This article first appeared in Sunday's Zaman on 9 January 2011


Four hundred years ago a man was born in İstanbul who was to spend 51 years of his life in almost constant motion, recording his experiences in his 10-volume “Seyahatname” (Book of Travels) and earning himself the accolade of the greatest traveler ever to live in the Ottoman world. His name was Evliya Çelebi, and in memory of his great enthusiasm for traveling, UNESCO has dubbed 2011 the Year of Evliya Çelebi.

The son of a goldsmith at the court of Sultan Ahmed I, Evliya Çelebi became an apprentice to the sultan's own imam, Evliya Mehmed Efendi. Under his tutelage he memorized the entire Quran and would give recitals in Aya Sofya (then a mosque), eventually catching the eye of Sultan Murad IV, who took him under his wing. But Evliya was always more interested in the wider world, and in 1630 he records falling asleep in the much smaller mosque of Ahi Çelebi in Eminönü near the Galata Bridge and dreaming that he was visited by the Twelve Imams and the Prophet Muhammad, all of whom gave their blessings to his wish to hit the road. Evliya then visited two holy men in Kasımpaşa on the Golden Horn to seek their advice. Once they'd confirmed the meaning of his dream, the die was cast, and he was ready to embark on the sort of adventures many still dream of, supported in a way that will be familiar to more impoverished contemporary travelers by temporary jobs picked up along the way.


In a lifetime of travel during which Evliya strove to keep himself free of such encumbrances as marriage and high office that tend to put paid to roaming, he wandered throughout most of the Ottoman world, journeying to Greece, Central Europe, the Balkans, the Crimea and the Middle East. Towards the end of his life he also made the pilgrimage to Mecca before finally settling down in Cairo. The first volume of his writings is entirely devoted to İstanbul (which he sometimes calls İslambol and sometimes Constantinople) and the last to Cairo, where he is thought to have died in 1683.


Like most modern guidebook writers, Evliya seems to have worked to a template. Unlike most modern guidebook writers, however, with no editor to chide him into last-minute corrections, his final manuscript is full of holes where he had failed to pin down details to his own satisfaction. Some sections of his book will seem a little too list-like for modern tastes, but just as the reader is starting to tire of the details, suddenly Evliya will throw in a colorful anecdote or intriguing tidbit, as when he mentions bumping into two imams in Sudan, one of them astride a rhinoceros, the other astride an oryx, or when he describes the squabbling antics of İstanbul's innumerable gilds whose members would parade past the sultan in their finery every year. Some of his stories read like the sort of fantastical imaginings that resulted in medieval maps adorned with images of dragons and unicorns. For example, Evliya claims to have seen a cat freeze solid while in mid-leap between two roofs in Erzurum. While we all know that Erzurum can be super-cold in winter, that certainly sounds like a story to be taken with a very large helping of salt indeed.


To celebrate the Year of Evliya Çelebi, the British publishing house Eland has just brought out a new translation of sections of the “Seyahatname” by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim. Those with a particular interest in Turkey might wish that it had included a complete translation of the parts relating to this country. Still, it's great to be able to read at last some of what this traveler supreme had to say about it.


Evliya Çelebi on the Süleymaniye Mosque


The good news is that the restoration of the Süleymaniye Mosque, Sinan's İstanbul masterpiece, is finally completed and that visitors can once again gaze up in awe at its magnificent dome. The Süleymaniye was built between 1550 and 1557, which means that Evliya got to see what he calls “this unequaled mosque” when it was less than a century old. He describes its architecture in considerable detail, but the drier stretches of text are livened up with vivid images, as of the 3,000 galley slaves chained by their ankles whom he says were used to dig foundations so deep that “the world-bearing bull at the bottom of the earth could hear the sound of their pickaxes.” He also leaves a wonderful description of the so-called Jewel Minaret which became the subject of a diplomatic ding-dong between Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, the mosque's patron, and Shah Tahmasp, the king of Persia. On hearing that work had stopped while the building's foundations were allowed to settle, the shah made out that he believed the sultan to have run out of money, dispatching cash and jewels to make up the shortfall. Insulted, the sultan gave the money to the local Jews and instructed the building's foreman to embed the jewels in the minaret.




Visitors to the Süleymaniye can compare Evliya's description with what they see there today. In comparison, visitors to modern Galata will read with amazement his description of what was, in the 17th century, a completely separate city surrounded by walls which he says were studded with 205 towers and 13,000 crenellations. Today only the Galata Tower (erroneously ascribed by Evliya to Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror) is still standing; of the vast moat he claims was always full of sailors mending their ropes the only echo now is the name of one of the streets -- Büyük Hendek Caddesi (Big Moat Street).


Evliya's description is a reminder of how cosmopolitan a part of İstanbul this once was. It had, he wrote, “eighteen Muslim quarters, seventy quarters of Greek infidels, three of cranky Franks, one of Jews, and two of Armenians.” In all, he says, there were 200,000 infidels and only 64,000 Muslims living here. Today, of course, those figures would have to be reversed and multiplied, although the growing number of tourists visiting the area is giving it back some of its original diversity.




At least today's Galata still retains the scent of its past antiquity. Kağıthane, at the far end of the Golden Horn, is, however, another matter. In Evliya's day this was one of the playgrounds of the city, an area watered by the stream of the same name, and named after a paper mill that had stood there since Byzantine times but was in ruins by the time Evliya visited it. Evliya describes the area in lyrical times, commenting on how it was possible to wash clothes in the stream without any soap, and how the gild of goldsmiths would come here periodically and set up a vast tented camp for celebrations that would be attended by the sultan. Evliya was not to know it, of course, but Kağıthane was to go on to even greater things when the Sadabad Palace there became the scene of the many of the famous early 18th-century Tulip Age parties hosted by Sultan Ahmed III. How sad, then, that what greets visitors today is a mess of busy roads and high-rise apartment blocks with barely a token nod in the direction of the neighborhood's glorious past.


This article first appeared in Sunday’s Zaman on 16 January 2011

Turkey through the eyes of an Ottoman traveler

The son of a goldsmith at the imperial court, Evliya Çelebi (1611-83) grew up to become the greatest traveler of the Ottoman world. When he died, he left a 10-volume account of his travels called the “Seyahatname” (Book of Travels).

The first volume is entirely devoted to a detailed description of İstanbul, where he was born, while the last volume includes a similar description of Cairo, where he is thought to have died. The remaining eight volumes describe his journeys around Central Europe, the Balkans, the Crimea and the Middle East, and the adventures he met with along the way.

UNESCO will be participating in a 2011 commemoration of Evliya Çelebi, and in celebration of that fact the British publishing house Eland has just brought out a new translation of selected highlights from the “Seyahatname” by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, which enables visitors to compare what they see today with what Evliya saw in the 17th century. This spring should also see the publication of a guide to the brand-new Evliya Çelebi Way, a waymarked trail suitable for walkers, cyclists and horse riders that follows a part of the route he took across Turkey when setting off on the pilgrimage to Mecca towards the end of his life.


Bursa: Today's visitors to Bursa, the erstwhile Ottoman capital that is renowned for its hot springs, usually take the high-speed ferry from Yenikapı to Güzelyalı, but in Evliya's day it was more normal to take a caique, a gondola-like boat, from Eminönü to the small port of Mudanya on the south side of the Sea of Marmara. While today's poor traveler will have to endure the incessant yattering of the ferry's big-screen televisions, Evliya reports that he found himself in the company of the sultan's snow procurer and his entourage, including a band of musicians who soon struck up a delightful concert “such as was never performed on the sea since the sea of mercy was created.”


On arrival in Bursa, Evliya was as keen to experience the pleasures of the Turkish bath as any modern visitor, and he leaves vivid descriptions of both the Eski Kaplıca (Old Bath) and the Yeni Kaplıca (New Bath) which are still welcoming bathers today. Although he's at pains to report that the water leaves “one's skin as soft as one's earlobes and so smooth that one's hand slides over it like soap,” he also dwells rather disconcertingly on the potential hazards of misusing the baths, while listing all sorts of unpleasant illnesses that might be alleviated by the water, including leprosy.


Nowadays, many of the hotels in the Çekirge suburb make a play of their in-house hamams (Turkish baths). In Evliya's day there were apparently some 3,000 baths attached to private homes whose owners threw them open to visitors, a wonderful variation on the idea of the ev pansiyonu, or private guesthouse.


Trabzon: In 1640 Evliya traveled by boat along the Black Sea to Trabzon, a pleasure that was also open to modern travelers until the arrival of cheap airfares saw off the Black Sea ferries. There he became as enamored as a modern gourmet of the hamsi (anchovy) that was already one of the town's big drawcards, although the description he leaves of the fervor with which the annual arrival of the hamsi in local waters was greeted makes one rather resent the lack of ceremony with which the fish are dished up in local restaurants today. According to Evliya, fishmongers would blow a trumpet made of elderwood to draw people's attention to the swarm, whereupon those who were praying would abandon their devotions and those who were in the bath houses would rush naked into the streets, so keen were they to wrap their lips round a seasonal treat.


Ankara: For many modern visitors Ankara, the Turkish capital, is a town to be speedily bypassed or perhaps briefly visited to view the wonders on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations and the tomb of Atatürk. In Evliya's day, however, it was an imposing city in the wake of a magnificent castle which he described as rising “in layers one above the other, like a pearl of great price or like a white swan.” Today a great deal of renovation work has been done on the castle and its immediate surrounds, making it by far the most interesting part of the city for visitors. Unfortunately extensive urban sprawl means that one can't really admire the castle from a distance in the way that was possible in the 17th century. As for the houses built of Ankara brick and roofed with clay that Evliya describes, the last of those vanished many years ago.


A pious man, Evliya had set himself the specific task of calling on all the shrines of the many saints buried in Anatolia, so while in Ankara he paid several visits to the shrine of Hacı Bayram-ı Veli, still an extremely popular place of pilgrimage. But he also wrote at some length about the Angora goats after whom the city took its modern name, sneering at “bastard” European traders who took some goats home with them in an attempt to learn to weave their own mohair, only to have the animals die on them.


Divriği: Today visitors to Divriği, east of Sivas, go there to admire the wonderful Ulu Cami and Darüşşifa complex, a Selçuk work of almost unimaginable exuberance that was commissioned in this out-of-the-way place by Emir Ahmed Şah and his wife in 1228-29. Fans of the “Seyahatname” might, however, like to cast an eye over the local moggies since Evliya reports that the cats from this town were especially prized for their sable fur that “comes in a thousand colors.” Indeed, he reports having seen Divriği cats for sale in Ardabil in Persia (Iran), where their local counterparts were such poor mousers that wretched local men walked around with rodent-nibbled cloaks and moustaches.


Diyarbakır: As a modern tourist destination, Diyarbakir long labored under a poor reputation for safety as the center of the Kurdish independence movement. Fortunately, things are looking up there now and the old walled city is an exciting place to explore so long as you stick to the main streets. Postcards on sale about town show off the outsized watermelons for which the town was already famous in Evliya's day. Readers will be more surprised, however, by his description of a special variety of basil that grew “thick as a forest and tall as a spear,” and which was used to make doors, windows and fences for people's homes; the brains of the inhabitants were thus “perfumed day and night with the fragrance of basil,” and with that of roses, Judas trees and hyacinths. Evliya also describes how the banks of the Tigris were, at that time, the setting for a seven-month-long party scene complete with musicians and lights floating down the river at night, much as during the annual Loi Krathong Festival of Lights in Thailand.


Ahlat: On the northern shores of Lake Van, Ahlat is famous for a “Selçuk” cemetery full of densely carved tombstones. Most visitors take a quick turn around it before pressing on, but for the more adventurous, the ruins of a once important city lie out of sight behind it. Ahlat was already in ruins when Evliya passed by, but he had the advantage over most modern travelers in that he could read the surviving inscriptions and so knew that he was looking at what had once been a town large enough to sustain 2,000 medreses and 1,000 bathhouses. He also describes fountains where milk from the yaylas (upland pastures) used to be dispensed to the locals, as well as 3,000 caves, some of them inhabited by hermits. A few of those caves can still be visited by modern travelers, including one that has fine muqarnas (stalactite) carvings over its entrance.


An Ottoman Traveller: Selections From the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi is published by Eland

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