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July 9, 2002

Surname-i Vehbi
Posted by Teresa at 10:28 PM *

Westerners have a bad habit of forgetting the Ottoman Empire ever existed, but for centuries it was one of the great powers. Submitted here in evidence of that is the Surname-i Vehbi, which as the site says is:

…in the long-standing Ottoman tradition of preparing specially-written and illustrated books to commemorate the festivities that took place on special occasions such as royal births, weddings, and so on.
The original of this work, which is in the library of Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, contains 137 brilliantly-colored miniatures by Levni, the renowned court painter to the court of Ahmed III (r 1703-1740). The miniatures illustrate a fifteen-day festival held on the occasion of the circumcision of four of the sultan’s sons in 1720.
The images from the book plus annotations and explanations are indexed here.

It was a great age for public spectacle, as much so in the Ottoman Empire as in any other power of the time, and you do get plenty of that. But you also get that mixture of deep strangeness, unexpected familiarity, and technological surprises that I associate with really good science fiction.

If you’re already acquainted with the narrative style of masques and spectacles of that period, familiarity sets in as early as the Prologue, which as usual goes on forever and allegorically invokes the entire zodiac.

To give you some idea of the Surname-i Vehbi’s strangeness, here’s a scene in which “addicts” (another translation would be geeks) put on a bizarre performance in front of the Sultan and his retinue:

Adhering to the compelling order that must be obeyed, a group of addicts, a regiment of wretches who carried their souls in their pockets, drew up four to a line before the glorious sultan and then began competing with one another to see who could stagger about the most grotesquely. In front of the sultan they sat down as if in a parley and permission was granted to them to act out a scene from the coffee-houses of Sfcleymaniye before the sovereign as great as Solomon. Some of them sang exuberantly, uttering the words:

Opium is the most precious comestible on the table of life
It is fitting that it be worth life itself.
For someone who can obtain but meager joy
Opium is the water of life itself.

While others embellished upon the couplet:

Oh Vehbi! See what the coffeehouse-keeper has done:
He has served us coffee as insipid as dishwater
as if we were imbeciles!

And declaimed:

Oh cupbearer! Serve coffee such that
My lips should think it water from a well in Paradise.

Turning their minds to tobacco, they uttered spark-spewing sighs. One of them recited:

If you want to get higher than the Ninth Heaven
Chase your opium with two cups of coffee.

As he did, another, with his own head bent forward like a ripe poppy-head and his tongue hanging out like a smoke-enveloped flame of spent gunpowder, struck up an air singing:

The finest feast among friends who are kindred spirits
Is two cups of coffee and a pipe of pungent tobacco.

And as he sang, he accompanied himself on the trumpet of his nose with a noise resembling the buzzing of a bee. …

After that it gets weirder.

I quite liked the candy gardens and confectionery sculptures [1, 2, 3], which were obviously a species of sugar art, and the game of foot-jereed accompanied by music in the key of zurna:

[The sultan] gave the order for the game of foot-jereed to begin. Thereupon bass-drums worthy of Alexander and lesser drums worthy of kings were beaten with sticks in the manner of lovers beating their breasts and the instruments resounded with a terrifying roar while the airy glasses of the trumpets were filled to brimming by the bowls of the musicians92 mouths. Playing in the key of zurna, they uttered wild shrieks that reached the sky.

Like the zealous listeners of tales in a coffeehouse who, inspired by a divisive and deceitful insolence, suddenly and for no reason at all become enemies of one another and transform the place into a warriors92 battleground, the jereed-players divided themselves into two teams according to their pretended preference for cabbage or okra and stood ready with their breast-beating jereeds. Goaded by the shouts of stern-voiced sergeants, their patience and calm were snatched away and the two sides laid into one another. The jereeds hurled from both sides flew through the air like shooting stars. … When the striking with jereeds reached the temper of fighting with iron, the sergeants parted them, uttering soothing sounds and the issue of which side had won this battle of sticks was left to be decided at some other time.

A recurrent feature are the elaborate mechanical contraptions that were built for the occasion by members of the arsenal and artillery corps and miscellaneous forsas, many of whom were captive Christian sailors put to work as galley slaves and arsenal workmen. These were a big hit, especially the land-sailing war galley and the revolving fortress pulled by a mechanical elephant. Naturally, like a grudge match between the Death Star and the Enterprise, it was found necessary for the fortress and the galley to fight it out with each other.

Other mechanical contraptions turn up in the fireworks shows, where they’re featured as animated set-pieces [1, 2, 3]. There’s also a curious special effect whereby a stunt man is made to look as though he’d been stuck all over with fireworks and set alight [1, 2].

A troupe of Egyptian acrobats led by the talented Hajji Sahin puts on a series of remarkable performances [1, 2, 3, 4, 5], though at one point they’re upstaged by a common captive’s feat.

There are other fun bits. Don’t miss the explanation of the Sackers, the list of the grand vizier’s gifts to the sultan, or the numerous trade guild parades. The latter were a major occasion for showing off, as witness the demonstration put on by the coppersmiths.

All this comes courtesy of the Kanyak’s Aegean Doghouse website, the work of Bob and Mine Bragner. She’s an author and archaeologist; he’s a freelance translator, editor, and copywriter. They live in Foe7a (formerly Phokaia) on the Turkish Aegean. There’s additional interesting material on their site—a brief seismic history of Istanbul, an account of some Vikings who came to Constantinople, a bit on Foucault pendulums and eclipses, and more besides.

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