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For far too long, Evliya Çelebi (1611–c1684) and his Book of Travels have been almost entirely unknown outside Turkey, and little read except by scholars. The publication of this wonderfully rich, lively selection from the ten volumes of Evliya’s manuscript, in a clear, vigorous and atmospheric English translation, is sure to bring this monumental work the attention it deserves. Including an informative introduction, a useful guide to literary allusions, a glossary, several maps and a generous selection of full-colour illustrations, this is a beautiful book at a reasonable price that connoisseurs of Turkey will want to read and reread, and which deserves to find its way onto university reading lists.
Evliya Çelebi liked to eat. Born in Istanbul and raised at the court of Murad IV, he also liked to travel and do a lot of other things, as readers will quickly discover. Composed from notes kept during more than 40 years of journeys throughout imperial lands when the Ottoman Empire was at its most extensive, Evliya’s often astonishing record opens up life in an era still little known and understood, and reveals a man fascinated by everything he saw.
He tells of spending 40 days with companions on summer pastures south of Sofia, “savouring the regional delights… trout that we caught in the lake and cooked in butter… milk and cream and yoghurt, curds and whey and buttermilk and beestings [the first milk a cow gives after calving] and cheeses, and butter-baked breads and pastries” and “fattening ourselves on roasted lamb”.
Despite rumours to the contrary, we never did manage to procure a lamb for roasting while on the 2009 Evliya Çelebi Ride (see Cornucopia 43), but I will never forget sampling all those other delicacies, as well as the “strawberries and chestnuts, wild pears, sour plums, medlars and rowan berries” that Evliya enjoyed. I recall how the local village-baked bread tasted marvellously different wherever we went, much as it must have done in his day. And I hope that Evliya, when he passed through Elmalı on the climb into the Domaniç Mountains, enjoyed a version of the exquisite makarna that we were served there, baked with butter and sprinkled with spicy chopped pieces of lamb cooked with garlic and parsley.
Evliya called himself “a wandering dervish and world traveller”, which is to say that he was a pious Muslim with the inquiring, scientific mind characteristic of the era, as well as the broad and bawdy sense of fun of the wandering Sufi. Wherever he went, he sought out the company of dervishes, investigated local mysteries and recorded what he saw and heard. With documentary precision he catalogues cities, their population, economy and revenue. With an architect’s eye he describes the beautiful bathhouses of Sofia and Bitlis. Piously he recollects his pilgrimage to Mecca and his visits to the tombs of Nasreddin Hoca and other saints. With zeal he records local legends, describes regional costumes and transcribes examples of regional dialects.
Evliya was evidently “born to strange sights”, in John Donne’s phrase, and lovingly recounts miracles and feats of magic in exactly the same objective terms he uses to report natural wonders such as trees, flowers, mountains, rivers, crocodiles, snakes, elephants and monkeys. Of the magical displays that he assures us he witnessed, the shape-changing Bulgarian chicken-witch and the shamanic pissing displays of Molla Mehmed in Bitlis are among my favourites. He would also have us believe that he watched as a Kalmyk shaman performed an excremental ritual that caused a river “as broad and deep as the Golden Horn” to freeze over, allowing the Ottoman army to cross.
A Sufi with a scientific mind, Evliya was no simple mystic regaling readers with a series of unusual traveller’s tales. Able to recite the Koran from memory, he was at once learned, witty and pious. In 1631 he dreamt that he saw “the holy Prophet in person” but “instead of begging him for intercession [sefa’at], by a slip of the tongue begged for travel [seyahat] instead.” Amused, the Prophet granted him both. Some years later, returning home from a jaunt to Bursa, Evliya records how his father, who had not known or approved of the trip, dreamt that several saints appeared, instructing him to approve of his son’s wanderings and to advise him to record all he saw “and call it Book of Travels”. Evliya later tells how his father’s ghost appeared to bless him on his final journey to Mecca in 1671.
There are times when his piety takes shocking turns. While travelling in the Morea (Peloponnese), he is surprised to be recognised by the daughter of an emir with whom he stayed some years before. On discovering she has become the captive wife of a local Greek “captain”, and that she attends church “with her husband”, his first thought is: “I ought to kill this cursed woman.” She runs away at his approach, leaving him to lament the number of Muslims held captive. In an exciting section recounting his adventures riding with Tartar irregulars on raids into Western Europe, Evliya merrily describes slaughtering thousands of “infidel souls” while pillaging their villages of “splendid stuffs and rare textiles and countless lovely boys and girls”. “Praise be to God,” he declares after one of numerous such raids, “this humble one too got as my share three slave boys and three virgin maids, six wind-swift steeds, several gold-embroidered women’s dresses and vests and silver coins”.
He later advocates the summary execution of some brigands that he and his companions have captured, recording how “we made them kneel down and, in a single moment, with our sharpened swords, made their heads roll on the ground like polo balls and erased their inauspicious beings from the page of time”. Yet his piety caused him to disapprove of the Safavid tradition of taking three days to torture criminals to death.
Evliya’s account combines magical tales of a kind familiar from The Thousand and One Nights with storytelling traditions found among villagers and dervishes. He further blends these low topics with allusions to more elevated works, the Koran and Hadith, and Persian classics such as Firdawsi’s Book of Kings and Sa’di’s Rose Garden. His writing shows him steeped in the erotic metaphors of the Persian poets and adept at the witty word games of Ottoman court poetry. Like James Joyce in this and other respects, Evliya delighted in sexual puns and was fascinated by euphemisms and regional terms for human genitalia. “The traveller,” he insists, “needs to know” certain “foolish expressions… since he might be the object of cursing,” which, whether in the Albanian or Gypsy dialect, invariably involved what might happen to the sexual organs of family members.
Evliya’s comments on the anchovies (hamsi) of Trabzon are a characteristic blend of aesthetic appreciation, scientific analysis, bawdiness and wordplay. “With regard to its properties,” he writes, “it is first of all an elegant fish, about a span in length, rather purplish and shiny and plump. Its benefit is such that if a man eats it for seven days he will go to his wife and have his own ‘fish’ eaten seven times every night. It is very invigorating…” Such comments echo the idioms of Mevlana’s celebrated Mesnevi tales, with their propensity for celebrating love in all manner of ways.
Turkey, with its magnificent landscapes and multi-layered history, its mixture of peoples and cultures, its natural wonders and splendid foods, has long attracted travellers and inspired generations of great writers, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Lord Byron to Demetrius Cantemir and Jean de Thévenot, to Rose Macaulay and William Dalrymple. But Evliya Çelebi is the greatest of Ottoman travel writers, if not one of the greatest travel writers of his own or any other period. This is not only because of the geographical and historical range of his travels, and for the otherwise unavailable yet fascinating details of social life that he records, but also because – as Dankoff and Kim make evident – he wrote with great enthusiasm and vigour and knew how to tell a gripping story.
Gerald MacLean is the author of Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire Before 1800 (Palgrave Macmillan)
Follow the project to retrace Evliya’s footsteps across Anatolia, described in Cornucopia 43, at http://hoofprinting.blogspot.com
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