Prof. Dr. Erdoğan Yüzer, professor, has made many a significant contribution to Turkey’s natural stone industry over his 60-year long career. He’s watched the sector industrialize first-hand and testifies so to anyone who asks. He founded Turkey’s first rock mechanics laboratory at Istanbul Technical University. In the 1990s, he and a team of researchers at ITU’s Faculty of Mining pioneered a project to extract Turkey’s first-ever natural stones inventory, backed by support from the DPT (State Planning Organization). He insisted on using the term natural stone at a time when people were still referring to all stone as marble until it caught wind. He organized Turkey’s first ever-international natural stone symposium, again at ITU, to which representatives from some 39 countries attended. We recently caught up with Prof. Dr. Yüzer to talk about his extraordinary career and the natural stone industry then and now. We also asked him about a new book project that he and various colleagues are working collaboratively on – intended to teach the world about that rich natural stone heritage that Anatolia is heir to.
How did you first get into geology and natural stone?
Erdoğan Yüzer: I majored in Geophysics and Geology at Istanbul University, and earned my BSc in 1959. I then stayed an additional year to complete my MSc at the ITU Hydrogeology Institute; I earned that in 1960, and became one of Turkey’s first hydro-geologists. It was around that time that I’d met the late professor Dr. Kemal Erguvanlı. I would end up working with him day and night for 30 years. He may have passed away in 1989, but the man’s principles and infectious love of natural stone have remained with me to this very day. Long story short, I owe my becoming Turkey’s first-ever author about marble and building stones entirely to him. I retired in 2004, but I’ve yet to throw in the towel. As the saying goes, “Retirement is only means that it’s time for a new adventure.” Hence, I intend to keep on working until I’m too exhausted to.
You did your MSc and PhD at ITU. You then headed to the United States to study Rock Mechanics. What sort of doors did that open for you when you returned home?
EY: I’ve absolutely got to tell you about my doctoral student years first. They’re hugely important to me. I spent four years under Professor Erguvanlı’s guidance researching various engineering geology-type problems posed by proposed damn and lake project to be built over Batman Creek. The site is where the historic Malabadi Bridge happens to sit, between the provinces of Diyarbakır and Siirt in south-eastern Anatolia. Silvan Dam and its reservoir, as it is now called, is still under construction. That’s where I did my PhD. Looking back, the experience I’d gained in that part of Turkey was invaluable. I refer to that interval of my life as my stewing period. Why stewing, you ask? Well, not only was that chapter critical for me both socially and career-wise, but I also literally stewed under the region’s sweltering heat, which could climb as high as 45, even 50 °C! More importantly, I got the chance to witness up-close 1960s south-eastern Anatolia’s sociological and living conditions and the problems thereof. Needless to say, I now understand how far we’ve progressed since then. Anyways, I completed my dissertation in 1964; it was accepted in 1965. Now it was time for me to figure out what exactly to do next. Many in the academic community back then were talking about rock mechanics without knowing exactly what it was. I myself was curious.
I wanted to study it as I already was into natural stone. As soon as I made up my mind, I looked into how I could study abroad so that I could pursue this field. I got in contact with a number of international universities, including two in the United States. The University of Minnesota and Cornell University were the best two institutions to study rock mechanics at the time. I got positive replies from both. I ended up spending two years in America – on a part-time scholarship plus state assistance – studying rock mechanics and engineering geology under the tutelage of professors C. Fairhust and G. Kierch. Upon returning to Turkey, I had this yearning to take the knowledge that I’d acquired abroad and do something for my nation. I decided to examine the inner mechanical properties of natural stone. I made several trips to Marmara Island, where I compared (and contrasted) local marble and dolomite. The experiments I did there became my dissertation for my associate professorship, which I finished in 1971.
You refer to Marmara Island as the place where “you gave your heart to stone.” What did you gain from your time in its quarries?
EY: The inner structure of stone –as it forms– reveals clues about itself, and about how it wants to be used. I wanted to conduct a battery of experiments on that so that I could study it. Stating in 1964, I spent the better part of two years going to and from Marmara Island to examine the marble and dolomite there, and collect samples for lab work. What I learned was this: Marmara Island’s quarries are on par with those of Carrara, Italy in terms of their resource wealth. We’re talking about bounty bursting at the seams of a fifteen kilometre by three-kilometre expanse, east to west, and that continues for at least 200 metres beneath the sea. That’s rare, by contrast to the rest of the world. Whilst working there (and under very primitive conditions, typical of the 1960s), I got to observe traces of ancient quarry mining dating back to the Roman Empire. Local masons working town of Saraylar told me some rather colourful stories as well. On a side note, I wish to acknowledge how the first generation of masons toiled away in those quarries in the 1950s and 60s to the point that they even carried water on their backs! Their labour will never be forgotten.
Marmara Island, the home of Marmara marble, has given both the world and Turkey alike has given the breath of life to many a prominent structure. Do you think that we’re making the most of the island’s potential both artistically and touristically speaking?
EY: In short, no – not in the way it deserves. That said, the Township of Saraylar on the island’s northern edge, has been organizing annual sculpture contests since the early 2000s. Sculptors from all over the world and all over Turkey spend a month on the island chiselling works of art out of blocks of marble given to them by local quarry, and then they get to showcase their work. Most of those sculptures now adorn Saraylar Harbour. While I applaud such an effort, I don’t feel that it is enough. The Township also happens to be home to one of the world’s oldest stone factories, founded in 1912. It was renovated in 1930, but now it lies in ruins. I would love to approach the Township and have it turned into a natural stone museum. The island features ancient quarries the remains of which you can still see today, abandoned columns, and active high-tech quarries – all side by side. If you couple all that (i.e. the factory and quarries) with tourist resting spots and beaches, then it’s easy to evaluate the island is one big treasure trove. When you walk down Saraylar’s streets, you’re walking on marble sidewalks that were once part of the island’s quarries. Just imagine! Where else on Earth can you experience such an exhibition? What more can I say?
You founded Turkey’s first Rock Mechanics Laboratory at Istanbul Technical University. How important was that laboratory for the development of the country’s natural stone industry?
EY: As soon as I returned to Turkey, I realised that if I were going to apply what I learned abroad here, I would first need a laboratory complete with every piece of equipment I could ever need. The Rock Mechanics Laboratory was born out of that need. I looked to the German government’s Technical Assistance Programme for support, and imported the MTS –a material tensile tester– into Tukey. Today, many a university across the country now have rock mechanics labs. Our goal was to quantitatively analyse stone via rigorous experimentation. The results thereof would end up serving as the basis for the IMIB’s catalogues of the day. We’ve maintained close ties with the IMIB since its conception back in 1976. They exploit our experimental findings in their catalogues both for internal use as well for sales purposes. They, in turn, provide us with logistical and other heart-warming forms of assistance – hence why we are still as close as ever.
You’ve watched Turkey’s natural stone industry evolve during your 60-year career. What impact have Turkey’s economic reforms – especially those post-1980 – and the country’s transition to a liberal economy had on the industry?
EY: Back in 2009, the IMIB complied and published series of interviews under the titled “Those Who’ve Contributed to Turkey’s Natural Stone Sector”. In it, I tried to lay out my fifty years of experience from 1959 to 2009 in ten-year intervals. Now, I want to tell you all about what I’ve seen event and development wise in Turkey within the past ten or so years since 2009. If there is one “pie that I’ve had my finger in” so to speak, it is that more people are referring to natural stone as natural stone and not marble. I couldn’t be more thrilled. We’ve finally joined the rest of the world in correctly distinguishing the two as separate things. Still, depending on situation, I encourage people say marble and other types of natural stone instead. A book we wrote I wrote back in 2008 with Y. Güngör and S. Angı, “Speaking of Natural Stone” has sold out within the past 10 years. In 2016, I, Y. Güngör, and S. Aydoğan put together a second book, “The Story of Natural Stone.” In writing that and by using lots of visuals, we wanted to teach the public about natural stone and make it attractive to them. We wouldn’t have been able to publish it were it not for the Suat Sarısoy, Ali Kahyaoğlu, and Aydın Dinçer’s encouragement and support – I can’t thank them enough. The second half of the 1980s marked an explosion in the growth of the natural stone sector. Back in the 60s, people viewed working with natural stone more as artisanry than anything else. Back then, Marmara Island produced a very finite quantity of stone products, namely for bathhouse basins and bathroom titles. They referred to that as masonry. Come the 80s, masons began travelling abroad and observing that the rest of the world was doing with stone. This laid the groundwork for two major changes – the first legal, the second technical. Regarding the former until the 80s, you could only operate on a quarry upon gaining limited permission from a provincial private administration that you’d have to bid for. The focus, moreover, was on how many stone blocks you could extract within the short time that was given to you, uncontrolled. Thus, work was very roughly done with no consideration about the quarry in question’s future. Towards the end of the 80s, the government put a stop to that by passing the Stone Quarry Act. That then led to Mining Law 3213. From then on, block stone quarries were treated as mines. This meant that you could now get a permit from now the General Directorate of Mining & Petrol Affairs that effectively makes you a quarry owner, so long as you uphold the conditions of your tender. That, plus the immergence of such technical advancements as diamond wire cutting lead masonry to rapidly evolve from a mere trade into a fully-fledged industry one that is annually growing by leaps and bounds. It only experienced a one percentage of shrinkage in exports last year and that was in spite of pandemic conditions. Both legal and technological developments largely during the 80s are what fuelled that now everaccelerating expansion.
Turkey had unveiled its first natural stone inventory in the 1990s, thanks to the DPT’s support. Alas, it now is out-dated. Could you tell us the lack of an up-to-date inventory for Turkey’s natural stone reserves?
EY: Sure. However, I’d like to note that the MTA (General Directorate of Mineral Research & Exploration) published an inventory in 2019 covering all of Turkey’s 81 provinces, and thereby meeting a significant portion of that need. The first DPT-backed inventory that was published back in the 1990s was the product of a five-year study that I did with Professor Mustafa Erdoğan plus a few other colleagues. It was comprised of five volumes and focused on all of the quarries across Turkey at the time, under the conditions of the time. That said, the MTA’s up-to-date project fills in a major gap.
How has the natural stone industry evolved in the time passed?
EY: For a start, people now view natural stone differently. Those who pioneered masonry are thrilled through their socks to be able to pass their trade on to their children and even grandchildren! That young generation knows about they world. They take part in international natural stone fairs and keep a close eye on whatever is trending. When they return to Turkey, they do what they can to organize fairs across the country in order to generate a market. One example of such is the internationally acclaimed Izmir MARBLE held at the Izmir Fair. It has made its way in to the top three fairs of its kind because of what it has to offer and because of who joins it. I personally think that the industry’s explosion was calculated beforehand. People have exploited, introduced, and marketed natural stone correctly. However, we’re missing something: we fall short when it comes to properly teaching our fellow compatriots about natural stone and endearing it do them. Take Italy, for example. They lead the way when it comes to natural stone, and Turkey has a lot to learn from them in that respect. Italians’ sense of awareness about marble is heavily engrained into them; they inherited it from their Roman ancestors. Many of the sidewalks of Verona are lined with marble from the province’s own quarries. We haven’t been able to achieve that here in Turkey. We haven’t been able to convince those in public office to do so either. We currently export stone blocks as well as processed stone all over the world, including China – which likes the former. America goes for the later, according to its own tastes. Briefly put: So long as we exploit our reserves in a formal and environmentally-friendly manner, then we’ll have more than enough stone to supply China and the rest of the world’s demands.
What do you think is the IMIB’s place and importance in grand scheme of things?
EY: Nearly half of our nation’s mining exports are comprised of natural stone and are done through the IMIB and similar organizations. This is why you see natural stone take centre stage in publications and at events. IMIB had offered my colleagues and me logistic support when “The Story of Natural Stone” hit bookshelves in 2016. IMIB published (researcher, writer, and master engineer) Yaşar Yılmaz’s book “Traces of Anatolian Natural Stone Around The World,” which made its way abroad. They also supported Dr. Nejat Kun’s book “Turkey’s Marble Beds.” On that note, I’d like to acknowledge how dead on target and successful the IMIB’s other joint projects. They’ve also done a fabulous job at unifying mining across Turkey, boosting exports, swaying public opinion and prejudice about mining in a more positive direction, and providing scholarships to earth science and mining engineering/ore processing majors.
Your career is full of firsts. You organized Turkey’s first-ever international natural stone symposium at ITU. Representatives from 39 countries took part. The event was even turned into a book. What can you comment about that?
EY: In 1976, Professor Erguvanlı (may he rest in peace) set up the National Turkish Engineering Geology Committee in an attempt to unite Turkey with the rest of the world. One of the many things that it did was organize expeditions abroad – I joined most of them. Somewhere at the beginning of the 2000s, I got it in my head that we ought to host a convention that would showcase Turkey’s abundance. On a side note, at that point I’ve taken over Professor Erguvanlı’s role in running the committee after he died in 1989. Like I said, I flew to as many international conventions as possible, including South Africa – where I proposed that we host a convention in Istanbul in 2003. I then gave a presentation. Our proposal/invitation was accepted. And, in 2003, we ushered close to 300 representatives from all over the world at a symposium titled “Industrial Minerals & Building Stones”. All of the presentations given at the event were later compiled into a book. No symposium of that magnitude has been held since. We’re still in the process of organizing a similar event for this year. However, whether the pandemic will allow us to do so or not remains up in the air. I’d like to add one thing though, and that is that the City of Izmir and MARBLE Fair regularly host natural stone congresses, which are of international calibre in their own right, thanks to the applaudable efforts of Professor Faruk Çalapkulu and his colleagues.
In retrospect, how would you evaluate all of your contributions to Turkey’s natural stone sector? Moreover, have you any projects up your sleeve that you haven’t gotten around to doing yet?
EY: First, I wish to express how delighted I am to be a member of Istanbul Technical University, where I’ve called home for the past 60 years. I spent my student years in the Taşkışla and Gümüşsuyu buildings, followed by 27 years in the historic Maçka Faculty Mining as an instructor, and followed by 27 more on the Ayazağa Campus at the other Faculty of Mining. I retired in 2004; but, like I said earlier, I’ve yet to throw in the towel just yet! Both my university and my faculty have been so kind as to name symposiums and whole buildings in my honour, and publish books about me. I couldn’t be more thankful. I’m still doing stuff with natural stone. However, the only difference now is that I simply give my opinion when I’m asked to. Before, I would talk, write, and scribble when I wasn’t asked to! We’re currently in the midst of putting together a book in English aimed at promoting Turkish natural stone beyond Turkish borders. I’ve teamed up with professors Celal Şengör and Yücel Yılmaz, and master engineer Yaşar Yılmaz to write the manuscript, which will walk through Anatolia’s past, present, and the many civilisations it has accommodated over the centuries, all the while giving foreigners insight into Turkey’s rich and teeming natural stone inheritance. We began the project three years ago. We’ve done the fieldwork and finished writing all of the key chapters. We hope to wrap everything up when we get a chance to get together, even if briefly. We were hoping to finish it last year (2020), but we got side-tracked by the pandemic. I hope that we’ll get to do that this year instead. As a final note, I want to thank Yasemin Şener Çobanoğlu, architect and Natura Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, for publishing this interview for nature and stone lovers alike to savour.