A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople

The Living Fountain, 17th century
Fig. 1: A seventeenth century icon of the Zoödochos Pege, probably produced in Constantinople (Wellcome Library no. 44943i)

Just outside the Theodosian Walls of Istanbul is a spring which is today accessible from beneath a church of nineteenth century vintage, reached by a flight of marble stairs down into the living stone, a spring known as Zoödochos Pege (the ‘Life Giving Spring’) in Greek, Balıklı Ayazması (the ‘Fish Spring’) in Turkish, both names alluding to important features of this site of pilgrimage. One of numerous ayazmas, or holy wells, that appeared in and around Byzantine Constantinople and many of which have survived as places of veneration in modern Istanbul, the Zoödochos Pege is one of the most storied and most visited, from late antiquity to the present (it’s one of the handful of ayazmas I’ve visited, in fact). Long associated with the presence and activity of the Theotokos- as can be immediately surmised from the icon above- the spring’s veneration probably began during the reign of Justinian (527-565), though it might have begun even earlier, a vast trove of miracle accounts associated with the healing powers of the spring, blessed by the Theotokos, accumulating over the centuries. By Ottoman times, which are my concern here, the church above the spring had fallen into ruin, perhaps even before Mehmed II’s conquest of the city. Until the 1720s pilgrims visited a holy well that was, at least in part, out in the open, much as the icons I’ve selected here indicate (though they suggest a location on the surface of the ground, not essentially underground as was almost certainly true then and is definitely the case now.

The early modern Ottoman period seems to have seen a surge in interest in and veneration of this holy well, if we are to go by the numerous iconographic depictions that began to appear in the seventeenth, quite a few of which made their way into the Wellcome Collection (by a route unknown to me), from which I have drawn the two examples featured here. The above icon (fig. 1) lays out several repeating elements in these depictions, depictions which probably brought together a range of traditions and stories circulating among devotees: gathered around the stone basin of the holy well are representatives of miracle accounts, some whose stories we can easily put together- a man rising from his bed, a mother holding a healed child- others less evident to us now. The potency of the holy water of the well underlines each vignette, however, with the enthroned Theotokos and Christ rising above the waters, radiating holiness down into the well. The famed fish are also visible, themselves a part of the sacredness of the well, as the Turkish name indicates. This icon also features a row of ‘supporting figures’: St. John the Forerunner, Sts. Helena and Constantine at the Invention of the Cross, and a third saint, perhaps St. Mamas, an extremely popular saint during the Ottoman period. The icon is in rather rough shape, having been scratched or scraped at various points- not as iconoclastic damage (which would have targeted faces), but in order to use the scraped material for blessing, a way to participate in the holy power of the spring at a remove, as it were. The second icon I’ve included (fig. 2), at the end of this article, probably dates from the eighteenth century, and reproduces much of the same visual material as that above, but with the addition within the image of a stream of text coming from the Christ Child to a soldier, along with a gilded frame without. What drove this evident resurgence of interest in and devotion to the Zoödochos Pege? I am not sure, though, as I will hopefully soon discuss in a later post, early modern Ottoman Christians and Muslims alike expressed renewed devotions, often expressed visually, to their various holy places, from the seventeenth century forward. And indeed, it is possible, as the story of the second holy well might indicate, that it was not only only Orthodox Christians visiting this ayazma, but Muslims as well, which might help us understand the resurgence in interest of this particular ayazma, as a competitive process.

Less than a mile north of the Zoödochos Pege is the zaviye complex of a prominent Muslim saint of 16th century Constantinople, Merkez Efendi (d. 959/1552). While it does not seem to be very prominent today, this site also features a holy well, along with several other sites of veneration, at least in the early modern period, as described by Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî in his late eighteenth century guide to the mosques and other religious structures in and around Istanbul: ‘There is an exalted ayazma in the vicinity of Şeyh Merkez Efendi’s tomb. One descends to it by steps. The abovementioned [Merkez Efendi’s] subterranean halvethane, which is like a cave, is still extant, and it is a place of pilgrimage for the Faithful [1]. The hamam located next to [Merkez Efendi’s zaviye] is one of its vakfs. The aforesaid [Merkez Efendi] had a private room in the hamam for bathing. At present the sick and invalid bathe [there] with purity of purpose and are restored to health.’ [2]

Continue reading “A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople”

Saints and the Crossing of Confessional Boundaries in the Ottoman and Safavid Worlds: Part i.

Ottoman Armenian
An Ottoman Armenian Christian resident of Istanbul, probably relatively well off enough to warrant his inclusion in a c. 1657‒58 costume collection book (The Rålamb book of costume, Rål. 8:o nr 10)

The two accounts that I’ve selected for this and an upcoming installment come from two milieus that at first glance might seem very different but upon a closer look reveal some striking similarities, similarities that reflect shared ways of seeing the world and ways of relating to people of different religious and confessional traditions, even in an early modern world marked by frequent conflicts and debates over confessional boundaries. The first story comes from an Ottoman Turkish source we’ve explored here previously, the menâkıb (saint’s life) of Hasan Ünsî, an eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, while the second installment, originally composed in grabar (‘classical’) Armenian, will be an excerpt from the life of Vardapet Poghōs, a seventeenth century Armenian Orthodox saint whose career took place in the northwest corner of the Safavid domains, in what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.

Here is the account from Hasan Ünsî’s menâkıb, with my commentary following:

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‘Near the door of the exalted tekke there lived a Christian doctor, named Mikel, who was skillful and wise in the knowledge of medicine. It was his custom that if a sick person came to him and his treatment was not effective or treatment was not even possible, he would say to the patient, “The cure for this illness is inside this tekke, so go to the tekke, and find the Şeyh therein. His name is Hasan Efendi—go to him, he can treat this illness. Its cure will come from the Şeyh, so that you’ll have no need of other than him.” So saying he would send the sick person to the venerable Şeyh. This Mikel was consistent in this practice.

‘One day this poor one [Ibrahim Hâs] had gathered along with the other dervishes before the candle-like beauty of the venerable Şeyh, deriving abundant benefit from the sight of the saint. We saw that two people had come within the door. One had nothing upon his head but a wrapped around piece of cloth. He came up to the venerable Şeyh, kissed his blessed hand, and sat down. The venerable Şeyh said to him, “Have you come from afar?” He replied, “We are from afar.” The man whose head was wrapped in a piece of cloth came before the Şeyh, lifted the piece of cloth from his head and showed his head to the venerable Şeyh. As he turned we all saw that his head was entirely in boils (çıbanlar). Each one was jagged like the shell of a hazelnut and very red, without numerous individuals boils—they were about thirty in number, but each boil was very bad—we take refuge in God! This person said, “My Sultan, thus with this sickness I have been tried. I cannot put anything on my head. I have sought someone to treat it in both Istanbul and Galata, but no physician understands this sickness, and they give no answer. Despite expending many akças I have neither cure nor respite. The physicians of this city are incapable of treating me! Finally, near this tekke’s door there is a physician to whom I came and showed the boils on my head, and he said to me that ‘We have no means of treating this illness. But the doctor for this illness is the şeyh of this tekke, who is named Hasan Efendi. The cure for this is there.’ Saying this he sent me to your side. Will you give me an electuary, or give me a pill? Or perhaps you will give me some other treatment—whatever you say, let it be upon my head! I remain without a cure!”

The venerable Şeyh smiled and said, “Mikel has given you a good report; but you did not quite understand if you seek from us an electuary or pill.” Having said this, he said to the man, “Come before me!” He came before him and uncovered his head. The venerable Şeyh said to him, “Bend your head towards me!” He bent his head, and the venerable Şeyh spit into his hands and placed them on the boils of the man’s head, and then for one time gently hit them. He then said, “This is our pill, electuary, and şerbet! Go now, and henceforward you will be well, whether you believe or don’t believe.’ The venerable Şeyh said no invocation, read no prayers, nor said the Fatiha over him. Then the man kissed the venerable Şeyh’s blessed hand and left. Two days later that person came to the venerable Şeyh and we saw that the boils had gone, he was well, and was wearing a quilted turban (kavuk). He had brought many gifts and much praise. Afterwards he came face-to-face with the venerable Şeyh with his gift, but the Şeyh strongly enjoined him not to tell anyone, but [the story] was circulated among the poor ones [the dervishes].

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 314-317. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

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What might we make of this story? It gets at, I think, an important feature of religious life in not just the Ottoman world but much of the rest of early modern Eurasia: the potential power of sanctity, as invested in a holy person, place, or object, had a decided ecumenical quality. There is no sense here that either Mikel of Hasan Ünsî were rejecting their confessional affiliations, or even questioning the validity of their respective faiths. But we do get the sense of a shared economy of sanctity among them, and among the unfortunate patient and the various onlookers. The story does not end, note, in anyone’s conversion (unlike any number of medieval Islamic saints’ lives), and Şeyh Hasan is explicitly described as not using overtly Islamic methods in treating the man (whom we are given to understand, I think, to be non-Muslim himself, though this is not made explicit). Mikel the Christian doctor does not become Muslim, either, and we get the sense that Şeyh Hasan quite appreciates the referrals he receives from him. The saint’s power has an open quality, at least towards ‘ordinary’ people- elsewhere the saint is shown restricting access to himself when he is sought out by more powerful and wealthier people with ties to the Ottoman ruling elite. Continue reading “Saints and the Crossing of Confessional Boundaries in the Ottoman and Safavid Worlds: Part i.”

Şemseddîn Sivâsî Saves the Exiled Dogs

Dogs in the Market
Mevlana Rumi addresses dogs in the marketplace, from a c. 1590 copy of the Ottoman Turkish translation of Aflākī’s menāqib of Rumi (Morgan Library MS M.466, fol. 66v)

The following story hails from a massive hagiographic compilation in Ottoman Turkish, Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, written by one Mehmed Nazmî Efendi (d. 1669) and dealing with the lives of a series of saints leading up to his own şeyh (Ar. shaykh) in the seventeenth century. This story comes from the life of Şemseddîn Ahmed Sivâsî (1519-1597), who was born in the little town of Zile in Anatolia and eventually settled in Sivas, becoming in time quite well known, to the point of Sultan Süleyman the Great inviting him to go on campaign with him to Hungary. The charming tale that I have translated here points to his fame among the towns and villages of this part of Anatolia. It also reminds us of the complicated relationship between people and dogs that has historically been the case in Islamic lands: we see both an outbreak of ‘anti-dog’ measures in the person of the (unnamed and castigated) kadi, the studied ambiguity of a hadith, and the robust support of the saint, simultaneously. That a saint would intervene on behalf of unjustly treated dogs is not particularly surprising- accounts of Mevlana Rumi’s interactions, and those of his followers, with dogs circulated in the Ottoman world, as witnessed by the above illustration, contemporary in fact to this story.

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From among his miracles was the following: the people of Karahisâr-ı Şarkî [modern Şebinkarahisar] sent messengers to Şems asking him that he honor them with his preaching, counsel, [performance of] zikr [1], and his blessed noble beauty. In answer to their supplication he came, and was honored immensely, being given a fine place to stay as well as much feasting and amiable conversation. For some time he preached, gave counsel, and led zikr, then announced that he was returning to Sîvâs. When the scholars, şeyhs, merchants, notables, and ordinary people of the town all came together to give him a farewell with honor and respect, numerous dogs also came before the saint, and, as if presenting complaints, began barking! When Şems asked why they were barking so, the people replied, “Because there has been plague and pestilence in our town, the kadi [2] of our town ordered the killing or banishing of the dogs, so that we killed some and we banished some. These are dogs that we banished.”

The saint cried out, “Your kadi was heedless of the hadith which says, If dogs were not a community (umma) from among the communities, then I would order them killed.” [3] Saying that, he addressed the dogs: “Go safely and soundly back to dwell and to be at rest in your former places!” As the townspeople returned from bidding the saint farewell, they saw these words fulfilled as the dogs, understanding the command, followed after the people back into town to their usual places—and having done so, by the command of God, the plague was lifted on that very day!

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[1] That is, the practice of ‘remembrance (Ar. dhikr) of God’ in a ritualized manner.

[2] The kadi- literally, ‘judge,’ from Ar. qāḍī- was not just an arbitrator of legal cases but, in the Ottoman context, a multi-task administrator.

[3] The meaning of this hadith, attributed to Muhammad, seems to be that dogs have a special status as an umma, which normally means a religious community (such as the umma of all Muslims); this special status outweighs any negative aspects dogs may have.

Şeyh Mehmet Nazmi, Osmanlılarda tasavvufî hayat: Halvetîlik örneği : Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, edited by Osman Türer (İstanbul: İnsan Yayınları, 2005), 359-360. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

Şemsi Paşa Loves Mushrooms

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The Mosque of Şemsi Paşa, Üsküdar, built 1580/81. Photo by the author. Sited directly on the Bosporus (visible in the left background), this is one of the most charming ‘classical’ era mosques in and around Istanbul, and somehow it does not seem surprising that its patron was a big fan of mushrooms!

Among the masters of science and spiritual knowledge, [Şemsi Paşa] was a person of accomplishment. Being skilled in poetry and prose, and being unusual in his love of hunting and his ability as a warrior, he was always present at the stirrup of the abovementioned Sultan [Süleyman], so much so that the deceased [Gelibolu Mustafâ] ‘Âli (1541–1600) quotes the abovementioned paşa’s own words… to this effect: “His Majesty Sultan Süleyman Khan knew that I loved mushrooms very much. When one day mushrooms were found in many places in the hunting grounds, His Majesty the Sultan ordered an imperial guard to collect them and put them in a bath towel embroidered with silver thread so as to protect them. When I saw that His Majesty the Sultan liked mushrooms so much, I regretted that I had not previously offered him the mushrooms which had fallen to my lot. When the time to return arrived, I rode at the side of the imperial stirrup and approaching the imperial palace, [the Sultan] took out the mushrooms and presented them to his slave as a gift, saying, ‘Because I knew you loved mushrooms, I caused them to be kept for you.’

“I at once humbly prostrated myself in the imperial presence, and when I asked the reason for my thus being the object of imperial favor, he said, ‘Recently, you made a gift worthy of a thousand such favors of mine. Earlier while riding at my side during our hunt and chase, I was telling you a short story. After I ended, I said that today we had not come across any game animals, and we had not been able to find any prey. You said, “I saw game in such and such a place.” When you said this, I thought you were lying. In fact, returning to that place immediately afterwards, game was spotted in the location you described. We much appreciate that, in order not to interrupt our speech, you did not announce that there was game, and that you announced it following the completion of my discourse. Although between hunters it is beyond endurance not to shout out when game is seen, and despite the fact that a moment’s delay is not possible, you did not announce the location of the prey and did not interrupt me, but showed respect for my imperial speech.'”

Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî, The Garden of the Mosques: Hafiz Hüseyin Al-Ayvansarayî’s Guide to the Muslim Monuments of Ottoman Istanbul, translated by Howard Crane (Leiden ; Brill, 2000), 496-497.

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son

Like any major urban area, eighteenth century Istanbul was inhabited by people from a seemingly endless array of walks of life, from the sultan and his entourage and sprawling staff down. The neighborhood in which the sometimes fiery, sometimes tender sufi saint Hasan Ünsî lived, while it stood hard by the walls of the sultan’s palace, the Topkapı, was a world away from that rarefied atmosphere. In the houses and workspaces and places of worship ordinary people, men and women, lived and toiled and prayed and plotted and did their best to get by. Şeyh Hasan was for some inhabitants a source of comfort and repose, while for others he was a source of humor or of potential easy money. In the two accounts which I have translated and lightly annotated below, we see two different women’s interactions with the saint, as well as glimpses into their everyday lives, glimpses that are quite valuable in reconstructing the diversity of ordinary women’s lives in this period and place. There is a lot that could be said about these stories and the contexts relevant to them, but I will limit myself to a couple of remarks.

In the first story, we meet a woman- who, interestingly, is named here- about whom we have but a few tantalizing details. Described as being Bosnian, we might guess that she had ended up in the city- perhaps her husband was or had been a military man posted in Bosnia?- and had fallen on hard times (the main point of the story). While I have not come across any other descriptions of her particular line of work as a sort of handywoman, it seems likely that such services would have been appealing to ordinary households without the luxury of slaves or hired servants. The rest of the story is relatively self-explanatory, though, as in the previous installment, note the ease with which Uzun Havvâ comes into the şeyh’s presence and interacts with him.

The second story introduces in greater detail the mother of the menâkıb‘s author, Ibrahim Hâs. The ‘set-up’ is that Ibrahim is telling how he came to ‘repent’ at the saint’s hand and take up a dervish life under his tutelage- which happened while he was still a young man living at home. Here we learn that his mother was herself effectively a saint, practicing immense austerities at home (modeled to some degree after Şeyh Hasan, who also tended to remain at home), even as she maintained a close relationship with the saint. We know from the survival of a dream-diary and correspondence with her Halvetî şeyh by a woman in Skopje, described by Cemal Kafadar in an article on Ottoman self-writing, that it was not unheard of for a woman to send her dreams to a saintly şeyh for interpretation. Here, however, Ibrahim’s mother goes directly to the şeyh, as opposed to writing to him, something that we are given to understand she did on a regular basis, and in so doing helped to give direction and greater meaning to her own ascetic pursuits and identity.

Ottoman Yastik
A 17th century Ottoman yastik, or pillow cover, a typical feature of domestic spaces (Boston MFA 77.256)

1. There was a poor Bosnian woman, named Bedümli Uzun Havvâ, who lived in a rented room below my home in the Hocapaşa quarter. For a fee she would look after the daily affairs of her neighbors. One day a neighbor came to her with a sick child. [The neighbor lady] said, “Go and take this child to Şeyh Hasan Efendî in Aydınoǧlu Tekke and have him recite a prayer, and put these pâras [1] down in his presence,” giving the Bosnian woman some pâras.

Taking the child and the pâras, the woman went to the venerable Şeyh. After having pocketed two of the pâras she had been given to present to the Şeyh for his prayer recitation, she put the rest before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “Look now, what of the other two pâras?” But the Bosnian woman said, “Only this much were given, only this much!” The venerable Şeyh replied, “Ah, but there are two pâras in your right pocket—did I not see how many pâras were given to you? And do I not know whether in taking the pâras you wanted to deceive me or to try me?”

As he said this, fearful the woman took out the pâras she had taken and placed them before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “You did this on account of your poverty, but take care not to speak untruthfully and do not try (imtihân) anyone. Be patient in the midst of poverty, and God, exalted is He, will provide you with the necessities of this life below!” Having said this he gave the woman forty pâras, then gave her the two pâras [she had pocketed]! The woman said, “My sultan! I took those pâras, thinking, ‘The Şeyh won’t know.’ And indeed by poverty is great such that as of tonight they would have been my entire livelihood. But now you have done such good!”

The venerable Şeyh gave her some further good counsel, and the woman, having kissed the Şeyh’s noble hands, departed. She returned the child home, then went home herself. This poor one [the author] learned of this story from the telling of his mother and from her neighbors living there.

Woman and boy going to the hammam
Woman and boy on their way to the hammam, from an early 17th century costume album depicting various people one might encounter in Ottoman Istanbul (BM 1928,0323,0.46.122)

2. It happened on the 15th of Ramadan, 1117 [December 31, 1705]. Up till then, I [Ibrahim Hâs] only attended the tevhîd sessions [2] and busied myself with the discourses of the venerable Şeyh. I slept a lot during the daytime [3]. One day while sleeping alone I began talking in my sleep. My mother came to my side and listened to what I was saying, and when I awoke, my mother said to me, “While you were sleeping you said some wondrous and strange things!” I replied, “What did I say?” My mother then repeated back to me one by one the things I had said [4]. Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son”

Derviş ‘Ömer’s Mother Mocks a Saint

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As I’ve noted before, Ottoman saints’ lives, especially those from the seventeenth century forward, are often wonderful sources for catching glimpses of everyday life in the Ottoman world, or, rather, ordinary life in contact with the extraordinary powers and abilities of a saint. The eighteenth century menâkıb of Şeyh Hasan Ünsî, which I have featured here several times before, has proven to be an especially good source in this regard, and the story I’ve translated here is yet another instance of the intersection of the saint’s life with the everyday lives of ordinary residents of Istanbul. The story is narrated to the text’s author, Ibrahim Hâs, by one Derviş ‘Ömer, about whom we are given no further details beyond what can be picked up from within the story.

There are several points of significance worth pointing out in relation to this account: one, this story revolves around women’s interactions with Şeyh Hasan. Note that the women in the story interact with the saint quite freely, leaving their house to visit him, entering his presence, kissing his hand, and so forth- while this sort of interaction sometimes drew criticism from other quarters of Ottoman society, here there is no sense of impropriety or critique at all. What is ‘problematic’ from the view of the saint and of the storyteller and the rest of his household, however, is the fact that Derviş ‘Ömer’s mother (whose name is not given in the story), while in some sense a ‘believer’ in the saint, also feels no compunction in parodying his actions, namely, his practicing the ritual of ‘reading and blowing,’ that is, reciting certain efficacious prayers then blowing upon the person seeking healing, the idea being that the saint’s breath will convey healing bereket. If as you imagine a şeyh doing this you find it a bit humorous, you’d be in the company of the people in ‘Ömer’s household, too: hence this story helps us to imagine what sorts of things an eighteenth century Ottoman subject might find funny, such as, evidently, pantomiming a saint.

If you’re also thinking that perhaps pantomiming a saint might not be especially pious and could lead to trouble- especially with Şeyh Hasan, who seems to have been a bit testy- you’d also be right, and that is the ultimate moral of the story, which follows after this helpful illustration:

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Hailing from a different story, this illustration from Atayı’s Hamse provides a good visualization of sleeping arrangements in an Ottoman house (though the furnishings along the wall indicate a more lavishly equipped dwelling than the one suggested in our story). (W.666.35B)

There was a child from among our relatives in our household who became sick. My mother and the child’s mother, along with a couple other women of our household, went to visit the şeyh of Aydınoǧlu Tekke, Ünsî Hasan Eendi, in order for him to read over the child, saying to him, ‘Read over this child.’ The venerable Şeyh read over and blew upon the child, then my mother with the other women came home, and in that very moment the child became well.

After my mother returned from visiting the venerable Şeyh, in order to make the women and children in our household laugh said to them, ‘Şeyh Efendi read and blew like this upon the boy—come, let me read over you!’ Saying this she summoned the women in the household and some came and sat down before her. My mother filled her cheeks with air then blew on them, and they all laughed. She did this a couple of times.

When evening came we performed the evening prayers, then put on our clothes for sleeping. There were no people from without the household (nâmahrem) among us. Our house being narrow, we all lay down in one room. We all went to sleep. At some point in the night from our midst there came a great groan and the sound of kicking about. Exclaiming, ‘Who is this, what’s going?’ we all woke up. I lit a candle and saw that it was my mother! She had turned a shade of deep purple and with great anguish she was kicking about, her eyes closed, saying nothing, her mind gone, hearing nothing of our words. We were all scattered about [the room], but we gathered to her, not knowing what to do. She kicked about in this condition for about an hour, struggling. This kept on until suddenly, she went senseless and lay down. ‘Is she dead?’ we cried, but checking we saw that she was fine. For about two hours she lay senseless. Afterwards she gradually grew paler, and a while after that her intellect returned and she opened her eyes, but she was confused. We said, ‘O mother, what happened to you? What changed your condition—this evening there was nothing wrong?’

With sorrow she replied, ‘This evening we all lay down. But while you all fell asleep, I was unable to sleep. I could not close my eyes. I saw before my eyes that the Şeyh Efendi that read over our child had appeared, and at that very moment with power he took hold of my throat and said, “Why did you take me for a laughingstock—am I your laughingstock? Does anyone take me for an object of ridicule?” Saying this he gripped my throat such that while I wanted to cry out and shake it off, I was unable to do so; finally, I passed out. I don’t know anything else.’ Continue reading “Derviş ‘Ömer’s Mother Mocks a Saint”

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. Continue reading “A Saint of the Rural Road in Ottoman Anatolia”