Ever since we have looked over the horizon and wondered what lies beyond, there have been those willing to trek off to find out. Exploration seems to be an innate feature of human nature, the need to shine a light on the dark corners of our understanding a force that drives us to further penetrate into realms we do not understand. Many of these travelers have over the centuries brought back amazing and mysterious tales from these faraway lands, and sometimes it is difficult to know what to make of them. Are they illuminating new places and things long immersed in shadow or are they tall tales and flights of fancy? It can be sometimes hard to tell, and one such individual who had plenty of such stories to tell was an Ottoman explorer who traveled the ends of the earth to bring back many odd tales, including those of the decidedly supernatural.
The Ottoman explorer, traveler, and writer Evliya Çelebi was born in 1611 in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, during the height of the Ottoman Empire, which was created by Turkish tribes in Anatolia (Asia Minor) and grew exponentially to be one of the most imposing and powerful states in the whole world during the 15th and 16th centuries. The son of the chief court jeweler, Celebi’s intelligence, wit, extensive knowledge of the Koran, and natural gift for music and languages, with him able to speak Arabic, Persian, Greek and Latin, captured the attention of the imam of Sultan Murad IV, and at just the tender age of twelve he was taken in as an apprentice to Sultan, excelling as a Koran reader and able to recite long passages perfectly from memory, by some accounts all of it. He did not start out as the intrepid traveler he would become, instead rather being absorbed in his studies of Arabic, calligraphy, and music at the Ottoman palace school, but at some point he discovered his deep wanderlust when he began embarking on official travels that took him from Belgrade to Baghdad and from Crimea to Cairo. Even at this point his ultimate goal was to be a member of the Imperial court, it was something his family also desperately wanted for him despite his urges to travel over the horizon, but one night he was to have an epiphany that would change his life forever.
On the very night of his twentieth birthday, Celebi allegedly had a vision of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as His Companions and the four first caliphs of Islam in a vivid dream. In this dream he was told to give up his designs of joining the court, and rather spend his life traveling to the far corners of the world so that he might “compose a marvelous work” based on his adventures to far-flung exotic lands. The Prophet would tell him:
Thou shalt travel through the whole world and be a marvel among men. Of the countries through which you will pass, of their castles, strongholds, wonderful antiquities, eatables and drinkables ... the extent of their provinces and the length of the days there, draw up a description which will be a monument worthy of thee.
On the strength of this potent dream, Celebi decided to defy his parents’ wishes to be a member of the Imperial court and give up everything to follow what the Prophet had told him to do. And so he set off on a life of journeys that would span the next three decades, traveling with an entourage of mules, camels, travel companions, and up to a dozen slaves at any given time, on extensive travels that would take him from one end of the known world to the other, often returning to enthrall the court with tales of adventure and mystery. Along the way, Celebi would compile a vast, sprawling 10-volume tome of travel memoirs and notes called the Seyahatname, or the “Book of Travels,” also sometimes referred to as the Tarihi seyyah (“Chronicle of a Traveler”), which has been called “the longest and fullest travel account in Islamic literature, perhaps in world literature.” Within the many hundreds of pages of this vast masterpiece of travel literature are tales of strange customs and lands, exotic people and cultures, fantastical animals, and bloody battles and massacres, as well as the landmarks, ethnography, history, and geography of the lands he visited in Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond, and all manner of bizarre and amazing tales of the things he had seen and done. It is an impressive and unique manuscript to be sure, with pages upon pages of amazing and spectacular adventures, but within these volumes, among the various exotic people, customs, and tales of far-flung lands beyond the understanding of the time are some stories that stand out as weirder than others, and here we get into all of the damn witches, vampires and zombies Celebi claims to have come across.
Throughout the pages of the Seyahatname Celebi makes frequent mention of magic, sorcery, the supernatural, and metaphysical beings, and one prime example of this is an incident he claimed happened to him on the night of April 26, 1666, in the tiny Pedsi village of the Caucasus. He claimed that one dark, moonless evening there had been a sudden, very intense flash of lightning outside that had roused him from his writings. These flashes continued, and when Celebi asked some of the villagers what was going on they told him that once a year there was a night during which Circassian witches and Abkhaz witches flew to the sky and to engage in battle in a great war. Astonished by this, Celebi then when outside to see for himself, where he was met by quite the bizarre sight.
He claimed that when he looked up he saw “witches on large trees, cubes, boats, carriage wheels and many other similar objects fighting witches on horses, cattle, carrion and dead camels, with snakes, horses and camel heads in their hands,” all behind the backdrop of intermittent flashes and swaths of bright light across the sky, now obviously not from lightning, but rather through the magical might of their sorcery. At one point there was an enormous, thunderous explosion, after which “felt, poles, cubes, doors and carriage wheels, and parts of humans and animals such as horses” fell from the sky, followed by seven Abkhazian witches and seven Circassian witches hurtling to the ground, where they continued to fight. According to the account, the Circassian witches killed the Abkhazian witches by sucking their blood, after which they hurled the lifeless bodies onto a bonfire. After this there was the crowing of roosters, and the remaining witches took flight to disappear into the night. Celebi makes it a point to mention that he would have never believed such a thing possible if he had not seen it himself, and we are left to wonder what was going on here.
Celebi would write of other encounters with witches as well. In one incident, he was staying in the Çalıkkavak village of Bulgaria when he claimed to have come across an “old miserable woman with messy hair and an ugly face and seven children.” This woman and her children entered the non-Muslim house he was staying at and gathered around the fire, where the women gathered up some ashes and performed some kind of arcane spell. After this, the old hag and the children allegedly transformed into chickens right before the eyes of Celebi and other members of his expedition. Celebi would write of what transpired next:
The next thing we knew, a heathen was peeing on chickens. At that moment, they all turned into human beings. Some other people grabbed the woman and the children by the arms and beat them. We went and saw that the church was where they arrived later. They handed the woman over to the priest, and the priest excommunicated her. My men swore an oath after this incident. They all saw this incident and witnessed that the chickens turned into humans. That night, my nosebleed did not stop out of fear. The bleeding stopped in the morning.
His other stories of witches seem to imply something we would be more familiar with as vampires. Celebi claimed that the Caucasus region was particularly infested with such creatures. He told of bloodsucking witches prowling remote villages and drinking the blood of the terrified populace, after which any villager who was fed on in such a way would become sick, die, and then rise from the dead to do the same thing as some sort of undead abomination. These terrifying entities were said to return to sleep in the ground during the day, and according to Celebi the villagers would sometimes unearth one to find it flushed and the eyes bloodshot from having fed. This “witch” would then be dispatched with a long stake of blackberries that was “nailed to her belly” and her body then burned to ashes in a fire. If this was done, then any of the other blood drinking revenants that the witch had spawned would supposedly revert back to normal human form. On other occasions, a blood drinking witch would be captured, put in chains, and forced to confess her black magic, after which she would be killed with a stake and immolated, but not before some of her blood was taken in order to rub it on her victims to cure them of their affliction. If some of the details here sound familiar it is because such tales are considered to be some of the earliest vampire stories, and are even thought to have influenced Bram Stoker for his book Dracula.
Is any of this true? That is a tough question to answer. The veracity of anything written in the Seyahatname has long been debated, as while Celebi claims that his work is the will of Allah and an honest chronicle, it is peppered with numerous stories and claims that seem like they can’t possibly be true. Interspersed throughout the vast tome are countless embellishments, flourishes, and just stuff he made up, such as inaccurate geography or descriptions of places he had obviously never been to, battles that could not have possibly happened as described, and numerous fantastical animals, people, and plants, including giant avian monsters, humans with animal heads, chimeras, dragon-like beasts, giant waxen plants like nothing known, a strange yellow tree whose leaves miraculously cured syphilis, and many other strange anomalies. What makes it harder to weed out the fantasy, fairy tale elements is that there are also long passages that are actually incredibly accurate, matching up perfectly with what we now know about the places and people he encountered, as well as accurate and meticulous transcriptions of languages that were unknown at the time, while other stories are almost certainly tall tales and then there are those that incorporate elements of both. There could be an otherwise honest and sober accurate depiction of history that will feature a jarring inclusion such as a cat freezing in midair as it jumps from roof to roof, a virgin woman giving birth to an elephant, or some other obvious flight of fancy.
This has all posed a bit of a conundrum for historians, as it is sometimes nearly impossible to parse fact from fiction in this hodgepodge of the real and imagined, and reading it is akin to trying to solve a puzzle. Indeed, some experts have claimed that only about 50 percent of the entire text is factual, while the other is heavy exaggeration or pure bunk. Some passages are obvious truth, while others are obvious lies, but there are also large swaths in which the lies are not particularly obvious, a sort of blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, making it even harder to tell if what you are reading is true or not and hiding possible tantalizing insights into history behind a murky lense. Edward White, author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America, has said of it:
In the Seyahatname, pages can whistle by without an honest word in sight, though Evliya emphasizes that he is upholding the will of Allah. Typically, “Evliya the unhypocritical” reminds us of his pious commitment to scrupulousness just before he launches into an obvious lie about, say, an encounter with a woman from the Black Sea who gave birth to an elephant, the rhinoceros-riding tribes of the Sudan, or the man-eating Buddhists of Kalmyia. “God is my witness that this took place,” he says before one such tale—cast-iron evidence that it didn’t. Historians debate whether these fairy-tale inventions are intended as satirical barbs at the hyperbolic travel writers or an homage to the fantastical stories of Arabian Nights on which Evliya had grown up. Likely, it was both. But it’s also pretty clear that every now and then he simply got bored with faithfully recording reality and decided to amuse himself by splicing the mundane with the phantasmagorical. The fun for the reader comes in trying to spot the moment when empirical truth ends and one of Evliya’s campfire yarns begins.
If he is lying, then it seems strange considering he was such a devout Muslim, to the point that he routinely referred to non-Muslims as "infidels" and "heathens," swearing to Allah that it was all true, that he would defy that faith to tell tall tales. Celebi would settle in Cairo near the end of his life, dying in 1684 to leave behind this fascinating and frustrating historical travel account, with no notes or indications from the author himself as to where reality ends and the tall tales begin. Indeed, as far as he was concerned it was all a completely true and honest account of his travels, he insists so on many occasions, even swearing to Allah that it is so, and so we are left with this lengthy text that harbors tantalizing historical facts mixed in with a lot of question marks. Unfortunately for many who would study it, while the Seyahatname is very well-known in its native Turkey, it is more obscure in the West. Indeed, there currently is no complete English translation of the entire work, just certain parts, and the only other language it has been translated to an appreciable degree is German, leaving much of it in the dark to those not up to speed on their Turkish.
We are left with an epic piece of travel literature that has fascinated and puzzled historians right up to the present, perpetually stuck in a limbo of interpretation and debate. How much of these accounts is true and what is false? Did this explorer ever really come across the supernatural creatures he claims he did? What are we to make of all this? It seems that in the end, Evliya Çelebi and his strange texts on his mysterious travels and encounters will likely forever remain in the shadows, cryptic and misunderstood.