During the past few years I have been busy cataloguing Turkish manuscripts. In the
course of this work I have come across texts in many genres. I have always been fascinated by
autobiographies and what struck me during my work was how rich Ottoman literature is in
this genre. I would like to share some of my experiences in this field with the reader. I will
begin by quoting (part of) a sentence from an unpublished work by Lämi'i (d. 938/1532), the
introduction to his translation of Fattäh-i Nishäbüri's Hüsn ü dil:
"At times... I weighed my melancholy circumstances and the things that were on my
mind and I investigated the leaves of the records of my pious deeds... and I regretted and
deplored the days of my past and the years that have gone by, and I wept..." ' Lämi" continues
- the passage in intricate rhymed prose is too long to quote here at length - that he was steeped
in frivolities but repented and decided to forsake all fame and wordly endeavours.2 In an
introduction to another translation, this time Jämi's Nafahât al-uns, he wrote more soberly:
"Is so happened that one day a group of pure brethren and trusted friends - may God
bless their exertions and fulfill their desires - came to me and mentioned - one subject leads to
another - the book Nafahât al-uns and demonstrated to me that its translation would mean
perfect progress and an increase in carefulness..."3
Both passages are taken from the preface sections of the translations and we know that
these were specifically used by Ottoman writers to display their literary skill and are nearly
always filled, apart from some essential facts, with more or less elaborate literary clichés.
Particularly the second case, which makes use of the topos 'friends urged me to write this
book; I excused myself for being too ignorant/inexpert; but they insisted and I gave in; may
God help me with the difficult task etc' was perhaps the most popular statement an Ottoman
writer could make in a preface. I have encountered decades of them during my work. Could
we, then, still call these fragments autobiographical passages, despite their mention of T, 'me'
* Leiden University Library
' Leiden University Library Cod.Or. 14.510, f. 2b*.
2 See Gunay Kut Alpay, 'Lämi'i Celebi and his Works', in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 35/2 (1976), p. 79.
3 Printed edition (Istanbul 1289), p. 7.
and 'my' and, especially in the flrst case, their show of personal emotion (perhaps never really
felt)? What to say, for instance about this passage, not from an introductory section this time,
from Mustafa 'Ali of Gallipoli's Nushatu s-selâtïn (of 1581)? -1 quote Tietze's translation -
"It seems that the clumsy midwife of Time, while I was still a nondescript foetus in the
dark depths of the mother, was already waiting with the tub of sorrows for my arrival, having
come [there] with a thousand troubles. When, seeing that my food in that thorny bed was the
blood of torture and my ever-ready nourishment day and night were the dregs of the cup of
headaches, I descended from the hapless womb of my mother and touched the carpet of the
surface of the earth, she prepared me a bed of burning fire and clothed me in fetters of pain
and vexation...""*
Again deep-felt emotions, despair this time, and the indignity of what had been done to
him after his birth during his chequered career, are expressed in grandiloquent rhymed prose.
Such emotions remind one of another autobiographical focus point in Ottoman
literature: that of the mahlas distichs in, thousands of which have been composed
through the centuries. I give one example from the poet Vâlihî (d. 1008/1599-1600), a unique
copy of whose Dïvan is found in the collection of the Berlin Staatsbibliothek. Suffering from
the infidelity of his beloved, who is described as a rapacious Tatar (yagmaci Tatar), because he
stole the poet's heart, the gazel ends:
"Your sorcerer's eyes made me weak and helpless
I do not know what to do, you are a wizard I now understand
You turned away from Välihi, o love, and left him
You are sick of me, this distressed one, I have come to understand" ^
Again 'I' and 'me', but we seem to even be further removed from a concrete historical
situation than in the previous passages. Less realistic still are. fahrïye ('self-glorification')
sections in kasïdes. In Sünbülzäde Vehbi's brilliant kasïde on words (with a redïf rhyme
ending in sußan, 'words'), written for the grand vizier Halil Pa§a in the 1760s, he presents the
reader with a 126 distich-long exposé of the decline of Ottoman poetry. There was however
one exception: Vehbi himself (I quote from Kemal Silay's translation):
Let those new to poetry write poems in imitation of me, for every word of mine is a
book unto itself full of great words
In order to prove myself I went to Shiràz and engaged in a batde of poetry with the
boastful 'Urfi
There Häfi:z and Sa'di became my competent witnesses, and it was judged in my
favour, that I satisfied the claim to poetic skill
Counsel for Sultans II (Vienna 1982), p, 49,
MS Diez A, 80, 30, The odginal text reads:
{remel) sihrle cädü göz.ün ben bidili kildi z.ebän
care bilmem neyleyeni sahhärmi§sin sen añladum
Välihl'den yüz cevirüb eyledUñ cänäfträk
benden ol bicäreden blzämii^sin sen añladum.
An edition of the Diván by Edith Ambros and myself is under preparation,
TUBA 26/1!, 2002 : 195-201
What wonder is it that I am famed as the divine Vehbi; the gifts of poetry to me are
the gift of divinely granted talent^
It goes without saying that Vehbi never went to Shiräz nor were the poets mentioned
alive in the 18th century. This is not autobiography, despite the repeated T.
It has indeed been maintained by some scholars that 'Autobiography... expresses a
concern particular to Western man... (I quote Georges Gusdorf)'. So were 'Orientals', to use
the somewhat antiquated term, able to become explicit in a serious, as opposed to a purely
literary-ornamental, way about their lives at all? I think they did'' and I would like to illustrate
this with a number of texts I found in manuscripts of the Oriental Collection of the Leiden
University Library, hitherto incompletely and misleadingly, even disparagingly, catalogued
and consequently, I am afraid, unread and unstudied.
Autobiographical passages are sometimes found in places and in contexts where you
would not always expect them. On the last flyleaf of a copy of 'Azmi's Enisü I- 'ärifin, we read:
"I obtained the post of k^zi of the town of Izmir... on Sunday, 25 Zi Ika 'de 1012 after the hijra
of the Prophet [25 April 1604]. My letter with the Sultan's order arrived in the afternoon of
the Festival of Sacrifice [10 Zil-hicce, 10 May] and I took to sea on [the following] Monday. I
arrived in Gallipoli... on 2 Muharrem [31 May]..."^ This matter-of-fact note is written in
Arabic by an anonymous owner of the manuscript, possibly the kazi'asker Ebülfäzl Mahmud
Kara Çelebizâde (d. 1063/1653),^ whose inscription is found elsewhere in the same
manuscript (f. 2a). He continues by describing how he visited the tombs of Mehmed
Yazicizâde and Shaykh 'Alä'uddin and finally arrived, after stopping at the Dardanelles
fortresses and Bozcaada, in Izmir on the ninth (7 June). Although autobiographical
annotations by owners of manuscripts are not rare, this one is exceptional for its length and its
A more obvious source for autobiographical material is histories - a famous case is
Must;afä 'Ali's Künhü l-ahbar which contains fragments similar to the one quoted before from
his Nushat - but also in less well-known works. The Library owns a what appears to be unique
manuscript of a history of Baghdad during the reign of Sultan Murad IV by an author who
uses the pen-name of §eyhogli - the work contains a number of his poems, mainly kxisides,
inserted into the prose text. In his preface the poet-historian tells us that one day, while he was
reading a history book, it occurred to him that he could write one himself, and so he did,
namely on the 'indescribable' events that occurred in Baghdad during its siege and occupation
by the Safavids (in 1033/1624). The work, written in quite unadorned prose, contains some
touching eyewitness accounts. I will give one example. Describing how the besieged town
suffered from lack of food, he continues: "One day I came across some Khazars who grabbed a
cat by its throat, lit a heap of dry dirt and threw it into the flre. They wanted to cook the cat.
However hard I tried, I was unable to free the cat from their hands".i"
Ö Nedim and the Poetics of the Ottoman Court. Medieval Inheritance and the Need for Change (Bloomington, Indiana
1994), pp 134-5.
"^ See for a survey of the genre, not acknowldged as such, in Arabic literature, Georg Misch, Geschichte der
Autobiographie III/2 (Frankfurt am Main 1962), p. 905 ff.
^ Leiden University Library Cod.Or. 895.
^ cf. N. Göyünc, 'Kara-Celebi-zäde', in Encyclopaedia of Islam, second edition.
10 Cod.Or. 1278, pp. 11-2.
TUBA 26/n, 2002 : 195-201
Another unique, probably an autograph, copy (Cod.Or, 801) of what has been described
as a history of the Shirvän Campaign of the early 1580s, is in fact a treatise on the religious
justification for the war against the Muslim Safavids. The work, entitled Nesrii l-näzirin ve
makbülii l-hâ=irin, was written by a Seyyid Sa'duddin e§-§irväni of Bëyuk Dakhna
(Azarbeijan) in 993/1585. The work contains some lively personal passages which taken
together make up a more or less full autobiography. Thus at various places in the work the
author writes that he, the son of a shaykh and molla, fled from Shirvän when it was occupied
by the kizHba§ - this must have been in the 1550s - and came to Istanbul to study. His family
had suffered a lot in the past: at the appearance of the cursed Haydar who invaded Shirvàn
three times in the 1480s, twenty-five members of his family had perished, among them his
paternal great-grandfather, a molla called Karadagi Mehmed. His grandfather Ahmedüddin, a
scholar and author of a Persian tafsir, had been able to escape the carnage. During his, the
author's, student years he lived in a cell of a certain Süleyman Bababa§i near the Süleymaniye,
passing the night "on a stone chest covered by a rush mat". Fortunately, he made the
acquaintance of Höca ' Abdülmü'min, teacher of Ferhäd Pa§a, and the höca presented him to
his patron and the latter's wife Hümä§äh Sultán. They agreed to pay for his studies. In
982/1574, he became candidate {nmlâ but waited for eight years before he received an
appointment as teacher in a medrese and worked hard on a book, §ifä el-kulüb, a work on süfi
doctrine, for which he received 50 gold pieces from the sultan. Finally upon the death of the
kâzVasker Behä'üddinzäde Efendi, who successfully opposed his career (which was on the
other hand fostered by the käzi' of Istanbul, Zekeriya Efendi), he was made müderris with a
salary of 40 akçe. He also writes that he stayed for a while in the hânkâh of E§refzäde at Iznik,
became a shaykh (baba) himself and describes in the book some of the miraculous dreams he
had. These passages give us a good idea, as indeed many serial biographies of contemporary
'ulemâ, not only of the problems of patronage and professional insecurity experienced by
many of his colleagues, but also of his personality: his strong emotions may be gauged in a
sentence where he mentions his enemy Behä'üddinzede Efendi, and curses in the same sentence
all kâzï'askers and kizHba^. The book was offered to the Grand Vizier Özdemirogli 'Osmän
Pa§a who however died before he could receive the final version. (This may account for the
obscurity of the book).
More of a real autobiography as we understand the term - and in contrast to mere
autobiographical passages - can be found in an apparently unique but incomplete copy.
Cod.Or. 1551, of an autobiography-cum-travelogue by a certain el-Häcci Mustafa Vasfi
Efendi of Käbüd, a village in central Anatolia, who, as appears from the text, participated in a
number of military campaigns in eastern Anatolia and Rumelia during the reign of Sultan
Mahmud [II, ruled 1223/1808 - 1255/1839]; these are the main subject of the book.n Nothing
is known about the author apart from what he writes here. He calls it a history, or rather [a
series of] 'histories' (tevârih) which treat of 'war' and 'death'. No further dates are given in
the history itself but, as is explained on the title page (la), it covers the period between 1216
(1801-2) and 1248 (1832-3). Our copy however breaks off sometime in the eariy 1820s. It is
dated 22 Zll-ka'de 1249 (2 April 1834, ibidem) and may well be an autograph. The text is
written in lapidary, colloquial Turkish in an idiosyncratic (phonetic) and inconsistent spelling.
The text is adorned with interiinear coloured drawings of a pleasantly primitive type.
11 I am preparing an edition with translation into English,
TUBA 26/11, 2002 : 195-201
At the beginning of the work proper (4b), the author states, rather abruptly, "in the year
1216 [1801-2], when I was eight years old, I left home for strange lands." Home was the
village of Kabud near Tokat and he travelled to Erzurum apparently in the company of his
father (cf. 43b ff.) who was bayrakddr (standard bearer) in the service of Tokath Deli Ahmed,
adeliba§i (leader of irregular cavalry) of Dramali Mahmud Pa§a (cf. 34a, 37b, 41a). Like his
father, he served as an irregular horseman (deli) with a monthly salary of 35 kuru§ (15b, 19b)
which was supplemented by occasional bonuses, 'bah§i¡' and he was indeed a member of the
same unit ("...I had the intention of going for the infidels. My father brought out his flag and I
found myself next to my father under the flag", 43b).
The first part of the history (4b-25a) - the work does not contain any formal divisions -
then, describes a number of campaigns on the north-eastern borders of the Ottoman Empire
undertaken from Erzurum under the commanders (sefasker) Baba Pa§a and Häfi:z 'Ali Pa§a.
Baba Pa§a is probably identical with Pehlivän ibrähim Pa§a, better known as commander of
the Dobruja front during the Ottoman-Russian wars of this period. 12 Vasfl Efendi gives a
lively description of a number of dangerous skirmishes against, particularly local Kurdish
chiefs and Russian border troops. Sometime in 1820 Vasfl Efendi moved with his unit to
Istanbul (25a-28b).
The second part of the history describes the Rumelia campaign in which the author
participated (from f. 28b). The army moved to Yanya (Ioannina), the residence of Tepedelenli
'Ali Pa§a, the more or less independent ruler of a large part of Greece, who after a lengthy
siege of his citadel was lured to the tent of the commander Hur§id [Ahmed] Pa§a (d. 5 Rebí'ü l-
evvel 1238/ 20 November 1822)i3, wherepon his head was cut off and sent to the Sultan (33b-
34a). 14 Meanwhile a serious rebellion had broken out in the Péloponnèse - 1821 was the first
year of the War of Greek Independence - and Hur§id Pa§a was appointed 'Mora ser'askeri' (in
§evvâl 1237/ June-July 1822). The author joined the troops under Dramali Mahmud Pa§a and
moved from Yanya by way of Yeñi§ehir (Larisa), ízdin (Lamia) and Badracik (Ypati), in the
surroundings of which a number of villages were subjugated and plundered, women and girls
abducted, heads cut off. The author did not come through these battles unscathed: he suffered
from frostbite after snow had fallen for fifteen days on end. Two thousand soldiers died but
the author was saved because he had the protection of a tent. "When we came to ízdin, I went to
a bathhouse and slowly rubbed my feet with pigfat; they recovered, thank God." (39b). Once
he was hit by a bullet in his leg and had his head nearly cut off by a "big, black-faced infidel"
(44a). From Ízdin - the army now consisted of 36,000 foot soldiers and 19,000 horsemen
(51b) - the men moved to Levatiye (Livadia) and by way of a pass through the mountains (the
'Mora derbendi', at present Dervenakia), to Kördüs (Corinth), fighting 'infidel' rebels all the
way down. Vasfl Efendi and his father, who had been seriously wounded in the fighting
through the pass, decided not to follow the army to the Péloponnèse but instead sailed to
Agriboz (Fuboia) where they joined the troops of Çirkaci (Çarhaci) 'Ali Pa§a (62a), later
replaced by 'Ömer Pa§a (84b). Father and son remained on the island for four years (cf. 63b),
Vasfl Ffendi spending his time fighting infidels, or, on the other hand, suffering from long
12 See ismail Hâmi Danifmend, izahh Osmanli Tarihi Kronolojisi IV (Istanbul 1972), p. 84, passim.
13 See Mehmed Süreyya (Nuri Akbayar & Seyit Ali Kahraman, eds.) Sicill-i Osmanî. Osmanli ünlüleri II (Istanbul
1996), p. 679.
14 Cf. H. Bowen, "Ali Pas/ia, Tepedelenli', in Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd ed.).
TUBA 26/11, 2002 : 195-201
Sieges, his father most of the time staying behind in the care of a female slave (câriye) in a
house (konak) at Agnboz (Chalkis) which had belonged to an infidel but had been confiscated
by the Pasha's deliba§i Yörük Müsä, whose standard-bearer was an acquaintance of his father
(62b-63a). The following flfty-odd folios are flUed with the 'stories' (cf. 64a) of these years
and the book breaks off abruptly in the description of a battle between a Janissary regiment,
recently sent from Rumelia for reinforcement and approvisioning, and Greek rebels in the
mountains near Kumiye (Kymi).
Whereas the first part of the work is clearly written in the tradition of the chronicle or,
for the descriptions of journeys, of the pilgrimage manual with their dry enumeration of facts
such as distances in hours, the second part is increasingly autobiographical: the author and his
exploits (mostly sieges, sword fights, plundering of villages and so on, described now in great
detail) are central and personal references, including the insertion of dialogues in which the
author took part, abound. Perhaps the most dramatic passage of the book is that in which the
author discovers that his father had been seriously wounded in the battle at the Mora Pass. I
will translate it, as simply as possible, to give an idea of Vasfl Efendi's style at its best. The
author writes that he was encamped in the plain of Corinth, and continues (58b-59b): "My
father had been wounded in the Mora pass... I had not heard about this [but] after three days in
the plain of Kördüs, I found my father, I looked at him. He had been injured in seven places.
Before this, when we had launched an attack against the Mora Pass, my father had, before all
other flags, planted his flag at the entry to the pass and while he was reading the Muhammedan
call to prayer, the infidels [had fired] a bullet into his breast, had hit [with] many sword on his
head and had injured [him] in seven places but at the same time my father again had cut [down]
one infidel and had fallen into the infidels' trenches, where he had lost consciousness and
remained with the infidels. The infidels had dealt many blows with [their] swords and fired
many shots but had not cut off a single head [but] had stayed [on]. At that moment, other flags
had arrived and soldiers had arrived and had taken the pass. At that time, delibap Deli Ahmed
had anived and had found my father. He had looked [and seen] that my father had been injured
in five places and had been robbed of his things, weapons and everything he had. The
mentioned deliba§i had hoisted my father onto a horse and had come to the plain of Kördüs.
Three days later, I went and found my father under a mulberry tree. My father was naked [sic,
but cf. below], wounded, giddy and out of his mind. When I saw him in this state at the edge of
a stream under a mulberry tree, I went out of my mind and lost control. I left my horse behind
and came to my father's side. For three days, my father had been injured and bleeding and all
his clothes were stuck to his body with blood. In this state I saw my father; in his head no head
had remained, nor a body in his body. In this state I saw my father and I wailed and burst into
tears. After a while, my father came to his senses and said: "Mustafa, my son, where are we?
What kind of place is this? Have we come through the Mora Pass? Son, why do you cry? Praise
to God, we have come through the Mora Pass, we have come here and found safety. Why do
you cry? I am well", and saying this he conforted me a little. He lost his senses again, lost
consciousness and lay down. I somehow tried to get off his clothes but could not and cut away
all clothes that were on him and had other clothes brought." When Mahmud Pa§a was told what
had happened, he gave the wounded hero a horse, a great-coat (kabud) and 500 gold coins
(Mahmudïye altuni). Later, when he deteriorated, the pasha saw to it that the private physician
of Morali 'All Pa§a, an Austrian, present in the camp, was fetched. Having looked at the
TUBA 26/11, 2002 : 195-201
wounds (60a), the physician deemed them not very serious, apart from a head injury. If, after
a tap on his head, blood would pour from his ears the next day, he would live and recover. The
test was done, but no blood appeared.
The examples I quoted so far were found in works outside the mainstream of Ottoman
literature: by authors soon forgotten because their patron died (as in the case of Seyyid
Sa'duddin), partly perhaps because their works were unpopular or never found acceptance
because of their rustic style (as in the case of §eyhogli and Vasñ Efendi). That we possess
copies of their work is largely due to the activity of the Leiden collectors in Istanbul, Levinus
Wamer (in the first half of the 17th century) and Testa (in the 1830s and before), who, as in
the case of §eyhogli and Vasfi Efendi, intervened just in time before these works had
irretrievably disappeared. This is not to say that many such examples do not exist in better-
known works, to the contrary. I have only to mention the names of Evliyä Çelebi or 'Osman
Aga of Teme§var (Timi§oara) whose works, of a dominating autobiographical content, have
been translated wholly (as in the case of 'Osman Aga'^) or partly (Evliyä Çelebi) into various
European languages, belong to the best known of Ottoman litarature.
To sum up. Although Ottoman literature may not be so rich in autobiographical texts as
our Westem literature since the 18th century (and Romanticism), it certainly did not cut a
poor figure. Comparison however is a tricky business, in which I will not indulge in great
detail. One should perhaps compare pre-modern, that is pre-1840 or 1850s, Ottoman
literature with Westem medieval litature rather than with post-Romantic Westem literature.
Vasfl Efendi, although he lived in the 19th century, after all wrote as if he were still in the
Middle Ages and led the life of a gâz.ï in, so to speak, the Wittekian sense of the word. What
seems to be the most striking difference between the pre-modern Ottoman autobiography and
its, certainly modem. Western counterpart is that authors of the former did not intend their
writings to be autobiographical in the way we understand that term now. Vasñ Efendi, as you
may remember, called his book a history, not an autobiography, written to make readers
reflect on the facts of life and prepare themselves for the hereafter. (This is, by the way,
another well-wom topos of prefaces.) But this lack of what we may style self-consciousness
does not make these texts less interesting. What I have tried to demonstrate in the first place is
the rich, variegated, aspect of these texts, examples of which, then, can be found in poetry and
prose, in highly literate Kunstprosa as well as in down-to-earth colloquial language, in texts
ranging from matter-of-fact 'CVs', describing professional careers, to highly emotional
outbursts of angry people, texts written by both spiritually-minded scholars and low-ranking
soldiers, facts as well as time-honoured fiction. Further cataloguing work - forgive me my
solipsism - may well bring more such texts to light and increase our understanding of this
fascinating aspect of Ottoman literature as well as the public and private lives of Ottoman men
and women.
Recently translated into French by Frédéric Hitzel, Osman Agha de Temechvar, Prisonnier des inftdèles; un soldat
Ottoman dans l'Empire des Habsbourg (Arles 1998),
TUBA 26/1!, 2002 : 195-201

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