Four hundred years after he was born, the 17th century Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi (Celebi being an honorific title that roughly corresponds with esquire) is making a long-overdue comeback. Explorer, peace broker, tax collector, court raconteur, war chronicler, gourmand, mystic and, by his own description, "boon companion to mankind," Evliya spent 40 years traversing the breadth of the Ottoman Empire and beyond from present-day Austria to Egypt, Sudan to Poland and writing about it. His 10-volume Seyahatname, or Book of Travels, is an epic travelogue that provides a fascinating account of everyday life in the 17th century.
Though previously little known outside of Turkey, Evliya is finally going global. UNESCO decreed him Man of the Year in 2011 and the recent publication of An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi allows English-language readers to discover his magnum opus. But the more adventurously inclined will want to celebrate him on the new cross-country route that allows horse riders, walkers and bikers to trace the early stages of Evliya's 1671 journey from Istanbul to Mecca. Following Roman roads, goat paths, country byways and cobbled Ottoman lanes, the Evliya Celebi Way runs 600 km through verdant western Turkey, ending near Kutahya, Evliya's ancestral city.
Although the route can be done on foot, it is traveling on horseback, I discovered, that truly conjures up Evliya's ghost even if, like me, you have never been near a horse before. There is the landscape, little changed since Evliya's era, of ancient pine forests, streams and hamlets where vine-picked tomatoes dry on rooftops and the smell of bread wafts out of wood-fired ovens. "The joy of this ride is that Turkey's countryside is still largely virgin," says Susan Kierkegard, a retired social worker from Melbourne making the journey. "You get huge, expansive views and open fields."
Then there are the horses. Ottoman nobles were renowned for their horsemanship, and Evliya was no exception. When he left in 1671, his entourage included 15 pedigree mounts. In fact, thoroughbreds across the world can trace their lineage back to Turkish sires, whose modern counterparts are lively, sturdy and quick compared with horses in Europe or the U.S. so says Caroline Finkel, an Ottoman historian who spent a lot of time in the saddle while co-plotting the route for a guidebook published last month.
And then there's the food. Evliya loved eating and wrote in detail of regional specialties he sampled. With good reason, as we found out. En route, we were greeted daily with glasses of tea, rustic bread and local cheeses. We picked plums, peaches and figs on horseback. Farmers delivered watermelons, while women brought over pastries warm from the oven. It is this constant flow of warmth that makes this route worth discovering. As Evliya wrote: "I gave thanks to God, mindful of the proverb, 'First the companion, then the road.' "
To ride the Evliya Celebi Way, visit akhal-tekehorsecenter.com. For other Turkish trails, see cultureroutesinturkey.com.