Ottoman Turkish

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.


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

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.


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

The below brief text is excerpted from a short Ottoman Turkish manual of Sufism by Mahmut Hüdayı, an important shaykh, and indeed early organizer, of the Celvetiyye ṭarīqa, the adherents of which mostly lived in the Anatolian and Rumelian parts of the Ottoman domains. Much of Mahmut Hüdayı’s output was in Arabic, but a substantial number were in Ottoman Turkish- not quite a colloquial register, but more likely to be read and understood by a wider number of people in Anatolia and Rumelia.

This passage is emblematic of one of the prevailing themes in the work from which it is excerpted: the importance of having a shaykh (in this context, a spiritual master/instructor) and being constant in honoring and obeying him. While such sentiments were hardly new in Sufism in the sixteenth century, there were also a seemingly increasing number of people who contested, explicitly or implicitly, the authority and knowledge of living shaykhs. By the eighteenth century it is easy to find many people practicing what was essentially a ‘privatized’ mystical Islam, with little need for a shaykh or regular communal life. Such a possibility is clearly not in view for Mahmut Hüdayı, however- quite the opposite, as is clear from the following passage.

If the shaykh enjoins as a duty any service (khidmet, mod. Turkish hizmet), [the disciple] ought to carry that service out, without delay, without adding any other business to it, without asking for explanation of cause or detail, and without stopping. It is related about a shaykh that he asked one of his disciples: ‘If your shaykh sent you off to do some service, and on the way you passed by a mosque in which they were performing congregational ritual prayers, what would you do?’

The disciple answered, ‘First, I would carry out that service, then I would perform the ritual prayers.’ The shayhk commended his answer. The intended moral from this [antecdote] is the bestowal of great care in service [to one’s shaykh]; it is not, God forbid, the disparagement of ritual prayer!

Mahmut Hüdayı, 1543 or 1544-1628, Ṭarīqat-nāme, Princeton Islamic Manuscripts, New Series no. 307, fol. 128-129.