A Saint of the Rural Road in Ottoman Anatolia

Ottoman Sofra
A rare example of an early 17th century Ottoman sofra- a round cloth, in this beautifully decorated with tulip and other motifs- spread out on the floor or ground in order for food to be placed on it, functioning like a dining room table. While the saint in the story below probably would not have had so finely crafted a sofra, this one gives an idea of what such a textile looked like- and how a reader of the story might have imagined a saint’s sofra to look. (St. Louis Art Museum 175:1952)

Rural religious life in the pre-modern Islamic world remains relatively little known to historians, at least in comparison to religious life in medieval and especially early modern Western Europe. This is partially due to the absence of many of the confessional, disciplinary, and other institutional structures and organs, such as the Inquisition in its various forms, whose operations ensured that much rural life- primarily, but not exclusively, religious- would be quite visible to future historians. For a context such as the Ottoman Empire, our sources for rural life in general are rather scarcer. Travel literature, population and resource surveys, and similar sources are one means of uncovering early modern life among peasants, nomadic peoples, and other inhabitants of rural spaces and places. The following life of a rural saint of the 16th century, which I’ve taken from an Ottoman Turkish biographical compilation by the poet and author Nevîzâde Atâyî (1583–1635), represents another potential route for recovering aspects of religious and social life in the Ottoman countryside- which is where, after all, the majority of the population in fact lived.

I do not know how Atâyî, who was very much a product of the Ottoman elite literary and learned milieu, came by his knowledge of the life of Ahmed Dede, the saint featured in this account, but it seems likely that because of his position on an important route between two well-established cities in western Anatolia, Ahmed Dede was known to people in the imperial center (including, evidently, Selim II). While this account of his life comes from an elite, urban writer, and was written in ornate Ottoman Turkish prose, heavy with Persian vocabulary and constructions, a style I have tried to reproduce somewhat in my translation, it remains valuable for the inadvertent insights into what might have constituted a saint in rural Anatolia. Ahmed Dede, who was known by several other names as well, while he received initiation from sufi masters both in his home village and during a sojourn in Istanbul, seems to become recognized as a saint due to his generous acts of hospitality, and his reputation for miraculously fertile grain crops, crops which he himself cultivated. Previous eras of historiography would probably have suggested that Ahmed Dede was a ‘survival’ of a pre-Islamic fertility cult: while such an idea is, for a number of reasons, quite untenable, it should come as no surprise that peasants and others in the rural world would value divine protection for crops, and that generosity in one’s abundant material possessions would count as a major marker of sainthood.

I have taken the extra step in the below translation to include footnotes explicating some of the less obvious references and allusions that our author makes, as well as to note a couple of places where I am not myself entirely confident that I understood Atâyî’s meaning!

Sofra close up

Şeyh Ahmed Dede: He came into the world in a village named Gırbalcı, near the town of Kütahya [1]. Among the common people he was known as Kalburci Şeyhi as well as Mıhmandâr and Çavdârli after the tribe. From the ‘ulamâ of his native place he obtained learning and, being from birth ordained and whetted for taking ‘mystical letters and meanings,’ he joined the service of Şeyh Sinân Karamânî, then inclined towards the beholding the divinely graced Abdüllatîf Efendi. It is related that one day he [Ahmed Dede] was present at a lesson with two companion when, while the aforementioned şeyh was in the time of his spiritual brightness and openness [to God], each one made supplication concerning the desire that was implanted within him. The aforesaid şeyh’s arrow of supplication having been shot and hitting God’s giving answer, one of them became, in accord with his heart’s desire, an officer in the army, while another, in concordance with his soul’s inclination, became part of the folk of knowledge—but the subject of this account, [Ahmed Dede], obtained the grace that he, like the basin and table of Ibrahim, would not have his licit wealth (mâl-i halâl) become exhausted [2].

Afterwards, coming to Istanbul, in the service of the pole of the sphere of divine reality Merkez Efendi he perfected his spiritual wayfaring. After being authorized in giving guidance he became eminent through the gracious oversight of Kastamonulu Şabân Efendi. Ultimately he returned to his village and set up in his well-known zâviye [3], feeding travelers and giving perfect honor to passers-by. In this manner through the months and days he gave praise to God, this honorer of guests of the house of Islam dying in the year 978/1570—to his spirit be divine mercy!

The aforesaid saint’s miraculous gifts of grace (kerâmât) with divine might are well-known—like the brilliant sun and the haloed moon, day and night, he spread out bread and table. He was a Milky Way of the lined-up food-cloth stretched out as constant beneficence, his laughing face like a damask rose, as he made manifest the open sofra, he a spring-time cloud of constant out-pouring, a comfort-giving hand, dressed in nobility, a sea of sainthood, a pocket of aid, treasury of the unseen and traveling-wallet of grace, of holy ardor, the cultivated field of the one in need of the bread of blessing is from the blessings of God.

For his entire life he would not accept charity, donation, salary, or gift—he lived off of what he grew. It was his custom that from his own cultivated grains he would apportion bread and comfort for travelers and barley for beasts of burden. Among his manifest miraculous gifts of grace was that his wheat seeds and his grains of barley, known as Çavdâr barley, brought forth grain crops without compare. This is why he became known about as Çavdâr Şeyhi. Putting his barley in a granary, its door was hidden and what was in its lower part flowed forth from a channel [4]. That storehouse was never seen to remain empty nor did he know need of out-of-season grain stores. He acted kindly towards every guest at his departure, outfitting him with provision for the way and food the morrow, giving thanks to God and saying, ‘The bereket [5] of the supplication of my şeyh Abdüllatîf Efendi is everywhere!’

Sultan Selîm the Mild [Selim II], while he was still a şehzâde [6], made a pious visit to him and sought supplication and spiritual direction from him, building a beautiful small mosque near his zâviye which is standing today and is a place of visitation for all.

[1] This village seems to no longer exist, but the saint’s shrine is still in existence and continues to be a place of ‘visitation.’
[2] This request, we are to understand, was the source of his miraculous success as a farmer and hence his generosity to travelers- the reference to Ibrahim indicates that Ahmed Dede desired material wealth in order to provide for others, not out of desire for his own personal pleasure.
[3] In Arabic, zāwiya, literally a ‘corner,’ but in sufi usage a structure or part of a structure used to house a shaykh, his family, and perhaps also some disciples, as well as a place to hold sufi ritual.
[4] My reading of this passage is quite tentative and unsatisfactory.
[5] Arabic baraka, the divine blessing or ‘charge,’ invested in a saint or holy object or practice.
[6] That is, a male descendant of a sultan, with the possibility of succeeding him- similar, but not identical, to a ‘prince’ in English usage.

Nevîzâde Atâyî, Zeyl-i şaḳâyiḳ (Istanbul: Tab’hāne-‘i ‘Āmire, [1851]) 203-205. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen

Sofra close up

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