Published on 22 July 2010
Celal Sengör in conversation with Frank Werner
“My special thanks go to Dr. Nathan Niemy, who introduced me to the joys of buying books from the Internet, despite the danger of being murdered by my wife.”
Celal Sengör is one of the leading geologists and specialist on earthquakes worldwide. He is a professor of the Technical University in Istanbul – and possesses what is probably the largest private library on geology and it’s history from the very beginnings until today. His library, built into the hills above the Bosporus, contains more than 30,000 volumes, watched over by portraits and busts of famous geologists, lava “bombs” hanging from the ceiling and odds and ends brought back from many journeys. There is a thesis on the geology of Armenia, of which only three copies are known, one in the Library of Congress, one elsewhere and one on the shelves of this library. Nowhere else will one find so many famous, rare and often obscure texts on geology than in this library on the slopes of Anadolu Hisari above the “Sweet Waters of Asia”. A second building is planned, which will house even more and even rarer works. New books arrive daily, which Sengör buys from catalogues, from “sahafs” (antiquarian booksellers), and, according to his wife Oja, in abundance.
"All of them!"
All this is not a passion. Celal Sengör vehemently denies being a collector. He needs these books: “All of them!” He never lends out books. He works and lives with (and quite often in) his library. Despite his many books and the many honours bestowed upon them, he loves life and he loves his Istanbul. His knowledge of the city and its history is unrivalled. “From the stone age to the 21st century, pick your time and you can go there in this city” he says. And not only that: The best bean soup in the world is cooked near the Suleiman Mosque and the best lokum is made by the last sultan’s confectioner.
Celal Sengör's enthusiasm is contagious. To see him standing among his books, unpacking new acquisitions, talking about his field, reading aloud or talking about geology, is a joy. No book person could not be infected by his enthusiasm and good humour. Frank Werner was fortunate enough to eat bean soup in Istanbul and to visit the library.
The best bean soup - and an interview
1. How many books do you own?
I’ve never counted them, but there must be over 30,000.
2. All geology?
In the widest sense. It is an eclectic library. Of course, all the books on the history of geology belong here. This begins in antiquity and continues until today. I am interested in anything that has to do with geology in the broadest sense: history, mythology, cognitive science, the lives of the great geologists and much more. Aristoteles wrote on the character of the earth. The story of the Argonauts is highly interesting! They rowed up the Bosporus right below my window into the Black Sea. I even own a Scheuchzer Bible because the plates show beautiful views of the Alps and depictions of the Deluge.
3. Since when have you been buying books?
When I was a little boy I visited the second hand booksellers in their bazaar here in Istanbul, accompanied by my German nanny Ingeborg, who found German books there. The "sahafs" have their own bazaar, one of the oldest in Istanbul. It was already used as a marketplace for manuscripts and paper by the Byzantines. The other bazaar sell jewellery, carpets, spices and other treasures, I spent all my pocket money with the sahafs, where my treasures were stacked.
4. What was your first “real” book?
The complete “Kosmos” by Humboldt, together with the Bromme atlas. I bought it in Berlin for 1000 DM in 1974, on the recommendation of Walter Seuffer. I had to starve for three days before my next cheque arrived from Istanbul.
5. Which is your favourite book?
I love them all!
6. But there has to be one?
All of them! Perhaps Eduard Suess’ “Das Antlitz der Erde“, a veritable poem celebrating the earth. Humboldt’s “Kosmos”, of course. I still peruse that with the greatest pleasure. But, as you know, I can spend all night reading a Baedeker “Konstantinopel” with pleasure and benefit.
7. How much time do you spend in your library?
Nearly all day and many hours of the night. My library is my study, the centre of my research and my scientific studies. That is why I never lend out a book. I might need it, and then it wouldn’t be there. A dreadful thought! That is why I am planning a second library for my other house. Without books it would be intolerable. I never buy a book just to own it. I read!
8. All your books are in good condition and nice bindings, no tattered or “reading” copies. They are well preserved and carefully stored. Like a collector’s library …
9. Of course. Who would not prefer to read a well bound book instead of a tatty one. Sometimes I have books rebound. But I much prefer buying good copies. Which also have the advantage of lasting much longer. And the library is tidy because otherwise I wouldn’t find what I need right away.
10. Where do you buy your books?
Everywhere. When I’m travelling I visit every antiquarian book shop I can. Every catalogue I get is studied closely and seldom put aside before I find something. Sometimes I send out desiderata lists, but the results are meagre, which I find disappointing. And where would I be without the internet? There is no better way to search for subjects or titles. It is always a great day when the parcels arrive.
Dear Celal, thank you for this interview and your unequalled hospitality.
The interview was first published in German on www.antiquare.de, and is presented here by permission of Frank Werner (Brockhaus/Antiquarium) and Celal Sengör. The dedication above is from Celal Sengör’s book “The Large Wave-Length Deformation of the Lithosphere”. The pictures show Celal Sengör, the bean soup, a sahaf in Istanbul, Celal Sengör and Frank Werner bemoaning the loss of the library of Pergamon at the site of this sad event.