An Ottoman Humanist on the Long Road to Egypt

Salih Celalzade’s Tārīḫ-i Mıṣır Al-Cedid [DYNTRAN Working Paper, no. 29, October 2017]

by Giancarlo CASALE

Mustafa Celalzade (d. 1567) was a towering figure of Ottoman history, a larger-than-life scholar-statesman who served more than two decades as the empire’s grand chancellor. But his younger brother, Salih Celalzade (d. 1565), was cut from a different cloth, that of a consummate scholar with little taste for either politics or self-promotion. So in 1542, after six years of teaching at Istanbul’s prestigious Sahn-ı Saman madrasa, the younger Celalzade asked to leave the imperial capital for a new position at the madrasa of Bayezid II, a still prestigious but comparatively sleepy institution in the provincial city of Edirne. “Withdrawing to the mansion of seclusion and disappearing into its most comfortable corners,” he would later recall fondly, “I had no inclination to descend back down to the world and mingle among its people, nor any intention of falling into its dungeon in pursuit of high rank.” Happy to spend his days immersed in books, and exchanging ideas with colleagues and students, he reckoned himself “as free in the world as a cypress tree, loving my poverty as if it were velvet spread over life’s rough corners.”

Alas, politics and family connections would soon intervene to interrupt this academic idyll. For in 1544, at the insistence off his older brother, Salih Celalzade was compelled to give up his teaching position and travel to Cairo, where he was charged with the distasteful mission of investigating Egypt’s outgoing governor, Davud Pasha, on charges of corruption and misuse of government funds. “Thus,” Celalzade wrote glumly, “along with my body, my happiness too was blown away by the wind, as it carried me off far from Rome (Rūm) toward the Lands of the Arabs (Diyār al-ʿArab).”

Over the course of his subsequent journey Celalzade’s mood would only grow worse, as he crossed “wastelands and hills, mountains and deserts of sand,” and endured “a thousand difficulties and countless hardships.” But perhaps even more than the physical toll of the journey, he found himself mentally taxed by the landscapes he encountered along the way, littered as they were with evidence of an unspeakable antiquity and an irreversible decay. “On the road,” he wrote, “I saw a thousand ruined monuments, each one in its time built by a man of great determination, who had left behind but a trace of himself and his name. I was quite overwhelmed by their spectacle, and took heed, reminded of our fleeting mortality and the immense weight of eternity.” Suffocated by such heavy thoughts, Salih soon found himself unable even to relate to his traveling companions. “On the outside, I made a show of chatting pleasantly with them, while on the inside I was pining away in sadness. No one knew my secret.”

Then, after many long weeks on the road, Celalzade reached Cairo, “the arrow of his desire.” But even his encounter with this legendary metropolis was, as least initially, unable to raise his spirits. “It is a city that truly seems large enough to encompass the whole world,” he admitted, “but its doors and its walls, its alleyways and its marketplaces are all in a most ruinous state, filthy with dirt and sand and with every cranny bursting with colonies of birds, as if the city were a 70-year-old man and its houses limbs over which it no longer had control.”

Eventually, however, as he settled into the city and had time to adjust to his surroundings, his perspective began to change. And before long, he found himself irresistibly seduced by Cairo’s exotic urban panorama, an experience that culminated in a rapturous encounter with the Pyramids of Giza. He wrote:

It is a city whose age is beyond reckoning, and I thought of its countless stories and tales without end, of all the travelers who had stayed in its inns, of all the birds of paradise that had flown from its nests, of all the houses that had passed from owner to owner, and of all the men of zeal in whose faces the city had laughed. Inside and out, I saw wondrous edifices, and witnessed marvelous events without number. Of the monuments, how many stories I heard! And in the empty places where they once stood, how many traces of vanished peoples did I collect! And above all, just outside the city, I looked upon the most famous monument of the City of the World, the Great Pyramids, upon which no one gazes without standing for a time in bewilderment and astonishment. Each seemed to record the events of a thousand lives of Noah, to be as old as time itself, to have been built at the same time as the heavens. The sight of them made a thousand times a thousand impressions upon me, and I stood before them for quite some time completely awe-struck.

Finally, in a remarkable moment of self-reflection, Celalzade begins to channel his sense of wonder into a more structured, academic form of curiosity, formulating a series of specific historical questions about Egypt’s past and vowing to answer them by drawing from the wisdom of his scholarly predecessors. In his words:

My mind turned to the extraordinary exertions of the people who made [the pyramids], who with such zeal had gone to such lengths and had given so much. Who were they? What kind of rulers could build such monuments? Of their own accord, these questions came to my lips, and my heart was seized with a passion to know the whole history of the land of Egypt. What were its origins? Who had been the first people to arrive there and who were the first to settle it? Who were the pharaohs, the kings, the Caesars and the Cyruses who had ruled it? What were the origins of the emperors who passed through it? And what was the history of its monuments, both those lost to time and those still present today? Who made them, and who ordered them built? [To find answers to these questions], I searched for works of history and immersed myself in them, reading everything I could that had been written about Egypt by the ancient learned masters, may God’s mercy be upon them.

With the above words, Salih Celalzade introduces readers to his Tārīḫ-i Mıṣır al-Cedīd or New History of Egypt, a monumental treatise on Egypt’s history and ancient monuments composed in 1550, following two separate stays in Cairo (the first in 1544, under circumstances described above, and the second between 1546 and 1549 when he served as Egypt’s highest ranking Hanafi judge).

Numerous aspects of this remarkable work stand out for their originality, not least of which is Celalzade’s highly personalized and surprisingly emotional account of his original journey from his home in “Rome” to the exotic and ancient “Lands of the Arabs.” Yet in other respects, Celalzade’s New History of Egypt could be considered an altogether typical example of Ottoman scholarly writing during the middle decades of the sixteenth century, the period immediately following the Ottoman conquests of Syria (1516), Egypt (1517), and Iraq (1534-5). As Celalzade’s own experience clearly reflects, these conquests provided unparalleled (and sometimes unwelcome!) opportunities for members of the Ottoman learned elite to travel to the much older and more established centers of learning in the Arab world, to exchange ideas with local scholars, and to collect and consult previously unavailable manuscripts. The result was an intense, decades-long project of cultural appropriation, as Ottoman literati returned to Istanbul with these newfound texts, translated them, commented on their contents, and used them as models to elaborate their own, distinctly imperial—and distinctively “Roman”—understanding of the world and their own place within it.

Unsurprisingly, modern scholars interested in this process have until now focused predominantly on the “Islamic” character of this intellectual project, emphasizing the importance of Ottoman engagement with the Arab world’s rich traditions of jurisprudence, political theory, and historiography in consolidating the empire’s identity as a quintessentially Muslim (and, more specifically, Sunni) society. However, Celalzade’s New History of Egypt serves as an important reminder that the Ottomans’ encounter with the Diyār-ı ʿArab involved not only the region’s Muslim present, but also its pre-Islamic past, including its unfamiliar, abundant, and often disturbingly concrete physical evidence of ancient polytheism. Moreover, it is clear, at least in Celalzade’s case, that it was through an engagement with this ancient, pre-Islamic stratum of Near Eastern history that Ottoman travelers could be made most acutely aware of their own contrasting identity as “Romans”—in other words, as the representatives of a divergent imperial tradition that, while still Muslim, nevertheless imagined very differently its relationship to pre-Islamic antiquity.

All of this forms the background to my own ongoing interest in Celalzade’s text, which has grown out of work on a long-term research project on connections between Ottoman intellectual life during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the ideas of the European Renaissance. Within this context, what particularly struck me upon my first reading of The New History of Egypt was its almost uncanny resonance with the kind of historical travel writing typical of contemporary European humanists. After all, like Salih Celalzade, European humanists too were scholars who consciously self-identified as “Romans” and were trained in “classical languages” (Latin and Greek in their case, rather than Persian and Arabic). Also like Celalzade, humanist writings were frequently inspired by travel to distant and unfamiliar lands, typically as the result of distinctively early modern itineraries of imperial expansion.

In terms of content, one of the most distinctive aspects of this new “humanist” mode of travel writing was the manner in which these Europeans’ observations about the places they visited were mediated by their reading of classical sources—sources that were both ancient and “new” in the sense that they had only recently become available through the ongoing work of rediscovery, reproduction, and translation by fellow humanists. In Celalzade’s case, there is a rough parallel to this in his heavy reliance as an author on content from a number of Ayyubid and Mamluk-era histories—works that, while not “classical” in the strict sense, were nevertheless considered by Celalzade to be “ancient authorities,” and seem to have been generally unknown in Ottoman learned circles prior to the sixteenth century.

Of the several works of this kind that he cites, by far the most influential is Al-Mawāʿiẓ wa’l-Iʿtibār fī Ẕikr al-Ḫiṭaṭ wa’l-Āsār, or Exhortations and Considerations in Describing the Districts (of Egypt) and their Monuments by the 14th-century Mamluk historian al-Maqrizi. This was a revealing and judicious choice on Celalzade’s part, for al-Maqrizi’s Ḫiṭaṭ stood out from other medieval Arabic sources for its attention both to Egypt’s biblical and pharaonic past and to the living traditions of Coptic Christianity. In addition, al-Maqrizi’s interests notably extended beyond texts to address the material evidence of this rich, multi-layered history: Egypt’s pyramids, obelisks, temples, and other ancient monuments, as well as the mosques, madrasas, palaces and markets of the more recent Islamic past. As a result, al-Maqrizi’s Ḫiṭaṭ does not resemble a narrative history so much as a travel guide, with chapters dedicated to Egypt’s principal cities and, even more voluminously, to Cairo and its individual neighborhoods.

All of this made the Ḫiṭaṭ an extremely rich source for a traveling scholar, and Celalzade exploits it to the fullest: in all, well over half of his New History of Egypt consists of content taken directly from al-Maqrizi. But even so, it would be a serious mistake to characterize Celalzade’s New History as nothing more than a synopsis, or an abridged Turkish translation, of the Ḫiṭaṭ. Instead, Celalzade reorganizes, recombines, and creatively appropriates al-Maqrizi’s content for his own purposes, and in doing so crafts a work that, in its final form, significantly departs from the spirit of al-Maqrizi’s original in at least two important ways. First, and rather remarkably, Celalzade maintains his focus overwhelmingly on Egypt’s ancient history and its ancient monuments (whereas al-Maqrizi had been just as interested, if not more so, in the more recent Islamic past). Second, and just as importantly, when reproducing passages from al-Maqrizi to describe individual sites, in several instances Celalzade either corroborates or contests this information with his own eye-witness testimony.

A particularly elaborate example of this second tendency is to be found in Celalzade’s lengthy chapter on Heliopolis or ‘Ayn al-Shams, which he begins with a collection of widely varying (and sometimes contradictory) accounts by various authors about the site’s history and ancient status—all of which are drawn directly from a corresponding chapter in al-Maqrizi’s Ḫiṭaṭ. But he then includes an equally lengthy account of his own visit to Ayn al-Shams, prefacing his direct observations as follows:

All of what has been recorded above about the city of ʿAyn-ı Shams, its obelisques, and its holy balsam is drawn from the various histories of Egypt. However, in the year 953 (1546), having myself come to Egypt by the illustrious command of the Sultan, and not being satisfied with the information from the ancient histories referred to above, I went in person to that place called ‘Ayn-ı Shams to see it with my own eyes…I have recorded here what I saw, so that others who come after might profit from my observations. Of course, it may be that, with the passing of time, things change, taking different forms from what has been seen before. For although I have not seen anything resembling what the writers have written in their books, it is certain that they have not lied. Rather, they have written what they have seen and heard, but with the passing of time things have changed.

What follows is a detailed and carefully crafted narrative in which Celalzade first describes the towering obelisk at Heliopolis (comparing it to the more familiar example that stands in Istanbul’s Hippodrome), then visits the adjacent Coptic holy site known as “Mary’s Well,” and finally shares his observations of the sacred Balsam trees harvested nearby, including details of a personal interview he conducted with a farmer tending to them. It is, in its ensemble, an elaborate and multi-layered account, with a richness and complexity of meaning that can barely be touched on here. But for the purposes at hand, what stands is once more the strikingly “humanist” sensibility on display in Celalzade’s description of his encounter with this ancient site. By translating a Mamluk text and re-combining it with his own first-hand observations, he crafts an account that is at once grounded in textual authority yet intensely personal and highly innovative—a combination of old and new self-consciously conveyed by the very title that Celalzade has chosen for his text, the “New History of Egypt.”

But how, as modern historians, are we to explain these “humanist” qualities so evidently present in the musings of a sixteenth-century Ottoman scholar? Are we to dismiss them as merely superficial resemblance to the writings of Renaissance Europeans, with little substance behind them? Or identify them as the product of a shared, although separately experienced, “early modern” sensibility regarding time, space, and subjectivity? Or is it possible that they suggest a more immediate influence between Celalzade and his European contemporaries which, through further research, we might hope to document directly?

At present, I do not have a satisfactory answer to these questions. But let me conclude with a final observation that at least points to a possible avenue of future research. Coincidently or not, Celalzade’s time in Cairo exactly overlapped with the arrival in Egypt of the French “scientific expedition” led by the ambassador Gabriel D’Aramon—one of the earliest and most influential episodes in the history of the European humanist encounter with the Orient. And an examination of the later writings of several participants of this expedition, including the botanist Perre Belon and the linguist Guillaume Postel, would seem to reflect certain elements of Celalzade’s text. This raises the fascinating possibility, which I eventually hope to investigate systematically, that these Western scholars may have met and shared ideas with Celalzade during their visit. If so, this would suggest that a fuller understanding of the processes of transmission between Cairo and Istanbul during the early modern period may hold lessons not only for the history of the Muslim world per se, but for the history of early modern West as well.

Giancarlo Casale
University of Minnesota
(October 2017)


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To quote this publication:

Giancarlo Casale, “An Ottoman Humanist on the Long Road to Egypt: Salih Celalzade’s Tārīḫ-i Mıṣır Al-Cedid,DYNTRAN Working Paper, no. 29, online edition, October 2017, available at:

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