A book that looks at the world

A copy of a book entItled ‘Cihannüma’ was sold at a relatIvely modest actIon In Istanbul last month. What can have trIggered the sale of such a book at such an auctIon? Let us look first at the title, Cihannüma, which is both mellifluous and important sounding.

There is ‘Cihan’ in it, meaning the Universe, or the whole world. In Persian, where it has its roots, it means something like ‘a window or terrace overlooking the world’, but also ‘showing, or describing, the world’. In other words, it could perhaps best be termed an atlas in the western sense.

When we look a little more closely into it, the Cihannüma appears to be a very important book in Turkish history for two reasons. First of all, it was printed by İbrahim Müteferrika. Müteferrika, who set up the first printing press in the Ottoman Empire, first printed the Vankulu Dictionary in 1729. The Cihannüma was the eleventh of the seventeen books he printed in his lifetime. He printed this important work, written by Katib Çelebi in the 17th century, in 1732 in 500 copies.

At the same time, the book is also an important reference shedding light on the geography of the time. It made use not only of the Islamic sources of the period but forged an extraordinary scholarly synthesis by simultaneously making use of western sources. Katip Çelebi (Mustafa bin Abdullah) was a prominent Ottoman intellectual who lived from 1609 to 1657. He penned a total of 23 works during his brief forty-seven years. The Cihannüma, which he rewrote after gaining access western sources, ushered in an important new era in Ottoman history.

When the book was printed in 1732, it was a milestone, a new school, coming in the wake of its earlier and most important predecessor, Piri Reis, and his seminal work, Kitab-i Bahriye, or the Book of the Sea, the key difference being that it was written at the time of the latest discoveries in the field of astronomy. It was a text that represented on paper in the broadest possible terms the new science of astronomy that had begun with Batlamyus (Ptolemy) in the second century A.D., and developed through the contributions of the Islamic scholars Nasireddin al-Tusi (1201-1274) and Ali Kuşçu (1403-1474) on the one hand and western scientists like Copernicus, Galileo and others on the other.

We should also mention another interesting and important point.  The book contains a total of 27 maps and 13 figures. Everything from astrological models of the universe and climate and wind maps to, at the end, a map of Istanbul. And these appear to be far more advanced and comprehensive than the text Katib Çelebi left behind. So captivated was I by the story of the Cihannüma that I was unable to devote much space here to Müteferrika’s contribution to Ottoman cultural life, so I will examine that on another occasion.