Another Evliya fan: Edward White

Thanks to Caroline Finkel for forwarding this. Edward White captures Evliya’s spirit, while also in the tradition of Evliya, gets some facts wrong for the sake of storytelling. It’s a fun read.

Boon Companion

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Evliya in Medina

Rare-Photos-of-Madina-A-rare-Black-White-photo-of-Masjid-an-Nabawi-Madina-Old-Rare-Pictures-of-MadinaI’ve been condensing my Evliya Çelebi treatment to reach the required 10 pages for an upcoming grant deadline. Since Evliya’s own manuscript is approximately 14,000 pages long, he’s not a good influence – though his individual stories can be remarkably concise.

On Monday, July 4th, I’d finished trimming Evliya’s affectionate tribute to the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina to the minimum: “If I were not so besmirched with worldly affairs and not so inclined to travel, I would not budge from this mosque,” when I saw a news alert on my computer. A suicide bomb had just exploded outside that mosque.

Along with shock, there was also a jolt of connection, as I had been seeing the mosque in my mind while writing about it – imagining it from Evliya’s description when it looked far different than it does today. Be that as it may, the sense of connection is what’s important.

From Istanbul, which I left about a week before the attack on Ataturk Airport, to Dhaka, to Baghdad (twice) to Medina, each attack has been heinous. I know I’m not the only non-Muslim westerner to think so and feel a connection despite  less media attention and fewer  public expressions of solidarity than in other recent attacks.

Since I began writing this, a new, very American cluster of violence has made the headlines: Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Dallas, Texas. In mourning our own and committing to change laws, procedures, and attitudes that led to these deaths, we can’t forget those on other shores, because we are connected.

Evliya Çelebi loved life: good food, good company, raunchy jokes, spirited horses, awe-inspiring architecture, verdant mountain meadows, and the variety and unpredictability of human society. His perspective was not Panglossian but humanistic, acknowledging cruelty and tragedy but not succumbing to hatred himself. In any time and place, that’s a perspective worth remembering and putting into practice.


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Baby steps

While Evliya Çelebi expressed sincere and often heartfelt feelings about people, animals and events, he generally maintained an ironic view of life. I guess that makes it particularly appropriate that I came from California to Turkey planning to visit many of the places Evliya described, and find myself stuck in a room, unable to travel while writing about a travel writer.

Four weeks ago I twisted my left ankle and broke it, just a little. (With fractures, “just a little” does make a difference as opposed to pregnancy, for instance.) Along with the usual foot elevation and icing routine, I’ve spent most of the time working to select and boil down a number of Evliya Çelebi’s many wonderful stories and observations into what needs to be a cohesive story for filming purposes. While still not finished with this extremely rough and increasingly baggy and shapeless first draft, I know it’s a necessary step. Next will be feedback from people who know about Evliya and people who know about film, and then the work will really begin.


But at least I can start to take some physical steps, and  go gaze at the distance when I get stuck writing. Yesterday I graduated from a Velcro boot to a compression sock. And if I manage to not stumble again for the next several weeks, there will be time to visit some important Evliya sites after all before heading back home.


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Still life with velcro boot

A week ago, I went out in the afternoon because the weather was so beautiful, looking for a café named after Evliya Çelebi that I’d heard about. I took my eyes off the road for a minute and twisted my ankle on uneven pavement, which is everywhere here.


The doctor took x-rays and said it was fine but called two days later to say there might be a fracture. By then, I was in Ankara for a meeting. Today doctors confirmed that I’ve got a small fracture, which has led me to consider going home to San Francisco. (I arrived here in mid-February still limping from having injured that same foot by stepping on my cat’s tail in the dark, jumping up when she screeched and landing badly.)

What would Evliya do? Look for answers in a dream? Figure out how to turn the experience into an entertaining story? Ask his servant boy to bring a sherbet to his tent? Organize his travel notes for his monumental book?

While he’d most likely do all of the above, one will be enough for me. I need to write a proposal and treatment for my Evliya film, and it appears that now is the time. There’s still time to travel in Turkey later in the spring. Feet: chill. Brain and fingers: do your stuff. Visitors welcome.


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Sunday rambles, circumscribed

The present keeps intruding on my efforts to dive into the past. Of course, the past’s impact on the present, whether unacknowledged or selectively burnished, is everywhere. Fortunately, much of what I need to do during this trip is read and write.

It’s a 20160410_134209warm, bright Sunday. Warned again to avoid tourist spots, I went to my neighborhood park, which was filled with families.

(Apologies for the lousy photo – I didn’t want to intrude.)


I’ve been reading about Ottoman parks and gardens and recently had a chance to visit the garden of the Galata Mevlevihanesi, a museum in a former Sufi lodge.

Surrounded by tourist bustle, the grounds of the museum are green and peaceful – not just because they include a cemetery, which appears to include equal numbers of headstones, tulips and lounging cats. (No cats in this photo. You’ll have to trust me.)

Evliya describes numerous parks and gardens in Istanbul, Edirne, and elsewhere, and I’m hoping to look at one spot in particular over time in the film. One candidate is Kağithane, now an Istanbul neighborhood in transition as people say in polite company. Then it was comprised of  “…grassy meadows with clover, alfalfa, couch grass, … buttercups, and tulips; and shady bowers adorned with thousands of plane trees and poplars and weeping willows.” Read More »

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Happy 415th, Evliya Çelebi!

Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel (Osman’s Dream) has a great idea for celebrating Evliya Çelebi’s birthday: name a new bridge being built after the traveler who not only passed through the region four centuries ago but described in his Book of Travels.

Here is Dr. Finkel’s article from the Hurriyet Daily News:

Let’s call Turkey’s new İzmit bridge the ‘Evliya Çelebi Bridge’

Today, March 25, is the anniversary of the birth of Evliya Çelebi, one of the greatest Ottoman men of letters. He is also one of the least-appreciated. As someone who has lived in Istanbul for many years, immersing myself of late in Evliya’s life and work, I remain perplexed that he is scarcely celebrated in Turkey today. His birthday presents an opportunity to remember this remarkable individual and to propose a way to right this wrong.

Evliya was a courtier, a dervish, a historian, a geographer, a musician, a linguist, and much else. He was a wit and raconteur, and a man of boundless curiosity and energy, who travelled the empire and beyond, and wrote about his adventures in the 10-volume “Seyahatname,” or “Book of Travels.” The work is probably the longest travel account in world literature.

Evliya tells us in the “Seyahatname” that he was born on the 10th day of the month of Muharrem in the year 1020 of the Islamic calendar. 10 Muharrem is a particularly holy day for Muslims, and anyone with an eye to posterity would choose it as the time to come into the world. In the year 1020, 10 Muharrem equated to March 25, 1611, in the solar, Gregorian calendar.

Five years ago, the 400th anniversary of Evliya Çelebi’s birth was widely recognized, including by UNESCO, which named him one of their “men of the year.” Exhibitions were organized and conferences held around the globe. Yet in the short time since, interest in Evliya’s work has sunk to a nadir. Hopes expressed in 2011 for the establishment of academic institutes dedicated to him, and pleas for funding for big projects for the study of the many aspects of his text, have gone unheeded. His name hardly features in the school curriculum.

There have been a few signs that the indifference of a nation is not total, as unsung officials have been inspired to make local acknowledgement of Evliya’s uniqueness and modern relevance. Here and there you may notice “Evliya Çelebi” streets, and a handful of schools, cultural centers and neighborhoods named for him.

What can be the reason for the failure to value Evliya Çelebi and his work? Evliya’s “Seyahatname” was first printed (in part) at the turn of the 20th century. This edition was censored by order of Abdulhamid II, and the result was a perversion of the manuscript text from which it derived. Evliya seems to have been considered “dangerous,” and still today his work is not infrequently criticized for being obscene and full of untruths. Yes, some passages of the “Seyahatname” may be more explicit or racy than the sensitive-minded can endure, and his count of the number of, say, mosques in any place, may on occasion be empirically incorrect, but his is a towering work of literature, not a tract tailored for the approbation of the delicate among modern readers.

That the “Seyahatname” should be printed, and thus become widely available, was in large part due to the efforts of two men, Ahmed Midhat Efendi and Necip Asım (Yazıksız), who exchanged letters about this work in the newspaper İkdam. Contrary to the views of some intellectuals of their time, who denigrated the “Seyahatname,” they considered it a great achievement. Ahmed Midhat recommended that it be translated into European languages forthwith, that a map or maps showing Evliya’s travels be produced and that statues of Evliya be erected in every town and village as a source of pride for the people of the place.

Ahmet Midhat and Necip Asım’s dreams were dashed. In addition to the injustice of the “Seyahatname” being censored, few useful maps of Evliya’s travels have been drawn, and his work has still not been translated faithfully and in full into any foreign language. Statues of Evliya are few: I am aware of two in his family seat of Kütahya, a place that could surely capitalize on being Evliya’s native town, but where efforts to encourage public remembrance of the most notable of its sons have been underwhelming.

A century on, as we muse about Evliya Çelebi and his “Seyahatname” on the occasion of his birthday, it is not too late to make amends. A grand gesture is required – the modern equivalent of ubiquitous Evliya statues.

There is an obvious candidate for the honor of spreading Evliya Çelebi’s name far and wide. This is the new bridge being built over the İzmit Körfezi. It will be among the longest of its kind in the world, and across it will move thousands of people who will wonder who Evliya Çelebi is, and why they have not heard of him before.

Evliya himself travelled this way, crossing the Körfez en route to Syria in 1648 and again in 1671 on his pilgrimage to Mecca. On the northern shore he boarded a special boat constructed to carry his party with their horses, and disembarked after the short voyage on the quay of the peninsula (dil) at Hersek. His journeys are now marked in a very tangible way. The new bridge’s southern support stands foursquare in Hersek village, and the highway continues into Anatolia as Evliya himself once did. In 2009 we followed his 1671 itinerary, and we and others have since hiked, biked and ridden the route.

There can be no more fitting tribute to Evliya Çelebi and his “Seyahatname” than to dub the bridge across the İzmit Körfezi in his honor. There are many mega projects that require a name, but in this case “Evliya Çelebi Bridge” seems to be the only conceivable one.

*Dr. Caroline Finkel is author of “Osman’s Dream” (Rüya’dan İmparatorluğu’a Osmanlı); and co-author of “The Evliya Çelebi Way” (Evliya Çelebi Yolu), a guidebook to the early stages of Evliya’s pilgrimage route in western Anatolia. A generous selection of passages from Evliya Çelebi’s “Seyahatname” in English is “An Ottoman Traveller” (Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim).


And here’s a photo of how the bridge will look. Light a candle, name a bridge.


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Translation dependence syndrome

View from classroom 3-4-16

The photograph above shows the view from my Turkish language classroom at 9am when class starts, and (below) at 11am, with 2 more hours of class to go.

2nd view from classroom 3-4-16Inside, Americans are the linguistic lightweights (no surprise there.) It’s an intensive course so Turkish is spoken almost exclusively. Occasionally the teacher or a student says something in English, the only other language allowed. That’s where the lightweight part comes in: my fellow students come from Germany, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Singapore and Brazil, and they all know English. Many also know another language, with Turkish being their fourth.

The only writings of Evliya Çelebi I can read are selections translated to English. It will already be a major challenge to whittle what’s written in English down to a structure that can work as a film. Still, the researcher in me feels frustrated whenever I see a reference to an article or book in modern Turkish, German, or French, none of which I know.

Evliya was an accomplished amateur linguist, collecting words and common phrases from the different cultures he encountered. Scholars have found many of his language notes useful over the years.  He concentrated on practical terms such as greetings, words for family members, kinds of food, expressions of friendship and of course, insults. Here’s one of his less profane but still expressive finds: “I’ll fart in your nose.” Understanding local insults may have helped ensure his personal safety during 40 or so years of travel.

Next month when the class ends, I’ll hit the road to visit various Evliya haunts around the country. By then I’m supposed to be able to have simple conversations with Turks who don’t speak English.  I will not be collecting colorful phrases, and plan instead to keep my conversations polite and my nose clean.

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The Condor flies in Istanbul


I heard El Condor Pasa today.

In 1970, Paul Simon included the song, originally an Andean folk melody, then adapted by Peruvian composer and ethnomusicologist Daniel Alomia Robles, in Bridge Over Troubled Waters. That may partly explain how these Latin American musicians ended up performing the song in Istanbul. It doesn’t begin to explain what they’re wearing. Don’t traditional Quechua clothes look Indian enough?  It is true that feathered headdresses from the Great Plains leave no doubt.

By the time Evliya Çelebi began his travels in the mid 1600s, Western Europe had conquered much of the Americas and it’s possible that he knew about the widespread annihilation of Native lives on both hemispheres. Evliya claims to have spoken with two Native Americans while visiting a Dutch port city. He described them as short, hairy men, who were being held as prisoners on a ship. They told him, “Our world used to be peaceful, but it has been filled with the greedy people, men of this world who make war every year and shorten our lives.”  While it’s true that he considered Western Europeans his enemies and might have taken any opportunity to criticize them, his compassion for those two men and their shattered world is genuine.

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Off to a good start


On Friday I accompanied a class field trip from my host institution, Koç University, on a circuitous route from a metro stop to the Süleymaniye Mosque. We approached the mosque complex from a small residential street that currently boasts more cars than residences.

The mosque itself of course is stunning, and  I want to go back among other reasons to find the tomb of the architect Sinan, who was buried on the grounds.

Along the way, something happened that showed how some segments of my Evliya Çelebi film could work. We stopped to face a mosque that was originally a Byzantine convent. As the professor finished describing the lives of the select convent inhabitants – living modestly, doing productive work, but with one servant permitted for women of means – the Friday midday prayers ended. I was looking at the mosque while imagining the possible lives of those Byzantine nuns when the doors of the mosque opened and large numbers of men exited, walking in all directions. Past and present suddenly coexisted.

I want to create (or capture) those kinds of moments for viewers. With a master storyteller as my subject, I should be off to a good start.


The Kalenderhane Mosque shown here is not that former Byzantine convent/current mosque, but the site was once a Roman bath, then the building was created as a Byzantine church, and has been a mosque since the conquest of Istanbul.

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Off to Istanbul

Sultan Osman II with Janissaries and Guards, from LACMA

Sultan Osman II with Janissaries and Guards, from LACMA

Evliya Çelebi, self-proclaimed world traveler and boon companion to mankind, was a child running around the streets of Istanbul when Osman II was Sultan (1618-22).  In little more than a week, I’ll start following Evliya’s footprints, but at a slower pace.  More images and reports to come of Istanbul and Turkey then and now.

Others have described Evliya as a Turkish Pepys, a Muslim Montaigne or an Ottoman Herodotus.*  While he may combine elements of all these writers, his wide-ranging interests, cosmopolitan wit and dedication to travel puts him in a category of his own.

* those comparisons come from the liner notes of “An Ottoman Traveler,” which translates a treasure trove of Evliya’s stories to English.  It will be one of my constant companions on my own travels in Turkey in the months to come.

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