Skip to main content

Geographies and Histories of the Ottoman Supernatural Tradition Exploring Magic, the Marvelous, and the Strange in Ottoman Mentalities

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - GHOST (Geographies and Histories of the Ottoman Supernatural TraditionExploring Magic, the Marvelous, and the Strange in Ottoman Mentalities)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

The project GHOST highlights a little-explored aspect of Ottoman culture, namely notions and belief systems concerning nature and the supernatural. By exploring the borders between natural and supernatural and the shifts from knowledgeable to unknowledgeable, and by connecting such shifts and changes with different cultural sets corresponding to various social actors, such a study addresses a wider problématique on the Ottoman culture and its place in early modernity, linking this discussion with theories on the disenchantment of the world and enlightenment. As far as it concerns other Islamicate cultures and especially in medieval times, the last decades have witnessed several scholarly studies on issues such as magic, occult sciences or geography of marvelous. However, little work has been done in Ottoman studies.
The major aims of the project could be set as follows: first, to explore the meaning and content of what different social and cultural groups in Ottoman society meant by “marvelous”, “strange” or “extraordinary”, and, vice versa, the correspondent notions that covered what we now describe as “supernatural/preternatural”; second, to specify the Ottoman attitude(s) against beliefs in such phenomena or practice of such methods, both holy (e.g. miracles of dervishes) and suspect (magic, witchcraft); third, to localize these beliefs in the various Ottoman systems of thought: for instance, to show how different authors might attribute such phenomena to actions by the jinn or, alternatively, to a secret interaction of the cosmic elements; fourth, to analyze the various ways that changes took place from the mid-seventeenth century onwards (for instance, to study whether certain phenomena were pushed from the field of “inexplicable” to the field of “marvelous”; whether we can speak of any trend to “rationalize” the image of the world, and in what terms; in other terms, whether the Weberian notion of “disenchantment” can be applied in an Ottoman context). Last but not least, the project aims to associate these changes with emerging or declining layers of culture and specific social groups, in connection with the social changes throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
To this aim, the project will trace the semantic shifts in terms denoting nature, miracles, magic and so forth; it will examine miracles, dreams and their configuration, and the various world visions: of the science of letters, of the role of stars, of the homologies and hierarchies of the microcosm and the macrocosm. And if the above concern the field of the “supernatural”, there is also the “preternatural”, i.e. what is deemed natural (not miraculous) but inexplicable (the “paranormal” in modern terms): wonders of the world, hermetic knowledge, the jinn, and of course the shifting ways to interpret natural phenomena. A second direction of research studies efforts and techniques designed in order to establish human control over such phenomena: in other words, Ottoman occult sciences, such as divination, magic, astrology, alchemy and so forth; their epistemology, their place in the taxonomy of knowledge and the rationale beyond their foundation and use: the limits of possible human influence, the relationship with vernacular practices and so forth. Debates on the illicitness or the reliability of occult sciences (for instance, critics of astrology) are of course highly relevant to the subject.
The research team includes the PI (Marinos Sariyannis), two post-doctoral researchers (Zeynep Aydoğan, Işık Demirakin), three doctoral and several MA students and support staff, as well as a team of researchers collaborating as Third Parties: E. Menchinger (University of Manchester), A. Niyazioğlu (Oxford University), B. H. Küçük (University of Pennsylvania), A. T. Şen (Columbia University), G. Işıksel (Medeniyet University), and F. Coşkun (Özyegin University). It is hosted by the Institute for Mediterranean Studies of the Foundation of Research and Technology – Hellas, in Rethymno, Greece. The project maintains a web portal ( which will host all the deliverables of the research. A bio-bibliographical dictionary and a bibliographie raisonnée of Ottoman sources pertaining to the subject is being compiled, and three international conferences are to be held (the first took place in December 2019). The research will also result in monographs by the PI and the post-doc fellows, as well as to several other papers and conferences. Furthermore, some minor tasks are allotted to two researchers recruited as subcontractors (K. Ivanyi, G. Tunalı): namely, searching library catalogues and collecting manuscripts on subjects related to the project, contributing with entries to the project database, assisting with transcriptions of manuscripts and assistance in reading texts in Arabic.
A survey of the primary and secondary literature has been completed and the results are gradually being uploaded in the website of the project ( and Archival research for unpublished manuscripts has also been conducted; furthermore, a great number of manuscript sources has been located online. Due to the pandemic, most research travels have been suspended since February 2020, but with the last amendment two research assistants were subcontracted in order to locate, collect and transliterate manuscripts from Central Europe and Istanbul libraries. The results of these surveys are being used in various publications and in the ongoing bio-bibliographical dictionary for sources relevant to the topic of the project.
Research on the project’s topic has been carried out with great success so far, and parts of it have been presented in international conferences and meetings (see A highly successful international workshop on “Nature and the supernatural in Ottoman culture” was convened at the Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey, on 14-15 December 2019 (see Finally, the project launched an online, open access journal of the project (Aca’ib: Occasional Papers on the Ottoman Perceptions of the Supernatural,
Apart from a small number of recent PhD dissertations on specific branches of the occult sciences, Ottomanist scholarship had so far almost completely neglected perceptions and uses of the supernatural. The GHOST project has the ambition to fill this gap and thus contribute to a new stage of Ottoman cultural, intellectual but also social history. All members of the team have concentrated in different aspects of this topic, as described in the research proposal, and collectively they plan to fully map Ottoman occult sciences, perceptions of nature vs. the preternatural and the supernatural, and the relationship of these sets of ideas with conflicting social groups and intellectual trends. A full indexing of the relevant sources and the first specialized scientific journal, as well as the international conferences, will contribute to highlight this aspect of Ottoman cultural history. The final monographs and papers will cover a great gap, and the project has already attracted significant interest by both Ottomanist and Arabist specialists.
The seventy Greek scholars struck dead by the curse of Hermes. 16th century, The Walters Art Muse