Turkey through the eyes of an Ottoman traveler

Turkey through the eyes of an Ottoman traveler

Trabzon’s famous Hamsi and fishermen

January 16, 2011, Sunday/ 12:58:00

The son of a goldsmith at the imperial court, Evliya Çelebi (1611-83) grew up to become the greatest traveler of the Ottoman world. When he died, he left a 10-volume account of his travels called the “Seyahatname” (Book of Travels).

The first volume is entirely devoted to a detailed description of İstanbul, where he was born, while the last volume includes a similar description of Cairo, where he is thought to have died. The remaining eight volumes describe his journeys around Central Europe, the Balkans, the Crimea and the Middle East, and the adventures he met with along the way.

UNESCO will be participating in a 2011 commemoration of Evliya Çelebi, and in celebration of that fact the British publishing house Eland has just brought out a new translation of selected highlights from the “Seyahatname” by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, which enables visitors to compare what they see today with what Evliya saw in the 17th century. This spring should also see the publication of a guide to the brand-new Evliya Çelebi Way, a waymarked trail suitable for walkers, cyclists and horse riders that follows a part of the route he took across Turkey when setting off on the pilgrimage to Mecca towards the end of his life.

Bursa: Today's visitors to Bursa, the erstwhile Ottoman capital that is renowned for its hot springs, usually take the high-speed ferry from Yenikapı to Güzelyalı, but in Evliya's day it was more normal to take a caique, a gondola-like boat, from Eminönü to the small port of Mudanya on the south side of the Sea of Marmara. While today's poor traveler will have to endure the incessant yattering of the ferry's big-screen televisions, Evliya reports that he found himself in the company of the sultan's snow procurer and his entourage, including a band of musicians who soon struck up a delightful concert “such as was never performed on the sea since the sea of mercy was created.”

On arrival in Bursa, Evliya was as keen to experience the pleasures of the Turkish bath as any modern visitor, and he leaves vivid descriptions of both the Eski Kaplıca (Old Bath) and the Yeni Kaplıca (New Bath) which are still welcoming bathers today. Although he's at pains to report that the water leaves “one's skin as soft as one's earlobes and so smooth that one's hand slides over it like soap,” he also dwells rather disconcertingly on the potential hazards of misusing the baths, while listing all sorts of unpleasant illnesses that might be alleviated by the water, including leprosy.

Nowadays, many of the hotels in the Çekirge suburb make a play of their in-house hamams (Turkish baths). In Evliya's day there were apparently some 3,000 baths attached to private homes whose owners threw them open to visitors, a wonderful variation on the idea of the ev pansiyonu, or private guesthouse.

Trabzon: In 1640 Evliya traveled by boat along the Black Sea to Trabzon, a pleasure that was also open to modern travelers until the arrival of cheap airfares saw off the Black Sea ferries. There he became as enamored as a modern gourmet of the hamsi (anchovy) that was already one of the town's big drawcards, although the description he leaves of the fervor with which the annual arrival of the hamsi in local waters was greeted makes one rather resent the lack of ceremony with which the fish are dished up in local restaurants today. According to Evliya, fishmongers would blow a trumpet made of elderwood to draw people's attention to the swarm, whereupon those who were praying would abandon their devotions and those who were in the bath houses would rush naked into the streets, so keen were they to wrap their lips round a seasonal treat.

Ankara: For many modern visitors Ankara, the Turkish capital, is a town to be speedily bypassed or perhaps briefly visited to view the wonders on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations and the tomb of Atatürk. In Evliya's day, however, it was an imposing city in the wake of a magnificent castle which he described as rising “in layers one above the other, like a pearl of great price or like a white swan.” Today a great deal of renovation work has been done on the castle and its immediate surrounds, making it by far the most interesting part of the city for visitors. Unfortunately extensive urban sprawl means that one can't really admire the castle from a distance in the way that was possible in the 17th century. As for the houses built of Ankara brick and roofed with clay that Evliya describes, the last of those vanished many years ago.

A pious man, Evliya had set himself the specific task of calling on all the shrines of the many saints buried in Anatolia, so while in Ankara he paid several visits to the shrine of Hacı Bayram-ı Veli, still an extremely popular place of pilgrimage. But he also wrote at some length about the Angora goats after whom the city took its modern name, sneering at “bastard” European traders who took some goats home with them in an attempt to learn to weave their own mohair, only to have the animals die on them.

Divriği: Today visitors to Divriği, east of Sivas, go there to admire the wonderful Ulu Cami and Darüşşifa complex, a Selçuk work of almost unimaginable exuberance that was commissioned in this out-of-the-way place by Emir Ahmed Şah and his wife in 1228-29. Fans of the “Seyahatname” might, however, like to cast an eye over the local moggies since Evliya reports that the cats from this town were especially prized for their sable fur that “comes in a thousand colors.” Indeed, he reports having seen Divriği cats for sale in Ardabil in Persia (Iran), where their local counterparts were such poor mousers that wretched local men walked around with rodent-nibbled cloaks and moustaches.

Diyarbakır: As a modern tourist destination, Diyarbakir long labored under a poor reputation for safety as the center of the Kurdish independence movement. Fortunately, things are looking up there now and the old walled city is an exciting place to explore so long as you stick to the main streets. Postcards on sale about town show off the outsized watermelons for which the town was already famous in Evliya's day. Readers will be more surprised, however, by his description of a special variety of basil that grew “thick as a forest and tall as a spear,” and which was used to make doors, windows and fences for people's homes; the brains of the inhabitants were thus “perfumed day and night with the fragrance of basil,” and with that of roses, Judas trees and hyacinths. Evliya also describes how the banks of the Tigris were, at that time, the setting for a seven-month-long party scene complete with musicians and lights floating down the river at night, much as during the annual Loi Krathong Festival of Lights in Thailand.

Ahlat: On the northern shores of Lake Van, Ahlat is famous for a “Selçuk” cemetery full of densely carved tombstones. Most visitors take a quick turn around it before pressing on, but for the more adventurous, the ruins of a once important city lie out of sight behind it. Ahlat was already in ruins when Evliya passed by, but he had the advantage over most modern travelers in that he could read the surviving inscriptions and so knew that he was looking at what had once been a town large enough to sustain 2,000 medreses and 1,000 bathhouses. He also describes fountains where milk from the yaylas (upland pastures) used to be dispensed to the locals, as well as 3,000 caves, some of them inhabited by hermits. A few of those caves can still be visited by modern travelers, including one that has fine muqarnas (stalactite) carvings over its entrance.


“An Ottoman Traveller: Selections From the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi” is published by Eland.

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