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”

The Khan and the Vardapet

The following passage, which comes from a 17th century work of Armenian history focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on happenings in the Safavid Empire, reveals some of the complexities of relations that could arise between the Armenian Orthodox minority and the majority Muslim populations in the Safavid and neighboring Ottoman polities. In this instance, an important early 17th century religious reformer, Vardapet Movsēs (a vardapet/վարդապետ is a type of teacher–scholar-clergyman in the Armenian Church, whose function, as in this case, might also shade towards preacher), forges a bond with the local Safavid governor, an Emir Gūna Khan. Movsēs would go on to build good relations with the Safavid shah himself, even as Movsēs found himself in bitter conflict with other members of his own church’s hierarchy.

In this story, excerpted from a much longer hagiographic account embedded in Aṛakʻel of Tabriz’s chronicle, we see Movsēs interacting with the khan and receiving him as a patron. This relationship allows Movsēs to pursue his goal of renewing the Armenian Church in the border region around Erevan (modern-day Yerevan, Armenia), a work of renewal and reform that simultaneously seems to have won him renown as a living saint and enemies threatened by his upsetting of the church’s status quo. What was ‘in it’ for the khan? Perhaps he saw in Movsēs saintly practice and power- many of the vardapet’s ascetic and devotional practices would have been quite familiar to an early modern Muslim as marks of sainthood, and so carried an ecumenical ‘charge.’ The khan probably also hoped that Movsēs’ work would help to stabilize the Armenian community and encourage its growth, especially since the region had long been contested between Ottomans and Safavids, the resulting warfare hardly being good for what we would now call ‘infrastructural’ development. At any rate, the vardapet and the khan’s mutualistic bonds point towards the dynamic range of relations- positive and negative and neutral- early modern Armenian Christians and Ottoman and Safavid Muslims could have with one another, something that is easily forgotten in the shadow of the tragedies of the modern period that would devastate Armenian communities in the region.

The Scribe Petros and his Pupils, 1386
The scribe Petros and a pupil, offering a good example of the sort of clothing an Armenian vardapet might have worn in the late medieval or early modern period. From a Gospel book completed in 1386 in the Lake Van region (J. Paul Getty Collection, Ms. Ludwig II 6, fol. 13v).

The prince and ruler of the city of Erevan and the Ararat province at that time was the great and mighty governor, Emir Gūna Khan, who somewhat accidentally met Vardapet Movsēs. The khan asked about him from the Christians who stood before him, who replied that who he was and where he came from. It so happened that the khan met the vardapet once again and, during their meeting and conversation, the khan was pleased with the vardapet, for God’s kindness made his servant appear agreeable in the eyes of the ruler. The khan did not let Movsēs go to the Western provinces [ie the Ottoman Empire] but kept him in the city of Erevan. Day after day the khan came, witnessed the liturgy and other church ceremonies, conversed with him about knowledge and religion, and listened to the vardapet’s replies, which were polite, pleasant, and bearing God’s graces. The khan grew fond of him because of his pious lifestyle; that is why he kept him in the city of Erevan. The vardapet stayed three years in the Kat’ohike church.

From olden days in the northern part of the city of Erevan, among the vineyards, stood a beautiful chapel, built on the grave of the holy apostle Anania. It was in ruins and uninhabited. The khan told the vardapet, ‘Do you see this church, which stands uninhabited? Pay heed to me and do not go to another province. Make it your home, settle here, so that we can be near and comfort each other.’ All the parishioners, citizens and merchants, begged and asked the vardapet to do the same. Their words pleased the saintly vardapet, and he undertook to build that place through the income and with the help of local Christians and merchants, who, because of their love for the vardapet, willingly gave alms for the construction, so that the vardapet would reside among them. That is why the surrounding fence, cells, chapel, sacerdotal, and other structures were quickly built, When all the construction was completed, the vardapet, together with his fellow monks, settled there and established the order and regulations practiced in the Great Hermitage. Many monks, hermits, and men who wished to study the scriptures and who were wise and led a saintly life, gathered there. They lived together, young and old, happily, based in cells, praying continuously and reading holy books.

His fame and truthful sermons, as well as word of his pleasant disposition spread to all the lands in Rum, Kurdistan, Georgia, and Persia, for merchants from all lands came there [to Erevan], met him, and spread the word.

Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, The history of Vardapet Aṛakʻel of Tabriz ( Patmutʻiwn Aṛakʻel Vardapeti Dawrizhetsʻwoy)  Translated by George A Bournoutian. (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2005), 217-218.

Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq_s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550
Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum”
Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550 (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)
“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550
Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi)
Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550, David Collection, Inv. no. Isl 161

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, one of my primary areas of scholarly interest is the history of saints and sainthood in the Islamic world, primarily within Islamic traditions but also in Christian and Jewish traditions practiced within or in contact with Islamicate cultures. The very fact that ‘Muslims have saints’ often comes as a surprise, with the usual follow up question being something along the lines of ‘Just what is a Muslim saint like?’ The answer, of course, varies from place to place and time to time, with the usual caveats that Muslims saints ‘look’ both like and unlike saints in other religious traditions, and that some forms of Islam, especially in the modern world, largely reject sainthood (similar to some forms of Christianity after the Protestant Reformation).

One difference between Muslim modes of understanding and depicting saints and sainthood and those found in many other traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism is the relatively low-key role of visual depictions in describing saints and in venerating them or inscribing their memory. While it is not true to say that Islam across the board lacks iconographic traditions, explicit uses of icon-like depictions for veneration has historically tended to be limited to either to depictions of non-human items and places, described in last week’s post, or in a rather supplemental manner (for private devotions or in the context of a shrine), such as has become common in contemporary Shi’i devotion (though certainly not only Shi’i- for instance, see this example from resolutely Sunni Morocco). The two miniatures above fall into another category altogether: in both we have something quite rare, namely, artistic renderings of practiced devotion to saints. These two images, both of which were produced in Safavid Iran while it was still in the long process of transitioning from a Sunni polity to a Shi’i one, give us a pretty good visual idea of what tomb veneration looked like in an early modern context- while they come from the Persian world, we know from literary evidence that the practices and architectural elements depicted in them would have been shared with other regions, including the neighboring Ottoman lands. The images are hence worth a closer look. Continue reading “Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting”