Orhan Pamuk, Me, and Two Men From the Seventeenth Century

Two open folios of botanical illustration, plants colored green with surrounder borders, in a Turkish manuscript from the early modern period.

Bologna, 2018. The odor of seriousness hung heavy in the reading room of the archives. I gazed at the colors filling the room in the sunny afternoon: dull smart pants, white or baby blue shirts with no creases or coffee spots. With a long sigh, I looked at my washed jeans, mustard-colored short-sleeved-jumper, and pastel nail polish that was already worn out. Only then did I notice the tiny red spiders bustling over my notebook and arms. Their invasion, coming inside of the wooden table, passed the smelly archival documents and soon reached my jeans. I tried to sweep them away, and this half-hearted effort left my jeans with red dots. “Maybe,” I thought, “I should take an espresso break.”

The months of my dissertation research were passing by smoothly. Perhaps too smoothly. I was expecting an “a-ha!” moment to arrive unceremoniously, even accidentally, upon finding a centuries-old neglected document. Maybe my master’s degree mentor had been right when we were chatting about my dreams of pursuing a dissertation on Ottoman naturalist collections back in the day. “It is tempting to assume that early modern Ottomans had cabinets of curiosities or collected natural specimens,” he had asserted, “but maybe you should think about another research subject.” That had been a lifeless generalization; at the same time, however, it had been almost a thrill to think about how my potential research would have nothing of archival substance or intellectual relevance, and may have been destined to become a plodding piece of writing. “How to integrate the Ottomans’ engagements with nature into a broader historical narrative?” I wondered.

Now, in 2024, with a finished PhD dissertation in hand, I am once again thinking about writing about nature and the bodies both enchanted and perplexed by it. I always aspired to be a comparative historian—whatever that term means—but I also gradually became convinced that making a story out of differences and asymmetries is more challenging than making a story with obvious similarities across cultures and temporalities. Perhaps the trick of comparison can occasionally work in fictional writing, but not so much in historical writing due to asymmetries in relevant archival sources. I had found inspiration in Orhan Pamuk’s historical novel, The White Castle, a story set in the seventeenth century tackling the perennial issue of the “clash of civilizations” through two main characters: a Venetian enslaved man and an Ottoman master. Yet I have intentionally avoided Pamuk’s novel since beginning my graduate studies as I worry that rereading it through my historical lenses would spoil the nostalgia of my literary pleasure. After all, we like to think “the truth” is always stranger than fiction. But does that stubborn insistence on the search for the truth distort complex experiences? As historians often say, “it is, in fact, more complicated than that.”

Two of the protagonists in my research are similar to Pamuk’s. On one hand, there is Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli who, like every “founding father,” has his own Wikipedia page. He was a polymath of many passions: a soldier, diplomat, spy, scholar, member of scholarly academies, founder of the Instituto delle Scienze e delle Arti in Bologna, natural historian, and—according to some—father of modern oceanography. On the other hand, his less-known yet equally interesting Ottoman counterpart in Istanbul, Hezarfenn Hüseyin Efendi, was also a polymath and historian of ambitious encyclopedias and pharmacopeias. He was enthusiastically into the art of recommending books—mostly his own—to European learned men who were eager to visit his private library. Among other curious works he suggested to Marsigli was his short entry on the natural history of coffee, of which he was also an avid drinker. An intriguing figure about whom not much ink has been spilled, Hezarfenn was also remembered for his jokes about how his soul might transmigrate into the body of a Frenchman one day, wandering in the chambers of Paris.[1] But we still know too little to write a full-fledged history of these men’s conversations and daydreams in a Pamukian way—although, in a twist of fate, it was the Bolognese Marsigli who became a captive and was enslaved by an Ottoman pasha. Even more surprisingly, when I had shared details about my research with my roommate in Bologna back in the day, she said that her previous landlord was a descendant of the Marsigli family.

The asymmetrical but not unbalanced encounters between Marsigli and the Ottoman world become harder to trace if braided into the narrative of natural history. Following the breadcrumbs of environmental history can provide us what we now already know how to look for: the destructive capacity of human desires acting upon nature and the alienating brute force of empire-making, colonialism, racism, and neoliberal politics on the environment, which in turn shapes human-human relations. Yet early modern Ottoman and European encounters in the context of naturalist pursuits operated with relatively more invisible and more silent dynamics, and therefore they pose an apparently untraceable problem in the archives.

As I have explored in my scholarly work, working methods in early modern natural history were indeed buried in multiple layers of invisibility—and this invisibility is not only the result of a straightforward assumption about suppressed identities.[2] Just like the ephemeral natural things in circulation—uprooted from their origins, collected and violently preserved—Ottoman illustrations of nature, such as those Marsigli collected and put between the folios of his notes, have been presumed to be irrelevant, and therefore invisible, to the grand narrative of science. Being rare and fragmentary, single-page Ottoman drawings of plants and seeds still remain neglected on the grounds of being purportedly brute and clumsy illustrations of nature—a presumed indication of the absence of any arduous intellectual labor or robust scientific gaze involved in producing them. Similarly telling is that, almost a century ago, Ottoman historians called the growing interest in nature and blossoming of new species of flowers in gardens a sign of the declining pursuit of more serious enterprises, and thus coined the pejorative term “the Tulip Age” to refer to the Ottoman early eighteenth century. Today historians no longer employ this term, but the hierarchical understanding of how distinct people interact with nature persists. Our expectations regarding what is environmentally destructive science, and how nature should be engaged and “objectively” represented, darken our path toward multivalent histories of naturalist practices.

Despite their commonalities in terms of the research questions and archival sources, I still find it quite striking that environmental history and the disciplinary history of natural history are not in close conversation today. That disconnect may stem from the activist vein in environmental history, and from the fact that natural history has never had an upper hand in the conventional history of science; until a few decades ago, it was considered to belong to the lower echelons of prestige in comparison to those sciences that are seen to be more rigorously innovation-driven. But rather than the end of natural history, we are today descendants of its practices of collecting and comparing working in laboratories of experimental biology and classifying endangered species.[3]

Nature, with all of its alive, dead, and made things, makes the soil of historical thinking imaginatively fertile. It has the ability to generate moments of insight and to help us confront our own historical blind spots square on. It is the connecting and pulsing tissue that can make Pamuk’s protagonists come alive—and my early modern naturalists, too, who are still struggling to get off the ground.

[1] Duygu Yıldırım, “Comparing Faiths: The Making of Religious Dialogue between the Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe.” History of Religions 63 (2023): 198–227; p. 217.

[2] Duygu Yıldırım, “Ottoman Plants, Nature Studies, and the Attentiveness of Translational Labor.” History of Science 61 (2023): 497–521.

[3] Helen Anne Curry, Nicholas Jardine, James Andrew Secord, and Emma C. Spary, eds. Worlds of Natural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Cover image: Süleymaniye Manuscript Library, Istanbul. Source: Ali Çelebi, Şükûfenâme [The Book of Flowers], Süleymaniye Manuscript Library, MS Nuruosmaniye 4077, f. 34.

[Cover image description: A photograph of two archival manuscript pages with an illustration of a flowering plant on the left page and an imprint of that illustration on the right. Other marks and marginalia are visible.]

Edited by Anna Guasco; reviewed by Aly Kreikemeier.

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