Venturing beyond Evliya Çelebi: the broader world of travel in the Ottoman Empire

Nir Shafir

When we think of travel in the Ottoman Empire, there is often one figure that comes to mind—Evliya Çelebi. His travels, real and imaginary, have captured the imaginations of scholars and the general public for over a hundred years. Thanks to Evliya’s discerning eye, we have a collection of engaging and valuable reports from different parts of the empire ranging from Sarajevo to Crimea to Egypt. Sometimes we even tend to think of Evliya as a singular figure, the sole traveler with an exploratory mind in a world of parochial and stationary colleagues.

The reality is that Evliya Çelebi is simply one of many travelers who trekked through the Ottoman Empire and left records of their journeys during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We tend to overlook these travelers’ works because they often do not fit our expectations of travel as a grand adventure to foreign lands. Intellectuals such as the well-regarded poet Nabi and the Damascene scholar Abdulghani al-Nabulusi wrote complicated and elaborate travelogues but, like nearly all travelers, stayed within the seemingly familiar boundaries of the empire. These travelers, including Evliya Çelebi, were motivated by a desire to see a holy land that stretched between Damascus in the north and Mecca in the south and that extended to the countryside of Syria and the great metropolis of Cairo. Pilgrimage was the motor behind most people’s travels and pilgrims embarked on a quest to both perform the Hajj—that is, to visit Mecca and Medina—and to conduct ziyaret by visiting the graves of the prophets, saints, and companions of the Prophet Muhammed.

Where did these pilgrims go and whom did they visit? Although they embarked on their travels from different parts of the empire—primarily Istanbul, Anatolia, and the Balkans—their journeys often began in earnest in Damascus. Damascus was the threshold for these men and women, where the Turkish-speaking lands of Rum merged with the Arab world. There, 20,000 to 50,000 pilgrims would change their currency, stock up on supplies, and visit numerous tombs and holy sites as the caravan prepared for its massive journey. From Damascus, pilgrims headed south with the caravans until they reached Medina and Mecca, at each stop visiting graves of saints and prophets. On the return journey, many chose to take a detour through Gaza and tour the graves of Palestine and Syria like the tomb of Moses outside of Jericho. These travelers’ accounts, however, often seem minimalistic: terse descriptions of graves visited, distances traversed, and food sampled.

 From these modest compositions, scholar-travelers like Evliya Çelebi, Nabi, and Nabulusi began to write much more extended and complicated pilgrimage accounts. They shied away from the huge pilgrimage caravans and instead gathered together a few companions and servants to explore the land and witness the graves of the saints firsthand. They did so because of a popular movement throughout the empire in the seventeenth century that challenged the important practice of visiting and praying at graves and reoriented Islamic worship toward mosques. To counter, or at least investigate these claims, the travelers went to the graves and wrote their descriptions. Even Evliya Çelebi started his ninth volume with a visit to the tomb of Eyup. The dream he had that night spurred him to set out on the pilgrimage road once again. Although we might brush these off simply as “religious” narratives, the travelers saw them as much more. They embraced a sense of curiosity and exploration that led them to venture into valley after unknown valley, to investigate the wonders or acaib they encountered, and eventually to develop a belief in the value of first-hand experience over book knowledge. The manner in which they wrote varied greatly from the intricate and evocative lines of Nabi to the straightforward talk of Evliya to the multilayered analysis of Nabulusi, but what united them was a commitment to travel as a method of knowledge.

While Evliya was indeed a great traveler and a writer worth reading today, there is value in reading his alongside the many humbler records of common pilgrims and the more intellectual reflections of other scholars. This will help one to understand that Evliya was not a unique figure, but simply one of many pilgrims participating in a broader culture of travel.
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