Monday, April 25, 2011

The unread masterpiece of Evliya Çelebi

Saudi Aramco World

A slightly tenuous link with Egypt, but Evliya Çelebi did visit Cairo on his travels, and this is mentioned in the article. I'm including it mainly, however, because it is a very good read!

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the world’s least-known great traveler, a man who visited the ends of the earth for the sheer pleasure of doing so. For Evliya Çelebi, court favorite of the Ottoman sultan and a native son of his beloved Istanbul, the ends of the earth were the western, eastern, southern and northern boundaries of the Ottoman Empire, and at the time of his death, probably in the year 1683, it can be said that he even surpassed those limits, having visited—if he can be taken at his word, which was not always reliable—Amsterdam, Persia, Ethiopia and Russia.

Evliya’s written legacy is the Seyahatname, or Book of Travels, comprising 10 volumes and thousands of pages composed in the highly recondite language of Ottoman Turkish. To date, only parts of it have been translated into English, by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, from whose book the quotations in this article are taken. As the translators note, their job was not easy, for Evliya’s language is prolix, exuberant and playful, full of allusions to the Qur’an, folk proverbs in Arabic and Turkish, and classics such as Firdawsi’s Shahnama and Sa'di’s Gulistan.

And, as things often went in the Ottoman Empire, it was due to the good offices of an unusual palace insider—in this case, Hajı Beşir Ağa, the Chief Black Eunuch—that Evliya’s manuscript was plucked from obscurity in a Cairo library decades after his death and brought to Istanbul in 1742, where it was copied and widely read.

In the words of Dankoff, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and a lifelong student of Evliya’s work, it is “the longest and fullest travel account in Islamic literature, perhaps in world literature.” Yet it is also both less and more than this. Dankoff has compared the Seyahatname to a mine that can be dug into deeply here and there, but is rarely tunneled through from end to end. For Evliya, he wrote, “travel was not a diversion but rather an obsession. He had to see everything, and he had to record everything he saw.”

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