A Moving Story: Exploring the Manuscript Collection of Haji Hilmi Tolluoğlu-Ali İhsan Tangören in America
Dr. Yaşar Çolak
Ibn Haldun University/Istanbul
I was in Mecca , the mother of all cities, in 2011. At the time, I was the head of the Diyanet Umrah Mission in Mecca and there was an incessant flow of busy days filled with duty, worship, prayer, life, hopes, facts, and everyday engagements. There are times in life when one wants to stop time and savor the moment. I experienced one of those moments when I was cruising in a vehicle alone towards Medina, reflecting on the meaning of life. I received a call from the then president of the Diyanet, a public institution in charge of religious services in Turkey. He informed me of my new appointment that would mark a turning point in my life.
Life is such a thing, whatever you do, whatever you plan, it takes you along its own flow. You face your fate. You can not stray a single step from it. I was posted to the United States as the Religious Services Counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC. To be honest, it was not something my wife and I had wanted. We would have preferred an appointment to the Diyanet mission inthe Netherlands, where many of our relatives and friends lived at the time. My post as the Religious Services Counselor in the US lasted seven years. Reflecting back, I can say that God has bestowed upon mean abundance of blessings and gave me an opportunity to serve the members of the Turkish and Muslim community at large. During my time in the US, myself and my colleagues were able to establish the Diyanet Center of America (DCA), a landmark Muslim institution in Maryland, overcoming many challenges and obstacles during the construction process. I am very proud that the DCA has become a beacon of hope, offering a myriad of valuable services to the community as well as seeking solutions to the common problems of the Muslim ummah living in America. At the same time, I am particularly glad to see that DCA brings people together and creates new spaces for interaction.
In retrospect, it seemed unlikely to many that we could be build such an Islamic institution and institutionalize religious services in a country where, in 1944, it was not possible to find an institution to carry out funeral services according to the Islamic customs and practices for Mehmet Münir Ertegün, then the Turkish Ambassador in Washington, DC.
With the blessings of God, we built a mosque resembling in its grandeur to the likes of the Selimiye and Sultan Ahmed Mosques on a land 10,000miles away from Turkey. Despite many roadblocks, our team did its best to represent our country and our institutions in America. We had a chance to touch the lives of countless Muslims, which in itself has been a fulfilling accomplishment. As a result, the DCA has already shown its potential to be an eternal voice, a stand, a door, and a contact point that can send a universal message to humanity. It is a magnificent building and a tribute to our ancestors. It was my hope and aim that DCA would be spiritually connected to Ayyub Sultan Mosque in Istanbul as well as the Kaaba in Mecca.
Today, looking back at this past, I can hear a hidden voice, whispering: What did I accomplish? In what ways did I contribute to a meaningful cause? This essay is an attempt at answering these worthwhile questions. This essay is about an interesting story on love of books and history by Ali İhsan Tangören who, inspired by his homeland, showed a painstaking effort in the US for 50 years to preserve materials that belonged to his cultural heritage.
The story begins
It was the early days of 2016. We had been working hard preparing for the Diyanet Center’s grand opening planned for April 2, 2016 and scrambling to complete a long list of to-do items on our checklist and clean the site. One day, Fatih Atan, one of the young workers from Çorum, a city in northern Turkey, came to my office and told me that while cleaning the storage area in the basement of the mosque,he found four or five very old boxes among the junk that looked like suitcases from the 1960s. Assuming the boxes were also junk, he threw one of them into the dumpster with a forklift. When he was throwing the second box into the dumpster, the box tore apart and some of the contents of the box fell to the ground. These were books. When he examined the books, he could not read them because they all were all written, he said, in “old script.” Who could have stored these old books here? It was a mystery to him. He did not know what to do. That was the reason he came to my office.
As an historian, I was excited when I heard him recounting this story. He spoke of old boxes and books that he could not tell what they were. I immediately left my office and ran towards the storage room. I asked Mr. Atan to lower the box he had loaded onto the forklift. To my surprise, it was full of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish manuscripts and printed books. After making some inquiries, it become clear that Ali İhsan Tangören, whom all the members of the community knew very well, placed the boxes, without asking permissioni in the storage where the leftover construction material was stored. We then went about retrieving the box full of books previously thrown into the dumpster.
I personally supervised all the hard work from beginning to the end. By chance, we saved history from being thrown into the garbage. We all realized how serious the situation was and how close we had been to lose potentially valuable historical books. I immediately instructed the workers to take the boxes into my office, the most secure location in the complex. In my spare time, I would open the boxes and carefullye xamine and read the books with great pleasure. The boxes became an addition to my office.
I then asked Himmet Taşkömür and Hüseyin Yılmaz, who teach Ottoman history and Near Eastern languages at Harvard and George Mason Universities respectively, to review the books given their expertise in the field. Their evaluation revealed that the boxes, one of which we retrieved from the dumpster, were filled with extremely valuable historical books on Ottoman civilization. Some of them were very rare materials indeed.
Later that year, when my colleagues were combing through the manuscripts in my office, Tangören suddenly showed up with five additional manuscripts. We thought that there could be more works at his house. In 2017, when we were returning from an official reception at the Turkish Embassy, Taşkömür and I decided to pay a visit to Tangören with the hope to find out if there were other similar works in his possession. Tangören took us to a vacant three-story house in Bethesda, Maryland. He guided us directly to the basement and showed us some manuscripts that he had been storing there. As it is known, basements are not proper places to keep manuscripts and historical works due to high humidity, risk of flooding and safety issues. Both Taşkömür and I were shocked to see this. It was clear that only the blessing of God Almighty had saved these manuscripts from complete destruction in this unsuitable place. In fact, the poor conditions had already caused damage to some of the manuscripts’ texts and hard covers.
We tried to explain to Tangören the importance of preserving our cultural heritage. It took us hours to persuade him that this place was unsuitable to keep these manuscripts. Tangören was an engineer by profession; his outlook in life was conservative, with a strong work ethic and a love for his culture – you will read more about his story later in this essay. Alongside his wife of many years, he had been devoted to helping the Muslim community in the United States. He finally acquiesced and permitted us to take the books to the Diyanet Center of America. Still in our formal attire due to the Embassy function earlier that day, Taşkömür and I grabbed boxes of books and carried them to our vehicle elatedly. A large portion of Tangören’s books was those previously collected by Haji Hilmi Tolluoğlu. Tangören enriched this collection with some items he purchased during his years of mandatory military service in Istanbul.
The collection of Tolluoğlu gives us an important idea about the sources from which an average Ottoman intellectual benefited, as well as giving a glimpse into the popular culture of the time. They suggest that fiqh played a central role in society. Also, most importantly, this collection demonstrates the cultural heritage that the new Republic of Turkey had inherited from the Ottoman era.
Fatih Kanca, then the acting President of the Diyanet Center of America, Mehmet Ali Aracı, the Imam of the Diyanet Mosque and some graduate students from Istanbul Şehir University helped us gently clean the books and prepare the notes pertaining to the physical description of the books. Taşkömür made a considerable effort to establish the database that would provide descriptions of the manuscripts and their contents. After having completed this lengthy process, we put the manuscripts in acid-free boxes for preservation purposes. First, I must acknowledge a very deep indebtedness to Taşkömür who spared no effort in making sure this process progressed meticulously and with utmost care for the manuscripts. Second, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to every member of the DCA family for the sacrifices they have made in order to complete this painstaking work.
I had built a trustful rapport with Tangören during the establishment of the DCA. I assume that is why he considered my recommendation to relocate the books from his basement to the DCA. Next, I needed topersuade him to donate all these books to the Diyanet Center of America. Taşkömür also played a key role in this process.
Upon completion of my appointment in Washington DC., and before leaving the country for Turkey, I wanted to visit Mr. Tangören once more at his home to express my sincere gratitude for his commitment and sacrifices so far to preservethese manuscripts as a tribute to our cultural heritage. On February 22, 2019, my assistant Faruk Yatağan and I drove to his house. Tangören had a guest. He introduced me to his guest, a professor from Georgetown University. During our conversation, the professor mentioned that while walking through the rooms, some old books in a red suitcase caught his eye.
Hearing this, I searched for the red suitcase in the house with excitement and found it within minutes. When I opened it, to my surprise, the contents included yet another treasure trove of manuscripts. I thought it would be possible that there were more manuscripts stored away in the house that we might have missed in our previous search. In the interest of being thorough, Tangören and I decided to go through the storage area yet again for a final search. This time I found twelve books hidden among the household items and knick-knacks. Once we completed this search, I was satisfied that there were no more manuscripts at the house. We sat together and I recorded a long interview with Tangören. I am keeping these voice records in my personal digital archive.
On account of his old age, Tangören had a tendency to forget where he kept the manuscripts. Our efforts pleased him. He offered sincere prayers for us. He stated that he had been contemplating the fate of his books for many years. He thought that his children might not take care of the books when the time came. He believed that his prayers were accepted and he was thankful that God Almighty guided us to preserve these books entrusted to him. I was thrilled that we were able to save an additional 72 manuscripts in this last-minute visit. I see my involvement in this process as one of the most meaningful services I have ever rendered in my life.
Who is Haji Hilmi Tolluoğlu?
Our research showed that Haji Hilmi Tolluoğlu was the son of Haji Jaferi Sadık, known as a learned person in the Ankara region. The nature of the manuscripts from his collection that we have at our possession proves that Tolluoğlu was from a well-educated family. He received madrasa education and graduated from the Maktaba-i Nuwwab, and from the higher education branch of Dar al Funun in Istanbul respectively. He started his career as a school inspector for the Ministry of Education in the Ottoman era, then he taught in madrasas in the late years of the Ottoman rule, and he worked as a judge in local courts. After the new republican regime abolished the sharia courts, he continued to perform similar duties in magistrate courts and served as a criminal judge. During his official duty, Tolluoğlu challenged those who did not want to recognize the validity of the diplomas he received from the Ottoman education system. We can interpret his struggle not as a personal issue but as a resistance to the degrading Ottoman educational system. In the end, he won this fight. He was a religious man who joined the War of Independence and showed great merit on the different war fronts in Anatolia.
The collection includes some Quranic manuscripts likely dating back to the period of Anatolian Principalities predating the Ottoman era, as well as fiqh, hadith and tasawwuf works and their commentaries that were being taught in textbooks in the Ottoman madrasa system. In addition, the collection included masterpieces of Islamic literature such as the Al Qasida Al Burdah, Gulistan and Bostan of Saadi al- Shirazi, and Masnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi. It also includes shamail, dalail and khasais books, depicting the personal character, features, habits, and etiquette of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as popular classics such as Jönks, Ahmadiyah and Muhammadiyah. There are also numerous examples of murakka (patchwork) and calligraphy.
Ali İhsan Tangören’s Story
Tangören was born in 1933 and he immigrated to the United States in early years of 1950, at the age of 20. His grand father served as a cook at the palace of the Ottoman Empire. The family first settled in Ankara and his father received his driver’s license in the early years of the new Republic. He was the 27th driver of the new Republic of Turkey. He previously shared the same last name as Nevzat Tandoğan, a well known governor of Ankara who once, (in)famously said, “Communism will only come if we bring it ourselves!” On the governor’s orders, his father had to change his last name from Tandoğan to Tangören.
He spent his whole childhood in Ankara and received his primary and secondary education there. As a young man he took part in the study circles of Haji Hilmi Tolluoğlu alongside his father and his father’s close friends to receive religious training. According to Ali İhsan Tangören, Haji Tolluoğlu always had a smiling countenance. That was the reason he was called “Kikirik Hoja” among his close friends. Mr. Tangören’s personal interest in the books began to grow in these religious study circles called halaqas. On several occasions, he would also visit Ahmet Hamdi Akseki, the President of Religious Affairs at the time, and had the great blessing of his guidance in his young age.
When Akseki realized his interest in the books, took him under his wing and provided him various religious publications to read. Tangören participated in language courses, became fluent in English, and gave free tours in the Haji Bayram Wali Mosque of Ankara.
After completing his high school education, Tangören started studying medicine in Ankara but with the advice of his American friends, he decided to pursue his university education in America without seeking his father’s permission. He studied Petroleum Engineering in the United States and then decided to settle in this country. He earned his master’s degree and worked in the US for a while as an engineer in his specialty. He married a Turkish lady who also went to America to complete her specialty degree program; they had four children together. As a family, they decided to return to Turkey to work, but it was not easy for them to adjust to the working conditions back home. After having worked for a while in Ankara as a lecturer at the Middle East Technical University, he returned to the US with his family in 1965. When looking at Tangören’s life story, we see the epitome of a “Çılgın Turk.” (Literally: crazy, but here meaning a Turk who is “crazy” enough to not back down against seemingly insurmountable odds).
The story of how Tolluoglu’s books came to Tangören’s possession is also interesting. When Haji Hilmi Tolluoğlu passed away, his family donated some of his manuscript collection to library of Ankara University’s Faculty of Theology. Because Tangören had participated in Tolluoğlu’s study circles, his family decided to gift him the rest of the books that were unwittingly left in the attic of the house.
Tangören shipped these manuscripts and some others he purchased from antique bookstores in Beyazit, Istanbul to America with the help of an American friend before he left the country. When he returned to the United States in 1965, he took them with him wherever he moved for the next forty years, making extraordinary efforts to preserve them.
In the meantime, he even took seminars to learn techniques on how to preserve the manuscripts and tried to implement them in an amateur fashion. He attempted to protect the books from bacteria using a microwave. Since he did not know Arabic or Ottoman Turkish, the script that was used in the books, he requested assistance from experts to develop the catalogue of the collection. Thanks to this endeavors, we found some descriptive notes among the books’ first pages about the author, title, language, and content of the manuscripts. Tangören was clearly a booklover. Only this sincere love explains the sacrifices he endured so that no harm would come to the books. His participation in the study circles of Haji Hilmi Tolluoğlu had a profound effect on him, fostering a love for his homeland and sharpening his conscience in the preservation of his cultural heritage. For him, the books were his country, his past, his childhood, a heritage, a trust, and a door to peace and tranquility. In a sense, they were the source of life.
It is impossible not to admire and respect Tangören for this. He had no intention of selling these books, even when he was going through financial difficulties. For him, the collection he held was a reminder of his ancestors.
Ali İhsan Tangören was left devastated and alone when his wife Gülen Fatma İyigün, who was a student of Süheyl Ünver and who studied art and history, died. As he got older, Mr. Tangören could no longer dedicate enough time to the collection and after pondering seriously about what he should do, he eventually decided to take the collection to the Diyanet Center of America. He did not request any permission to place the books in the storage room. He reports that, instinctively, it felt right that he should not ask! He feared that if he had asked anyone from the DCA for permission, most probably he would have been rejected. In other words, a voice inspired him to bring these books to the storage of the DCA. Thus, the journey of the collection of manuscripts was completed with a stop at this storage room until we were able to retrieve them upon a series of fortunate events. The books that were kept mostly intact under harsh conditions could now return home. A new life was beginning for them. They woke up from a long slumber. The journey that began in the 1950s was almost over. The dream of Ahmet Hamdi Akseki and the prayer of Haji Hilmi Tolluoğlu had come true. Tangören had fulfilled his duty as the entrusted keeper of this collection and history stands witness to this fact.
In order to leave a footnote in historical accounts, I would like to quote Tangören’s response to my question about the books: “Allah responded to me. He accepted my prayers. I used to wonder how to preserve these books entrusted upon my shoulders. I clearly understand now that we are not alone in this world. Allah constantly sends us angels, gives us ideas, and solves our problems. Thanks be to God.”
Tangören did not want any compensation from anyone in return for the books. He now feels a deep inner peace and contentment as he awaits the moment to hand over his real trust to the ultimate owner with the strong faith in his heart and dhikr – rememberance of God – on his tongue. And we have become witnesses to this unusual story…
Tangören’s collection was later transferred to the manuscripts and rare collections section at the headquarters of the Directorate of Religious Affairs in Ankara. This decision was taken for care for conservation purposes with the approval of Tangören. Researchers can use this collection catalogued under the name of Ali İhsan Tangören between 9 am-6pm during the week days.
Finally, I would like to add a few words about Himmet Taşkömür’s efforts. I knew him as a true lover for his culture and an exemplary archivist. He patiently examined all the manuscripts and other pieces, the damaged pages, calendar sheets, and small notes that others could easily remove and throw away. To him, they all had a vital importance in deciphering the codes of the culture formed around the manuscripts. He transformed my office into a manuscript care hospital and was able to raise awareness about these manuscripts like a master who was training his apprentice. I really appreciate his enthusiasm, diligence and his contributions in rescuing this distinctive collection.