Vol. 20 No. 3 (2023): Memory

From Istanbul to Detroit: International networks of Islamic art in the early 20th century

Zeynep Simavi
Istanbul Technical University
V. Gül Cephanecigil
Istanbul Technical University

Published 2023-11-28


  • Historiography and formation of Islamic art,
  • Detroit Institute of Arts,
  • Mehmet Aga-Oglu,
  • Rudolf Meyer Riefstahl,
  • Wilhelm (William) R. Valentiner

How to Cite

Simavi, Z., & Cephanecigil, V. G. (2023). From Istanbul to Detroit: International networks of Islamic art in the early 20th century. A|Z ITU JOURNAL OF THE FACULTY OF ARCHITECTURE, 20(3), 463–479. https://doi.org/10.58278/0.2023.16


While past decades have seen the rise of historiographical studies on Islamic art exploring collections, exhibitions and influential figures, the international nature of the formative years of the discipline, especially that of networks of people, is an aspect that needs further investigation. This article explores the beginnings of Islamic art in the United States by taking a well-known figure in Turkey at its center. Mehmet Aga-Oglu, curator of Islamic art at the Evkaf Museum, migrated from Istanbul to Detroit in 1929 to create a collection of Islamic art for one of the oldest museums in the country, Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). A group of international scholars facilitated this transition in their common goal to transform the United States into a leader in the academic studies of Islamic art history. By taking this little studied case, this article explores the key role this network of scholars played in establishing a new academic discipline in North America, which resulted in a little-known connection between Turkey and the United States as well as a keen interest in Turkish art and collections in Turkey in furthering the scholarship of Islamic art produced in the first half of the 20th century. To this end, this article outlines the beginnings and state of the field in 20th century; explores DIA’s search for a curator and Aga-Oglu’s appointment through the efforts of Bernard Berenson, Rudolf Meyer Riefstahl and Wilhelm R. Valentiner to highlight their unrecognized contributions; and Aga-Oglu’s curatorial work at DIA from 1929 to 1933.