Evliya Çelebi.

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!)

Comments

  1. His books are full of fascinating, colourful, often unreliable, but extremely interesting information.

    Take for example, his mention of Kaytak people of Daghestan and their language. He says they are of Mongol origin and speak Mongol language. This information is unique and apparently accurate, since he gives short glossary of terms in that language, majority of them clearly Mongolian (taulay- hare, gaha-pig, mori-horse, ajirga-stallion, etc)

    However, there are no Mongolian-speaking people in Daghestan today.

    The ethnic name Kaytak (Qaydag) survives today as designation of small sub-ethnic groups found among Kumyks (Turkic-speaking), Darghins (speaking language of Nakh-Daghestani or Northeast Caucasian language family) and even Azeris (Turkic).

    Evliya Chelebi is the only source which mentions survival of Mongolian language in Caucasus into the 17th century.

  2. His books are full of fascinating, colourful, often unreliable, but extremely interesting information.

    He’s the Bill Bryson of the 17th century.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Protestant refugees went to Istanbul? I had no idea. Luther had still cursed the Pope and the Turk alike.

  4. Yes, that surprised me too.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    Well, some of those Anabaptist refugees, at least, may have been fleeing from the Lutherans …

  6. Good old Celebi… as I recall, he provides some of the earliest surviving vocabularies for both Kanuri and Balkan Romani.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Caucasologists cite him regularly.

  8. I’m glad to see Georgian Wikipedia has an article on him.

  9. Istanbul was a refuge for all sorts of folk who found themselves on the losing side politically. Even as late as the 19th century, refugees from the Polish and the Hungarian uprisings fled there: eg. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lajos_Kossuth

  10. Later than that: it was a haven for White Russian émigrés, and Trotsky fled there too.

  11. Istanbul remained the capital of the Empire for quite a while after the Empire ceased to exist, and the same has been said of Vienna.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    It’s very much the case for Vienna; and Istanbul still has imperial associations, as might be seen from Erdoğan‘s complex relationship with it.

  13. Yes, Vienna is one of the strangest cities I’ve been in from that point of view. Istanbul still feels like an imperial city (after all, it was one for 1,600 years or so, and has the ruins to prove it), but Vienna just seems like a provincial city that’s wearing clothes too big for it.

  14. January First-of-May says:

    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.

    Isn’t this just Hodja Nasreddin? Aside from the “Ottoman” part, anyway (Nasreddin is more Central Asian).
    (And yes, Evliya Çelebi would have probably been familiar with the Hodja Nasreddin tales if he really travelled that far.)

    Later than that: it was a haven for White Russian émigrés…

    …on which I happened to briefly touch in a comment at the “postal addresses” thread, as recently as five weeks ago.
    I’m surprised on that coincidence myself, actually.

  15. I find a freely available English translation by “The Ritter Joseph von Hammer, F.M.R.A.S., &c. &c. &c.”, under the title of “Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa” and author “Evliyá Effendí”.

  16. Specifically, copies are available at Hathi, the Internet Archive, and Google Books. There is a curious note at the Hathi catalog entry saying “No more published”, suggesting that the two volumes available there cover only part of the original, and that Joseph von Hammer either translated no more of it, or his publisher rebelled after two flops.

  17. Yeah, as I understand it that’s only a smallish part of the original.

  18. Sir JCass says:

    I’ve got the modern selection, An Ottoman Traveller, translated by Robert Dankoff and Sooyung Kim. I haven’t read all of it but what I have read is a lot of fun. Sometimes it’s closer to Sir John Mandeville or even Baron Munchhausen than Bill Bryson. For instance, I doubt if any Kalmyk has lived to 200 or 300 as Çelebi claims. On the other hand, it’s hard to resist stories such as his account of the cat-brokers of Ardabil, a city so overwhelmed with mice that the cats are sadly short-lived (“The [Persian cats], to be sure, have round trim beards, but their moustaches are all mouse-eaten…”).

    According to Dankoff and Kim, Hammer came across a manuscript of the first four volumes of Çelebi as early as 1804. He believed this was the complete work (in fact, it is in ten volumes). The English translation of the first two volumes is “hastily done, abbreviated and faulty in detail” but it “captures the spirit of the original”. Even in Turkish, Çelebi was not well served until very recently. An unbowdlerised critical edition appeared between 1999 and 2007.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Vienna just seems like a provincial city that’s wearing clothes too big for it

    The size of the clothes fits from another point of view: for a country of 8.4 million, Vienna is totally oversized at 1.6 million. The Viennese tend to have no idea of the other cities in the country and tend to believe, more or less subconsciously, that the whole country outside of Vienna is all countryside; the next largest city, Graz, has 0.5 million people, followed by Linz at 0.2.

  20. The Viennese tend to have no idea of the other cities in the country and tend to believe, more or less subconsciously, that the whole country outside of Vienna is all countryside
    The classical treatment of that attitude. 😉

  21. I have all ten volumes on my computer.

    Unfortunately they are in the original Ottoman Turkish.

    I tried to read some, but it’s so difficult that it’s more like decipherment than reading.

  22. Geographers have a concept of primate cities, which are at least twice as large as the next largest city in their country, and typically much more than twice as important. Vienna is a classic primate city, as are London and Paris, and Istanbul fails to be one only because it is no longer the political capital. Old empires like India, Russia and China and federations like Germany and Italy, as well as modern nations of immigration like Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the U.S. (which are also federal), tend not to have primate cities, though their subdivisions often do (Calcutta, Munich, Milan, Rio, Toronto, New York City, all the big cities of Australia). Montevideo is an extreme example, being 13 times the size of Salto, the next largest city in Uruguay (1.3 million vs. 100,000) and indeed having about a third of the national population. But Bangkok beats it for pure primateness, with 5.7 million inhabitants where Nonthaburi has only 261,000.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    Vienna’s 1,6 / 8,4 is a lesser share (19%) than Copenhagen’s 1,3 / 5,6 (23%), Helsinki’s 1,2 / 5,5 (22%) or Oslo’s 1,0 / 4,6 (22%). All have far outgrown their competitors. That suggests that Vienna is about the right size for its shirt these days. But it took a hundred years to adjust. With an entire Austro-Hungarian empire to feed upon, it would have been competing with London and Paris today.

  24. Well, it’s not so much about population as about grandeur. Those buildings on and about the Ringstraße are clearly intended to rule over many lands and peoples.

  25. Trond Engen says:

    Yeah, I agree, my reply was to David’s assertion that it’s too big for Austria.

  26. Copenhagen is only 38% larger than Aarhus (by population), though, which makes it not a primate city at all. Oslo is a little more than twice the size of Bergen, and Helsinki a little more than three times the size of Espoo. Of course, city boundaries are arbitrary, and different countries use different rules for what counts as a “metropolitan area”.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    By the standard European definition of “urban area”, Copenhagen is five times Aarhus in population. Oslo is four times Bergen. Espoo is part of Helsinki’s agglomeration, Together they beat Tampere by four to one.

  28. Trond Engen says:

    To my comment awaiting moderation:

    standard European definition

    I should add that there are some differences in interpretation of the standard definition, but that shouldn’t matter between Nordic countries, who have agreed on a common practice. Also, the somewhat laxer requirements deemed proper up here would tend to increase the population of small urban areas more than big, relatively speaking.

  29. As I said, city boundaries are arbitrary. NYC, a sharply but arbitrarily defined place, has 8.5 million people: the New York Combined Statistical Area (CSA) has almost 24 million, including a big chunk of New York State, the five largest cities in New Jersey, five of the six largest cities in Connecticut, and a portion of Pennsylvania to boot. It is roughly speaking the area which commuter trains from New York can reach. Even so it is not primate in the U.S. as a whole, for the Los Angeles CSA has almost 19 million people.

  30. Trond Engen says:

    Yeah, but the definition of “urban area” used in the links above Is purely geographical, based on average distance between buildings. It’s completely independent of administrative borders, be it the usually narrow limits of the administrative city or the wider limits of the metropolitan area. In Norway, the urban area Oslo goes far beyond the city limits. Bergen is almost contained within its administrative limits, and Trondheim completely. Stavanger goes well beyond. All have metropolitan areas that extend beyond the geographically defined urban area.

  31. Do bridges count as ‘buildings’? The Thames is 265m wide at London Bridge…

  32. Trond Engen says:

    I think this is where “average” enters the definition, where local practice of the standard definition might differ on the edges, and where the Nordic countries have a laxer interpretation of the rules than more densely populated countries. The urban area of Bergen (orange) includes some rather loosely attached suburbs in north and south. OTOH, I’d have expected it to span the (bridged) sounds to encompass Askøy (green) and Straume (light yellow) in west.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    With an entire Austro-Hungarian empire to feed upon, it would have been competing with London and Paris today.

    And indeed it had two million inhabitants in the late 19th and/or early 20th century – in a smaller area than today. It was, by all accounts, pretty horrible.

  34. It turns out that the Seyahatname contains the very first known wordlist for Mingrelian, one of the Kartvelian languages. The list contains the numbers 1-11, about 30 nouns, and about 12 common phrases, all transcribed in Arabic script.

  35. Fascinating!

  36. Add it to other languages whose first attestation is in the Arabic script: Malagasy (in the Sorabe alphabet) and the Papuan language of Ternate.

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