A Magnificent Eighteenth Century Ottoman Book-Cover

Ali Uskudari i

The two images above and below are of a cloth and lacquer-painted book covers- or possibly the binding for a paper notepad or its equivalent- by the Ottoman artist ‘Ali Üsküdarî, made c. 1747-8, in or near Istanbul, almost certainly for an elite patron or buyer (S1986.23). ‘Ali drew upon a range of artistic elements from across Eurasia in making these gorgeous and elaborate covers: while the central foliage element has a long pedigree in Ottoman art, going back to Persianate and even Chinese exemplars, ‘Ali has added exuberant flourishes reminiscent of the Baroque artistic elements increasingly in vogue in the imperial center. The naturalistic flowers in the borders and the back cover reflect both eighteenth century Ottoman tastes in floral elements as well as art coming from Mughal India, where naturalistic irises and roses had abounded throughout the early modern period (for a sense of changes in artistic tastes and styles, compare another Ottoman book-binding featured here previously, but from the sixteenth century). On the whole, a magnificent example of the continued vitality of Ottoman book-arts through the eighteenth century, a vitality that also reminds us of the centrality of manuscript production and culture and the prestige and value attached to the written word in diverse forms.

Ali Uskudari ii

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”

Mehmed Aǧa’s Miraculous Deliverance From Balkan Bandits


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.

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.


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The Lion, the Lady, and the Dervishes: Şeyh Hasan Ünsî’s Transformation


Previously I discussed the ‘conversion’ narrative of a major late seventeenth into early eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, Şeyh Hasan Ünsî Halvetî (1643-1723), whose life was chronicled in great detail in a menâkıb (saint’s life) by Ibrahim Hâs. The story I’ve translated below comes from a slightly later period in the saint’s life, after his şeyh, Karabaş-i Velî (also known as Karabaş ‘Alî: he wore a black turban, hence his being called ‘Black-Head’) had died in the Sinai while making the ḥajj, in 1685. Hasan Ünsî had excelled in ascetic discipline and spiritual insight, his hagiographer tells us, such that Karabaş ‘Alî elevated him over all of his other halifes (Ar. khalīfa, delegates sent from a şeyh/shaykh), and sent him back to Istanbul to establish a center for worship and instruction in the sufi path. Hasan Ünsî settled in a space near the Hagia Sophia, the Acem Aǧa Mosque, built upon parts of the ruins of a pre-Ottoman Byzantine church, St. Mary Chalkoprateia (today the church has sunk deeper into ruin, and only parts of the mosque remain standing- see this excellent blog post for more details on the ‘deep history’ of the site). There he continued his ascetic practices, led zikr (a sufi ritual of ‘remembrance’ of God), and instructed disciples.

But his residency here was not to be entirely peaceful: since the early decades of the 17th century, the Ottoman lands had seen the rise of various ‘puritanical’ Islamic movements and tendencies, often looking back to the writings and life of a 16th century pietistic preacher, Mehmed Birgivî, for inspiration. Many groups and individuals inspired by the puritanical texts, movements, and leaders that arose over the course of the century were opposed to such things as the veneration of the saints, sufi rituals like zikr/dhikr, and widespread practices such as tobacco-smoking and coffee-drinking (though opposition to the former was for a long time widespread beyond so-called ‘puritan’ circles). Unusually- for theological movements of this nature had developed before in various places in the Islamic world- many advocates of a purified Ottoman Islam believed it appropriate to use force to achieve their moral and theological goals. Hasan Ünsî evidently had to deal with Ottoman puritans in his mosque (which, not unusually, also functioned as a living space for dervishes, students, and others), in the form of students of jurisprudence (suhtelar). We are told that, having adopted the beliefs of the ‘people of denial’ (ehl-i inkâr), these students (some of whom Hasan, who himself had an ‘exoteric’ education in the Islamic sciences, had previously instructed) began trying to drive the saintly şeyh from the mosque, in order to ‘purify’ the space of ritual uses they opposed, and to claim the space exclusively for themselves.

To make a long story short, the struggle between Hasan Ünsî and the puritanical legal students grew hotter and hotter and increasingly physical, to the point that, our hagiographer claims, the students contemplated murdering the şeyh! It culminated in a show-down in which, after trying to argue his case using verse from the Qur’an, Şeyh Hasan manifested his ‘celâl,’ or divinely-given wrathful majesty- and the students began dying of mysterious accidents or suddenly falling ill, to the point that in a week’s time none remained in the mosque! During the course of these incidents, one of Şeyh Hasan’s dervishes, Kebâbî Ahmed Dede, asked whether the şeyh ought to moderate the outflow of divine celâl, to which the şeyh replied, ‘Occupy yourself with your own matters!’ At this the dervish, we are told, went pale witnessing the şeyh’s fierce celâl, and reported later that ‘all my being went shaky and my mind was thrown into disorder’ when the şeyh said these words to him. This leads us to the following extended story, in which a cross-section of Istanbul society bears witness to the divine wrath and majesty at work in the şeyh: with the obvious moral throughout that opposing God’s Friends was dangerous, even if it was the ostensibly pious who were doing so.

Woman and child on the way to the hamam, from the Rålamb Book of Costumes, depictions of residents of Istanbul in the 1650s, a couple of decades before our story.

‘One day, at mid-morning, a lady and her child passed by the Acem Aǧa Mosque, which was locked up. The child peeked into the mosque through a window, but crying out he tumbled into his mother’s arms. His mother said, ‘What was it that frightened you so?’ The child said, ‘There is a lion sitting atop the şeyh’s post [an animal skin rug that symbolized the şeyh/shaykh’s authority]! And now he is rising up!’ The lady herself then looked through the window and saw that a magnificent lion was sitting upon the post. Having seen him the lady became afraid and out of her fear began exclaiming loudly and rapidly.

Some of the dervishes there heard her and came up to her, saying, ‘Lady, what’s the matter?’ She related what had happened to them, and so they took looked through the window and saw upon the Şeyh’s post a lordly lion sitting. He opened his eyes and looked at them such that the gall-bladder of the one upon whose gaze he fell burst from fear! Being filled with great fear they were gripped with confusion. They said, ‘If this lion rises up and comes at us, the door will prove no barrier and there will be trouble!’ As they were trying to figure out a solution, one of the Şeyh’s old dervishes, Pîr Osman Dede Efendi came and forbade them from doing anything, instead sending them to their rooms. After an hour had passed he said to them, ‘Come and see—where is the lion now?’ With fear the dervishes came and peered inside the mosque through a window, but saw no lion! Instead the Şeyh [Hasan Ünsî] was upon his post. Osman Dede Efendi said to them, ‘Keep silence! Tell no one of this! For it is not permitted [to talk of it to others]!’ So saying he strongly admonished them.

Nonetheless, the story became widely known. A while later, some of the dervishes asked Osman Dede Efendi about the secret and divine wisdom of this lion. Drawing them aside, in secret he said to them: ‘This is the form that the Şeyh takes when his celâl is overwhelmingly strong in his innermost secret. Did you not see how in the course of a week the jurisprudence students came to their ends, and have you not heard what Kebâbî Ahmed Efendi said?’

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 222-224. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.


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Şeyh Hasan’s Momentous Trip to Üsküdar

View of the dome of Eski/Atik Vâlide Mosque (the tekye mentioned in the story was a part of the larger complex, with the mosque in the center). Photo by the author, 2015.

As I noted in an earlier post, stories of conversion- to a new faith or to an intensified version of one’s faith- were common across early modern Eurasia, in diverse Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist environments. The following story is another example of a ‘conversion story,’ embedded within a hagiography (in this instance, a menâkıb (Ar. manāqib) the Islamic functional equivalent of the saint’s vitae in the Latinate world). Unlike the others, this one is told, not from the perspective of the individual doing the converting, but is instead described by someone who was there. Hasan Ünsî Halvetî (1643-1723), whose türbe (tomb-shrine) is near Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace and is today passed by a constant stream of tourists walking and riding the street-level tram (the Gülhane stop is a couple blocks from the saint’s tomb), was one of the foremost Islamic saints in early 18th century Istanbul. Born in the village of Taşköprü outside of the provincial center of Kastamonu, Hasan, like many academically-minded young men in Ottoman Anatolia, made his way to the big city, where he soon found a niche as an instructor in the (no longer extant) medrese attached to the Ayasofya (that is, the Hagia Sophia, converted to a mosque complex after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople). The rooms mentioned here are small residential cells for teachers and students.

Several things of interest can be picked up on in this story: one, the role of Üsküdar- here conceptualized as a distinctly separate town or geographical entity from Istanbul- across the Bosporus as a sort of loci of sanctity that is close enough to be accessible yet far enough to be distinct and to have a certain aura about it (and in fact several other major early modern Islamic saints are buried in Üsküdar). Also in terms of place, note the importance that Alî Efendi places on the common regional original of everyone in the story- he learns about Karabaş Alî from another man from Kastamonu (which here means not just the town by the rural areas around the town), for instance. This alone tells us that regional identities continued to matter for Ottoman subjects who had settled in the imperial center.

It is also noteworthy that Şeyh Hasan is depicted as having not followed the usual protocol of venerating a saintly şeyh (the Turkish rendering of the Arabic shaykh), until his encounter with Karabaş Alî. We are not told why this was the case- perhaps Hasan had aligned himself with critics of such practices. Or perhaps it was merely a personal tic. Regardless, the hagiographic intent is clear: this encounter was divinely ordained, and it would set Hasan Ünsî on a trajectory for sainthood himself.

In terms of style and language, I have tried in my translation from the Ottoman Turkish to preserve the fairly colloquial feel of the original. Like many instances of the genre, there is little of the florid prose, heavy with Persian and Arabic genitive constructions, that was popular in many other genres during the period.

Atik Valide Inscription
Inscription above the main entrance to the Eski Vâlide Mosque. MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive (IMG40234)

The cause of the holy şeyh’s coming under divine grace was that there was in a neighboring resident room [of the medrese in which Şeyh Hasan Ünsî lived] a member of the ‘ulemâ named Alî Efendi, who was from the same town as Hasan [that is, Kastamonu], and to whom this poor one [that is, the author, Ibrahim Hâs] also knew quite well. This Alî Efendi frequently came to visit the holy şeyh, and told the following story about him: ‘One day I was in Üsküdar, where I met with someone from my town [Kastamonu]. That person said to me, “There is a şeyh from our town, Şeyh Karabaş Alî Efendi, living in Üsküdar’s Eski Vâlide Tekye,” and he went on to describe his greatness. But when I went I did not get to see him. When I returned to Istanbul, I went to Şeyh Ünsî Hasan’s room, I told him, “A şeyh has come from Kastamonu to Üsküdar, one who is learned, virtuous, abstinent, and his ascetic exercise and struggles are without equal; he is a master of spiritual states (hâl) and of divinely-granted disposal (tasarruf), whom they call Karabaş Alî Efendi. His written works are many. Let’s go—I’d like to go and see him with you,” I said. “Sounds good!” said Hasan Efendi, so together we went to Üsküdar.

When we came to the Eski Vâlide Tekye we sought out Şeyh Karabaş Alî Efendi’s presence, and when he saw us the first thing he said was, “Hasan Efendi, I have often wished for you! Thanks be to the Guide [ie God] who has facilitated this meeting!” He then said, “Attendant, summon Osman Efendi!” One of his dervishes went and called, and when Osman Efendi came, [Şeyh Alî] said to him, “Osman, here is the one I talked to you about!” So saying, he pointed at Hasan Efendi and smiled broadly. Osman Efendi, having kissed the holy şeyh’s blessed knees, sat down. Then for a while we talked with the holy şeyh. Hasan Efendi remained silent. In such manner we sat in the presence of the şeyh for half an hour.’

Continue reading “Şeyh Hasan’s Momentous Trip to Üsküdar”

The Thought of Fishing

As noted in a previous post, the Ottoman majdhūb/meczûb (the first is the Arabic rendering, the second the same term but in Ottoman Turkish)- the divinely drawn saint or holy madman- was often involved in the details of everyday life, such as the smoking of tobacco. In the following story, which comes from a compilation of meczûb lives in a sprawling 17th work of hagiography by Mehmed Nazmî EfendiHediyyetü’l-ihvân, we see one of these holy madmen miraculously discern the wandering thoughts of the imam in the greatest mosque of Ottoman Istanbul.

A view of the courtyard of the Süleymâniye Mosque, the setting of the following story

‘And there was one, Hızır Aşak, who was from among the great (ulular) of the meczûb. He was a powerful meczûp capable of unveiling inner secrets. It is related that the imam of the Süleymâniye Mosque, Süleymân Efendi—who was later dismissed and sent into retirement—was one day leading the noon prayers, when the thought came to him: “After completing the salât, I’ll go to Hisar [on the Bosporus] and go fishing.’ Just as this thought was occurring to him, Hızır Aşak came to the mosque, and, as was his custom, cried out “Hû!” [i.e. ‘He,’ meaning God, a common sufi form of zikr] and said, “Süleymân Çelebi! You are here, your mind ought not be off fishing in Hisar. There is no prayer without presence of heart. Lead these men in prayer a second time.” Having said this he left the mosque. Süleymân Çelebi related thus: “This unveiling of the mad one brought about divine fear and embarrassment before the people in me. For a little while I passed out! Coming to, I properly completed the prayers.”’

Mehmed Nazmî Efendi, Hediyyetü’l-ihvân

Ottoman Majdhūb/Meczûb: Two Stories

The following accounts treat an important, and well-nigh ubiquitous, type of Ottoman Muslim saint, the majdhūb (meczûb in Ottoman Turkish), the ‘divinely attracted or drawn one.’ For a longer explanation of this ‘mode’ of sainthood, see this post of mine from a while back. One of the chapters of my forthcoming dissertation will consist of a detailed history and analysis of majdhūb sainthood, as well. The two accounts below represent the different ways and environments in which this ‘immersive’ saintly identity could operate, across the diverse lands of the Ottoman Empire. The first, from an Arabic biographical compilation from the mid-17th century, treats the arguably most important and well known majdhūb saint in the Ottoman world, Abū Bakr ibn Abū al-Wafā’ al-Majdhūb (d. 991/1583), of Aleppo. The dervish complex and mazār (place of visitation or shrine) that grew up during his lifetime and especially after his death still stands, having gone from being on the outskirts of the city to well enveloped within it, a monument to the centrality this strange and powerful saint took on both during and after his life on earth (for more on this saint and his legacy, see Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian. “Deviant Dervishes: Space, Gender, and the Construction of Antinomian Piety in Ottoman Aleppo.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 535–65). In the story I have translated we see the saint’s intervention in one of most dangerous and pressing situations in any pre-modern society, the threat of drought- with the mere suggestion that drought might be imminent enough to send local markets into a price-raising frenzy, as noted in this story. The saint’s strange behavior- open to all manner of interpretation- is also displayed here, out of a long list of stories of strange and far more shocking action than manifested here. Continue reading “Ottoman Majdhūb/Meczûb: Two Stories”

Who Can Say What the Years Will Bring


We skirted the fencing, no trace of official care
Here. Up above, marble framed portals,
For balconies long crumbled
Where the purple-robed gazed upon the Marmara,
Hang on, to the end of time, Constantine’s return.
Below, across this ruined threshold
The stench is strong. Human debris, traces, wreckage.
The years have not been kind,
The present years least of all. Behind us, tour buses idle. Dogs
Wander and loll. In this sunsick city for the
First time in days, grey clouds
Skiff down. The waves across Kennedy Boulevard
Lick the shore, slicked and black in the lowing light.
If there are any Byzantine ghosts here, they keep close
To the earth, don’t raise a sound. The walls are charred.
We leave as quickly as we came.
‘The future slips imperceptibly away,
Who can say what the years will bring?’ says Tu Fu,
Surveying a similar scene,
Knowing what all who wander ruins know. I bow
My head, trying to remember. Our years,
Spare and thin, meet with the ruins. We cannot


My body slips further and further along, its
Numbered days receding. This is always known—
We come forth in fear, so already close to death.
These gyres turn and turn, that river of flux flows
Me closer, how I start to feel it. The rot and ruin. Yet,
I gather flowers from the roadside in autumn, and am glad.

Poems, Istanbul, Summer

Spending part of the summer in Istanbul, and briefly in Bosnia. More posts from my time here to follow, but for now, some poetry that’s come out of my stay, nothing very refined, just jottings, for now.

Nocturne, Pera, Istanbul

Lights fall. Ten thousand shards of ten thousand voices
Of the ten thousand things, but now all I hear is a muezzin’s cry. Punctuation.
On the long shelves of the night, the volumes shuffle
And rearrange, waiting the next reader.
Tight taunt bodies move and move without, there where
Under Galata’s tower old Pera sleeps, some bright faced, others wasted, they spin,
No worries for old men in the slumber of the dead. The Mevlevi house
Lies silent, though the cats roam, and the Commentator’s spirit
Hovers, listening. In the heart of all this ten thousanded place,
Volumes are being written, and others turn to dust, I breathe it in,
As I wind back, return, my brief reverie listing. Make
The eroded scrapings my evening bread, somber, clear eyed and tired.
A bass line pulses my
Window, ever so slightly. My mind follows the metro stairs down, down
Into the storied ground, saints and sinner jostle.
A busker packs up, his coins jingle. The muezzin
Winds it down, another light goes out, the alley’s all dark. Signs
And significances, the bar hoppers and the Qur’an on the wind,
Yes, yes, so, dear city eternally departing, sleep well.

Route-taking on Uludag, Which was Once Mt. Olympus

Down from the spent mine tailings, over
The resurge of growth and green, snowmelt waters falling
The clink and chime of the sheep’s bells, and the sheep dogs
Scent me, growl and bark from across the low-slung junipers
Snaking down the slope. The dogs
Are in slow retreat, back towards the herd, moving up towards
The old mine, a late century wreck, scarring, broken stones, dumped, gashes.
Costs outweighed profits. Above the sheep, higher up, snowbanks,
Also in retreat, August only a day off. I swat flies from my legs, insatiable
Creatures, until I reach the ridgecrest, and the sweep of the mountain’s
Winds, a relief. Down below, nomads’ tents. The state, capital,
Our collective inhumanity, flit through my mind. The big gashes.
But a thousand years from now, those gashes will be gone, and the thin,
Eternal traces of shepherds in the mountains, summer snow fields receding,
Will endure. One day the world will change, and glaciers will again creep out
From these cols, swallow the marks of our mechanical sins.
I take comfort in the thought, and move on.

To the unknown Armenian woman pulled from the ruins of the Great Beyoǧlu Fire, 1870

Some of the bodies they found cisterned, waterlogging, still burned.
Yours, under the rubble buried, not even the
Hope of a refuge found. The place, known, but you,
Your name is erased for us. It too has burned up in the embers. Still burning,
Those flames, how many names, how many names consumed? Yes.
This world we stand on
Is built on the names lost and singed, its bones are the forgotten bones
Of the crushed down dead, ashes and dust and souls, the cementing.
The tram clanks down Istiklal, a rock band in tow, summer nights, and all.
No monuments with your name on them. Do
Those old cisterns, charred, no salvation for the wretched, still ring
With those other sounds? I wonder as I fall asleep, paces, perhaps,
Away, comfortable, my fires all grown old, and cold.

For John Berryman, an Imitation

Man color and noise its all washed out look
Pale like the skin under my hand under my breath yesterday’s
Peripheral memory logged and lost lost lost never worth keeping.
Yes. Henry yes I said your footsteps are still there. Yes Mr Bones.
Whats the good of all this noise under the noise?
Whats the good of this other speak slow-and-measured?
Why Henry wrote is the question and why you read
Let it man,

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