Evliya Çelebi: Traveller's Tales

To mark the 400th anniversary of his birth, UNESCO has declared Evliya Çelebi a ‘man of the year’. His Seyahatname, or Book of Travels, is one of the world’s great works of literature. Caroline Finkel celebrates a figure little known in the West.

The interior of a Turkish caravanserai, or travellers' inn, coloured drawing in a 17th-century Ottoman manuscript. Art Archive/Dagli Orti/Museo Correr Venice

Everyone has their favourite guidebook – James Boswell for Holland or the Hebrides, old Baedekers for Italy perhaps, Iain Sinclair for Londons central and greater. For Ottoman historians it might be the relevant part of Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname or Book of Travels. Whether for a stroll around Istanbul, an excursion within Turkey or an expedition to the furthest reaches of the sultan’s domains, this monumental work by a 17th-century gentleman-adventurer is the indispensable vademecum without which so many aspects of the past would remain lost.

Evliya Çelebi (çelebi is roughly equivalent to ‘gentleman’) was a courtier of the Ottoman sultans. He was born in Istanbul in 1611 and between his first expedition in 1640 and his death around 1685 he spent most of his life travelling. He traversed territories from Crete to Poland, rode across landscapes far up the Nile and around the Sea of Azov and visited cities, towns and villages between modern Austria and Iraq. He lived when the Ottoman Empire was at its greatest extent and arguably still at the height of its power.

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