunities are better, documents are not so artistic. In this point, the value that a culture attaches to art and the artist is revealed. We have an ijazah from Senegal. Even if it is influenced by the visual elements of Islamic civilization, it has no gold leaf ornament. It is not used either because there is not much gold or because there is no technology to process it."

Collection marks 20 years of effort

Beşinci has collected these documents for 20 years. "I have kept the original pieces that I obtained from different countries around the world. The most important point here is that this book is the first compilation in which documents of the education history of the Ottoman period and Islamic civilization are translated into today's language. In 1994, a book featuring only images of ijazahs was published in Iran. However, there was no translation in it. In this context, we have managed a first. In this success, my three friends who are Mehmet Okutan, who spent his life in the Ottoman archive, Sertaç Kayserilioğlu, who is an expert in ephemera and Çanakkale, and literary figure and intellectual Yüksel Kanar contributed much. As a collector, I provided the documents and they wrote the texts that will shed light on cultural history.

Lured to an original document

Beşinci traveled country-by-country in order to obtain these works. Among the documents, there is also an example from Kosovo. "Seven to eight years ago, I met a friend who works in the field of ijazah. He told me that there are the documents by madrasah professors that worked in the Ottoman period in Bosnia. I went to Bosnia with great enthusiasm. Then, I went to Kosovo. Indeed, the documents lure you like a magnet. "

Never-ending quest

"As a standard, one to three instructors have their signatures on ijazah documents. When I found an ijazah document with four signs, I was relieved saying that I caught my prey. However, I learned that there is an ijazah document with seven signatures at a foreign auction. It was arranged in 1815 in the Black Sea region. I wanted to buy it, but it cost 9,750 pounds. I said there must be a mistake here as its price would increase even more at the auction. It was sold for 19,500 pounds ($24,800). I could not buy it. Then, I asked why it was so expensive to the experts. It was sold at Sotheby's in London. The 19,000 pounds were for brand value while 500 pounds were for the document value. It was a rooted institution that has never changed place for 170 years. If protection culture develops in our country, we can have a brand value."

When you look at the documents Beşinci has collected, you have to think of how much has disappeared too. "I have a Quran hafiz document from Bursa province dated 1922. It has burnt and worn edges. It came to Turkey from an auction hall abroad. For a period, Ottoman archives were sold abroad as salvage. When many patriots heard that, they bought them and sent them back to the country. We owe a duty of loyalty to them."

Education in Ottoman era

Collector Beşinci implied how important education was in the Ottoman period. "In the Ottoman Empire, statesmen gave great importance to education. In 1827, the first Ottoman medical school was opened by the order of Mahmud II and grew in time. Successor Sultan Abdulmajid attended the graduation ceremony of this school. In this ceremony, he met face to face all students for many hours and saw that this school improved. However, he thought that they should write works in Ottoman with their culture. In that period, education was provided through French sources with translation. He advised the students to write Ottoman books. In these meetings, he also shared the issue on the holidays of Christian and Jewish students and preparation of proper meals in line with their religions with the principal. It is all about his respect for people and their beliefs."

Embracing historical richness in education

"At one point, the Ottoman Empire fell behind technological developments. However, it is ahead of Western civilizations in the education fields in many aspects as opposed to being behind. An edict was enacted during the reign of Murad II, saying that adolescents would go to Ottoman elementary and primary school. While the West was working on an educational model for children of that age, we institutionalized it. For example, the mother of Sultan Abdulmajid opened the Valide High School. In the opening, he enrolled his daughters and son at the school. He especially warned that he wanted both of his children to receive the same education without exception."

Correcting a misunderstanding

"We have a common misconception: The Ottoman Empire fell behind in the education of girls. In this period, the academic rise of female students in Western universities was prevented, let aside promoting education for them. It was very much later that women received recompense for their academic studies. The famous baccalaureate system of the West was applied by the Ottomans under the name of "mülazemet ru'su." Today, prominent schools advertise their baccalaureate education applications." The collector said that this great misconception should be corrected by saying, "The Ottomans had been applying this system a long time ago."

Everyone can collect

A huge misunderstanding is that collecting is an interest specific to a particular class or profession. Beşinci remarked that everyone can keep things and help shed light on history: "We live in a very rich cultural basin. In order to attract our young people to this cultural basin, it needs to be transformed into community awareness. For example, a note that a relative has written for you on a paper is a value that will guide you in the future. Even with the most ordinary and worthless objects, you can start to protect history. For instance, you can keep the botanical history of an era by drying a leaf and collecting leaves. Today, we live in a digital world, and objects produced from paper will disappear in time in the virtual world. But the books we have today will carry the experience of that object to the future and the characteristics of the period in every dimension. Every object you collect after using it instead of throwing it is a candidate for collection. Therefore, everyone can be a collector."

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