By Joshua Bruce Allen
Evliya Çelebi is known as the Marco Polo of the Ottoman Empire, having traveled across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, compiling 40 years of wandering into one epic book, the Seyahatname. Call it embellishment or artistic license, but it’s fair to say that his tales had an element of the fantastic – from dreams and prophecy to magic and monsters, Evliya did not constrain his lightning pen.
One of the more bizarre tales concerns Evliya’s travels in Circassia. Being very hungry, Evliya and his companions accept some honey from a local man, who says it is “for the health of my father’s soul”. While eating the honey, Evliya discovers that it is full of small hairs. Evliya’s friend, who knows the Circassian language, asks about the unusual texture. The Circassian explains that the honey is from a bee hive growing on his father’s dead body – in this way the son consumes the elder’s spirit. Of course, there is no evidence that Circassians ever practiced such a ritual; Evliya probably wrote the episode for his amusement.
In another unlikely story, Evliya describes the case of a young girl from Sivas who gave birth to a white elephant. The new-born animal is killed by the midwife, but the girl survives and is imprisoned by the local ruler. Finding this treatment unfair, Evliya brings her to the provincial court – there the girl explains that when the sultan of India was visiting, she was grabbed by one of his elephants and pushed into the creature’s mouth. Three years later, the girl claims, she gave birth to the strange child. The court decides in her favor, punishing the murderous midwife.
Without such outlandish anecdotes, the Seyahatname might be more accurate, but it would also be missing the inventive patchwork of Ottoman storytelling. Through Evliya, we hear the complex voice of a culture whose myths, jokes, and fantasies are as vivid as our own.
Find selections from the Seyahatname in Robert Dankoff’s An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi – available at Homer Kitabevi, Yeni Çarşı Caddesi No.12/A, Galatasaray; T: 0212 249 59 02