Mehmed Aǧa’s Miraculous Deliverance From Balkan Bandits

velvet-ottoman-panel-of-carnations-e1524166849870.jpg

I’ll wrap up, for the moment, what has turned into a mini-series of accounts from the menakıb (saint’s life) of the Ottoman Istanbul saint Hasan Ünsî: previous installments can be found here and here. In the two previous translated stories, we saw different snap-shots of daily life- and conflict- in late 17th century Istanbul and its suburbs, coupled with saintly miracles and practices. In the fairly lengthy story I’ve translated below, the action takes place in two very different locations within the early 18th century Ottoman Empire. At this point in Hasan Ünsî’s life he had moved into a tekke (often translated as a ‘sufi lodge’) down the hill from the palace of the sultans themselves. In addition to his extended family and household, various dervishes lived here with him, and he was visited by devotees of all stations of life.

One of these devotees of the saintly şeyh was a za’îm, a tîmâr-holder that is, someone given grants of productive land in exchange for military service- named Mehmed Aǧa. He ‘believed in’ (or, we might also translate, owed allegiance and had trust in) Hasan Ünsî as being a Friend of God. One day he was sent on campaign, or some other form of military service, to the Balkans, in keeping with his obligations as a tîmâr-holder, but even far from Istanbul, our hagiographer tells us, he kept his faith and allegiance in his şeyh. And so the stage is set for the following miracle-story, one which emphasizes the power of the saintly şeyh at a distance, but which also gives us a good look at the hazards of travel in rural, often largely uncontrolled, parts of the empire, especially in its mountainous regions.

ottoman-levend-e1524166973703.jpg
An Ottoman levend, or irregular soldier, from the Ralamb Book of Costumes. Such soldiers, while recruited by Ottoman military commanders for ‘official’ warfare, often ended up taking up a life of brigandage when demobilized.

‘One day it was heard that Mehmed Aǧa had been killed by bandits (haydûdlar). The sufis having heard this news related it to the Şeyh. The Şeyh smiled and said that Mehmed was fine. Later, the dervishes found out that Mehmed Aǧa was in fact still alive. After some time had passed, Mehmed Aǧa abruptly appeared [in the tekke], and the dervishes gathered around him. He said, ‘I’d like to go in to see the Şeyh,’ but they replied, ‘The Şeyh is in his harem [inner private area of the household], he’ll come out soon.’ In the meantime, he waited in the room of Uyûnî Derviş Seyyid Mehmed’s room. Because of his belief in the Şeyh the dervishes had great love for Mehmed Aǧa. During their conversation with Mehmed Aǧa, they asked, ‘Bandits attacked you suddenly in the road, and we heard many people say you had been killed. But when we reported this to the Şeyh, he said you were fine! That is how we knew that you were still alive.’ Mehmed Aǧa went silent and gave no answer.

Then the Şeyh came forth from his harem, and having given him the news, Mehmed Aǧa and the dervishes went up to the Şeyh’s presence, and, after greeting him, the Şeyh asked, ‘Mehmed, did you see the camel?’ Then, having heard this word from the Şeyh, the dervishes knew that some secret matter, a hidden deed, had taken place between the saint and Mehmed Aǧa. Mehmed and all the dervishes sat down in the presence of the Şeyh, and for a while he [the şeyh] spoke with Mehmed Aǧa. Afterwards, the Şeyh prayed, and the dervishes and Mehmed Aǧa went out of the Şeyh’s presence, and went back to sit in Uyûnî Derviş Seyyid Mehmed’s room. Therein the elder dervishes and halifes asked Mehmed Aǧa, ‘What did the Şeyh mean by asking you “Did you see the camel?”’ Mehmed Aǧa replied, ‘Do not ask about it,’ and fell silent.

Some time later, after the Şeyh had died, the halife A’rec Mustafa Efendi, Ser-tarîk Mehmed Efendi, Enişte Mustafa Efendi, and others, once again asked Mehmed Aǧa about the Şeyh’s having said ‘Did you see the camel?’ They added, ‘The Şeyh has gone to the Other World, so there is now no longer any harm in talking of it! Rather, it is appropriate and praiseworthy to make this miracle (kerâmet) public so that we may know and the name of the Şeyh be better remembered!’ And so Mehmed Aǧa said, ‘It was when I had gone to Rumili [the Balkans] in military service. After completing my service, in the company of a caravan we headed back to Istanbul when while on our way we came to a forest. The others in the caravan said that this forest did not have any bandits, still, they said, let us go through it quickly. We entered in good order, but there were in fact bandits in the forest. Unable to take us all on in one fell swoop, they instead began killing us off. Killing many men they set to pillaging our goods, while those of my retinue were killed. I too despaired of my life, saying to myself, I wonder which one will kill me? In fear, as I dropped disordered and shaken to the skirts of a mountain, the Şeyh came to my mind. And at that moment I saw him coming up in front of me—he looked at me and motioned to me to go up the side of the mountain. We ran and went up right in front of the bandits, but they did not see us.

‘The Şeyh headed up the mountain, and I followed behind. The Şeyh said to me, “Keep on going over the side of this mountain,” motioning with his blessed hand, then disappeared. Looking in all four directions, I saw no trace of the Şeyh. Then I ran over the other side of the mountain, eventually reaching a level place. I saw a number of tents set up there, and many people. When they saw me come down from the mountain, some of them came to my side—I was disoriented out of fear of being killed and had no capacity to speak. These people later asked about my condition, and I told them about how on the other side of the mountain bandits had emerged from the woods and fallen upon the caravan, turning us aside, pillaging, and killing, taking my goods and killing my retinue.

They replied, “What time did this happen? We heard nothing!” I said, “Just now, not a quarter hour ago!” They said, “There’s no such woods on the other side of this mountain, nor any bandits, just a village!” But I said, “Come now! There were bandits there! Pillaging and looting!” One of them asked me, “Where were you coming from?” I replied, “We were coming from such and such place. On the road from there are woods, on the other side of this mountain!” But they replied, “The woods you speak of are three hours from here, but you say you were just there?” Then I knew that this was an instance of the saint’s divine disposal and miracle-working. I replied, “I’m all confused—I don’t know what I’m saying!”

I took as companions some people there who went with me to Istanbul, and upon arrival I came straight to the Şeyh. As you and I approached the saint together as he came out the door, his saying “Mehmed, did you see the camel [that is, the camel that presumably bore him the three hours from the mountain to the level place]?” was in reference to this.’ And so he related in this manner the story. The dervishes that were there in hearing it greatly increased their faith in the şeyh and as a result sought assistance from his spiritual powers.

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 234-240. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

*

Dear reader: while you’re here, consider supporting me on Patreon, so that I can keep content like this coming along at a regular pace. Thanks!

The Incident at Nabi Samwil

img_5151.jpg
The mosque-shrine of Nabi Samwil, now split between Muslim Palestinians who use the above-ground mosque, and Jewish Israelis, who control the tomb-shrine itself. The figures atop the structure are members of the IDF.

i. I am standing, a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side towards the Jordan River, on the other towards the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, it is covered over by a vast sea of the past and present commingled and churning. When the Crusaders crested this hill they could see the walls of their goal, or so the story goes, though today we can see only the ever expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees and flocks of sheep and goats and little villages. But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory at least, one that that grows less relevant day by day—Israeli and Palestinian territory. We are watching, my friend and I, in transfixed anger, a momentary act in the interminable drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day, the long ugly drama on endless repeat. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of that drama, feeling emotions to which I am unused and which terrify me even as they shoot through my body and heat my blood. I clench my fists, fight back hot tears, fight back the urge to pick up a stone and crack someone in the head. Instead I curse under my breath, tell M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep angry tears. M. follows close behind and we drive off in bitter silence, processing what we’ve seen and felt and how very ordinary it is for this land.

ii. I was staying for several days in an Airb&b rental on El-Wad street, one of the main arteries of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apartment being rented out by a French archeology student whom I never met. M. was staying there as well, while taking Arabic lessons. We had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City and its tensions, the strain of soldiers on every corner with heavy weaponry slung in front, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop, perched above the street, the heaviness that percolates through the air, the loud silent confrontation of the settlers’ bristling rooftops. I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. After a week it was too much for me. Perhaps you adjust. Perhaps you bottle it up until it snaps. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite, or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.

After picking up our rental car, at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore—every block, every stone here has some world-historical significance, it gets old really, and I’m a historian—we cross through the Separation Barrier into the West Bank, then through another checkpoint, past a settlement, eventually winding down to Ein Prat National Park, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here it goes by at least two names—in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew. Unlike most places around this city, though, it is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrive as we are leaving, we are the only foreigners. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, at least today, it seems—are enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or are out hiking along the steep wadi, or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate (growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction…). There are no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank are invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadi. We climb into caves used by late antique hermits, trail gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back, so they say, to the late Neolithic, sink into the marvelous papyrus reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict is far away, and here, at least, we feel as if there are possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.

iii. We spend the rest of the day exploring, down to Jericho, motoring into town past the languid Palestinian Authority checkpoint, get a bite to eat, and try to find an Umayyad ruin. We end up by the Jordan instead, at a site claimed to be where St. John baptized Jesus, but which today is dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It’s a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, and I remark that I feel like I’ve scene it all in a dream. Continue reading “The Incident at Nabi Samwil”

Poems, Sarajevo, Late Summer

IMG_3647

_______________

Three poems written during my week-and-a-half in the capital city of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Prose and photographic reflections on my summer in Istanbul and, much more briefly, Sarajevo and Belgrade, to follow at some point this fall. Photo above is from the eastern edge of the city, looking back to the west, the Hadžijska Mosque in profile.

_______________

After an Evening at the Mejtaš Tekija

Do not ask for its use.
Let your eye drift, and settle, on the moon’s face.
Marigold and lavender, lingering.
The cool dark. In the distance, towards the sudden opening
Of the Miljacka, the pigeons sleep, and a dog barks.
One day, you will be. Taste: the love of God,
Evening coffee, how the streets wind to nowhere.
God, and love, and God.
How bright the flowers
Are tonight!

Tout est ailleurs

The secret of the world is not readable.
It cannot be traced in secret lines over the land
Nor lies it in rune and script, descried by
Skilled eye. There is no formula, no numbered
Code. Perhaps in all these things, and in the
Sudden dusk time flight of the swallow
You may hear the hints, if your ear is right
And the light of your eyes be good,
But the secret is not there. It is elsewhere.
All is elsewhere. When you know it
You will know, and you will not know. And that
Is all that can be said, after which
Let us keep silence.

Political Geography

Thin gray lines on the map, almost—almost
Indeterminate. Where men, and women, and children,
And loves, died, staking it. The realest of things,
And the least. Other lines
Get denser and wider as you get closer. These
Get thinner, until, at the place itself, nothing. Dig down
A few feet. You’ll find only the martyrs’ bodies,
Slipped into unmarked dust.

Evliya Çelebi in the Marvelous Gardens of Diyarbakır

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.

15.4-Isl.182-Flisepanel-med-kirsebaergrene
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

A View of Constantinople, 1756

The following effusive description of Ottoman Constantinople/Istanbul is from the pen of Timothy Gabashvili, a Georgian cleric who embarked, in the mid 18th century, on a long journey across the Ottoman realms visiting sacred sites, various Orthodox communities, and other sights and places along the way, all of which he would later describe in his Georgian-language record of his pilgrimage. Timothy’s perspective is a somewhat unique one: Georgia in the mid 18th century was still within the Ottoman orbit, but was being aggressively courted by an expansive Russian empire. Timothy himself had previously visited Moscow and the new city of St. Petersburg. Yet in much of his narrative his treatment of the Ottomans is remarkably positive- all of his interactions with Ottoman officials were amiable and productive, and the relationships he managed to forge enabled the success of his pilgrimage. In a relatively few short years- unbeknownst to Timothy or anyone else- the Ottoman world would change a great deal, and a pilgrimage of this sort, and the relationships that made it possible, would be forever lost. In 1756, however, a pious Georgian pilgrim could still feast and drink with Muslim Ottoman notables, and wax poetic in praise of the the Ottoman incarnation of the City of cities.

Panorama of Istanbul, Ottoman, late 18th – early 19th century, 58 x 27.1 cm, SHM 12449 – İ.1285 / From the Sadberk Hanım Museum, Istanbul

*

Now, I’ll say something about the city of Constantinople. The lure of the city’s radiance has spread its beauty to distant parts of the world and even the capitals, because in no other place can one find Asia and Europe together. Among them, running down from the Black Sea, there flows a narrow sea like a river. It runs, with spouts of foam. Constantinople is founded on it and on the mountains by the hand of Sabaoth. The mountains are lavishly covered with spruce trees and Lebanese cypresses. The city has been built on both sides of the sea that flows in a narrow stream. The structure of the walls, the towers and the battlements are splendidly coloured. The windows of the palaces sparkling in different ways, resembled Eden.

Some of the palaces, vaults and bazaars of the city were covered with lead, the gilded roofs of the palaces and springs shone like the sun shining on the city, and the colour of other buildings in the city was scorched clay, or purple, a hue also like the sunset. The ships in the city stood erect like the trunks of poplar trees. Among the groves of selvinu, ghaji, and cypress trees, there was a glimpse of the royal palaces, and the buildings were veiled in the forest of pine and spruce groves. This capital seemed to me like the brightest among the stars, like a rose among the flowers of Eden, like a jacinth among the precious emeralds, like the rainbow in the clouds, and Augustus Caeser among the kings. I found it very difficult and sad to be leaving Constantinople, as I, who had come here after a great many sufferings and hardships, would never see it again. My eyes and my mind competed in emotion when viewing this marvelous city

Timothy Gabashvili, Pilgrimage to Mount Athos, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, 1755-1759, trans. by Mzia Ebanoidze and John Wilkinson

 

Tourist Guides of Jerusalem, Circa 1641

The guild [of Jerusalem tourist guides] had ten members, one of whom was the head; it was very zealous in guarding their vested interests. They apparently had ample reason to be anxious: in 1641 it was reported to the kadi that unauthorized guides were meeting the pilgrims outside Jerusalem’s walls and showing them around holy sites, their faulty knowledge not withstanding. Moreover, other individuals were selling the visitors figurines made of clay, allegedly taken from the cave situated beneath the Dome of the Rock and representing historical figures—claims that were baseless factually and harmful financially. Thus the kadi instructed “stock ‘Abd al-Qadir,” the head of the guild, to stop anyone who tried to behave in such unauthorized ways, and if necessary, bring them to the court where they would be punished. All guild members were to be equally treated by the head, but each guide was to be left alone to handle his own customers, without interference by others. The head was also to stop any sales of the kind just mentioned, as well as insist that each of the staff of the Temple Mount stay within his allocated area and address the visitors there, while refraining from showing them around other areas. However, if high-ranking individuals wished to vist these places, their tours should not be conducted by ordinary guild members; only handpicked top staff of the Temple Mount (the deputy shaykh al-haram and the deputy nazir) could guide them there. And finally, no one was to be allowed to intercept the pilgrims outside the town gates and monopolize them.

Amnon Cohen, The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 79-80.

Returning to Khurasan

The excerpt below is taken from the Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah, compiled by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shahrazuri (1181-1245/577-643), a jurist and scholar of the Shafi’i ‘school’ (madhhab) who, while originally from what is now northern Iraq, spent most of his life in Damascus. Many of Shahrazur’s works deal with the theory and practice of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence; among these is his tabaqat dealing with jurists of the Shafi’i school.

A tabaqat, which literally means ‘layers’, is a sort of biographical dictionary, usually focusing on a particular group of people, and arranged by generations. The genre was hardly limited to religious figures: there are tabaqat for poets and singers, as well as tabaqat concerning scholars and Sufis. However, across the genre there are certain generally consistent features. The entries tend to be short, and much of the information formalized. In a tabaqat dealing with scholars and other religious figures, such as this one compiled by al-Shahrazuri, there is usually an emphasis upon the other scholars and masters the person under consideration studies under, or received hadith from, or was licensed to copy a book, and so on. Other matters appear as well, including short antecdotes that emphasize some aspect of the person’s piety or scholarliness.

As al-Shahrazuri says in the introduction to his work, the purpose of these brief biographies is to ‘connect’ the reader with a whole community of scholars in the past, and to give examples for emulation. The following antecdote is an instance of this purpose of tabaqat; it also reveals a very small glimpse into one scholar’s life and thought. Two major themes of medieval Islamic scholarly life appear here: the centrality of travel in the pursuit of knowledge (travel which can be quite difficult, and often involves long distances), and the importance of dreams, both for the dreamer and for those who encounter them through narration or text.

*

[Muhammad ibn Ahmad Abu Zayd al-Marawzi] said: When I had resolved to return to Khurasan from Mekka, my heart was stiffened by the prospect, and I said: ‘When it happens- the distance is so long, I cannot bear the hardship- I am so advanced in years!’ Then I saw in my sleep as if the Messenger of God, peace and prayer be upon him, was sitting in the Sacred Mosque, with a young man (shab) at his right hand. So I said: ‘O Messenger of God! I have resolved to return to Khurusan, but the distance is so long!’ Then the Messenger of God, peace and prayers be upon him, turned to the young man, and said, ‘O spirit of God! Accompany him to his homeland.’

Abu Zayd said: So I saw that he was Gabriel, upon whom be peace, so I proceeded on to Merv, and I did not feel anything of the hardship of the journey.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah