A credulous Ottoman traveler
William Armstrong - email@example.com‘An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi’ by Robert Dankoff & Sooyong Kim (ed.) (Eland, 2010, Hardcover 50TL, pp 482)
The great seventeenth century traveler Evliya Çelebi has been described as an Ottoman cross between Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Pepys. Since these are two of my own very favorite writers, this book – a thoroughly edited and attractively presented new English publication of Evliya’s sprawling 10 volume travel notes – was a seductive prospect indeed. Despite his obvious unreliability as a narrator, Evliya’s “seyahatname” is apparently an invaluable source for scholars of the period, but the more casual reader is likely to get most reward simply by dipping in at random and enjoying its rambunctious charm.
The first volume opens with a stylized dream sequence, conventional for the time and place,
during which the Prophet Muhammad visits Evliya to bless his peripatetic urges. “How can I get
free of the pressures of father and mother, teacher and brother, and become a world traveler?” Evliya wonders, without ever answering himself, and it’s this very purposelessness that makes his travel observations so enjoyable. For him, travel was simply a means to gratify his insatiable curiosity and indulge his character as a self-described “boon-companion of mankind.” Like a more cheerful Hamlet, Evliya’s unspoken aim was “by indirection, to find directions out” – his wandering had no grand design, no overriding pursuit of ambition. Nevertheless, by seizing every opportunity that presented itself, he was able to travel the extent of the Ottoman Empire’s territories over the course of his life, all the while scribbling away the notes that we read here.
The comparison with Montaigne is undeniably justified, if only for the vivid feeling of personal familiarity that both men manage to establish with the reader. Like Montaigne, Evliya has such an effortless personal style that he is somehow able to step across the centuries and make us sense him as a living, breathing companion. As for Pepys, the comparison is probably strongest when it comes to the unapologetic lewdness that is shared by them both, (despite their professed piety). Whenever he arrives in a new region, Evliya rarely allows its “particularly beautiful young boys” to pass without mention; a typically earthy story comes when he describes his visit to the anchovy fishermen in the Black Sea port of Trabzon:
“Once a certain Çiço Husayn was having sex with his wife when he heard the trumpet announcing the catch. He immediately pulled his ‘fish’ out of his wife, tied up his drawers and ran to the wharf to buy his anchovies. This is a well-known story, but I never witnessed it.”
It’s difficult to believe that the Prophet Muhammad would offer his blessing for such tales, but Evliya delights in telling them anyway.
For all his wide-eyed curiosity, things don’t often come as a surprise to him. When a young girl in Sivas gives birth to an elephant, for example, Evliya simply remarks: “God does what He wills by His power and judges what He wishes by His might.” Elsewhere, we’re told matter-of-factly that an old woman he met in Bulgaria was miraculously transformed into a hen, and her seven children into chickens, before they were returned back to human form after being “urinated on by infidels.” The more you read him, the more you realize that our credulous Ottoman nomad is making his way through what he sees as an essentially supernatural world. For all his Montaigne-like familiarity, it is then that you become aware of quite how enormous the gulf separating Evliya’s worldview from ours really is. His fanciful tales may well just be elaborate metaphor, the secrets of which were lost long ago, or they may be the product of an imagination that thinks nothing at all of magic or supernatural intervention. Either way, they certainly make for an amusing read.
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