Blog 38 11/08/2016 The Dawn of Turkish Literature: The Book of Dede Korkut.

Posted in on 11 August, 2016 in News

 The Dawn of Turkish Literature: The Book of Dede Korkut.

Dede playing 2

Turkish literature, the premier genre of Turkish culture, is among the world’s oldest with a rich and complex legacy spanning over twelve centuries. Few cultures throughout history have changed as drastically yet remained as intact in preserving most of their basic cultural traits as has Turkish culture and language has played an important role in this.

When Yusuf Has Hacid, 11thc, considered to be the first Turkish poet to produce a major original literary work wrote the following words – “Man’s legacy to man is words…. Whosoever is born must die, but his words live on. Language is the interpreter of thought and science. It gives man dignity. Human beings attain happiness through language. But language can also demean and cause heads to roll. It is on words that man can rise and acquire power and dignity.” he proclaimed the supremacy of language in the Turkish culture. These words taken from the Kutadgu Bilig (Wisdom of Royal Glory) which was written for the Prince of Kashgar, reflected society’s beliefs at the time and throughout the following centuries the poetic word was to become the pivotal force of Turkish culture.  And so when Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 with his novel My Name is Red, not only was it the first Nobel prize given in any field to a Turk but it culminated in a nation’s passion for literature through the centuries.

Kirgestan stellae

Kirgistan stellae

The dawn of Turkish culture began in Mongolia’s Orhan Valley in the Uyghur dialect sometime in the sixth century and by the tenth century it had become a living tradition. During the years 720-30, the Kokturks (Celestial) erected stellae featuring historical narratives. These inscriptions still stand in situ today. From their nomadic tribal roots across parts of Asia, the Turks created the Selcuk state in Asia Minor and later the vast Ottoman Empire culminating in the Republic of Turkey. Throughout all this they have embraced an array of religions from shamanism through to Islam and their language has used five separate scripts: Kokturk, Uyghur, Arabic, Cyrillic and since 1928, one based on the Latin alphabet. The Turkish language is referred to as “Ural-Altaic” and even today it shares a similarity with Uzbek, Azeri, Chaghatai, Kirghiz and Yakut.

The landscape of Central asia

The landscape of Central Asia

Turkish migration brought with it a rich oral tradition usually based on gods and heroes, legends of victory and defeat, migration and catastrophe. The stories were kept alive by minstrels known as ozans who narrated the stories accompanied by a stringed instrument called a kopuz. Because this epic tradition emerged in central Asia, some of the earliest examples of verse attributed to Turks are available only in Chinese translations. Uyghur texts in particular reveal accomplished poets of this period.

Dede KorkutThe most famous book to arise out of this epic tradition is The Book of Dede Korkut (Kitab-i Dede Korkut). Just as Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey are to Greece, The Book of Dede Korkut is considered to be the national epic of the Turkish people and has been honoured by UNESCO as one of the world’s cultural treasures. It is a heroic epic set in Central Asia and Asia Minor in the 8th century – 13th century and probably written down in the 14th century. It consists of twelve tales depicting chivalry, heroism, mythological powers, love and beauty among the noble men and women of the Oghuz Turks and its leader, Bayindir Khan.  The stories are peopled by characters as bizarre as they are unforgettable: Crazy Karchar, whose unpredictability requires an army of fleas to manage it; Kazan, who cheerfully pretends to necrophilia in order to escape from prison; the monster Goggle-eye; and the heroine Chichek, who shoots, races on horseback and wrestles her lover – let it never be said that strong women didn’t have a place in this world!

Dede Korkut on horseback

Oghuz Turks - Prior to the Köktürk state

Oghuz Turks – Prior to the Köktürk state

The Oghuz were a federation of Turkic tribes and the ancestors of modern Turks as well as other Turkic peoples across Central Asia. Sometime in the 14th century,  the stories were collected and written down by an anonymous scribe but the manuscripts disappeared from history for hundreds of years until one version was found in the Dresden Library in 1815 while a shorter version was later found in the Vatican Library. It was first published in Turkish in 1919.

The narrative uses a combined form of verse and prose typical in Turkic oral tradition but rare in the Western epic. As with all epics, the characters are larger-than-life and the text looks back on the days when “the noble’s blessings were blessings and their curses were curses, and their prayers used to be answered”. Much later when the Turks acquired the Islamic faith, the scribe’s writings reflect the changes in customs and consider the Oghuz customs to be antiquated e.g. “In the days of the Oghuz the rule was that when a young man married he would shoot an arrow and wherever that arrow fell he would set up his marriage tent.” Another change is that when the Turks settled into a sedentary way of life, place names interchanged, e.g. Georgian kings had Turkic names and Central Asian Rivers such as the Emet flow through the plains of Anatolia. However, none of this takes away from the drama, philosophy and beauty of the stories. And although these stories are steeped in an age when fighting off the enemy was common place, they show a deep yearning for peace and tranquility.

The first page of Kitab-i Dedem Korkut, 16th-century Dresden manuscript. Museum of History of Azerbaijan, Baku Country Turkey Azerbaijan Turkmenistan Language Oghuz Turkish Subject

The first page of Kitab-i Dedem Korkut, 16th-century Dresden manuscript. Museum of History

If the black mountains lying out there were quite safe,

Then people would go there to live.

If the rivers whose waters flow bloody were safe,

They would all food their banks for joy.

If the black stallions were safe,

They would then sire colts,

If the camel were safe in the midst of the herd,

She would mother young camels there.

If the white sheep were safe in the field,

She would bear her lambs,

And if gallant princes were safe,

They would all be the fathers of sons.

(From “The Book of Dede Korkut” Translated by Faruk Sumer, Ahmet E. Uysal, and Warren S. Walker)

Dede manuscript images

Dede manuscript images

The Embroiderer

The Embroiderer1822: During one of the bloodiest massacres of The Greek War of Independence, a child is born to a woman of legendary beauty in the Byzantine monastery of Nea Moni on the Greek island of Chios. The subsequent decades of bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks simmer to a head when the Greek army invades Turkey in 1919. During this time, Dimitra Lamartine arrives in Smyrna and gains fame and fortune as an embroiderer to the elite of Ottoman society. However it is her grand-daughter Sophia, who takes the business to great heights only to see their world come crashing down with the outbreak of The Balkan Wars, 1912-13. In 1922, Sophia begins a new life in Athens but the memory of a dire prophecy once told to her grandmother about a girl with flaming red hair begins to haunt her with devastating consequences.

1972: Eleni Stephenson is called to the bedside of her dying aunt in Athens. In a story that rips her world apart, Eleni discovers the chilling truth behind her family’s dark past plunging her into the shadowy world of political intrigue, secret societies and espionage where families and friends are torn apart and where a belief in superstition simmers just below the surface.

Set against the mosques and minarets of Asia Minor and the ruins of ancient Athens, The Embroiderer is a gripping saga of love and loss, hope and despair, and of the extraordinary courage of women in the face of adversity.

The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.

You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.

Purchase directly from the publisher here:

Published by SilverWood Books Ltd.

CornucopiaCornucopia is the award-winning magazine for connoisseurs of Turkey.
The Embroiderer can also now be purchased from the Cornucopia web site.

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