Memories of Humankind

Stories from the Ottoman Manuscripts

Divan, Kişverî (15-16. centuries).İstanbul Research Institute

Created by manuscripts that were read and circulated in the multilingual society of the Ottoman Empire and the fluid geographies of the early modern period, the manuscript culture gradually lost its importance as the printing press became widespread in the 19th century; it ceased to be a source of information, story-telling, or spirituality for the masses in the 20th century, attracting the interest only of collectors.

Divan, Kişverî (15-16. centuries).İstanbul Research Institute

The literature came to be shaped by the quest for the “most accurate” text, “most valuable” binding, and “cleanest” copy, whereas manuscripts used to be a part of a much more collective world of literacy. Texts changed in the hands of copyists and readers, where readers and authors engaged in a dialogue between lines and in margins. Reading was as collective an act as writing; there were people who read popular stories aloud in coffeehouses, and some readers answered the notes of previous readers.

Song Mecmua.İstanbul Research Institute

The exhibition presents a selection from the Suna and İnan Kıraç Manuscripts Collection, inviting the visitor on a journey among texts, objects, and through time.

Memories of Humankind: Stories from Ottoman Manuscripts nudges the door ajar to the memory of humanity, which crystallizes in manuscripts and is worldly and otherworldly, multilingual and multi-religious, urban and rural, unique and ordinary, sometimes alien and occasionally very familiar, fragmentary, incomplete, and always inspiring.

Letters of Münif. Mustafa b. Mehmed Antaki Münif (d. 1742-1743).İstanbul Research Institute


Ottoman Istanbul was one of the leading production centers of written culture for a wide region. Writers, copyists, binders, frame drawers, illuminators engaged in the production of manuscripts on a variety of topics and in a number of languages, through a multifaceted, multilayered creative process. Readers passed these manuscripts on, reading them aloud or quietly, in public or alone, taking neat notes or scribbling them in the margins.


It was highly desirable to own a well-illuminated manuscript, and especially a copy of the Quran. The illumination of a manuscript would be done after all the text was written; the geometrical and schematic ornaments would be used in various mediums, such as architecture and textile.


Unlike books produced in modern times, it is quite difficult to determine the authors of manuscripts. Many of them are unsigned, and the authorship of writers concerning any given copy of the work is dubious – what changes did the manuscripts go through as they were copied for centuries due to sloppy calligraphy or consciously made choices; which parts were rewritten almost entirely?


Not everyone was literate in Ottoman society, but all literate individuals could copy books—copyists and calligraphers had no guilds, and there was no monopoly over the production of manuscripts. Accordingly, the difference between the originator of a book and its copyists was blurred; copyists and readers added parts to written works, and later copies sometimes repeated these pieces as part of the original work.


Frame ruling around the page was called “cetvel,” made by a special artist group, “cetvelkeş.” These lines were drawn after the texts on the page were completed, but before the tezhip, the gilded ornaments.


The first word of the next page was usually written at the bottom of the page, allowing the reader to see whether there were any missing pages.

Şahname translation. Copy: 19th century. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 553.İstanbul Research Institute


Books are created not only when they are written; but also when they are read. The history of readers is intertwined with that of the author; notes in the margins indicate when, where, and by whom the book was read, and the relationship forged between the reader and the author; they keep track of a mundane detail, a dream, and a memory.

John Hill, An Allarm to Europe: By a Late Prodigious Comet seen November and December 1680, London, 1681.İstanbul Research Institute

A comet (C/1680), known as “The Great Comet of 1680” or “Comet Kirch,” was first observed in November 1680 by the German astronomer Gottfried Kirch, and became the first to be ever observed via a telescope. The comet was sometimes referred to as “Newton’s Comet” too because Kirch’s observations were used by Isaac Newton in his Principa in order to demonstrate orbital mechanics.

Divan, Fehim-i Kadim (d. 1647).İstanbul Research Institute

On December 24, 1680, two people, one in London and the other most probably in Medina, unbeknownst to each other, undertook the task of drawing what they saw in the sky on the very same night. The first was published in John Hill’s pamphlet An Allarm to Europe: By a Late Prodigious Comet seen November and December 1680, the other stayed in the first pages of Fehim-i Kadim Divan, copied only one year ago. Beneath the drawing, made by the divan’s reader, the Qadi of Medina, Mustafa Efendi, there was a note on how, on the the second night of the Zilhicce month of the year 1091 [according to the Islamic calendar] a comet was seen from the west, with its tail reaching towards the east, and occupied half of the entire sky. Mustafa Efendi remarked that the tail was white and in the shape of smoke.

Hevâdim-i revâfız, Nu’man-ı Tebrizî, 1730-1731. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 390.İstanbul Research Institute


Manuscripts carry memories of the humankind. They, however, came into being by and of agents other than humans. The wood from which paper is made, the plant used to make ink, the talisman that is believed to protect the manuscript, all the worms, bugs, and moths that overcome the talisman to feed on the manuscript and leave their mark, and the dampness that creeps onto the paper… All of these are part of the complex and multilayered universe to which the manuscript belongs. Manuscripts may have been created hundreds of years ago, but their physical, chemical, and biological adventures do not end the day they are made—they continue to change, be transformed, and live on in storage rooms, shop windows, and on shelves.

Miratü’l-edâr ve mirkatü’l-ahbar, Hoca Sadeddin Efendi (d. 1599). Copy: Mehmed b. Mustafa el-Hatib. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 301.İstanbul Research Institute


The foundation of the Suna and İnan Kıraç Manuscripts Collection had been laid by Grand Vizier Küçük (Mehmed) Said Pasha (d. 1914). Küçük Said Pasha was a bureaucrat who rose to prominence especially during the reign of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) and continued his career until 1912, with several appointments as grand vizier. He enabled the foundation of a number of modern educational institutions and the Kütüphane-i Umumi-i Osmani (today the Beyazıt Library), the first library to be opened by the state in 1884. When he died, he left behind a library of 1119 volumes, some of which he had inherited from his father, Ali Namık Bey; he in turn left these to his son Mehmed Kemâl and this lineage can be traced in the manuscripts.

Şevket Rado's notes written for Kâtip Çelebi’s Takvimü’t-tevârîh that was part of his collection.İstanbul Research Institute


Küçük Said Pasha may be the original figure who established this collection, but the true creator was Şevket Rado, who was a key actor in the institutionalization of popular magazines in Turkey.

Rado was also one of the most prominent manuscript and rare book collectors of Istanbul. He was one of the first to evaluate the Küçük Said Pasha collection and bought 79 volumes for his own. The Şevket Rado Collection, consisting of 626 volumes and 1311 works with new additions, was purchased by the Istanbul Research Institute, and was cataloged by a team of experts led by Professor Günay Kut between 2011 and 2014.

Multilingualism in Ottoman Manuscriptsİstanbul Research Institute


What was it like to live in a multilingual empire? Ottoman populations spoke a rich array of languages: Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Greek, Armenian, Slavic languages, lingua franca (the shared language of Levantine merchants, loosely based on Italian/French). Added to this was the local variations of each language; given the relative difficulty of communication and travel, local dialects showed greater variety prior to the technological changes of the 19th century. Some of these languages did not develop a written tradition for a long time, leaving us in the dark about the full complexity of the picture. Fortunately, most others left a great amount of written traces. Attesting to the linguistic diversity of a vast empire, the collection is full of manuscripts where writers, copyists, note-taking readers use several languages within the binds of a single manuscript.

Şerhu Isaguci. Copy: 1762-1763. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 173.İstanbul Research Institute

Overall, many Ottoman thinkers considered this richness of languages, which symbolized cultural sophistication, as a sure sign of imperial success and superiority. Arabic and Greek had accumulated long established written cultures in many sciences such as philosophy, logic, medicine, astronomy, mathematics. Persian had a well-established literary canon by the time the Ottoman Empire came to contact with it. Inheriting the words and books of these traditions was to simultaneously place the empire in connection with ancient traditions, but also claim superiority since they were now all combined and synthesized in Ottoman libraries.

İskendername, Ahmedî (d. 1412-1413), 1390. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 300.İstanbul Research Institute


Alexander the Great had become a legend when he was still alive, and his legendary stories were told throughout the wide Eurasian region he conquered in a variety of languages. Bringing together Alexander’s life and his extraordinary adventures with mythological and sacred themes and characters, İskendername was first put to writing as a prose work in Turkish in the 15th century by Ahmedî. Presented to Bayezid I’s eldest son, Emir Süleyman (d. 1411), Ahmedî’s İskendername was based on the İskendername in Farsi of Nizamî, with certain important differences. İskendername was “intercultural,” in the sense that it bridged the multilingual narratives of an extensive geographical region. But it also demonstrated how intertwined oral and written cultures were.

İskendername’ye Özgün Bir Osmanlı Katkısı: Ahmedi’nin İskender ve Kaydafe Hikâyesi Edhem Eldem, From the collection of: İstanbul Research Institute
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Divan, Bâkî (d. 1600). Copy: 17th century. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 120.İstanbul Research Institute


Even though the literacy rate in the Ottoman Empire was low, manuscripts offer clues about the daily life of ordinary people living in the foreign land of the past. Ottoman daily life witnessed through manuscripts is interesting and ordinary, exotic and banal. Modern eyes may romanticize it, but this ordinary life is replete with all types of inequality—slaves, the poor, women, children and non-Muslims led a daily life starkly different from that of the middling Muslim men.

Enmûzecü't-tıbb, Hekimbaşı Emir Çelebi (d. 1638), 1624-1625. Copy: 1679-1680. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 348.İstanbul Research Institute


The theory of humors (ahlat-ı erbaa), founded was key in shaping the understanding of the body and health in not only the Ottoman Empire but also a larger region including Europe until the end of the 18th century. According to this approach, which followed Aristotelian philosophy, just as the universe was founded on four elements (earth, water, fire, and air), so too was the human body based on four humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood). The specific mixture of these humors shaped the character of an individual, while external factors determined health and illness. The balance between opposites such as sleep and being awake, exercise and rest, sorrow and joy, excretion and constipation, as well as the air one breathed and the food and drinks one consumed were all important factors in a complex equation affecting personal health. A new approach in medicine, which began in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-17th century and increased in intensity throughout the 18th, was apparent in the translations from European languages. The chief physician of the palace, responsible for all health affairs of the empire were also involved in these attempts.

Heft Hân, Nevizâde Atâî (d. 1636/1637). SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 7/1.İstanbul Research Institute


Ottoman high literature reshaped a special Islamic love discourse, at the center of which was the distinction between metaphorical and real love. The object of metaphorical love was a beautiful though coy mahbub (beloved), who was usually a young boy lacking sexual experience. Ottoman sultans and public servants entered a conversation among equals through this rhetoric of love, which was shaped by references to verses of the Quran, the hadith, stories from the prophet’s life, legends, and even supernatural beings.

Rücû-üş Şeyh ilâ Sibâh fi-l Kuvveti alel Bâh, Muhammed b. Mustafa el-Ma’di, 1771. Miniature: Ömer. Special Collection.İstanbul Research Institute

Mahbubperests (mahbub-worshippers), however, were not alone in this literature of love; they faced two other types: the zenpâres (womanizers) and the gulâmpâres (pederasts). These two groups of men were “sinners” unable to distinguish lust from love, preferring sexual intercourse over pure love and the absolute moment of union (visal or vuslat). In Ottoman high culture, poems and stories about zenpâres and gulâmpâres narrated the disasters caused by sexual activity, which was stigmatized. Works dealing with the love of the mahbub were preserved in beautiful manuscripts, while stories of zenpâres and gulâmpâres remained hidden.

Mecmua-i Baldırzâde, Bursalı Baldırzâde Selisi Şeyh Mehmed Efendi (d. 1650) and/or his son Derviş Mehmed Efendi (d. 1668). SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 525/9.İstanbul Research Institute


This work, which was found in a mecmua entitled “Name-i Tacizâde Çelebi” and kept for a few generations by members of the Baldırzade family, is thought to be Küsname, the work of Tacizâde Cafer Çelebi, a prominent public servant and poet. The only extant copy of Küsname (Expression of Desire) is found in this collection and consists of a short mesnevi of 93 couplets. Küsname is a unique and important work enriching Ottoman love discourse with the way it expresses the lover’s sexual desire for this beloved and the kind of physical interaction he longs for.

Hariç ez-akl-ı beşer İstanbul: Enderunlu Fazıl'ın İstanbul’u - Selim S. Kuruİstanbul Research Institute

Delâilü'l-hayrat, nüsha-i Sehli şerhi, Kara Davudzâde Mehmed Efendi (d. 1756). SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 349.İstanbul Research Institute


Sufism and the Sufi orders, which represented the esoteric aspects of religion, influenced all aspects of social life, and even some daily activities such as sports (e.g. wrestling and archery lodges) and recreation (e.g. promenade lodges) came under the supervision of these religious orders. The relationship between the sultan and the clergy on the one hand and the religious orders on the other continued in a more or less balanced manner as long as no tendencies emerged that would disturb the status quo. At the end of the 19th century, there were more than three hundred lodges belonging to the most prominent Sufi orders of the city. These lodges also produced countless manuscripts regarding various aspects of Sufism.

Sır Olanın Peşinde: Osmanlı Tasavvuf Kültürü ve Elyazmaları - M. Baha Tanman, From the collection of: İstanbul Research Institute
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Kıyafetname, 13th-16th centuries. Animation based on SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 508/1.İstanbul Research Institute


Kıyafet, an Arabic word that literally means “trailing,” was a branch of knowledge in pre-modern Islamic societies that tried to gauge a person’s character by their appearance. As such, it was similar to the practice of physiognomy in the West. Body parts were evaluated in binary terms such as scarcity-abundance, existence-inexistence, largeness-smallness; these were used to make inferences about a person’s character as well as their destiny. Kıyafetnames were guides in judging appearances, offering many important clues regarding the daily life of the period and the sources of desire, curiosity, and anxiety. They also allow us to trace the change in tradition.

Takvimü't-tevârîh. Kâtip Çelebi (d. 1657), 1648 (?). Copy: Mesud b. İbrahim el-İstanbuli, 1652. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 291.İstanbul Research Institute


Measuring the flow of time and recording history have always been closely related to the effort to understand the place of humans in the universe, and the classification, protection, and sharing of this information proved to be one of the most important tools in the hands of those holding power. Ottoman intellectuals kept not only their personal schedules and calendars but also wondered how the notion of time was created in other parts of the world. In Takvimü’t-tevarih, which Kâtip Çelebi (d. 1657) presented to the chief mufti Abdürrahim Efendi (d. 1656), who in turn presented it to the Grand Vizier Koca Mehmed Pasha (d. 1649), the author tried to place the Ottoman Empire within world history.

Hadâiku’l-Hakâik, Nevizâde Atâî (d. 1635), 1633. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 182.İstanbul Research Institute


“Where do I stand?” and “Who is going to save me here?” Biographer Atâî’s (d. 1636/37) accounts of nightmares which he related in his biographical work, Hadâiku’l-Hakâik (Gardens of Truths), exhibited through his own handwritten copy, revolved around these two questions about social networks. Yakub Efendi (d. 1571), who after a nightmare, left his career in the ilmiye for a path of Sufism. By narrating this story in the biographical entry on Yakub Efendi, Atâî shares with his readers the anxieties of the sixteenth-century Ottoman learned circles of Istanbul.

Bostancıbaşı register, 1802. SVİKV, İAE, ŞR 267.İstanbul Research Institute


In the early 18th century the Ottoman capital increasingly spread out towards the Bosporus and the Golden Horn, and the state needed to find out the then current status of this long strip of land in detail. The Bostancıbaşı (head gardener) Registers, kept during the reigns of Selim III and Mahmud II (1808–1839), were the outcome of these needs. The Bostancıbaşı Registers list in an orderly fashion all the buildings and plots along the shore, their owners, and sometimes their tenants; as such, they contain invaluable information regarding the lost architectural legacy of the city and its cultural, social, and economic fabric.

Bostancıbaşı Defterlerini Haritalandırmak - Murat Güvenç, Ayşe Nur Akdal, Murat Tülekİstanbul Research Institute

Credits: Story

Exhibition Curator: K. Mehmet Kentel

Advisors: M. Baha Tanman, Selim S. Kuru, Aslıhan Gürbüzel, Akif Ercihan Yerlioğlu, Aslı Niyazioğlu

Exhibition Coordinator: Zeynep Ögel

Project Team: Emir Alışık, Muhammed Zinciroğlu, Gülrû Tanman

Exhibition Design: Cem Kozar, Işıl Ünal – PATTU

Digitization: K. Mehmet Kentel, Zeynep Burcu Kantemir, Emir Alışık, Irmak Wöber, Gülru Tanman

Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Manuscript Collection

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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