Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname is one of history’s greatest travelogues

Sermin-ciddi-evliya-celebi-seyahatnameEdward White at The Paris Review:

Evliya so adored the bustling energy of Istanbul that he dedicated the first volume of the Seyahatname to it. In his telling, it was a place of learning, culture, and endless sensory stimulation, where acrobats from Arabia, Persia, Yemen, and India performed in the streets, and where “thousands of old and young lovers” exposed their “rosy pink bodies, like peeled almonds” to the summer sun, swimming and canoodling in the open. That this tribute came from a man who repeatedly described himself as a “dervish”—a man who during the course of his life recited from memory the whole of the Koran more than a thousand times—reveals something vital about his world and his mindset. To Evliya’s mind, the divine and the earthly were bound tightly together; sensual pleasure was not inimical to piety.

Despite his wanderlust, Evliya was actually a pretty lousy traveler: a fussy eater, prone to discomfort, with a fear of boats. And he didn’t travel light, accompanied as he was by mules, camels, libraries of books, and cases of fine clothing, all attended to by at least half a dozen slaves, frequently more. This entourage was itself usually part of the larger retinue of an ambassador on a diplomatic mission or a military leader pursuing territorial expansion, with Evliya tagging along in the role of a glorified jester. Once the jaunt was over he would return to Istanbul to regale the court, including the Sultan himself, with tales of the places he had seen and the scrapes he had gotten into.

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