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.)

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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.”

Which brings me in a rambling way to trees. Occasionally Evliya writes at length about trees. He lists many varieties of trees in a garden in Crete, so there’s a reasonable chance that he could recognise and name multiple species. But there are two huge trees in Book VII over which he rhapsodized but could not identify. One was in Germany, in a region he called Kronkondar, and the other was in Circassia, now southwestern Russia. I wonder if anyone knows what species they are?

I ask because one of my favorite filmmakers, Ousmane Sembene, created an amazingly evocative scene with a tree in his 1977 film Ceddo. It was a simple scene but showed the power of both nature and film while offering a glimpse of animistic beliefs.  Animist tribes worshipped the Circassian tree Evliya writes about, and there’s strong hints of animism in his extended description of the German tree. Guess I’ll have to re-watch Ceddo as part of my research, but I’d also like to know what kind of trees evoked such awe from Evliya. Excerpts from his descriptions are below. Educated guesses are welcome.

The German tree:

“By God’s Wisdom, there was one mammoth tree situated in a broad plain. No tree in the turning world gives such shade and bears such leaves and fruit. It has 300 branches, each as thick as an elephant’s trunk, with thin tart-tasting leaves like the parsley in Turkish salad. Although, by the Creator’s wisdom, everything sour is constipative, these sour leaves are as laxative as senna.                Fruit is curious. All the fruit grows on the tiny tips of the branches, and green shelled fruit lines the tree’s 300 branches like acorns. When ripe, by command of the Living and Omnipotent One, they taste like hastavi dates from Baghdad and smell like musk and raw ambergris. And they are very invigorating (i.e. aphrodisiac). But there were no seeds.”

— from An Ottoman Traveler, Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim

The Circassian tree:

“The tree that this tribe worships is in a green valley… Its poplar like leaves block the sky, but it is not a poplar tree. The leaves are yellow and smell of musk and saffron crocus, having an almost round shape. When rubbed in hands, its pleasant scent stays on for a week…

20 of us held hands around the tree and were hardly able to encircle it. It has 170 branches, each requiring at least five or six men to encircle. Total number of its branches and knots are uncountable. Thousands of these branches reach the highest point of the sky, but the aforementioned bigger branches grow toward all directions, reaching a height of 40–50 men. These branches are so massive that the entire Imperial Council of the Ottoman Empire could gather under its shade. Under this tree, an estimated flock of 1000 sheep could graze.”

— from “Evliya Çelebi in the Circassian Lands: Vampires, Tree Worshippers, and Pseudo-Muslims,” by Murat Yaşar

Below is a tree awaiting spring, in the park behind Yeni Camii, when I went to visit Evliya’s dream mosque,  Ahi Çelebi Camii, a few weeks ago.  Its starkness also reminded me of Ousmane Sembene.

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