Professor Sevim Tekeli - a short autobiography

Sevim Tekeli is Emeritus Professor, History of Science Department at Ankara University, a student of Professor Aydin Sayili. This article is based on her answers in a brief interview conducted recently by Dr Salim Ayduz.

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Sevim Tekeli is Emeritus Professor, History of Science Department at Ankara University, a student of Professor Aydin Sayili. This article is based on her answers in a brief interview conducted recently by Dr Salim Ayduz.

I was born in Izmir in 1924. I completed my primary education in various districts of Turkey. That period bears a great importance in my life.

When I entered the 3rd year we were in Kesan, on the European side of Turkey, due to my Father's work for the government. My mathematics was not satisfactory until the third year. I solved mathematics in this school thanks to our 3rd year teacher, who now that I think about him reminds me of how he was an extraordinary teacher. Mathematics became a matter which didn't create a problem and I have become a successful student in this field ever since. Using colour chalks, our teacher drew a picture on the blackboard about the matter which he wanted to explain. I can never forget when he drew the picture in order to explain the conquest of Istanbul; he demonstrated how the ships had been lifted out of the Gulf up onto the land and put back into the water again.

I also want to describe briefly my relation with my father at that time. There was neither radio nor TV at that time. I asked him lots of question when he came back home. I want to tell you two of them which made a strong impression on me. I remembered very well the event that sparked my interest: when my father had tried using an orange and a lamp to explain to me how the day time and the night time are caused.

The other inspiration was the excitement which I felt when he said that the stars which we saw in the sky were as big as our world - even bigger than it. I remember that I observed the sky with a great enthusiasm when I went to bed.

I do not remember the question which had prompted my father to mention the scholars, but, the things which he mentioned so excited me that I asked him "what can I do to become a scholar" He said "you should make some inventions in order to becoming a scholar". So – I thought - I have to make an invention. I thought during the entire night. I told him that I had invented a vehicle able to run on the ground, fly in the air and float on the water.

I completed my secondary education at the Girls' High School of Izmir. When I graduated from high school, I decided to go to the faculty of Chemistry. But, my father sent me to American Girls' High School of Uskudar considering that I would not be successful without knowing a foreign language. I must admit that I have no capability to learn a foreign language. I got over a period of illness after leaving there. University education became a dream for me. My father had been appointed to a duty in Ankara, which was a great advantage for us.

This had changed my life completely. I had been admitted at the Philosophy Department of the faculty of Philology History and Geography. On one of the days in which we had commenced the lectures, Prof. Necati Akder the Head of Philosophy Department had given to the first year students some information about the lectures, and, he introduced the instructors to us.

He had also mentioned about the associated Professor Dr Aydin Sayili who had completed his doctoral studies at Harvard University, in America, on the History of Science. The History of Science had attracted my attention. The lectures of Aydin Sayili were taking place in the second year. At the same time, we found out how Ataturk had entered into the graduate examination of Aydin Sayili at Ankara Boy's High school and admired him very much. I admired the lectures of Sayili. I made my plan after only the first lecture. I decided that I would like to participate in the doctoral studies on the History of Science.

I passed my graduate examination successfully. According to Sayili, Will Hartner one of the professors of Goethe University came to Istanbul. While he walked about The Library of Topkapi, Place, an Article, in Ottoman Turkish namely "Alat al-Rasadiye li Zij-i Shahinshahiya" got his attention and he said that "it would be useful to examine the said article".

And, Sayili gave me, one year later, the doctorate thesis on "The Comparison of the observational Instruments of Nasir al-Din al Tûsî, Tycho Brahe and Taqi al Din".

As it can be understood from its name, I had to know the Ottoman Turkish and Arabic Languages. At those times the Arabic Language was not being taught anywhere. At the suggestion of my friend Mubahat Kuyel who became assistant 3 years before me, I  went to the Head of Religious Affairs. They advised me to contact Ismail Ezherli from the Consultation Committee.

I had lessons from him for 5 years for two days a week. Since I did not know Arabic, at the beginning, I examined Tycho Brahe and the History of Astronomy in the Western World. I had been admiring Tycho Brahe, the scientist who trained Kepler.

At the same time, I studied the Ottoman Turkish and Arabic languages. When I started to examine the article of Taqi al-Din, the drawings of Taqi al-Din which have no perspective caused me a great disappointment against the extraordinary book of Tycho Brahe. I ran to my teacher Sayili and said him that "If you ask me to praise the Ottomans, let me return you this thesis". My teacher was very much surprised and said that "The duty of an historian is to write the fact as it was." When I went to the History Society I could not pass the quote of Ataturk at the left side on the wall "Writing history is as important as creating history, the unchanged reality may express a character which misleads humanity if the writer does not remain loyal to one who makes history". My confusion was increasing when I solved the construction of the instruments one by one, and then compared the same with Tycho Brahe's. Although there was much difference among the drawing from the point of aesthetics, there were complete parallels between the instruments as far as construction and usage.

I submitted my doctorate in 1956. It offered such parallels which made me extremely confused about the science historians of the world. Aydin Sayili helped me with an English translation of its summary, and it created an effect on the world. My thanks to my teacher Aydin Sayili will never be sufficient.

At this time, I had begun to work on the examination of the book of Taqi al Din, called Sidrat al-Munteha which he wrote on the subject of calculation of the parameters of the Sun and the Moon. His observations, calculations and the method of calculation, and their results have revealed the fact that we were face to face with one of most distinguished astronomers in the world of the 16th century. He had given the closest approximation of the 16th Century on calculation of one of the parameters of the sun.

Approximation of Copernicus 1 degree 56 seconds

Approximation of Tycho Brahe 2 degree 1 minute 24 seconds

Approximation of Taqi al-Din 2 degree 0 minute 34 seconds

Besides this Copernicus and Tycho Brahe are credited with having invented a method named "three observation points" for calculation of these values and they applied the said method accordingly. This method had been considered one of the considerable successes of the 16th century and they have been praised respectively for it. I saw that the same method had been applied by Taqi al-Din.

I accepted the work of Taqi al-Din written in Arabic Language, on the clocks namely "The Brightest Stars of Construction of the Mechanical Clocks" as my thesis for professorship. This work was as interesting as his two works which had already excited me.

As we found out from this work, he had used the clock as the device for observation for the first time in the World, and succeeded in making a clock indicating the fractions of the second in order to be able to achieve those observations.

The following question may occur to the mind at once, why then did scientists like Kepler and Newton not come from this part of the world?

The following information given regarding the destiny of the magnificent observatory will answer most of such related questions:

It had been named in the Tarih-i Abu al-Faruq that "just recently a comet had been seen (1577). A bubonic plaque epidemic had occurred also in 986 (AH). A lot of people died. Mihrimah Sultan, Shayh-ul Islam Hamid Efendi and Piyale Pasa were included in the list of victims. The people's complaints had also increased.

An observatory had been constructed in Tophane by means of the support of Hoca Sa'd al-din Efendi.

The Ottoman Sultan was interested in astronomy. Some observational devices were placed in a deep well for assisting observation of the movement of heavenly bodies in daytime. They invited Taqi al-Din who was known for his knowledge about astronomy and  appointed him as the director of the observatory with the annual allowance of three thousand Gold Liras. They also appointed for him a Jewish astrologer as his assistant.

Those who had come into prominence in the palace had tried to prove, with the examples, the fact that, the calamities had occurred at the places where such observatories had been constructed. The Ottoman Sultan became afraid of the implication and then ordered the destruction of the observatory. We have no further information about the life of Taqi al Din after that date.*

Translation of the relevant studies into English and offering of them to the world of Science Historians created the expected results.

I have been informed in a letter sent me by Tuba, that a museum would be erected in Brasilia, the Capital of Brazil. This will contain some panels showing the curriculum vitae of prominent scientists up till now and their contributions to Science in the field of mathematics and astronomy. These would be hung on the observatory's walls. Taqi al-Din had been chosen among the scientists to be shown. I had been asked to write a letter comprising the curriculum vitae of Taqi al-Din and his contribution to science.

A world leading scientist has been put in his proper place in history and distanced from his earlier reputation as a mere astrologer. There could not be a more valuable reward for me other than this.

I want to comment on a matter regarding the importance of the research into the history of Ottoman science. The Western world sought to investigate the basis of modem science more, which they found as coming first through the Islamic world. They have attempted to do a great amount of research in this field. As a result of this, they exposed the great importance of the contribution of the Islamic world in science. They have also shown how and in which ways such science has been inherited by the Western world, and how the Western world experienced a Dark Age before this transition. But the Ottomans did not exist during this transformation.

This led to the problem that the Turks did not show interest in their scientific past. When I commenced my doctorate studies, it was impossible to find anything except the book of Adnan Adivar on the History of Science of the Turks namely the Science in the Ottoman Turks and the articles written on Pîrî Reis respectively. The time of serious research had come and gone long ago. When Ataturk mentioned about modernization, it meant to reach towards the cultural level that contributes to modern science; for this reason, our state in the past must be taken out into the daylight. For this purpose, Aydin Sayili had been sent to the United States for his doctorate on the History of Science. But, I would like also to mention something about the matter which I never understood: A conflict in scientific history commenced since the date at which Sayili had commenced to give lectures at the Philosophy department, and it still continues now. I do not any longer consider it necessary to argue that the history of science is important for establishing what the scientific mentality is.

To become familiar with the life, studies and the difficulties which Kepler, Newton, Euclid, Archimedes, Galileo and Fârâbî, Bîrûnî and Tûsî were faced with, would be very effective, would assist in saving us from dogmatism.

I would like to mention that I succeed in making a place for the lessons of science history on the curriculum of the high school. How can the philosophy of Aristotle be understood without knowing the science of Aristotle?

The international congresses which I had participated in include:

"Solar Parameters and certain observational Methods of Taqi al-Din and Tycho Brahe".

"The Tenth International Congress of Science, Ithaca 1962 (Expenses were paid by the congress since I was a guest).

"The Duplication of the Cube Zail-i Tahrîr al Uqlidas, Majmua and Sidra al-Muntaha. "XII. Congress International D'Histoire des Sciences, Paris 1968".

"Comparison of the Observation Devices of the Nasir al-Dîn al-Tûsî's Observatory and the other important observatories" observation devices. Teheran 1972. As the guest of ARSD".

"Huseyin Rifki Tamani" International Congress. Aleppo Syria (as a guest, expenses were paid by the congress).

"Austria Vienna, 1990, International Astronomy Congress'"

"Al-Jazarî which realizes the first Automation Studies". Rome 1993. As the guest at Vatican).

"International Astronomy Congress. New Delhi As guest (expenses paid by the congress).

As a member of the committee for choosing the Islamic classics. As the guest of Pakistan Government, Islamabad.

The Arabic translation of Copernicus. 15th Congress of History of Science. Edinburgh 10-19 August, 1980.

Some Turkish congresses and conferences at which I participated .

"Diyarbakir as a Centre of Culture" as the guest Diyarbakir Governor.

"The devices of Istanbul Observatory" "The international Symposium of the Observatories at International Islam. 1977 Istanbul.

"Transition of the classic Greek Science to the West". "The Idea of Classic Age and the Modern Culture Digest's of Isl Symposium 1977.

"The ideas on the Westernization VIIIth Turkish History Congress. 1986."

"Most important century in the History of Astronomy of the Ottomans" Astronomy from Fatih to today, Prof. Dr. Nuzhet Gundogan Symposium, 7th October 1993, 540th Anniversary of Istanbul University.

The Background and Environment of Yunus Emre.

The Effect of Turks on the Renaissance.


* [Editor comment – It would seem that those who were opposed to the astrological justifications of the observatory used the error of the astrologers to get the effort shut down – namely seeing cause in correlation without an explaining mechanism.]

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