Who was Evliya Çelebi?

Contributed from Gerald Maclean

Evliya Çelebi
The seventeenth-century Ottoman travel writer known as Evliya Çelebi was born in 1611. His father, Derviş Muhammed Zilli, was a master goldsmith at the imperial Ottoman court who had moved to the Unkapani region of Istanbul from the provincial city of Kütahya. A native of Istanbul, Evliya was educated at the court before setting out on forty years of travels throughout the vast domains of the Ottoman Empire. His record of those journeys comprises a ten-volume travelogue, the Seyahatname or Book of Travels.

Although Evliya’s manuscript did not attract scholarly interest until the nineteenth century, his work has since become well-known among Ottoman scholars for providing the most detailed account of social and cultural life throughout the Empire at the time, documenting its diversity, wealth and achievements with wit and understanding. During the last decade, the Seyahatname has been transliterated into modern Turkish, while scholarly translations into English of important sections have been available thanks to the efforts of Robert Dankoff and others.

In 2010, Dankoff with Sooyong Kim produced An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi, an excellent English translation of substantial selections and the first best introduction to Evliya and his writing. Dankoff’s An Ottoman Mentality: The World of Evliya Celebi (2004; 2006) will interest those wanting to know more.

A World Traveller and Travel Writer
What we know about Evliya all comes from his own account, but even so he was clearly an extraordinary man and an ideal traveller and travel writer for a number of reasons. Although to all intents and purposes a pious Muslim who could recite the Qur’an, Evliya was inclined towards the mystical Sufi traditions of his time, and some have even claimed he was an initiated member of a particular Sufi order, the Gülseni Lodge. He was certainly an Istanbullu, one who had been educated under the patronage of the palace, and Evliya could not help but assume an imperial, metropolitan gaze when travelling throughout Ottoman lands, meeting with Albanians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans, Greeks, Gypsies, Hungarians, Kurds, Persians, Tatars, and Ukrainians.

Evliya viewed the Turkish population of rural Anatolians with the characteristic diffidence learned at the Ottoman court while admitting there were exceptions. Of his father’s ancestral Kütahya, for instance, he wrote: ‘To be sure, this is Anatolia and Turkish country [Türkistan vilayet]; nevertheless, it has very many religious scholars and educated people and poets.’ For Evliya, anywhere beyond Istanbul was likely to prove provincial if not positively peasant-like and primitive, even ‘Oriental’.

Yet his education at court and metropolitan perspective also provided Evliya with a remarkably broadminded interest in and understanding of human activities, whether he approved of them or not. It is surely significant that Evliya earned a letter of recommendation from a Greek Patriarch describing him as ‘honourable’ and ‘a man of peace’ who desires ‘to investigate places, cities, and the races of men, having no evil intention in his heart to do injury to or to harm anyone.’ Combined with his inclinations to follow Sufi traditions of celebrating life in any and all ways, this broadmindedness led Evliya to offer his guests as a matter of course refreshments of which he, as a good Muslim, was obliged to disapprove. Insisting throughout on his own piety and personal abstinence from intoxicating substances, Evliya provides a catalogue naming seventy-five intoxicants that were readily available in Istanbul at the time, including tea, coffee, tobacco, wine, beer, arrak, boza, opium, hemp, and a variety of hallucinogenic seeds and berries. He then tells us that ‘although for hospitality’s sake I have served these intoxicating substances to my friends in my humble home, and so am aware of their names and properties, I swear by God, in true sincerity, that I have no knowledge of them.’

Whatever we make of Evliya’s protestation of personal innocence here, throughout his travels he reports seemingly offensive cultural habits with open-minded interest, insisting that other people’s habits should be accepted, however strange. One of his most repeated phrases when describing the odd manners or even extravagant customs of peoples among whom he travelled through the ‘well protected domains’ of the Ottoman sultan, is ayıp değil, literally ‘not disgraceful.’ After recounting the strange beliefs of the Albanians, for example, Evliya records how they celebrate feasts by getting drunk and going ‘hand in hand with their pretty boys and embrace them and dance about in the manner of the Christians. This is quiet shameful behavior, characteristic of the infidels,’ Evliya comments, ‘but it is their custom, so we cannot censure it.’

‘It is their custom, so we cannot censure it.’ Throughout his travels, Evliya shows himself to be thinking with openness to cultural difference such as is usually claimed for the European Enlightenment, not the ‘terrible Turk’ of the European stereotype.

In 1671, Evliya set out for Mecca with three companions, eight servants, and fifteen pedigreed horses. On 22 September 2009, with seven horses and a supply vehicle, the first Evliya Çelebi Ride set out to follow the first stages of his itinerary.