Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname is one of history’s greatest travelogues.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
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.
As religious missions go, it was a pretty sweet deal—and for Evliya it came at the perfect moment. His feet itched to travel and his fingers to write, but he could never find a way of telling his parents that the life they had proudly mapped out for him—a stellar career, a virtuous wife, and a brood of smiling children—played no part in his vision of a meaningful existence. Muhammad’s intervention, whether an act of providence or not, spurred three decades of globetrotting indulgence. Evliya took in Anatolia, Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Cairo, Athens, Corinth, Sudan, and swathes of Europe from Crimea to—supposedly—the Low Countries. His path crossed Buddhists and crusading warriors, the Bedouin and Venetian sailors, ambassadors, monks, sorcerers, and snake charmers. Along the way he wrote the Seyahatname (“Book of Travels”), a magnificent ten-volume sprawl of fantasy, biography, and reportage that is utterly unique in the canon of travel literature, and which confirms Evliya as one of the great storytellers of the seventeenth century.
The son of a successful goldsmith, he was born in Istanbul in 1611, the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire’s golden age. By the age of twelve, his prodigious intelligence, quick wit, and facility for language had him apprenticed to the imam of Sultan Murad IV; by his early teens he was reciting from memory lengthy passages of the Koran in front of thousands at the Hagia Sofia. 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.
Evliya so adored the bustling energy of Istanbul that he dedicated the first volume of the Seyahatname to it. In his telling, it was a place of learning, culture, and endless sensory stimulation, where acrobats from Arabia, Persia, Yemen, and India performed in the streets, and where “thousands of old and young lovers” exposed their “rosy pink bodies, like peeled almonds” to the summer sun, swimming and canoodling in the open. That this tribute came from a man who repeatedly described himself as a “dervish”—a man who during the course of his life recited from memory the whole of the Koran more than a thousand times—reveals something vital about his world and his mindset. To Evliya’s mind, the divine and the earthly were bound tightly together; sensual pleasure was not inimical to piety.
Despite his wanderlust, Evliya was actually a pretty lousy traveler: a fussy eater, prone to discomfort, with a fear of boats. And he didn’t travel light, accompanied as he was by mules, camels, libraries of books, and cases of fine clothing, all attended to by at least half a dozen slaves, frequently more. This entourage was itself usually part of the larger retinue of an ambassador on a diplomatic mission or a military leader pursuing territorial expansion, with Evliya tagging along in the role of a glorified jester. Once the jaunt was over he would return to Istanbul to regale the court, including the Sultan himself, with tales of the places he had seen and the scrapes he had gotten into. In this way Evliya reconciled the dual aims of his travels and his writing: to create an objective statistical record of the lands of Allah’s creation, while dispensing with dry fact and serving as a twinkly-eyed “boon companion to humanity.”
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.
Though the majority of his travels were in the Ottoman Empire, in 1665 he journeyed to Vienna as part of the delegation sent to sign a peace treaty with the Habsburgs, the dynasty which ruled the city so coveted by the Ottoman rulers. By this time, Europe had been in fear of Muslim invaders for two centuries. In 1528 Martin Luther wrote On War Against the Turk urging Catholics and Protestants to unite and vanquish the threat, yet Luther actually had something approaching respect for the Ottomans, whom he considered cultured and civilized. And Evliya’s report from Vienna—one of the real highlights of the Seyahatname—hint at harmonious points of cultural exchange that occurred between “East” and “West” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in counterpoint to the years of warfare.
That’s not to say that Evliya was fulsome in his praise of the European, Christian way of life. He dismissed all food in the land of the infidels as practically inedible, and disdainfully claimed that “throughout Christendom women are in charge,” based solely on the fact they were permitted to drink alcohol and publicly socialize with men. But he was unafraid to express his admiration for Vienna’s surfeit of artistic achievements. In St. Stephen’s Cathedral he sat dumbfounded as he listened to the organ’s “awesome, liver-piercing sound, like the voice of the Antichrist, that makes a man’s hair stand on end,” while twenty castrati “recite the Psalter with their sweet voices and manifold tremulations … one’s lungs fill with blood and one’s eyes with tears.” He snorted at the abstemiousness and remoteness of monastic life, but when given a tour of a Viennese monastery he was “lost in astonishment, and the fragrance of musk and pure ambergris suffused my brain.” When shown stunning illuminated versions of the Bible, he concluded with awe and sadness that Muslims “do not the love the word of God as much as the infidels do.”
Affecting though his honesty could be, arguably the most compelling parts of his account of European Christendom are those he made up. He claims, for instance, to have accompanied a horde of forty thousand Tatar warriors on a raid of Germany and the Low Countries: a three-week whirlwind of looting, pillaging, enslaving, and razing. It’s written as a scene of Biblical destruction, but it clearly never happened. Not only was the scale of and speed of the Tatar advance implausible, but Evliya’s geography was wildly inaccurate, and he claimed to have encountered things as fantastical as those Lemuel Gulliver found in Lilliput: freakish avian creatures newly imported from America; giant multi-colored wax plants growing out of the ground; a strange yellow tree whose leaves miraculously cure syphilis.
In the Seyahatname, pages can whistle by without an honest word in sight, though Evliya emphasizes that he is upholding the will of Allah. Typically, “Evliya the unhypocritical” reminds us of his pious commitment to scrupulousness just before he launches into an obvious lie about, say, an encounter with a woman from the Black Sea who gave birth to an elephant, the rhinoceros-riding tribes of the Sudan, or the man-eating Buddhists of Kalmyia. “God is my witness that this took place,” he says before one such tale—cast-iron evidence that it didn’t. Historians debate whether these fairy-tale inventions are intended as satirical barbs at the hyperbolic travel writers or an homage to the fantastical stories of Arabian Nights on which Evliya had grown up. Likely, it was both. But it’s also pretty clear that every now and then he simply got bored with faithfully recording reality and decided to amuse himself by splicing the mundane with the phantasmagorical. The fun for the reader comes in trying to spot the moment when empirical truth ends and one of Evliya’s campfire yarns begins.
For all the Seyahatname’s fabrications and embellishments, there’s an astonishing amount of honesty in it. In many of the most captivating passages, Evliya shows himself to us in the rawest of states. There are stories about his decades-long bout of impotence, and the chronic diarrhea he suffered in Egypt, which he puts down to divine retribution for having humiliated a beggar in public. At one point he apologizes to the reader for being slapdash and not providing his usual extensive details about the topography and infrastructure of his latest destination, stating in his defense that he has been thrown into a depressive funk by the escape of his favorite slave. By turns he’s moody, mardy, pompous, whingeing, quick-tempered—and, consequently, always engaging. He even manages to appear as a fully-rounded human being while telling an invented, or at least heavily embroidered, anecdote about beheading an infidel as an act of self-defense while relieving himself in the woods, one which ends with Evliya staggering about with his trousers around his ankles, caked in his own filth and told by the hardened warriors under whose protection he is traveling to stand down wind because he’s a stinking embarrassment. Some other Ottoman gentlemen might have concocted a story about defeating a Christian foe as a means of self-promotion; Evliya used it as a chance to tell the readers what a putz he was.
After that, he settled in Cairo where he died in 1684, one year after the Ottomans’ infamous failed siege of Vienna, traditionally put down as the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. By this point 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.
Today, in his native Turkey, Evliya is revered as the quintessential expression of the Ottoman mind: inquisitive, outward looking, and presciently modern. In 2014 he inspired the nation’s first ever feature-length 3D animated film, a kids’ movie, Evliya Çelebi: The Fountain of Youth, sponsored by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism seemingly to help frame Turkey as unique among nations, a land simultaneously of both East and West. In the movie he winds up in modern-day Istanbul; a seventeenth-century Ottoman imperialist comfortable in the democratic Turkey of the twenty-first century, Evliya is intended to embody a spirit of Turkish openness, one that links Istanbul’s Ottoman past with the hip, Euro-friendly image it likes—on occasion—to project today.
The Turkish ministry has it wrong in one crucial respect: Evliya was not the Turk in excelsis, but a man without precedent who stood one step aside from his countrymen, a singular man of singular achievement. The type of life he wanted to live and the type of stories he wanted to write could not be accommodated in a conventional travel journal, or any other type of writing familiar to the Ottomans, so he created one. As Evliya himself stressed, “Evliya Çelebi is a wandering dervish and a world traveler … wherever he rests his head, he eats and drinks and is merry.” As often as not, that place was the endless horizon of his own glittering imagination.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.