Magazine article The Spectator

Under Eastern Eyes

Magazine article The Spectator

Under Eastern Eyes

Article excerpt

An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi

translated by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim

Eland, £25, pp. 482

ISBN 9781906011444

The Ottoman Empire inspired great travel books as well as great architects. Travellers like George Sandys, Richard Pococke or the Chevalier d'Arvieux in the 17th and 18th centuries were curious, erudite and less arrogant than their 19th-century successors.

Like cameras, they recorded monuments, encounters, manners and customs. They can make the reader feel that he or she is there, in Smyrna or Beirut, at that time.

Ottoman travel writers on Europe, however, are far fewer. There was no equivalent of Jerusalem or Baalbek to lure Ottomans to the West, as Europeans were lured east in search of religious shrines and classical antiquities. Nor could they worship as easily in uniformity-obsessed Europe as Christians and Jews could in the multi-faith Ottoman empire. In Europe, travelling Muslims in flowing robes might be jeered at, spied on or worse: there was a massacre of Muslims in Marseilles in 1620.

Evliya Celebi is the great exception. Born in Istanbul in 1610, the son of the S ultan's chief goldsmith, he became a Koran-reciter and muezzin, later a favoured courtier of the ferocious Sultan Murad IV. He had completed, by his own calculation, 1,060 Koran recitations since his childhood, and could recite it 'without fault' in eight hours.

Evliya has been described as 'the Ottoman Pepys'. Calling himself a 'world traveller and boon companion to mankind', since youth he had only 'one wish': to travel. He wrote:

I made it my ambition to examine at first hand the monuments of the seven climes that have excited the admiration of the men of knowledge and insight.

Before he died in Cairo around 1683, he had written, in what he calls 'shameless detail', a ten-volume Book of Travels based on notes taken during his journeys.

This is the first modern edition in English, brilliantly produced, with excellent maps and illustrations, by the Olympus of travel publishers, Eland Books. It is selected and translated by Professors Robert Dankoff, founder of 'Evliya studies', and Sooyong Kim. Evliya wanted to give a complete account of the empire, as well as of his own travels. Pages abound with vivid, and often unique, descriptions of, for example, oil wells in Baku and cats in Ardabil, court protocol in Crimea or acrobatics in Diyarbekir. …

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