An Otherworldly Evening of 17th-Century Myth and 21st-Century Music

December 20, 2018
Cemal Kafadar, photo Martha Stewart

On a rainy October evening, the Memorial Church of Harvard University was packed with a crowd who had gathered to hear Cemal Kafadar, Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies, present a talk on matters that time and time again have gripped the human conscious and societal anxiety: time, immortality, and, of course, vampires.

Memorial Church Vampire Event, photo Martha Stewart

Why was it that vampire lore exploded in the early 18th century and continues to have cultural salience to the present day? The answer lies in part with the figure of Evliya Çelebi, the 17th-century Ottoman traveler known best for his 10-volume travelogue Seyahat­name, possibly the longest ever written. Insatiably curious and unconventional by nature, Evliya Çelebi traveled over forty years throughout the entire empire, and his account presented the world through the eyes of an educated Ottoman Muslim who was nonetheless cosmopolitan in his worldview, containing both light and dark, tragedy and comedy. It was during Evliya Çelebi’s travels to the Caucusus that he encountered witches, vampires, and other such demons, especially in the Alburz mountains regions south of the Caspian Sea. When Evliya returned to Istanbul to explain all that he had seen to his audience, he used the Turkish word obur, meaning to suck, to help explain the mechanics by which vampires claimed their victims. It is through this Turkish etymology of obur that Kafadar argues our modern term “vampire” derives.

Cemal Kafadar, photo Martha Stewart

Although Evliya’s travels and encounters in the Caucusus helped to illustrate the growing salience of vampires, it did not explain their explosion in the 18th century. As Kafadar explained in the second half of his talk, witchcraft is widely regarded among historians as an early modern phenomenon, in that, after the 17th century, witch sightings or persecutions of supposed witches largely disappeared. Kafadar showed how the fall of witches was followed by the rise of vampires, and that vampires took on the fears formerly directed toward witches. They did so precisely because of a shift in the 18th century over social anxieties concerning blood and identity.

Vampires, like witches before them, worked as a complex site for negotiating timeless issues like anxiety over blood, the dead, and neglect of filial duties. Vampires were thus metaphors for negotiating liminality, being neither here nor there. As the undead, they were neither dead nor alive. Every being needs to be put to rest, so that we can go on living. But vampires are restless, and therefore timeless. And their rise in the 18th century and continued importance are tied in part to the growing link between blood and identity. The question of blood purity and nations of people came together so well in this time because of the rise of nationhood, which simply wasn’t relevant to the 17th century. Keeping in mind further the significance of shifting border regions between Hapsburgs and Ottomans, vampires were thus a kind of lens for 18th century anxieties over who we are.

Mehmet Sanlikol and A Far Cry, photo Martha Stewart

The evening was a two-part affair. After Kafadar’s talk, the setting shifted to a musical performance by A Far Cry, an 18-member Grammy-­nominated string ensemble based in Boston. For the next hour, the audience sat rapt as we listened to A Gentleman of Istanbul, a symphony composed by Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, a faculty member at New England Conservatory and former CMES Visiting Researcher. Sanlıkol explained how each of the four movements drew inspiration from various passages from Evliya Çelebi’s travelogue. The first movement, “The Clocks and Bells of Vienna” heavily featured percussion instruments and placed us in a more European setting. A ticking clock featured in the background of the whole movement and was not just a way of keeping rhythm but a reminder for the audience of time’s ineluctable advance. The second and third movements featured a jazz ballad with piano, and a mix of Sufi mystic sounds featuring the reed flute known as a ney. The fourth movement yet again charted its own path with classical Ottoman styles punctuated by the eerie Qur’anic recitations chanted by Sanlıkol himself, during which time all other instruments ceased playing.

Although the four move­ments were quite eclectic, they followed a classical symphonic structure. The combined effect of the symphony imparted the exact cosmopolitan expression Sanlıkol wished to give the audience in order to illustrate, via music, the rich, colorfully diverse world of Evliya Çelebi.

—Maryam Patton, PhD candidate in History and Middle Eastern Studies