Below is a short story from a biography of one of the most important Muslim saints of early modern Ottoman Aleppo, Abu Bakr ibn Abi al-Wafa’ (1503-83). Abu Bakr was a majdhūb saint: someone who has been ‘seized’ by divine ‘attraction,’ as a result acting in often aberrant and socially unacceptable ways (Abu Bakr lived on trash-heaps, had a following of feral dogs, and liked to whack people with his staff, for instance), but believed to have special access to divine insight and revelation. Abu Bakr’s tomb and surrounding complex would become a center of Aleppo’s spiritual life (as well as serving for some time as the headquarters of the Ottoman governor), his reputation built in part by stories like the one reproduced here. However, I selected this particular story due to its giving us a peek into everyday life in Ottoman Aleppo for ordinary people, men and women. Note particularly, as you read the story, the importance of textiles: in our industrialized world of mass produced clothing, the expense and ensuing value of seemingly basic textiles for pre-modern people is hard to grasp. Yet, as this story indicates, simply keeping one’s children properly clothed could be a major struggle for non-elite, working people; unfortunately, not everyone could count on the prescient generosity of a charismatic saint.

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A 17th century Ottoman cushion cover, though probably rather more ornate than anything Jamāl would have owned or aspired to.

Jamāl al-Khādim related that he visited [Shaykh Abū Bakr al-Majdhūb] once. The shaykh gave Jamāl his shirt and outer garment and said: ‘Put these shirts and trousers aside for your children!’ But Jamāl, who at the time was not married, said: ‘Ya sīdī, I don’t have any children!’ So the shaykh hit him with his staff and said, ‘You lie! [1] I can hear their voices!’ Some of those present said, ‘Take them from the shaykh, whether you have children or not!’ Jamāl said: ‘I fear accusing the shaykh of deceit,’ so he took them and intended to use them as a funeral shroud for himself when the day came. He stuck them in with the stuffing of a cushion (mikhadda), then forgot about them. Time passed, Jamāl got married, they had children, and these clothes were still forgotten. His wife sought from him shirts for his children, but he replied: ‘I have nothing! But perhaps God will give us a blessing.’

He spent several days in great distress on account of his children. But then he came home one day to find brand-new shirts upon his children, and asked: ‘Where did you get these?’ His wife answered: ‘I washed the cushion, and I pulled out the stuffing so as to clean it too, and found linen shirts and outer garments!’ Jamāl wept, remembering the mystical foresight (kashf) of the shaykh.

Abu al-Wafa’ ibn ‘Umar al-‘Urdi, Ma’adin al-dhahabfi al-a’yan al-musharrafa bi-him Halab, ed. ‘Abdullah al-Ghazali( Kuwait, 1987), 52-53.

[1] Here Abu Bakr addresses Jamāl in the feminine, not the expected masculine; this was one of Abu Bakr’s ‘specialties,’ through which he marked off his socially aberrant, and hence spiritually liminal, place in the world.

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For more on this fascinating saint and the world of Ottoman Aleppo, see the following:

Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian. “Deviant Dervishes: Space, Gender, and the Construction of Antinomian Piety in Ottoman Aleppo.” In International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 535–65.
_______. The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2004.

Here the hills are marked as if by great cosmic knives, taking
Deep clean cuts, molding wedding cake of land, the blown out bits
Of the glacial wastes, at the ice’s edge, cold lover jilted,
Washed down the River, liquid myth and sorrow.
If you listen close you might hear the blood murmuring, so close
To being silent and still, at last into that good night.
If you let your skin feel you might breathe the brush of spirits
Tangled in the kudzu vines’ frozen crawl up from the gullies,
Burrowing their dark roots into the loess bluffs, bidding the grey months.
There were flames on the hilltop then,
And you arrive a hundred years later, to look, the cinders washed away. You
Mark the columns, anonymous authored Greek tragedy scene,
Live oak weeps in Spanish moss, branches cracking. And you think
You’ve seen this all before, in a dream,
Or on a screen, maybe, fading into one another, ghost cinema.
Circumambulate the ruins, love, and put your finger to pulse. Know
That there are no more secrets here, except what we keep in ourselves.
Shame, the cold-blooded kind, manacled to heart, flesh,
No place to release it, no deeds of manumission.
We remember all too well, and not at all, as we tread the pilgrim’s road,
No absolution at the end, no word of blessing.
Just the dark roil of the River, choke of flood and silt,
Baptism of death, no fire. Look elsewhere for grace and love.
Here are only ever ruins.

Dear loyal readers: for the next couple of months, I plan on posting, perhaps daily, perhaps not, on a side-project blog I recently inaugurated: Sohbetname. The title is an Ottoman Turkish word meaning something like ‘conversation book,’ the story of which I will no doubt give in greater detail at some point in the future. My plan is to attempt to write something moderately publishable, something reflective of my imagination, my philosophical or political speculation, or something connected with my historical work but in a very rough and unverified form- in other words, a different body of material than has been my wont to publish here. I will continue to update this blog, sporadic as ever; this side-project will be my outlet for my more personal, experimental writing, and I very much hope you will give it a look. Thanks!

We like our distance. Angle things a little crooked,
Don’t line up with the neighbors. Show difference.
Scraggling trees, brush piles, dirt road weave,
A junked truck or two, moldering into earthen rust, loose fencing.
Sometimes the dog down the way wanders up and we watch him
Loping along, gaunt, in his eyes a hunted cast, signs of his owner’s
Maladroitness. And we reaffirm our distance, shoo him off.
When God made the world He made it wide with reason, we figure.
We’d prefer to keep it that way. Then, when death calls,
Put us near, but not too near, our ancestors’ bones. Even then
We’ll need our breathing space.

Iconoclasm in Islamic societies is not a new phenomenon, anymore than the production and enjoyment of the visual arts (including pictures of animals, humans, and holy figures) is new. While seventeenth century manifestations of iconoclasm, shrine-destruction, and other acts were fairly mild by modern standards (see, for instance, recent reports of al-Nusra Front destroying the venerable tomb of the important medieval Muslim scholar al-Nawawi), cases did exist. The following story, taken from the Seyāḥat-nāme of the great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611-1682), may or may not be fictional- one must take many of the stories Evliya Çelebi with a grain of salt- but it does convey attitudes found in various elements of Ottoman society. The boorish, iconoclastic janissary is said to be a follower of Kadızade, the Ottoman puritan and Islamic rigorist par excellence, whose followers opposed all manner of things they came to regard as un-Islamic ‘innovations,’ from tobacco to Sufi ritual to cash waqfs. As depicted in the story, individual Kadızadelis seemed to have had a trenchant for taking up the duty of ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ personally, sometimes by force. And as depicted in the story, their stances do not seem to have been especially popular in many ranks of Ottoman society, perhaps especially among the urbane elite, for whom the Kadızadelis were both ignorant of Islam and, perhaps far worse, violently unappreciative of refined culture.

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A strange and comical case. There was a person claiming to belong to the hypocritical, fanatical and pederastic sect of the followers of Kadızade, a cowardly and slanderous usurer, a catamite and mischief-maker, despised even by the ignorant, an obscure and nasty individual, mothered in sin, belonging to the tribe of the deniers. He got on his high horse and bid sixteen hundred piasters for a Shāh-nāme, although it had been pledged to someone else. When the witty fellow brought it to his tent and began leafing through it, he saw that it contained miniatures. Painting being forbidden according to his belief, he took his Turkish knife and scraped the narcissus eyes of those depicted, as though he were poking out their eyes, and thus he poked holes in all the pages. Or else he drew lines over their throats, claiming that he had throttled them. Or he rubbed out the faces and garments of the pretty lads and girls with phlegm and saliva from his filthy mouth. Thus in a single moment he spoiled with his spit a miniature that a master painter could not have completed in an entire month.

When the auctioneer went the next day to claim his fee, the man said, “I won’t buy the ugly priest’s book; pictures are forbidden and I’ve destroyed them all!” and he threw the royal Shāh-nāme on his head. When the auctioneer opens the book and see that all the miniatures are ruined, he cries, “People of Muhammad! See what this philistine has done to this Shāh-nāme!” “I did well,” says the witty fellow, “I ‘forbade evil’ just as our shaykh in Tire told me to do. Only one picture I left alone: it reminded me of my dear son in Tire, so I didn’t destroy it.” The helpless auctioneer saw that he would get nowhere by arguing with the fellow. He went directly to the Pasha, crying, “Justice, O brave vizier!”

The auctioneer’s plea for justice: “My sultan, this Shāh-nāme was to go to Khan Murad Beg of Cülomerg castle, the emir of Hakkari’s steward. His bid at the imperial auction was fourteen hundred piasters. Then a certain Haci Mustafa of Tire came along and took it for sixteen hundred piasters. The book lay with him for three nights. It turns out that he is a follower of Kadızade and believes that painting is forbidden. So he poked out the eyes or cut the throats of all the people in the pictures with his knife, or rubbed out their faces with a shoe-sponge. Not only has he ruined the fifty miniatures of this priceless Shāh-nāme, rendering it totally valueless, he has also bilked me of my auction fee.” The Pasha examined the Shāh-nāme and, with a sigh, showed it to his councilors, who showered curses on the fellow, calling him Pharoah, Yezid, Haman, Mervan, Karun, Ebu Cehl, Ebu Leheb, and Balaam son of Peor.

The auctioneer once again put in a plea for his fee. “Never fear, my dear auctioneer,” said the Pasha, quite aroused by this time, “he has not just bilked you of your fee, he has bilked the Padishah of his property. Let that Haji of Tire be brought here right away!” They dragged in the witty, spitty fellow kicking and screaming, as they pushed and pounded on him like powder or flax. “You,” said the Pasha, “why did you do this to this book?” “Oh,” he said, “is that a book? I thought it was priest’s writing. I ‘forbade evil.’ I did well to destroy it.” “You are not charged to ‘forbid evil.’ But I am charged to practice government. I’ll show you how to destroy a book that was to be sold in the imperial auction for two thousand piasters. Dress him down!” “I am a ḳapuḳulı janissary,” he objected, but the martial executioners paid the fellow no heed. He got seventy crosswise lashes, and the kadi of Bitlis ordered him to pay the sixteen hundred piasters, which were sequestered. They gave the auctioneer ten piasters, put the spoiled Shāh-nāme into the offender’s hands, and banished him from the camp. As the poor fellow started out toward Diyarbekir he kept cursing his shaykh for saying that painting was forbidden. And everyone followed him out of the camp, throwing stones and saying, “He got what he deserved.” They turned the fellow into a monkey. It was a comical sight!’

Evliya Çelebi, Seyāḥat-nāme, in Evliya Çelebi in Bitlis, edited and translated by Robert Dankoff. Leiden: Brill, 1990. 295-299

Straddling the long stony spine of West Virginia’s North Fork Mountain is an expanse of natural meadows, edged by red pine groves and gnarled oaks, called Nelson Sods (‘sods’ in local geographic usage means ‘meadows’). While the views are spectacular, the photos below, taken on a recent hike up on the mountain, are of the smaller wonders found there.

 

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Above: wind-sculpted grasses along the ridgeline. Below: grass woven into a circular shape by the action of wind upon a milkweed stalk.

 

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Above: a lone tree in the midst of the Sods. Below: a view across the ridge, red pines in the foreground.

 

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Above: an old pine stump in the Sods. Below: detail of the weathered wood of the stump.

 

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Below: British-soldier lichens.

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The great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi traversed the vast lands of the Ottoman Empire and places beyond, recording both the mundane and the fantastic, from the number of public baths in a given town to tales of magic, wonder, and the machinations of dark and mysterious powers. In the especially charming selection below, he describes the unique lifestyle of the residents of Diyarbakır, a city in what is now southeast Turkey. The description- of the marvelous gardens and temporary summer dwellings therein, and the entertainments associated with them- speaks for itself, so I won’t elaborate further. While the particularities of the situation are perhaps unique to Diyarbakır and its geographic and ecological situation, other themes can be traced elsewhere in the Empire: the importance of sociability, especially in semi-public spaces like gardens, accompanied by music and drink, can be traced all through this period and the following century, despite the protests of the more puritanical-minded among the ‘ulama. The seamless integration of Sufi musical practice with the more ‘secular’ preceding night’s entertainment is also worth noting.

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Fritware tile panel, painted in blue, turquoise, and moss green under a transparent glaze Ottoman Empire, Iznik; c. 1540. From the David Collection, Copenhagen.

 

But Diyarbekir’s basil gardens and regularly laid out vegetable plots on the bank of the Tigris have no equal in Rum or the Arab lands or Iran. When, in the spring season, the flood period of the Tigris has passed and its limpid waters begin to flow [again] in a stable current, all Diyarbekir’s inhabitants, rich and poor alike, move with their entire families to the bank of the Tigris. They settle down under tents and pavilions along this wide water, on the plots that they have inherited from their fathers and ancestors, and they sow and cultivate in their gardens melons, water melons, various vegetables and flowers. They cultivate here a special type of basil, which everyone plants along the borders of his plot. In a month’s time it becomes [dense] like a forest and as high as a spear’s length so that it is impossible to look through the basil and see what is inside. The doors and walls, the gates and roofs of all these make-shift habitations on the bank of the Tigris are entirely made out of basil…. These pavilions are so densely overgrown with basil that the nostrils of the men and women living in them are scented night and day with the fragrance of basil and the other flowers in these gardens, such as roses, Judas-trees, and hyacinth. The women’s quarters of each garden are also such open-air pavilions of basil. The ponds and fountains in each pavilion all receive their water from the river Tigris. Between all these gardens and vegetable plots run numerous canals and watercourses which people have diverted from the Tigris to their regularly laid-out vegetable gardens.

For a full seven months a merry tumult, with music and friendly talk, is so going on night and day here on the bank of the river Tigris, as in each pavilion people are passing their time with their beloved and close friends, in jollity and drinking, enjoying concert sessions [like those] of Huseyn Bayqara[‘s court]. All the artisans however remain busy with the crafts during this garden season; [so that] all sorts of food and drink are available. Thousands go to the city in the morning and pursue their respective jobs; and in the late afternoon they return in swarms to the gardens on the banks of the Tigris, to indulge in pleasure and enjoyment…

In short, the people of Diyarbekir arouse the envy of the whole world because of the pleasures and enjoyments that they have on the bank of the Tigris for seven or eight months [of the year], their nights being [like] the Night of Power, and their days [like] the Feast of Sacrifice. They hold banquets like Husayn Bayqara’s, thinking to snatch a bit of pleasure from this transitory world. Each night the banks of the Tigris are illuminated with oil lamps, lanterns, wind tapers and torches, and people arrange in thousands of artful ways oil lamps and wax candles on boards, [which they then put to float on the Tigris], so that the lights are drifting from one side to the other, and the darkest night becomes like a brilliant day. In each pavilion singers and musicians, clowns, minstrels and story-tellers perform, players of the lute, the çartar, the şeşetar, the berbut, the qanun, the çeng, the rebab, the musqar, the tanbur, the santur, the nefir, the balaban, the ney, and the dehenk, in short all sorts of musicians with string and wind instruments give performances like those at Bayqara’s court, continuing until the break of dawn, when the Muslim muezzins chant with their sorrowful voices the glories of God, as it to apologize, and all the followers of the [Sufi] path and faithful lovers [of God] begin their recitations in praise of Oneness, in the spirit of Pythagoras the Monotheist. For since the people of Diyarbekir all belong to the order of the Khwajagan and the Gülşeni order they do not miss the ecstatic joy and delight of ritual chantings. In conclusion [one may say that] while busy intercourse and buzzing conversation go on these Iram-like gardens, the people continually pray for the perpetuation of the imperial state (devlet). May God exalt their spiritual stations!

Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatname, translated by Martin Van Bruinessen and Hendrik Boeschoten, in Evliya Çelebi in Diyarbekir (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 177-181

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