Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Evliya Çelebi Project: Rides, Ways, Reflections

The Evliya Çelebi Project: Rides, Ways, Reflections
Gerald MacLean

During 1-15 September 2011, riders again led by Ercihan Dilari will take to the trail following Evliya Çelebi from Hersek to Kütahya, on the first stage of his 1671 pilgrimage route to Mecca. As thoughts turn towards taking to the road in Evliya’s traces once again, I have been reflecting on our 2009 journey, in which the Evliya Çelebi project team pioneered the cultural route The Evliya Çelebi Way. Later this month, The Evliya Çelebi Way, the guidebook by Caroline Finkel and Kate Clow, with Donna Landry, will be available from Upcountry (Turkey).

What follows first appeared in the Turkish Areas Studies Review, 17 (Spring 2011).

Many more people have heard of Evliya Çelebi (1611-c.1683) than have read any part of his 10-volume Seyahatname or Book of Travels, one of the world’s greatest works of travel writing. Among the aims of the Evliya Çelebi Project is to encourage broader familiarity with Evliya and his text. The recent publication of An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, translations into English by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim (Eland, 2010), brings Evliya to English readers.

While the Evliya Çelebi Project centres on the Seyahatname, our multiple origins and evolution into a team with distinct interests and skills mean that the range of our ambitions and methods extends further. So allow me to back up and start by describing who the project involves and their interests since the project itself, and the ways that I think about Evliya and why his work is so important, take shape and focus from our conversations and discussions over the years. I will end with some reflections on what I learned from travelling for forty days and nights across western Turkey, on horseback, in the hoof prints of the great Ottoman traveller.

At more or less the same time, the 1990s, that Donna Landry and I were imagining how wonderful it would be to travel across Turkey on horseback, Caroline Finkel was thinking much the same thing, except that her plan involved travelling on foot. Soon after we met in 1999, the two schemes began to combine, swiftly moving from topics of dinner conversation into serious possibilities. Donna and I were already part of a research group exploring how and in what ways historical re-enactment was a useful method in historical and cultural research, but it must have been Caroline who introduced the name of Evliya Çelebi for the first time. While finishing Osman’s Dream (2005), her narrative history of the Ottoman Empire, Caroline had been working with Kate Clow on pioneering trekking routes across Turkey. Kate was establishing The Lycian Way and St Paul Trail, seeking to promote sustainable inland tourism away from the coastal resorts. For Donna, re-enactment is most fascinating when it entails horses and riding; she had already begun field research on native breeds on our travels in Turkey and working with Lady Anne Blunt’s manuscript journals of her equestrian travels in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Donna’s recent study, Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture (2008) is only a start publishing research begun back then. For my part, I was finishing a book about seventeenth-century English travellers in the Ottoman Empire and we were revisiting, as best we could, the routes followed by my authors. So Evliya was soon an important focus of all our interests: he travelled by horse along routes that we could try to follow again.

If the project was to re-enact sections of Evliya’s route with a view to establishing sustainable cultural routes, doing it with horses became essential once Andy Byfield joined the team. Having recently published his major study of Anatolian flora, Andy was back in the UK working for Plantlife International. He is also a keen horseman, eager to revisit Anatolia from the saddle and study land use. Horses continued to open up further layers to our project. In rural areas, the equestrian sports of rahvan and cirit are flourishing, and players are often aware that these sports have their origins in the Ottoman world that Evliya knew and recounted. Players are also breeders, and make claims about the ancestry of their most successful horses. Donna is working with the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, collecting and documenting samples of mane hair for DNA evidence in hopes of tracing vanishing Anatolian breeds. Leyla Neyzi of Sabanci University joined the research team and is studying the culture of these equestrian games, which are of considerable interest as seemingly organic expressions of what in other registers might be called neo-Ottomanism.

Horses means horses. Once we had committed ourselves to 2009 as the year in which we would be taking to horse and riding along some of Evliya’s route, we needed horses. Evliya had wealthy sponsors, and was regularly awarded horses as gifts or spoils from battle. We had better fortune having Patricia Daunt join the team and lead us unerringly to Ercihan Dilari for our horses. With a second sense for how to do things, Caroline found not only the patrons and sponsors but also the energy left over for the onerous task of planning our route linking villages and sites mentioned by Evliya. And so it came about that the Evliya Çelebi Ride of 2009 took place. This was, to adopt a certain idiom, an epic journey lasting a legendary forty days and forty nights, that has forged the way for a European cultural route through western Turkey. Between the 22nd of September and the 2nd of November, an international group of scholars and horse enthusiasts retraced on horseback the first section of the haj itinerary of the greatest of Ottoman travellers.

Evliya set out for Mecca in 1671 with three companions, eight servants, and fifteen pedigreed horses. The core group of the Evliya Çelebi Ride were Ercihan, who supplied the seven horses and guided the expedition, Caroline, Donna, myself, together with support vehicle staff Metin Aker and Sedat Varış. Riders who joined for shorter or longer periods included Patricia and Andy, Turkish Jockey Club vet Ayşe Yetiş, Cappadocian entrepreneurs Özcan Görürgöz and Alper Katrancı, trekkist and academic Pınar Durmaz, Montreal advertising executive Thérèse Tardif, and photographic editor at the New York office of Der Spiegel, Susan Wirth. The expedition was accompanied for part of the journey by Mehmet Çam and other members of the Istanbul production company Ajans21, who shot beautiful footage for a potential documentary about Evliya and the expedition.

From Hersek, on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara, we followed Evliya to Iznik, Bursa, Kütahya, Afyon, Uşak, Simav, Çavdarhisar, and back to Kütahya, Evliya’s ancestral city. Thanks to the brave and agile horses, we forded rivers, climbed mountains, made friends with local villagers, drank tea and Turkish coffee in countless kahve-s, explored ancient sites and Ottoman cities, attended rahvan (pacing) horse races and mounted cirit (javelin) matches, and camped under the stars in unspoiled landscapes of staggering beauty. Some 1300 kilometres later, the horses and core riders fetched up in Kütahya, unfazed by adventures and ready for more.

One thing that we established beyond a doubt is how suitable the Turkish countryside remains for riding, trekking, and other forms of sustainable tourism. So long as traditional agricultural practices of semi-nomadic grazing and farmers’ shared use of the land keep the countryside open and unprivatised, Turkey remains one of the very few places in the developed world in which it is possible to make such long distance cross-country journeys unhindered by ‘No Trespassing!’ signs and barbed wire fences. Turkish hospitality guarantees travellers safe passage and a warm welcome. The expedition proved such a success that, in the late summer of 2010, Ercihan led commercial rides along part of the Evliya Çelebi Way established by our 2009 journey and plans future rides for 2011. The guidebook will soon be published in English and in Turkish. A multi-authored book presenting the interdisciplinary research findings is also in the works, as are plans for exploring further Evliya Çelebi Way routes for walkers and riders.

Another thing we learned was just how widely Evliya is still known wherever he went. In every village that we passed through where there was a school, the children had all heard of him; in some villages, elder statesman reported what they believed Evliya to have said about their locality. We knew that the name of Evliya Çelebi was known beyond his readership, but were struck by how true this was along our route. All of us have notebooks full of such fascinating observations arising directly from our form of travel, and I would like to end by returning to my notebook and the question of ‘were horses necessary?’

One of the assumptions of re-enactment as a research method is that you don’t know what you will find until you get there. So, while I set out with general rather than precise research goals and questions, my main quest was to find out what the trek itself would offer: for example, what new ways of thinking about my interest in Evliya would come about? What was it like to travel in this way, on horses, camping every night, finding and preparing food for ourselves and the horses, adjusting to temperature changes: how do these alter and shape the understanding of a place as it is now, and as it appears in Evliya’s description of 400 years ago? We didn’t ride on Ottoman saddles or wear Ottoman clothes; but neither were we comfortably outnumbered by our servants as he was. We were accompanied by a support vehicle that converted into a kitchen and carried our tents and luggage as well as hard-feed for the horses and a motor cycle. And unlike Evliya, we were seeking to establish a route that could be used by walkers, mountain bikers, and horses: one that provided an adequate series of camp sites where the presence of a group of horses and people was not merely welcome but advantageous and certainly not an ecological disaster. For of course, not everywhere is suited for a group of horses and people suddenly to camp, and the fear of nomads suddenly becoming residents is not far from the thoughts of most villagers. So there were logistical answers that had to be found for establishing a route others after us would be invited to take. We didn’t want to lead them to villages where they would be less than welcome, though I must admit we found only one of these, such is the continued culture of hospitality throughout rural Western Anatolia, as we found it.

Many rural areas have changed little since Evliya’s day, and for short periods we rode along paths and even old cobbled roads that Evliya would have travelled along. The most spectacular instance was the view as one drops down onto the plain towards Altintaş. I have extended notes on this. As far as common experience with Evliya goes, such moments are important I think because they demand one recognise the utter beauty of the scene ahead—a route shaded by tall thin poplars leading towards what is clearly a city though more than ten kilometres away, but since it is placed in the midst of a plain so vast that the eye cannot register its size, it can only tell how very, very far all the encircling mountain ranges are, except the one that is just behind—and the way it demands you to stop and think about the way the landscape has been inhabited as well as the demands of writing about it. I have yet to find out if Evliya described this moment, but such moments are crucial in any case because one is riding on a horse. I have ridden extensively for more than thirty years, have led treks regularly over areas of Dartmoor and ridden on treks in numerous countries before. But one thing that travelling every day on horseback, sleeping at night in a tent, taught me was the perceptual and conceptual shifts that occur when, after about two weeks or so, you have been riding for so many hours every day that you have forgotten what day of the week it is and your body is not in the least interested. No one got ill on the entire trip, despite ad hoc sanitary practices and the enormous amount of energy it requires simply to travel that way for weeks. But along the way, moments and scenes arise that announce they are important and insist that they will be written about, and often that comes as a sudden change in subjectivity and perception, a break in the rhythm or a change in the way your horse goes forward.

So what did I learn about Evliya, the Ottoman traveller who journeyed by horse, slept in tents, and enjoyed the hospitality of people in different villages and towns? Well, I learned why Evliya so often recorded the regional specialities—apples from here, local pasta from somewhere else, the local yoghurts and walnuts, the breads and tomatoes, the peppers and garlics—and that was because they are incomparably wonderful. And we learned that they are still freely given to travellers who arrive on horseback. He wrote about them because you cannot forget these things. Like the beauty of the Turkish landscape as viewed from the saddle, they too demand to be written about, and Evliya recognised that fact. He also took strange and exceptionally indirect routes, and it is so easy to imagine how local hospitality must often have been responsible. How could Evliya resist an invitation from someone who has suggested a visit to some friends in the next village, which is only a day’s journey by horse, not at all out of the way, and where they serve the most wonderful fish?

The minute particularities of place do matter, not just local culinary specialties, but linguistic, social, architectural and intellectual specificities, and although places change over time, they also retain a distinctive character: that is something important I’ve learned from following Evliya. What is most striking is how much variety there is in western Anatolian rural life, replete with village to village differences, dramatic shifts in architecture, religion, and language or dialect only a few miles apart. Multiple layers of migration and immigration testify to the ethnic diversity and cultural heterogeneity of the Ottoman Empire, especially as its borders shrank during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before its dissolution and the founding of the Republic of Turkey. The character of the traveller is also a feature of Evliya’s writing that remains tellingly imprinted in the mind after reading him. Unlike UK government insistence that academic research be instantly marketable, Evliya’s much richer purpose was the gathering of information for its own sake, driven by curiosity. Only by compiling all the facts of a place, all the stories he heard, the events that happened while he was there, only then could he hope to discover the world, all the ‘races of men,’ and the scientific and mystical nature of things.

For details of the forthcoming September 2011 ride, check out the Great Anatolian Ride at

References and Further Information:

Ajans 21, Istanbul

McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

Byfield, Andrew. Important Plant Areas in Turkey. 2005, 2010.

Çelebi, Evliya. An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from The Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi. Translated with a commentary by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim. London: Eland, 2010.

Clow, Kate. The Lycian Way. Upcountry (Turkey), 2000.

Clow, Kate. St Paul Trail. Upcountry (Turkey), 2004.

Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream. The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. London: Murray, 2005.

Landry, Donna. Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture. Baltimore, MD, 2008.

MacLean, Gerald. Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire before 1800. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007.

MacLean, Gerald. The Rise of Oriental Travel: English Visitors to the Ottoman Empire, 1580-1720. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004.

Neyzi, Leyla, and Kharatyan-Araqelyan, Hranush. Speaking to one another: personal memories of the past in Armenia and Turkey. Bonn: DVV, 2010.