Great Explorers: Evliya Celebi

From the 14th to 20th century, the Ottoman Empire dominated large parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa. It ruled approximately 19 million square kilometers, encompassing over 40 countries. All these territories made the Ottoman Empire an amalgamation of diverse cultures, languages, and customs. Private travel within the empire was rare, but Evliya Celebi broke the mold.


Born in 1611, Celebi came from a well-to-do, well-connected family. His father was an esteemed jeweler in the Sultan’s court in Constantinople, and his mother was related to a pasha (a high-ranking official). He received a thorough education in religion, music, the arts, and languages.

Because of his family’s position in society, he could have had an influential and comfortable job. However, power and influence did not appeal to him. Celebi wanted to travel. He was inspired by a dream featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

At first, Celebi traveled as a jack of all trades, accompanying pashas on diplomatic missions as a messenger, a soldier, an accountant, a religious leader, or a musician, depending on the situation. He called himself a “world traveler and boon companion to mankind.”

His travelogues

Celebi began writing about his daily encounters and observations of Constantinople, his first love. He wrote simple but vivid descriptions of life in the city, ranging from marketplaces to architecture. His love for the city of his birth became the first volume of 10 in an extensive travelogue called the Seyahatname.

This became an important work in Islamic literature. It presents a rare glimpse into Ottoman worldviews, culture, and geopolitics. Over 6,000 pages long, it was organized into 400 folios and encompasses over 40 years of Celebi’s life on the road. 

According to De Gruyter’s On the Way to the (Un)Known, travelogues usually took the form of “narrative-chronological accounts that follow the course of the journey and can even read like logbooks as well as descriptive passages.” Traveling diplomats typically wrote such accounts for political purposes. However, this shifted with the Ars Apodemica (the art of travel).

The Ars Apodemica appeared around 1552 and collected together travel advice from the period into an influential work that proved popular until the 18th century.

Celebi indeed turned travel into art. He traveled throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, Anatolia, Croatia, Circassia, Caucasus, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Romania, Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Austria, Crimea, Russia, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Rumelia, the Levant, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Sudan. For Celebi, the defining moment of his travels was his hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca.

The cover of Seyahatname by Evliya Celebi, 1895 edition.

The cover of Seyahatname by Evliya Celebi, 1895 edition. Photo: Ataturk Kitapligi/Wikipedia Commons


Not afraid to be frank

During his travels, he also took part in military campaigns in Crete, Poland, Hungary, and Austria. But he greatly disapproved of the destruction wrought. Celebi wrote in great detail about peaceful regions, covering history, traditions, people, infrastructure, and languages. Celebi had a particular interest in languages and recorded over 147 of them on his travels. Some of the dialects he recorded are now extinct.

According to Robert Dankoff, an expert on Celebi, “his major innovation in Ottoman writing was doubtless the fact that he was willing to put to paper details of his own life and that of his relatives, issues that in the seventeenth century not many Ottomans cared to discuss within the covers of a ‘proper’ book.”

He was not afraid to be frank or offensive on matters he found humorous. While he remained a devout Muslim, he had his own opinions of Islam and disapproved of fundamentalist followers.

A statue of Evliya Celebi in Hungary.

A statue of Evliya Celebi in Hungary. Photo: Piros Rostas Bea/Wikipedia Commons


Celebi also gave some intimate insights into Ottoman ways of life. He covered the behavior of sultans, the personal dealings of the royal family, and marriages. Robert Dankoff calls this lens the “Ottoman mentality,” a unique worldview influenced by a conglomeration of Islam, Turkish languages, Persian culture, and imperialism. Many Europeans of the time saw the Ottomans as violent and barbaric, but his work shed new light on the culture of the empire.

Celebi’s writing style was also unique for the time. His personality shone through his use of wit, humor, and satire. However, it must be noted that his accounts can’t always be taken at face value. On occasion, like many later travel writers, he would exaggerate and invent in order to keep the reader’s interest. 

His travels ended in Cairo, where he chose to finally rest after a lifetime of traveling. This is where he composed the Seyahatname. He died at age 71.

According to Donna Landry of the University of Toronto, one of Celebi’s greatest contributions was his map of the Nile which is now kept in the Vatican.


Celebi’s book is an excellent example of some of the world’s earliest travel writing. He was a travel literature pioneer for the Islamic world. UNESCO refers to the Seyahatname as a “vast panorama, both an extensive description of the Ottoman Empire and its hinterlands and an account of the author’s peregrinations over roughly 40 years.” Its publication of Seyahatname was a grueling process, with sections translated and published intermittently from 1814 to 1938. 

His travels inspired the establishment of the Evliya Celebi Way in 2011. This 600km trek through Turkey starts at Yalova and ends at Simav.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.