Evliya Çelebi: an Ottoman Traveller

By Lev Myshkin, September 15, 2011

Evliya Çelebi

Evliya Çelebi

Known variously as a Turkish Pepys, a Muslim Montaigne and an Ottoman Herodotus, 17th century traveller, Evliya Çelebi, recounts his adventures in the 10-volume “Seyahatname” (Book of Travels). A new translation has revived interest in this remarkable man.

The Book of Travels by Evliya Çelebi is not just a fascinating travel book, it is a key source for understanding the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century, despite the fact that the author had a reputation for occasionally confusing fact with fiction. Evliya Çelebi was considered something of a well-kept secret amongst historians until now, but with this new translation that may be set to change.

Evliya Çelebi (1611 – 1682) travelled extensively through the Ottoman Empire and neighbouring countries for 40 years. Along the way he wrote his travelogue, the Seyahatname, which eventually comprised ten books: 1. Istanbul and surrounding areas (1630); 2. Anatolia, the Caucasus, Crete and Azerbaijan (1640); 3 Syria, Palestine, Armenia and Rumelia (1648); 4. Eastern Anatolia, Iraq, and Iran (1655); 5. Russia and the Balkans (1656); 6. Military Campaigns in Hungary (1663/64); 7. Austria, the Crimea, and the Caucasus for the second time (1664); 8. Greece and then the Crimea and Rumelia for the second time (1667–1670); 9. the Hajj to Mecca (1671); 10 Egypt and the Sudan (1672).

The “Turkish Pepys” was born into a well-to-do family (his father was the imperial goldsmith) and it is thought that he received an excellent education. Evliya Çelebi himself tells us that he was taught to recite the Koran in its entirety (it took him 8 hours) by his tutor Evliya Mehmed Efendi and he continued the practice of reciting the Koran every Friday for his entire life. He would have been entitled to call himself “Efendi” due to his skill in Koran recitation but he opted for the title of Çelebi which roughly translated means “Gentleman”.

Evliya Çelebi could afford to travel constantly as he possessed inherited wealth and powerful family connections in Istanbul. Nevertheless he worked constantly during his travels, adapting to a variety of situations by making good use of his learning, witty repartee and fine singing voice. His occupations included working as an Imam, a muezzin, a courier, and a raconteur. Throughout the chronicle he describes himself variously as a bachelor (mücerred), mystical seeker (dervish), and a fakir.

An Ottoman Yraveller – Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi,
translation and commentary by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim,
published by Eland

A new translation, by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, of selections from Evliya Çelebi’s Book of Travels has just been published by Eland Publishing, giving us a taste of each of the ten volumes. Robert Dankoff is Professor Emeritus of Turkish and Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago (and also the author of An Ottoman Mentality: the World of Evliya Çelebi) and Sooyong Kim is Visiting Assistant Professor at Bryn Mawr College. Their translation is accessible and eminently readable although the authors do warn that many modern readers will find the endless references and allusions to Islamic and Persian lore somewhat tough going or just incomprehensible. The originally powerful associations conjured up by allusions to Sa’di’s Rose Garden (1258) and to the Koran and Hadith will be lost on most of us, but this does not detract from the historical importance or the pleasure of reading the chronicle.

It all started with a dream in which the Prophet Muhammad himself blessed Evliya Çelebi’s intention to travel the world. The chronicle begins close to home, with a depiction of his own city Istanbul with an incredibly detailed description of the Sultan Suleyman Mosque. A minute account is also given of the walled town of Galata with its famous fortress (its circuit is 10,060 paces) all greatly enlivened by a trenchant portrayal of the city’s international community and its habits. The inhabitants are mostly sailors, merchants, craftsmen and artisans like joiners and caulkers. With a touch of malice he says “The Greeks are tavern keepers. The Armenians are sellers of pressed mat (pastirma) and wealthy merchants. The Jews are intermediaries in the marketplace. The Jewish boys are male prostitutes – there is no more despised group of catamites than they.”

One of the more enlightening and amusing sections is Evliya Çelebi’s visit to Vienna and particularly to the Church of St Stephen. The architecture and decoration are examined with his customary scrupulousness and he gives an account of the castrati singers and the church’s organ; the latter he describes as having a “liver piercing sound, like the voice of the Antichrist, that makes a man’s hair stand on end”. He was clearly impressed with the mechanics but passed the whole contraption off as mere “white magic”.

At times our credibility is strained somewhat by such tales as that of the virgin who gives birth to a baby elephant or the story of the Bulgarian witch who turns herself into a hen and her children into chickens. Some of these more fantastical episodes have given Evliya Çelebi the reputation of an entertainer rather than that of an eminent historian. Despite these occasional lapses into the imaginary, Evliya Çelebi is often portrayed as an enlightened precursor of modern thinkers, believing in equality, freedom of thought and intellectual debate but there is no question that he was a man of his time, albeit occasionally a slightly eccentric one.

He gives an extensive summary of the history of Jerusalem and the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Upon visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre he reminds us that “Even now 5,000 or 10,000 hell-doomed infidels gather here every year on their infamous festival of the Red Egg (Easter).”

The account of his years in Egypt are full of fascinating information, from snake-charmers and their trade, to crocodiles (even sex with them), prostitutes, pyramids, fellahin wedding ceremonies and female circumcision.

He was also a military man and something of a diplomat. He took part in the battle against the Mongols in Lebanon, and the Celali revolts in Anatolia, witnessed the siege of Zerinvar on the Croatian border and participated at the Battle of St. Gotthard, leaving an extremely detailed report. He was part of the embassy of Qara Mehmed Pasha to the court of Vienna in the capacity of muezzin and was sent twice to Tabriz to conduct negotiations with the Safavid governor.

When Evliya Çelebi takes a break from fighting the German infidels, he offers a delightful interlude describing the difference between the Austrians and the Hungarians. The Austrians are given short shrift for their lack of skill in shooting muskets and their insistence on washing their faces in the morning with urine. The Hungarians are considered a touch more civilized as they wash their faces with water like any good Ottoman and they are clean and above all lay a generous table.

The Seyahatname is one of the few accounts of the 17th century Ottoman world from the perspective of a Muslim, which makes it a vital historical document. Evliya Çelebi has left us with an amusing, knowledgeable and wide-ranging travel book covering the politics, linguistics, music, science and the supernatural throughout the Ottoman Empire.

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