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Plan of EskisehirThe 16th century was the time of greatest for the Ottoman Empire, and is regarded to by historians today as the classical age. The long reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent from 1520 to 1566 set its mark on this century, which was one of innovation in many fields of culture and science. One of the great figures of the century was Matrakçı Nasuh, a man who excelled as historian and soldier, calligrapher and painter. He was born in Bosnia towards the end of the 15th century of a Christian family, and as a young boy became a janissary novice under the tribute system. His ability attracted attention and he was educated at the palace Enderun school during the last years of the reign of Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512).

Matrakçı Nasuh’s first known work is a book on mathematics which he wrote for Sultan Bayezid’s successor Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) in 1517. Entitled Cemâlu’l-Küttab ve Kemâlü-l-Hissâb, it covers fractions, measurements and other basic mathematics. In 1533 Nasuh wrote an expanded version of this book entitled Umdetu’l Hissâb and presented it to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent.

Plan of IstanbulFrom 1517 onwards, Nasuh began to make a name for himself for his skill in the arts of combat, as noted by such famous Ottoman writers as Aşık Çelebi, Celaloğlu Mustafa Ali. His fame reached a pinnacle with his invention of a sport played with heavy boxwood cudgels known as matrak. Two competition facing one another used 160 different movements of defense and attack, the object being to strike the opponent on the head.

As both the inventor and a champion of this sport, he became known as Matrakçı. His mastery of the martial arts was acknowledged in a testimonial presented to him by Sultan Süleyman I in 1529, with particular reference to his skill at javelin throwing, and commanding all to pay him respect as a master in these fields. The same year he wrote a book, Tuhfetu’l Guzaf, on archery, sword fighting and use of the shield fighting with mace and lance, and training for combat on horseback. This is the only contemporary book treating these subjects.

Plan of BaghdadBut Matrakçı Nasuh most celebrated work is book of plans and descriptions of the places where the Ottoman army halted during Sultan Süleyman’s campaign against the Safavids in 1533-1536. Beyan-ı Menazil-i Sefer-i Irakeyn-i Sultan Süleyman Han consists of 113 pages of text, 25 illustrated, and 107 full page miniatures. The miniatures illustrating the towns and cities on the army’s way eastwards form a remarkable atlas of the region. Castles, mosques, hans (khans), colleges and pavilions are shown in meticulous detail, together with their surrounding terrain. The text gives the names and locations of ruins, kervansarays (caravanserais), mountains, passers, rivers and bridges, deserts and steppe, distances between each stopping point, and descriptions of local climate. The miniatures are illustrations rather than maps and do not obey cartographic principles of direction or scale, although when interpreted in the light of the text they provide much of the information given by topographical maps. They could be described as a collection of town plans, which take a bird’s eye view of each place, but instead of showing only streets and rivers, have tiny detailed illustrations of the main buildings, monuments and natural features. In this respect they are extremely valuable records of 16th century Turkish architecture and urban structure. Conceptually they compare to the sea charts of Piri Reis, which show the rocks, landmarks and harbours of the Mediterranean in similar detail.

Most famous Matrakçı Nasuh’s miniatures is that showing İstanbul, the Golden Horn, Galata and a small part of Üsküdar on the other side of the Bosphorus. It illustrates nearly 300 houses and monuments, providing invaluable information about the topography and buildings of 16th century İstanbul. Major buildings are shown on a larger scale to allow greater detail. Beyan-ı Menazil-i Sefer-i Irakeyn-i Sultan Süleyman Han, which was prepared for Sultan Süleyman, is today in İstanbul University Library.

Ottoman fleet near ToulonAnother similar book by Matrakçı Nasuh is Tarih-i Feth-i Sikloş ve Estergon ve Istunibelgrad, about the conquest of these three fortress in Hungary between 1542 and 1543. This time the subject is route taken by the Ottoman army during Süleyman’s second Hungarian campaign, with illustrations and a text explaining the names and distances of castles, towns and mountain passes on the way. Another section of the book is devoted to the voyage of the Ottoman fleet under the command of Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa, who answered a request for aid by France against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during the same years, with miniature plans of the ports he visited on the way, including Nice, Toulon, Marseilles, Reggio, Antibes and Genoa, and showing the Ottoman fleet offshore. This book was written in 1543.

Matrakçı Nasuh’s History of Sultan Bayezid II (Tarih-i Sultan Bayezid) describes the events and campaigns of this sultan’s reign, with miniatures of the castles and towns of Kiliya and Akmangit in Moldavia, Methoni, Lepanto and Gülek. Other miniatures show Ottoman naval ships.

Matrakçı Nasuh is believed to have died in 1564, and as historian and painter left behind unparalleled records of his century.

By Kemal Özdemir
Skylife 11/98
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