An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, selections and commentary by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim.
London, Eland Publishing, 2010. 482 pp, ISBN 978 1906011444. £25.
Evliya Çelebi was born in Istanbul in 1611 and died at Cairo around 1684. Most of what is known about him comes from his great book, the Seyahatname, or Travel Book, which he was editing when he died. From this we learn that he was well educated, able to recite the whole of the Koran from memory, and obsessed with travel and a desire to see as much of the world as possible. Family and court connections, as well as inherited wealth, made travel possible.
Evliya Çelebi (the name is a pseudonym), usually travelled in the suite of an ambassador or governor to whom he acted as secretary, courier, imam and muezzin, but he also led two missions to Persia. He ranged widely across the Ottoman world, between the Caucasus in the north and the Sudan in the south, Tabriz in the east and Vienna in the west. He made notes as he travelled, often using a check-list to standardize his information. From these, he compiled his ten volume work. With the exception of volume one, which is devoted to Istanbul, each volume covers a particular region visited, sometimes more than once in his forty-year career.
Robert Dankoff is an international authority on Ottoman literary texts and especially the Seyahatname. With the assistance of Sooyong Kim, also an Ottoman specialist, he has made a selection of seventy-six passages from the great book. Their aims are to provide extracts from each volume, to illustrate the author’s descriptive and narrative styles, and to provide examples of the range of material included in the whole work. An overall introduction outlines Evliya Çelebi’s life and career, as well as the history of publishing and translating his book. Extracts from each volume are given a page of introduction. A separate section explains some of the numerous literary allusions which are such a feature of the Seyahatname. This is followed by a helpful glossary of administrative and religious terms, weights and measures. Importantly, a reasonably full index has been provided.
The selection of extracts includes descriptions of monuments (churches, as well as mosques), the oil wells of Baku, some parts of the procession of Istanbul’s forty-seven guilds, and a number of individual towns and cities (for example, Diyarbakir and Athens). The text is illustrated with maps and pictures, including ten colour plates, one of which is a map of the upper Nile attributed to Evliya Çelebi and mentioned briefly in one of the extracts.
Most of the English translations are new, but earlier ones have been consulted so that, for example, some of the characteristic phraseology of the Austrian orientalist Freiherr Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774–1856) occur from time to time. He worked as a translator for the British expeditionary force to Egypt in 1801–02, and his translations were the earliest into English (starting in 1834). Some ASTENE readers may be familiar with Alexander Pallis’s In the Days of the Janissaries (1951), which quotes von Hammer’s translation.
In view of expeditions past and future, ASTENE members may be particularly interested in Evliya Çelebi’s description of the Süleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, his exciting encounter with brigands at the Alman Pass near ancient Ephesus, and the Cairo underworld. I was particularly pleased to see included Evliya Çelebi’s description of Balibadra (Patras) in the Peloponnese, an encounter with a female Muslim slave in the Mani, and part of his account of the final phase of the long siege of Candia (Iraklion) in Crete, at which he was present. All are delightful quotes, but they confirm my impression that you cannot read this collection straight through. It is to be dipped into and your own delicious plums pulled forth.