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Evliya Çelebi and Book of Travels

'That is how they do it, so we cannot criticise it'.

Even out of context, these words from the 10-volume Book of Travels of the great Ottoman Turkish scholar and traveller Evliya Çelebi seem like a useful motto for out times. They sum up the values embodied in the British Council's Our Shared Europe project, which proposes that we, people of many cultural identities who live side-by-side, regard one another with tolerance. The OSE project seeks to show us that we share much in the present, as we have in the past, and that we must re-capture this common ground if we are to have a enjoy a stable future. But first we need to understand one another and the cultures we inhabit. The OSE project has chosen Evliya Çelebi to symbolise this learning process. His is a name familiar to every Turk, for his insatiable curiosity, his spirit of adventure, his openness to whatever came his way, his originality as a recorder of his times—and much more. These qualities are timeless and will serve us well today, as they did Evliya Çelebi as he roamed the world.

 Evliya Çelebi was born in 1611. The coming year is the 400th anniversary of his birth, and has been declared a year of celebration of his life and work by Unesco. Within the framework of the OSE project, the British Council has commissioned an exhibition about Evliya Çelebi and his world, for which I was one of several advisers. The exhibition highlights the cultural artefacts and experiences shared by the British and Ottomans that underpin the British-Turkish relationship in our time. The exhibition has already been shown in London, including at the opening by the President of the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Centre , and is now touring Turkish universities as a one-day display, alongside a panel featuring two speakers—myself discussing Evliya Çelebi as a figure for our times, and European Union specialist Asst Prof. Dr Murat Erdoğan of Hacettepe University.

Our first stop on the tour was Kütahya, chosen because it was Evliya Çelebi's ancestral city, and the local people thus have a particular affection for this remarkable individual. The event was hosted by the Dumlupınar University; Dr Erdoğan and I each spoke for 20 minutes to an audience of some 400 students, leaving an hour for questions. Dr Erdoğan talked about aspects of the EU today, giving essential information that is often overlooked, and showing an array of cartoons that relate to Turkish accession. I emphasised the absolute entitlement of Muslims and Turks to a welcome within today's Europe, since they have had a home there for centuries. Only by knowing about the commerce and cultural exchange between the Ottomans and western states in the past, and the deep contribution to western culture this produced, can we hope to understand the present. This means rejecting the favoured story of opposing Ottoman and European worlds, for ever at war, and preferring instead to contemplate and learn about the history that we share. It is the task of the historian to remind people that we need to focus on the things that unite us, not those that divide us. In the end, there can be no national history, only shared history, because history knows no borders, whether between people or states. This was as true in Evliya Çelebi's lifetime as it is now.

The questions from the students were lively. They freely expressed their frustration at the state of Turkey's EU membership process, and wondered if their future lay within the alliance. Yet those we spoke to told us they enjoyed the event. For our part, we must hope it exposed them to views of the world that they might not otherwise have encountered. We are sure that it will have encouraged them to reconsider, and to realise that the EU needs them, with their energy and creativity and the particular outlook on the world that their geography and history have formed. As well as looking back in order to understand how we got to where we are today, we need to look forward and work out how we can build a better world for us all.

Evliya Çelebi is a historical figure from what must seem a remote past. But Unesco clearly thinks he has value for today, and so do the devisers of the OSE project. His Book of Travels is part of every Turk's set of references, and his adventurous spirit and compendious knowledge are appreciated by his heirs. In 2009 I participated in a horseback expedition through NW Anatolia that followed the early stages of his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1671—in every village we passed through the villagers knew what he had to say about their place. No historical figure can match him in the Turkish public imagination.

The Book of Travels is a virtual as well as a traditional exhibition. Showing the traditional exhibition around Turkish universities, accompanied by a panel discussion highlighting its relevance, is a very positive venture, whether the way it wins hearts and minds is measurable or not. A similar exhibition could well be created to represent the relationship between many other countries and Turkey, whether they are European Community members or not. Admirable as it is to show it to Turkish audiences, it is equally important that it be seen by audiences within the EU who urgently need informing about their past and the debt they owe to the non-Christian 'others' with whom they live. The exhibition can be translated into any language and made widely available. After all, Evliya Çelebi travelled through much of Europe, wrote eloquently about what he experienced, and  his name is not unfamiliar to many there—Unesco's support will make him even better known.

The disenchantment with the EU ideal articulated by some of the students at Dumlupınar University is hardly to be wondered at, given the slow rate of progress towards membership. This disenchantment is matched by hostile attitudes toward Turkey within the EU and among other candidates. Hence the OSU project. Governments seem incapable of educating their citizens about how we all came to be living alongside people with whom we supposedly have little in common, and the British Council is playing an essential role in enlightening us that we share a long history that can provide a solid foundation for treating one another with greater respect.

Dr Caroline Finkel
Honorary Fellow - University of Edinburgh & University of Exeter



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