Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 2017
Zeynep Yürekli Architecture and Hagiography in the Ottoman Empire: The Politics of Bektashi Shrines in the Classical Age Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. 222 pp.; 57 b/w ills. Paper $54.95 (9781138270756)

The architecture of shrines has been neglected in Islamic architecture scholarship until recently. Among others, Kishwar Rizvi and John Curry have demonstrated how architectural patronage and the writing of hagiographies are intricate political acts and deserve a common analysis (Kishwar Rizvi, The Safavid Dynastic Shrine: Architecture, Religion and Power in Early Modern Iran, London: I.B. Tauris, 2011; and John J. Curry, The Transformation of Muslim Mystical Thought in the Ottoman Empire: The Rise of the Halveti Order, 1350–1650, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010). Zeynep Yürekli successfully utilizes and furthers this methodology in Architecture and Hagiography in the Ottoman Empire: The Politics of Bektashi Shrines in the Classical Age. Combining a study of hagiographical texts with an advanced analysis of the sixteenth-century architectural transformation of two Anatolian shrines (Seyyid Battal Gazi near present-day Eskişehir and Hacı Bektaş in western Cappadocia), Yürekli provides an insightful study of Ottoman shrine architecture during the “classical period,” a controversial term she explains on page 23. She also contributes to the revival of Sufi studies (and more broadly religious history) of the Ottoman Empire from the perspective of architecture and material culture. More specifically, she sheds new light on the Bektashis, an important Sufi order in the Ottoman world. Her book, richly illustrated with maps, plans, photographs, and archival documents, also includes two extensive appendices of the foundation inscriptions of the two shrines.

The two shrines have different origins and histories during the medieval period. The first shrine is dedicated to Seyyid Gazi, also known as al-Baṭṭāl, who is believed to be a warrior who died as a martyr during an Umayyad campaign against Byzantium in 715–17. By contrast, the second shrine commemorates Hacı Bektaş, a Central Asian saint who came to Anatolia in the aftermath of the Mongol conquest. Yürekli demonstrates how these two holy figures, partly legendary, began to be interrelated in Bektashi hagiographies and were united in a twofold “Bektashi network” during the end of the fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. First, the two shrines benefit from the patronage of the Mihaloğlu, Evrenosoğlu, and Malkoçoğlu families from the Balkans, known as Gazis, a common term in Ottoman sources for conquerors especially in the Anatolian and Balkan context. Second, the writing of hagiographical texts interlaced the two founder saints of the shrines as “exemplar” figures (as Peter Brown defined Late Antiquity saints’ figures [Peter Brown, The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981]). Yürekli argues that this process should be contextualized within the rise of the Safavids and the growing conflict between the two empires. In this context, the transformation of the two multifunctional shrines she examines is a step in the process of institutionalizing the Bektashi network formed by different, sometimes antinomian, groups. This network will gain an imperial wideness in the aftermath of the Ottoman-Safavid conflict as Yürekli discusses in the epilogue (155–59).

Architecture and Hagiography in the Ottoman Empire opens with a presentation of the historical context in chapter 1, followed by two chapters focused on the different materials featured in Yürekli’s demonstration: the “hagiographical framework” (chapter 2) and a comprehensive study of the architectural transformation of both shrines with different phases (chapter 3). Finally, chapter 4 proposes an interpretation of diverse architectural and decorative aspects of the shrines after the remodeling and opens the discussion to the larger question of shrine architecture in the post-Mongol world.

The first chapter begins with a short but clear presentation of the Bektashi order and the rise of Safavids after the proclamation of a Shiite state by Shah Ismail in 1501. While the political potential of the two shrines grew with the polarization created by the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, the “culture of opposition” encountered in the Bektashi shrines decreased at the end of the sixteenth century when the millenarian Kızılbaş in Anatolia were marginalized. Yürekli then explores the relation between the two shrines and the Ottoman Empire. In both cases, a new leader was appointed during the reign of Beyazid II (r. 1481–1512), but a direct involvement of the sultan cannot be proved. Nevertheless, these nominations, seen as a manifestation of “soft power,” are part of the integration process of the two shrines and different marginal groups in the Empire.

Chapter 2 starts with a presentation of the legends of the two saints. Yürekli develops the rediscovery of the tomb of Seyyid Battal Gazi during the thirteenth century and the first mentions of Hacı Bektaş in two fourteenth-century hagiographical texts written by Eflākī and Elvan Çelebi. Nonetheless, the main focus of this chapter is the Bektashi hagiographies written from the 1480s onward and the development of the literary genre of Velāyetnāmes. Yürekli smartly illustrates the progressive interconnections between the two saints and their shrines in the process of writing down their histories. This common textual reference or, as she calls it, the “hagiographic framework,” is a productive environment for understanding the remodeling of the shrines that she will analyze in the following chapter. For instance, the main patron of this remodeling, the Gazi families based in the Balkans, were probably part of the audience for these hagiographical works. The late fifteenth century was also the time when different versions of Ottoman dynastic histories were written, and, as Yürekli notes in the chapter’s conclusion, “the boundaries between Ottoman dynastic historiography and Bektashi hagiography were extremely porous” (77).

Chapter 3 is the longest and most detailed part of the book. It focuses on the architectural transformation of the shrines with an intensive analysis of the epigraphical material. At Seyyid Gazi, the works were started during the last decades of the fifteenth century and finished by the end of the reign of Beyazid II, under the patronage of the Mihaloğlu (a family native from the region of Eskişehir but based in Bulgaria at this time). In the shrine of Hacı Bektaş, Yürekli determines two phases and an interruption during the second quarter of the sixteenth century, corresponding notably to the closing of the shrine following the revolt of Kalender Çelebi in 1526. The first phase (1494–1520) was under the patronage of the Evrenosoğlu family and the last Dulkadirid ruler, Ali b. Şehsuvar. The second phase, concurrently with the third campaign of Süleyman against the Safavids in the 1550s that passed through the shrine, was concentrated in the second courtyard and sponsored by the Malkoçoğlu. Not surprisingly, the tomb of the saint was in both cases the first focus of the remodeling that transformed the modest medieval structures into multifunctional complexes, with an emphasis on commodities like kitchens.

Chapter 4 aims to underline the social and historical meaning of the two shrines and discusses their relation with “classical Ottoman architecture.” This chapter simultaneously discusses the larger context of shrine architecture in the Turko-Mongol world after the thirteenth century. Interesting comparisons with the remaking of shrines like the sanctuary of Ahmet Yesevi during the Timurid period or Ardabil under the Safavids are explored here. Yürekli relevantly opens her discussion to material culture, presenting the different artifacts given to the shrine by the political elite as well as pilgrims. The first part of this chapter discusses the decoration of the two shrines and emphasizes the “Shiite” decorative program at Hacı Bektaş and the presence of spolia at Seyyid Gazi. The interpretation of the lion figure reused on the main entrance as a reference to the Seljuk palace in Konya seems too categorical as this figure has larger roots in medieval Anatolian decorative culture including also Byzantine, Armenian, and Georgian architecture. The following parts of the chapter insist on the common feature between the shrines and palatial architecture. Indeed, the organization of Hacı Bektaş’s shrine around three courtyards and the exterior aspect of Seyyid Gazi, with its chimneys and lead roof, recall the Topkapı palace and the Ottoman palace in Edirne that the patrons of the shrine may have seen. Finally, Yürekli outlines the importance of kitchens and bakeries in both the architectural design of the shrine and in Bektashi ritual and hierarchy. Nevertheless, she concludes that despite these imperial references Bektashi shrines constitute “masterpieces of a subculture that chose to stand a certain distance from imperial cultural idioms” (153).

If a criticism might be addressed at this very stimulating book, it concerns the understanding of Islamic confessionalization differentiating Sunnism and Shiism, which sometimes could be more nuanced. Such religious identities may have been more flexible in the late medieval and early modern Islamic world than Yürekli sometimes suggests. The Shiite qualification of certain elements (e.g., page 138) is maybe too unequivocal and might have benefited from a wider treatment of Alid veneration, broadly shared by various mystic and Sufi groups in Anatolia during this period. Nevertheless, Yürekli’s erudite book is a valuable contribution in many ways. Methodologically, it adopts a very stimulating approach to shrine architecture that may have echoes in other lands and chronologies. This elegant and well-studied volume completes different gaps in scholarship, and as its author rightfully claims “seeks to fill out the picture by adding the architectural setting” to a long “tradition of scholarship on Bektashi hagiography” (22).

Maxime Durocher
PhD candidate, Islamic art and archaeology, Paris-Sorbonne Université / Labex RESMED