BLOG 45 09/02/2017 Matrakçı Nasuh: The Bosnian Leonardo da Vinci of the Ottoman Empire

Posted in on 9 February, 2017 in News

Matrakçı Nasuh: The Bosnian Leonardo da Vinci of the Ottoman Empire

Nasuh bin Karagöz bin Abdullah el-Visokavi el-Bosnavî better known as Matrakçı Nasuh, was a 16th century Bosnian mathematician, teacher, historian, cartographer, swordmaster, painter and illustrator. He was born in the town of Visoko and recruited as a Janissary under devşirme system common in the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. This was the system where promising young boys were recruited from the Christian communities of the empire to be brought up as a Moslem and trained either as a Jannisary or some other occupation depending on their aptitude. Many of these children grew up to become extremely influential in the Sultan’s court – Grand Viziers, doctors, etc. Bosnia was an exception to the rule as there the young boys were also recruited from Moslem families. Matrakçi Nasuh’s family were Moslem.

Matrakçi Nasuh was educated and trained in the Palace school during the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512) and studied with one of Sultan Bayezid’s teachers. During the reign of Sultan Selim I (1512-1520), he started to distinguish himself as a knight. He went to Egypt in 1520, for advanced studies and attended military games, at which he became unrivalled.He received the nickname “Matrakçi” after he created the game called Matrak. Matrak means ‘amazing’ in Turkish and ‘çi’ is a suffix. Therefore his nickname means “who plays (invents) the amazing game. The game was a contest with either a stick, a cudgel or rapier. The purpose was training for war. He also wrote a drill-book for it and taught it to the soldiers. A decree of 1529 of Sultan Süleyman praises al-Matrakî as the master knight –”ustad” or “raîs”– of his time, incomparable in the whole Ottoman Empire in the art of war and methods of using the lance. He copied this decree into his book “Umdat al-Hussab”. According to the decree, he used to play war games while he was in Egypt during governorship of Hayr Bey.

Showing a great intellect, he was soon to be recruited into the navy. As a mathematician he is known to have developed the lattice method which he taught at the school in Enderun long before John Napier introduced it to Europe around the time he published his work on logarithms in 1614.

Matrakçi also invented a new type of calligraphic script called “kalem-i dîvânî” for the Dîvân, where he was head of the clerks. Until that time, the Ottomans had used Iranian style calligraphy.

During his time he produced several manuscripts, the most famous one being the “Menazilname” or “Book of Stages”. In this rare and valuable manuscript which is housed in the library of Istanbul University, he depicts the 1534-35 military campaign undertaken by Süleyman the Magnificent against the Safavid rulers of Iran and Iraq. In the process of this campaign, Süleyman’s army conquered northern and central Iraq. Matrakci Nasuh captures the stages of the campaign in a series of 107 beautifully illustrated paintings. As with Piri Reis’s great “The Book of Navigation”, written a few years earlier, these illustrations give us a bird’s eye view of the landscape, citadel, and towns, a style similar to those used by European cartographers at the time. But like Piri Reis’s, they are uniquely Ottoman and show a great accomplishment in the art of illustration and understanding of the geography.

Istanbul. Encampment re ady for war with wire-walkers

A section of Constantinople


I particularly like the detail in Matrakci’s work as they give us a real insight in the Ottoman lands during this period. So beautifully illustrated are they that we find ourselves wandering the streets with their decorative architectural details, peering into the windows of homes, walking along the river banks that meander around and through the citadels, the beauty of the flora of the region in springtime. Only the desert areas remain bare of flowers yet even there we catch a glimpse of a gazelle or a well in a tiny oasis. How small some of these towns appear to us now when surrounded by Ottoman Military tents with the Sultan’s retinue containing everything from the women in the harem to the wire-walkers and other such entertainment meant to lift the spirits for battle. In these paintings we really do catch a glimpse of the Ottoman world of the great Suleyman the Magnificent.


Baghdad showing city plan, pontoon bridge and great walls.

Szigetvár before the siege.

A documentary film about him was produced by the Turkish Radio and Television in 1979.

The EmbroidererThe 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.