A couple days ago it was J. D. Åkerblad, now it’s another of those multilingual, multifaceted travelers I occasionally encounter and can’t resist posting about: Edward White’s “Boon Companion” (at the Paris Review Daily) tells the tale of Evliya Çelebi and his Seyahatname. It begins:
According to his own recollection, Evliya Çelebi, the seventeenth-century Turkish writer and traveler, experienced a life-changing epiphany on the night of his twentieth birthday. He was visited in a dream by the Prophet Muhammad, dressed nattily in a yellow woollen shawl and yellow boots, a toothpick stuck into his twelve-band turban. Muhammad announced that Allah had a special plan, one that required Evliya to abandon his prospects at the imperial court, become “a world traveler,” and “compose a marvelous work” based on his adventures.
There are intriguing descriptions of his world:
Evliya’s Istanbul was cosmopolitan and outward-looking: its population teemed with disparate ethnicities from Asia, eastern Europe, and the Middle East, merchants, scholars, and diplomats from even farther afield, and even a surprising number of Protestant refugees—Huguenots, Anabaptists, Quakers—fleeing war, schism and persecution in Europe.
And tidbits both fascinating and hilarious:
He told terrifying stories about massacres, battles, and shipwrecks; incredible ones about witches who turned children into chickens; and ribald ones about decrepit imams still able to perform “the greater jihad,” Evliya’s euphemism for sex. Many times in the Seyahatname he found a way of entertaining readers in the process of cataloguing information. In a chapter on the various peoples he discovered in Split, he made an analysis of the Venetian dialect, faithfully listing its words for numbers one to ten, before throwing in some unessential phrases to tease the reader about what sort of scurrilous things “Evliya the pious one” had been getting up to: “begging your pardon, let me fuck your wife”; “I’ll split your head”; “don’t move, boy!”; “eat shit!”; “you eat the shit!” On the page Evliya created for himself a Falstaffian “wise fool” persona that had no precise precedent in Ottoman culture: a camel-riding, highfalutin hobo who roamed the earth praising Allah out of one side of his mouth and telling dirty jokes out of the other.
And the survival of the book is a miracle: when he died in 1684, “the Seyahatname was thousands of pages long and years away from being finished. It had been written to be read, but it was only half a century later that a eunuch at the Ottoman Palace brought the huge, tattered manuscript back to Istanbul in order to be copied. Without that, the name Evliya Çelebi would mean nothing to anyone; the Seyahatname is practically the only evidence of its author’s existence.”
Also, I’m sure Evliya would have been as glad as you and I to learn that readers have “a survival advantage” over those who don’t ever crack open a book. (Thanks, Paul!)