An Ottoman Traveller

Evliya Çelebi


An Ottoman Traveller

Evliya Çelebi


Evliya Çelebi was the Orhan Pamuk of the 17th century, the Pepys of the Ottoman world – a diligent, adventurous and honest recorder with a puckish wit and humour. He is in the pantheon of the great travel-writers of the world, though virtually unknown to western readers. This brand new translation by the foremost scholar of his age brings Evliya sparkling back to life, so that we can relish his charm and intelligence once more, whether he is describing high jinks in the bath-houses, being kidnapped by bandits, Ottoman Istanbul in its baroque heyday or a worldwide convention of trapeze artists.

‘It is typically brave of Eland, a superb publishing house that specialises in making available lost jewels of travel writing ... to bring out this unforgettable, fun yet brilliantly compelling selection.’  - Simon Sebag Montefiore, Financial Times
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An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi
Translated by: Robert Dankoff & Sooyong Kim
ISBN 978-1906011-58-1
Format: 482pp demi pb
Place: Ottoman Empire and its neighbours in the 17th century

Author Biography

Evliya Çelebi is variously described as a Turkish Pepys, a Muslim Montaigne or an Ottoman Herodotus. Born in Istanbul in 1611, he started travelling in 1640 and continued for over forty years, stopping eventually in Cairo where he is thought to have died around 1685. Starting with a volume on his native city, he collected his lively and eclectic observations into a ten-volume manuscript the Seyahatname, or Book of Travels. Virtually unknown to western readers, Çelebi is celebrated in the Islamic world as one of the great travel writers of the world. He has long been a favoured source on the culture and lifestyle of the seventeenth-century Ottoman Empire and historians of this period are indebted to his vivid eyewitness descriptions.

Robert Dankoff is Professor Emeritus of Turkish and Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. His research has concentrated on Central Asian and Ottoman Turkish texts. He has published several books, his most recent being An Ottoman Mentality: The World of Evliya Celebi.

Sooyong Kim is Visiting Assistant Professor at Bryn Mawr College, he is currently working on the formation of the Ottoman literary canon in the sixteenth century.

Extract from Chapter One

EVLIYA BEGINS THE Book of Travels with a volume devoted to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire and his birthplace. The volume opens with an account of the dream he has on his twentieth birthday, 19 August 1630, in which the Prophet Muhammad blesses his desire to travel. It proceeds with a historical and geographical survey of Istanbul, including its suburbs along the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.

The opening volume of the Book of Travels is like a guidebook to Istanbul as well as a tribute, offering a vast panorama of life in the city, with descriptions of buildings, monuments and gardens, dress and cuisine, types of occupations and social groups. It also provides a template for Evliya’s narrative and descriptive styles, which aim both to instruct and amuse. And as the centre of his world, Istanbul would become the touchstone and measure of everything he witnessed during his travels.

We have included here Evliya’s description of one of the great imperial mosques of the city; also the churches and taverns of Galata; and the pleasure park of Kağıthane.

The systematic nature of Evliya’s account is reflected in the chapter divisions – a feature found only in this and in the final volume. By far the longest is chapter 270, comprising the 47 guilds of Istanbul craftsmen and merchants parading before the sultan. The excerpts included here (furriers, circumcision barbers, tightrope walkers) give the flavour of these sections that are such rich sources for Ottoman life.

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Merciful, and to Him we turn for help. Praise be to God who has ennobled those honoured with worship and travel, and has vouchsafed for me the path to the holy places and shrines. May blessings be upon him, who laid the foundations of the fortresses of Sharia (the sacred law of Islam), and established them on the basis of prophethood and tariqa (the mystical path of Sufism), and upon his good and pure family. And may abundant blessings and the most excellent salutations be upon him, the protector endowed with exceptional character, the most noble and perfect of creation, the model for prayer who said, ‘Pray as you saw me,’ the infallible guide, Muhammad, who spoke Arabic best. In his honour, God, the Lord of the Realms and Creator of the Heavens, made the earth a pleasant home for the sons of Adam and made them the most noble of all the creatures:

Blessed be God, who ordered all affairs by His will, Without oppression, and without injustice!

May blessings be upon the shadow of God on earth and good order of terrestrial things, sultan and son of the sultan, Sultan Gazi Murad Khan IV, son of Sultan Ahmed Khan, son of Sultan Mehmed Khan (III), son of Sultan Murad Khan III, son of Sultan Selim Khan II, son of Sultan Süleyman Khan, son of Selim Khan I, son of Bayezid Khan II, son of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror. May God’s mercy be upon them all.

May God’s mercy be especially upon Sultan Murad (IV), the gazi khan, may his earth be sweet, the Padishah majestic as Jamshid, the conqueror of Baghdad, with whose service I was honoured when I began these jottings. It was in the year 1041 (1631), in the time of his reign, that while making tours and pleasure outings to the villages and towns and thousands of parks and Iram-like rose gardens around the pleasant land (belde-i tayyibe, cf. Koran 34:15), i.e. Constantinople, the desire to make extensive travels came to mind.

I beseeched the Creator at every moment to grant me health of body, complete journey, and faith to the last breath, asking myself, ‘How can I get free of the pressures of father and mother, teacher and brother, and become a world traveller?’ I was always on good terms with heart- wounded dervishes and glad to converse with them. And when I heard a description of the seven climes and the four corners of the earth, I longed to travel with all my heart and soul. So I became utterly wretched, a vagabond crying out, ‘Might I roam the world? Might it be vouchsafed to me to reach the Holy Land, Cairo and Damascus, Mecca and Medina, and to rub my face at the Sacred Garden, the tomb of the Prophet, glory of the universe?’

By God’s wisdom – Reason for travelling and roaming the land – this humble one and poor supplicant full of fault – world traveller and boon companion of mankind, Evliya the unhypocritical, son of Dervish Mehmed Zılli – always desired God’s guidance in dreams while praising Him abundantly, and sought His succour for a sick heart while reciting Koranic chapters and verses. So I lay down on the pillow of lamentation, in the corner of my hovel, in my birthplace Istanbul, to a sleep of wish fulfilment. It was the night of Ashura in the month of Muharram, the year 1040 (10 August 1630), in a state twixt sleep and wake, that I had a dream.

This humble one saw myself in the Ahi Çelebi mosque, near the Yemiş landing – a mosque built with money lawfully acquired, an ancient mosque where prayers are accepted by God. There were soldiers bearing arms. The door was opened and the light-filled mosque was crowded with a luminous congregation, who were busy performing the dawn prayer. It seems that I stood motionless at the foot of the pulpit and gazed in astonishment at this congregation with their beaming faces.

‘Good sir,’ said I, turning to the person beside me, ‘please tell me who you are, and what your noble name is?’

‘I am one of the Ten Promised Paradise, the patron saint of archers, Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas,’ he replied. I kissed his hand and said, ‘And who, good sir, are the lovely congregation immersed in light on this right side?’

‘They are the spirits of the prophets. In the row behind them are the spirits of the saints and the pure ones. And these are the spirits of the Companions of the Prophet, the Emigrants (from Mecca), the Helpers (in Medina), the People of the Bench (Arbab-ı Suffa – a group of pietists during the lifetime of the Prophet), the martyrs of Karbala, and the Friends. Those to the right of the prayer niche are Abu Bakr and Umar; those to the left, Uthman and Ali. The man in front of the prayer-niche wearing a cap is Uways al-Qarani, the Prophet’s brother in this world and the next. The dark-skinned man at the left wall of the mosque is Bilal the Ethiopian, your patron saint and the caller to prayer of the Prophet. The short-statured man who groups the congregation into rows is Amr Ayyar al-Zamiri. These soldiers marching with the standard, whose garments are dyed red with blood, are Hamza and all the spirits of the martyrs.’

Thus he pointed out to me the entire congregation, one by one. As I gazed at each in turn, I held my hand to my breast, nodding in acquaintance, and I found my soul refreshed.

‘Good sir,’ I asked, ‘what is the reason of this congregation’s gathering in this mosque?’

‘The fleet-footed Tatar soldiery, among the Muslim forces in the vicinity of Azov, have come here to Istanbul which is under the protection of the Prophet. Later we will go to help the Crimean Khan. Now the Prophet is coming to perform the morning prayer. With him are Hasan and Husayn and the rest of the Twelve Imams, and the rest of the Ten who were Promised Paradise. He will signal you to begin the call to prayer. So cry out loud, God is great. After the salutations, recite the Throne Verse (2:255). Bilal will repeat, Glory be to God, and you, Praise be to God. Bilal will repeat, God is great, and you, Amen, Amen. The entire congregation will join in to profess His unity. Then after you say, And blessings upon all the prophets and messengers, and praise be to God, Lord of the Universe, rise immediately and kiss the Prophet’s hand while he is sitting in the prayer niche. Say, Intercession, O Messenger of God, and make an appeal.’

Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas gave all these instructions while sitting at my side. What should I see next?

A clear light broke through the door of the mosque. While the inside had already been filled with light, it was now light upon light (24:35). All the noble Companions and the spirits of the prophets and the saints rose to their feet and stood ready. The Prophet appeared felicitously at the foot of his green standard, with face veiled, staff in hand and sword girded at his waist. Hasan stood on his right and Husayn on his left. He placed his right foot inside the light-filled mosque, uttering, In the name of God. Then he removed the veil from his face and said, Peace be with you, my community. The entire congregation replied, And with you be peace, messenger of God, lord of the religious communities.

The Prophet at once advanced towards the prayer-niche and performed the two prostrations of the dawn prayer. This humble one was overcome with fright and my body trembled, yet I was able to observe all of his features. They were just as described in the Hilye of Hakani (on the Prophet’s physiognomy, completed 1599). His veil was of crimson Kashmir cloth. His turban was a white Arab-style turban with twelve bands. His mantle was of camel hair, yellowish in colour. On his neck was a yellow woolen shawl. On his feet were yellow boots. And a toothpick had been stuck in his turban.