The Arab World's Greatest Travel Writer

Evliya Çelebi relates a magical version of the Islamic empire. Shane McCauley / Gallery Stock

There are important reasons why we should all learn more about life during the Ottoman Empire. It was the last era in which a sultan-caliph, a sort of Islamic emperor-pope, held sway over virtually the entire Muslim geosphere. Many Islamists today explicitly yearn for the return of such a unified Muslim super-state. At the Ottoman Empire's zenith, roughly between 1600 and 1700, Sharia dominated human affairs from India to Morocco and deep into Europe, stopping just short of Vienna. That era could furnish clues to what it might be like again if the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk gain widespread momentum. Furthermore, with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banging on about his party's "neo-Ottoman" approach to foreign policy, it behooves us to know what coherent world view, if any, he and other nostalgists are drawing on for their grand designs.

The most exhaustive chronicle of the Ottoman world and environs was recorded by Evliya Çelebi (b. 1611), a figure celebrated in the Muslim world as one of history's greatest travel writers, on par with Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. A Turk born in Istanbul to a privileged court family, Çelebi traveled for about 45 years, from 1640 up to the year he died in Cairo. He spent those decades crisscrossing the sultan's dominions, completing pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem and even entering "infidel" Vienna as an ambassador. A native Istanbullu, his intricate portrait of the costumes and conventions of his hometown remains the richest source text for historians. He wrote 10 long volumes of his Seyahatname, or travelogue, in the ornately archaic Arabic-scripted Ottoman language of his day, a language as remote to modern Turks as Latin to Italians. Turks know all about him, name parks after him, but very few read him at any length.

A volume of outtakes from his work, titled An Ottoman Traveller: Selections From the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, was recently published to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Çelebi's birth. Selected and translated by Ottoman experts Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, it gives us the most accessible glimpse to date into Çelebi's text, itself a window onto a highly cultivated sensibility living at a peak moment in Islamic civilization. Çelebi embarked on his travels two years after the brutally efficient Sultan Murat IV reconquered Baghdad from the Persians in 1638. (The honorific title of Çelebi denoted a gentleman or esquire of Sultan Murat's era, and indeed the ancestors of Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi originally came from Turkey with the sultan's invasion forces.) In various campaigns Murat had stamped out revolts in Anatolia and stabilized the empire's borders. The ensuing order made the Seyahatname possible, though Murat died the same year that Çelebi set out.

The book can be enjoyed on many levels—for its descriptions of towns, natural wonders, and ancient monuments such as the Parthenon and the Kaaba; for its Sufi-dervish notions of "mystical" love; for its nutty take on history, such as the bios of Jesus and Plato; and for the pleasant company of its unreliable narrator. But one's first reaction is to marvel at the utter strangeness of the world on view. From Istanbul's guilds of lion tamers and snow procurers to sorcerers and torturers in far-flung provinces, the unfolding panorama teeming with marvels and superstitions seems closer to the world of antiquity than to our own day.

Çelebi certainly knows how to tell a tall tale, but he makes you wade through thickets of religious allusions and invocations, an odd habit in a narrative full of bawdy moments. Çelebi was a renowned reciter of the Quran, and he indulges his erudition at every turn. Take the stormy shipwreck in the Black Sea. "By God's will black clouds appeared in the sky," he says, and soon he detects God's unknowable wisdom in the horrors that follow, which he survives wrapped around a floating bowsprit, in a yarn as gripping as any that Joseph Conrad spun. Some years later, a sorcerer at the court of the Kurdish Ziyaeddin Khan in Diyarbakir flies in the sky and pees out an entire lake onto the audience, to the khan's delight. When the sorcerer eventually quarrels with the khan and has his head split open with an ax, Çelebi detects the inscrutable will of God. He offers the Quranic quote, "There is no turning away His decree, and no preventing His judgment."

Çelebi visits Sofia in Bulgaria and finds the townsfolk much attached to prostitutes. The pasha in charge ultimately punishes the town: "A few of [the prostitutes], by the leave of the Sharia and the reform of the world, were strung up like chandeliers." Sadly, this results in a curse: "By God's wisdom, the plague did spread in the city from day to day. Seventy-seven of our fortunate [sic] lord's highest officers died." The city empties. The pasha is ousted.

What was Çelebi's message, always punctuated by piety, in relating such baffling incidents that occur frequently in the book? The editors give us no clues. Did Çelebi intend for us to believe his stories? And what kind of arbitrary God was he pointing to? Turkish scholars would say that when Çelebi gets fantastical he is purveying parables or satires akin to, say, Gulliver's Travels, with embedded political messages. The explanation works up to a point. On one occasion, Çelebi visits the relatively Islamized Crimean Tatars and joins in battle against another Turkic tribe, the pagan Kalmyks. He tells a literally incredible story in which an old Kalmyk shaman, with no discernible motive, helps Çelebi's side retreat by casting a spell to temporarily freeze a river. Read it how you will, no hidden message can be gleaned from this or myriad similar incidents. We're left thinking that Çelebi lived in a kind of magic-realist ambience where physics and metaphysics had yet to separate, where the miraculous abounded because it was impious to seek cause and effect in the world of matter.

It's worth remembering that Galileo, who effectively launched modern science in the West, died around the time Çelebi set off traveling. Galileo suffered for his "heresies," but by the time Çelebi died, Britain's Royal Society under Charles II was conducting officially sanctioned experiments in empirical observation. How does this offer any sort of bearing on the present, you might ask? Answer: think only of places like Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan's tribal territories, where caliph-besotted Sharia-mongers thrive. Think of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, in which the perpetrators genuinely believed their martyred bodies would exude perfume as they attained paradise. At its worst, this world view may seem appallingly superstitious and cruel; nevertheless, Çelebi's universe is one that many either still inhabit or would like others to reinhabit. Their kind will not read Çelebi: they're not allowed to stray that far from scripture. For them, a little empirical brush-up on history would work miracles.

Kaylan was born in Turkey and educated in England. A journalist in New York for 25 years, he writes about cultures in conflict from China to the Middle East. He covers culture for The Wall Street Journal.