“Ottoman Explorations of the Nile” by Robert Dankoff, Nuran Tezcan, and Michael D Sheridan

Ottoman Explorations of the Nile: Evliya Çelebi’s ‘Matchless Pearl These Reports of the Nile’ map and his accounts of the Nile and the Horn of Africa in ‘The Book of Travels’,  Robert Dankoff, Nuran Tezcan, and Michael D Sheridan (Gingko, February 2018) Ottoman Explorations of the Nile: Evliya Çelebi’s ‘Matchless Pearl These Reports of the Nile’ map and his accounts of the Nile and the Horn of Africa in ‘The Book of Travels’, Robert Dankoff, Nuran Tezcan, and Michael D Sheridan (Gingko, February 2018)

A few years ago, Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim edited a much-needed and generous selection of Evliya Çelebi’s Seyhatname or Book of Travels. Evliya (1611-1682) spent the better part of forty years traveling around the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia Minor; he’s perhaps the best-known of all Ottoman explorers and travelers, which is not to say a great deal, because non-European travel-writers are still sadly under-represented in English translation.

Now Dankoff, together with Nuran Tezcan and Michael D Sheridan (all eminent scholars of Turkish studies), has presented us with a further book containing not only the text of Book 10 of Evliya’s work, published posthumously in about 1685, but also a copiously-annotated Nile map housed in the Vatican Library which, thanks to their research, has now been shown to be also by Evliya, and which is beautifully reproduced at the back of this book as an expansive fold-out.

The book is attractively-produced, with black-and-white photographs in the text and with one of Gingko’s trademark silk bookmarks. It’s well-worth its rather substantial price of £40, because the editors deliver all that is needed and more in a superb work of scholarship, and Gingko matches their efforts with its high-quality presentation.

The civets and monkeys get along well with each other.

That been said, this book is a bit of a specialty item, notwithstanding its readability (always a big plus for non-scholars, whom I hope will give this book a chance) and the sometimes quirkily-entertaining writing of Evliya himself, a traveler who missed little, however trivial. As he noted of the Hadendowa tribe in the Sudan, for example, “they keep myriads of civet-cats and all sorts of comical monkeys. The civets and monkeys get along well with each other.”

Evliya also had, as the distinguished Ottoman history scholar Caroline Finkel notes, a “penchant for drama” which certainly adds to the entertainment value of his text, making him a human being with whom readers, academic or otherwise, could enjoy engaging. He can certainly be forgiven what to modern readers often looks like more than occasional hyperbole; after all, Evliya as a young man had been hired by Sultan Murad IV as a singer, entertainer and storyteller, and it was during those years that he also received education in more serious pursuits such as the study of the Quran and map-making. Put all these things together, and you have an ideal combination of skills for a fascinating travel-writer; indeed, he believed that the Prophet Muhammad had appeared to him in a dream and blessed his desire to travel, which meant that for Evliya, travel was, at least in part, a sacred avocation, not just fun, something he had been almost ordained to do.

This is serious traveling.

Evliya journeyed southward up the Nile, and, as the editors suggest, his ultimate goal was to find its source, for which Europeans had been searching since at least the 15th century. He didn’t find it, but his travels took him thousands of kilometers through Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and what is now the Sudan. This is serious traveling, which Evliya accomplished with only a few companions, by boat and horseback; his claim that the trip, which started out from Cairo, took only nine months (August 1672 to April 1673) is obviously understated, as the editors point out, because he could not have possibly covered such great distances in such a short time.

He was fortunate in that he carried various commissions and letters of introduction to people of authority on his way from Ketkhuda Ibrahim Pasha, the governor of Egypt, who described him as “the boon companion and ancient friend of our viceroy, and is our own dear father,” which certainly must have helped him find good accommodation as well as being wined and dined by important people and having free rein to go wherever he liked. “I stayed in Alexandria for a month,” he tells us early on, “partying with friends and exploring the city,” very much like a modern tourist and bon vivant, but also the serious observer who knows exactly how high the palaces are in Old Cairo (Fustat), that they are painted “like Iram of the Pillars”, a mythical lost city mentioned in the Quran, “with layer upon layer of courts and balconies and chambers and orchards and gardens and pools with jets of water.” Evliya’s use of multiple “ands” here is deliberate; it emphasises the grandeur of the palaces and their almost paradise-like surroundings, feature piled upon attractive feature.

The best feature of Evliya is his congeniality; he writes not just as if readers are in his pocket, but as if we are his traveling-companions and people who enjoy his company. He enjoys “hanging out” with people and they seem to enjoy being with him. At one point he writes about having “70 or 80 companions;” note that they are described as “companions”, not just a group of people who happened to be in the same place.

The most interesting parts of the narrative occur when Evliya ventures into virtually unknown territory, some of which was known only through legendary sources and which was peopled by non-Muslims. Sometimes he is warned not to go to various places, but he goes anyway. Funjistan (a sultanate in the Sudan), for example, is, according to Ibrahim Pasha’s council, “an extremely torrid land with such dangerous and terrifying places that it would be an exceedingly difficult journey.” Undeterred, Evliya replies, “Then, God willing, I will return from there safe and in good health,” and Ibrahim duly writes letters of introduction to the ruler.

When Evliya gets to his first destination in Funjistan, he is treated to an elephant ride (a new experience) and a military parade which includes “thousands of cannons made of elephant bones” and “innumerable men mounted on donkeys and elephants,” a typical instance of Evliya’s effective use of hyperbole. The vizier of the Funjistan ruler tells Evliya “By God, I have enjoyed your company and your wit and have a great affection for you,” which also sums up this reader’s reaction to the narrator.

Evliya then proceeds to Sennar, the Funj capital, and meets the king (Badi II), who is “good-natured and sweet-tongued, advanced in years, dark and handsome, of medium height, wearing a white turban and a white smock, and devoted to his daily prayers.”

Evliya is a convivial, intelligent traveling-companion: tolerant, urbane, and fond of good food, drink and good times, but also seriously observant and sober when he needs to be.

Much of Evliya’s account is given over to descriptions of cities and towns, complete with statistics; he likes to note exactly how many houses some of them have, and what they are made of. At Hisar Kanisa in Sudan, “a sturdy fortress like the Rampart of God,” for example, he notices that there are more houses outside the walls than inside, and that there are crocodile-skins nailed to the walls (mummified crocodiles also feature in the narrative). The people, he notes, are “all lovely dark-skinned Berberis.”

He’s a little unhappy about the local mosque, which, he tells us, “would be a paradise” if it were “in a civilised country,” but here “it is an orphaned mosque, without a congregation,” although there is an annual gathering near the mosque of people from all over in autumn where they put on a “lively open-air market for 40 days and 40 nights.”

Evliya is interested in people, too, who are “all of God’s creation,” and usually has something positive to say about them, although he refers at one point to people with “camel-lips” and thinks that the Zangis (a tribe living near Suakin on the Red Sea) are “ugly”, especially when compared to the Oquts, who are “handsome and smiling, sweet-spoken and good-tempered men who try to get along with everyone and are friendly to strangers.” These short quotes are quintessential Evliya; tolerant, urbane, and fond of good food, drink and good times, but also more seriously observant and sober when he needs to be.

In this short space it’s difficult to do justice to this perceptive and entertaining traveller, but his adventures speak for themselves, and don’t need a reviewer to paraphrase them.

For scholars, the treat in this edition will be the map.

For scholars, the treat in this edition will be the map. Many non-specialist readers will not know much about the tradition of Islamic map-making, which goes back to the time of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (the editors have Khwarazmi), a Persian scholar who died in about 850 CE and who made a map of the Nile. The most famous Ottoman map-maker was probably the Turkish admiral Piri Reis, who compiled a world map in 1513, which may even have included Antarctica.

This means that Evliya had a tradition of map-making with which he could work and which presented him with ideas about the origins of the river which he would not have found by consulting Western geographers such as Ptolemy. The Islamic geographers thought that the Nile started in the Mountains of the Moon south of the Equator, from which ten rivers emerged and one of which fell into the lake from which the Nile originated.

Evliya’s map starts by following the old schema, but when he gets to Funjistan he diverges, using his own travels as the basis for the map-making. The editors have designated zones to the map; it’s Zone C, the third one, which marks the originality of Evliya’s cartography, and they provide a comparative table showing how his map of the Nile region differed from that of Piri Reis. The ascription of the map in this book to Evliya is an important contribution to geographical and historical scholarship, as well as a remarkable addition to the travel-narrative. The editors of this book have done a great service to readers by presenting and explicating the map alongside the text, and readers can follow Evliya’s journey on his own map as well as reading his annotations.


All in all, what we have here, attractively-presented by Gingko Library, is a valuable and eminently readable work of scholarship. A short review like this cannot do it justice, but what can be said here is that the text is enjoyable, that Evliya is a convivial, intelligent traveling-companion and guide, whose book allows us to see what an Ottoman traveler could do when he came into contact with other cultures and other landscapes.

The scholarship which informs this book is superb and the recording of it is never dull or pedantic. Evliya himself comes alive in this book, and the way the editors handle the scholarly apparatus is consistently enthusiastic and clear. It is a book which will repay many re-readings, as there is always something to be found there, something yet undiscovered or un-mapped on the reader’s mind.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.