Written by Rama Narendra
Ottoman occult and supernatural are currently understudied and mostly foreign to general audiences. In academia, though Ottoman occult has been sporadically researched ever since the 1990s, more considerable attention to Ottoman occult and supernatural has only been given in the 2010s with historians such as Marinos Sariyannis writing works literature concerning Ottoman ghosts and vampires. Outside of academic circles, Ottoman supernatural is mostly unknown, even in Muslim circles in which Ottoman supernatural is based upon
This piece will summarize the Ottoman supernatural, particularly the subject of ghosts, comprehensively for general audiences, and hopefully garner public interest in this field that has been increasingly attracting attention in Ottomans circles.
The source of Ottoman Supernatural: Aja’ib Literature
One of the most significant sources of the Ottoman supernatural is the aja’ib literature. The aja’ib literature is a genre of Islamic literature that has roots in the 9th century, although consolidated mainly in the 13th and 14th centuries with the appearance of prolific authors al-Qazwini (1203–1283) and al-Dimashqi (d. 1327). The literature consisted of small stories or anecdotes regarding the wonders of the world, or as Qazwini puts it, aja’ib (marvelous/miraculous) and ghara’ib (extraordinary/wondrous). These wonders of the world, ranging from ‘natural’ marvels like Siamese twins and hermaphrodites to more extraordinary tales such as djinns, giants, mermaids, moving hills, and magic mirrors.
As far as we know, Ottoman writers produced comparatively few original aja’ib works of literature compared to the previous era. However, aja’ib pieces of literature from the previous era were still being reproduced. However, we still have some aja’ib literature from the 15th to 16th century Ottoman Empire, with authors such as Yazıcıoğlu Ahmed Bican (d. after 1466), Aşık Mehmed (d. after 1598) or Cinânî (d. 1595) creating their works with original stories from the Balkans and other parts of the Empire.
Aja’ib literature started to be phased out in the 18th century, with most published literary works being the reproduction of older works. It is still unknown why this occurred, although it seemed that one of the reasons is the increasingly “rationalist” approach of the Ottoman intelligentsia influenced by Enlightenment thoughts made little room for incredible wonders, even though they did not wholly deny its existence. Intellectuals such as Katip Çelebi (1609–1657) questioned the legitimacy of earlier aja’ib works, calling them a collection of “unfounded stories and accounts of non-existent things” and calling its readers “narrow-minded.” However, this does not mean that aja’ib literature completely disappeared. Even though the numbers of published aja’ib works slumped, they are still widely circulated and regularly commissioned by princes and enlightened officials.
Before we talked about Ottoman ghosts, we must talk about the Islamic afterlife and what made things as ghosts possible. In Islamic theology, a place between the living and the afterlife is called barzah, which means ‘barrier’ or ‘obstacle.’ As Hoca Sinan Paşa, a 15th-century scholar and mystic, put it, “the journey is that of the soul until one’s resurrection in this world.” What exactly happens in the barzah differs between Islamic scholars and schools of thought. However, one especially relevant to our discussion is the Sufi notion that barzah as a realm of imagination, a place where the soul (or nefs) could assume a spiritual body, appropriate to its state. With this, there is a vagueness where once could accept the dead returning as spirits (ervah) presenting themselves to the living. Many Islamic scholars such as al-Ghazali (1058-1111), al-Jawziya (d. 1350), and al-Suyuti (d. 1505) agreed that souls could wander and even interact with the living, though the extent of this varies.
In the Ottoman era, stories regarding spirits and good and evil wandering in the living world are not uncommon. ‘Good’ spirits are usually the souls of valiant soldiers or devout saints, returning to the world, either helping the living or dealing with unfinished business. For example, Hoca Sinan Pasha spoke of ‘men of the hearts’ (gönül erleri), unseen soldiers in the Sultan’s army:
“They are the army of souls from the unseen world, and one of them is the highest. They wear their costume a peaked cap, they are clad at times in white at times in black, and they ride horses at times bay and at times wild. Some have turbans similar to kingly ones, and others use Mevlevi-styled headgears. Some have the form of on Arab, others of a Persian, some of a Turk, others of a Deylamite, and some appear as old, others as young, some bearded, others adolescent boys. They stand against the enemy, and those who have vision for the unseen may see them. It is the spirits who first beat the enemy, bodily battle begins afterwards. When you have beaten your enemy, know that in fact they beat him, and if you cannot see how they did this, it is because you lack the [proper] vision.”
Another example of a “good spirit” story is a popular tale from the 18th century Crete recorded by biographer Salacızâde Mustafa (1805- after 1825). According to him, Çıkrıcı Mustafa, a Halveti dervish, was executed for blasphemy in 1757. After his death, he appeared to a Christian shopkeeper and insisted on paying his gold coins debts. The terrified shopkeeper asked: “Hey king of the world… was it not you that were executed the day before?” To which the dervish explained, “What they took from me was just a cloth, now I was given another… Oh man, know that death does not happen to us… The faithful never die, just like the beauty of the rose never fades.” The shopkeeper wonder if he was dreaming, yet the gold coins proved otherwise.
On the other hand, ‘Evil’ spirits are souls who disturbed or possessed the living for one reason or another. Stories of these spirits often appeared in aja’ib literature, and two examples of an evil spirit story can be found in Cinânî’s work Bedâyiü’l-âsâr. One story is regarding a haunted castle in Albania:
“In the castle of Dıraç in the district of Albania, if someone, be it an infidel or a Muslim is ill to the point that his mind went out of his head without his knowing and by God’s order the soul of someone who died previously enters his body and starts telling its problems. For instance says: “Hey tyrants, why don’t you inspect my case? I am So-and-so, son of So-and-so; they torment me greatly in the Hereafter. I had committed this or that sin; my torment is off-limits. And you, you stay in my house and you wear my clothes and you spend my money: why don’t you read any prayers for my soul, why don’t you make any charity for my sake?” Thus he speaks in the language of the moribund and those who know understand … Now if [the ghost] is a Muslim, they bring an ulema, who reads some verses from the Qur’an and drives it away; if it is a Christian, they bring a priest who reads from the Holy Gospel. Or else, [the ghost] does not cease till morning.”
The second story concerns a maid in Morea who had her life tormented by her dead master, who raped her three or four months after his death. She then asked Piri Dede, the ulema of the region, for help:
“When the woman first came to me I did not believe her, but she took terrible oaths, so I decided to go there and conceal myself. I told her: “Let me come together with the owner of the house you are staying in, and wait for you. When this dead man seeks to take you again, call us and we will come and help you and we will see him with our own eyes” … The owner of the house came with me; we both waited outside in a sofa and sent the woman inside. It was afternoon and there was still daylight, the woman started to cry: “Help, my master came!” We rose and ran inside. By the truth of God who created the world with His power, I saw the man as I knew him in life, he was between the woman’s legs and had intercourse with her like he did while he was alive. As soon as we saw him we ran upon him, we thought of hitting him with a sword or a dagger, but could not find any. We searched behind the door and found an iron skewer, but when we took it and attacked him he disappeared, we could see nobody any more. But what had happened to the woman was manifest. Ten days later she died as well and she was buried next to her master. Truly this is a story I saw with my own eyes. God be my witness. God only knows what the truth is.”
The Matter of Truth and Fiction
One of the biggest questions of these ghost stories is the matter of its believability. Of course, these stories are unbelievable to our modern senses; however, do Ottomans of the past believed in these stories? The answer is unclear, although it seemed that it is the mix of both. Aja’ib stories are not written equal, with some written for entertainment or literary purposes, while some were written to prove a point in religious thought.
Authors like Evliya Çelebi, for example, even though he writes aja’ib stories as if he believes in ghosts, witches, and magical places, Çelebi often admits he merely tells a tall tale for the sake of entertainment. Most Ottoman aja’ib pieces of literature by Aşık Mehmed or Cinânî were written as entertainments, though some of their ghost stories are written like it is backbreaking cosmological work. These stories were told as actual events related to trustworthy and reliable sources.
Stories on ‘good’ spirits, in particular, are written like it is the truth and seemingly written to be believed; this is especially important considering the 17th and 18th centuries saw what Aslı Niyazioğlu calls “valorization of ulema and Sufi sheiks.” In which ulema and Sufi mystics were increasingly depicted as being able to travel through the spiritual realm. Aja’ib stories regarding devout saints visiting the living could be written to affirm this particular belief further.
Stories of ghosts and spirits are one of the story types inside the aja’ib literature genre. Ghost stories are generally divided between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ ghost stories, with ‘good’ ghost stories are stories of souls of soldiers and saints traveling to the world of the living. In contrast, ‘evil’ ghost stories are stories of malevolent spirits who disturbed the living lives. Though ghost stories written in aja’ib literature are mostly written for entertainment, some stories, especially ‘good’ ghost stories regarding saints, are written to further “valorize” ulema and sheiks, continuing the trend of the era;
this is just a glimpse of the Ottoman supernatural world, which included things such as vampires, undead, and djinns. Though the field of study is still in its infancy, there are already plenty of dedicated historians and researchers working to further our understanding of it. Hopefully, we can see the field of Ottoman supernatural matured in the future.
M. Sariyannis, “Of Ottoman Ghosts, Vampires and Sorcerers: An Old Discussion Disinterred”, Archivum Ottomanicum 30 (2013), 195-220.
M. Sariyannis, “Ajâ’ib ve gharâ’ib: Ottoman collections of mirabilia and perceptions of the supernatural”, Der Islam 92/2 (2015), 442-467.
M. Sariyannis, “The Dead, the Spirits, and the Living: On Ottoman Ghost Stories”, Journal of Turkish Studies / Türklük Bilgisi Araştırmaları 44 (2015) [Çekirge Budu: Festschrift in Honor of Robert Dankoff], 373-390.