Monday, November 23, 2009

Kurdistan in the 16th and 17th centuries, as reflected in Evliya Çelebi's Seyahatname

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By: Martin van Bruinessen

Kurdistan in the 16th and 17th centuries, as reflected in

Evliya Çelebi's Seyahatname

Some sixty years after Sharaf Khan Bidlisi completed his Sharafname, the celebrated Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi travelled extensively in Kurdistan. The ten thick volumes of his Book of Travels (Seyahatname) constitute a unique work almost unparalleled in the travel literature. The account of his travels in Kurdistan is unfortunately not yet completely available in print. At the time when the Ottoman printed edition of these volumes appeared, the archetype (the manuscript from which all later manuscripts appear to be copies, and which either was written in Evliya's own hand or dictated to a scribe) was not available to the editors, Necib Asim Bey and the great historian Ahmed Cevdet. Sultan Abdulhamid II's censors (or the editor's fear of the censors) moreover caused some alterations in the text as it was published. Only parts of Evliya's memoirs on Kurdistan have so far been published in a more satisfactory edition.[1] One important part has in fact never been published at all and is awaiting a critical edition.

Evliya's Seyahatname does not really fit any established genre, and it never became popular until this century. Evliya's contemporaries found his work badly organised and were probably put off by his interests in things that did not conform to civilised taste. It is precisely Evliya's "bad taste" that made him the most interesting of the Ottoman authors to late-20th century readers. Postmodernists may easily recognise a kindred spirit in his juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements, without sharp separation of the serious from the frivolous. We find government documents and dirty jokes, descriptions of mosque architecture and observations on local food and dress habits, legends about saints and gossip about political events side by side; all of this peppered with Evliya's own adventures and occasionally his sceptical comments on opinions of others.

Evliya's travels in Kurdistan

Evliya made three major travels through Kurdistan.[2] The first trip, reported in vol 2 of the Seyahatname, only skirted the northern periphery of Kurdistan. It took place in 1646, when he was appointed as a customs clerk and chief müezzin to Defterdarzade Mehmed Pasha, the governor and commander-in-chief of Erzurum. He travelled to Erzurum by the northern Anatolian route, passing through Kemah and Erzincan. From Erzurum he made a trip to Azerbayjan and Georgia, before returning west by Erzincan again. His second trip, in 1649-50, took him from Damascus and Aleppo to Urfa, Mar`aş, Kayseri, Aksaray and Sivas, and hence to Arabgir, Harput, Pertek, Palu, Genc, Muş and the Bingöl mountains. The relevant sections (of vol. 3) are now available in a good edition and German translation (Bugday 1996).