Some prominent Ottoman-era travellers vividly captured vampire epidemics and witch fights in travelogues centuries before Western literature popularised them.

We encounter many stories about witches and vampires in popular culture that can mostly be seen in cinemas or read in books.

Considering vampires, we can count books and movies such as Dracula and the Twilight series. And for witches, Suspiria and Blair the Witch Project are famous almost everywhere.

Irish author Bram Stoker's Dracula novel written in the late 19th-century in this regard has inspired countless vampire stories that we know today.

The depth and rippling complexity of these stories have attracted many of us as they shed light on something mysterious and unknown. Although many of us consider them as unreal, much of the literature on witches and vampires is based on historical accounts and beliefs largely attributed to Western culture. 

The Salem witch trials of women who were believed to be possessed by the devil and accused of witchcraft in the US state Massachusetts between 1962-1963, reflected how deeply a human society can be affected by this phenomenon. 

Folklores and fears around villages

Although vampire and witch concepts are currently linked with Western historical sources, these terms and tales have initially occurred in today's Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Balkans. 

The story of Dracula was influenced by Vlad the Impaler himself, the ruler of the Wallachian principality, which was dependent on the Ottoman Empire back then.

''Although we see vampire and witch terms in western culture now, we know that previously, there were some beliefs and rumours about these phenomena particularly in the Orthodox fraction of the Rumelia and Balkan lands, which were formerly under Ottoman rule,'' Historian Mehmet Berk Yaltırık told TRT WORLD.

The origins of these myths and stories start to be seen a lot from the 15th century, especially in the Carpathian mountains, Romania. At that time, the Balkans were under Ottoman rule, and this phenomenon is referred to as a vampire epidemic in many Ottoman travel books, especially in church records.

Aysegul Sofuoglu, a Turkish researcher who has studied Ottoman-era literature on vampires, says there have been disagreements between the people and the church about fighting vampires.

''The first practice is to cremate the corpse or decapitate it or drive a stake through its heart. The Church opposes them. These records show that in the 15th-16th centuries this was actually a common phenomenon in the Balkan lands''.

Sofuoglu explains that Muslim people consulted local Muslim judges as they were terrified after purportedly witnessing the cases of witches and vampires in different towns and villages.

''In fact, Ebusuud Efendi has 3 fatwas (Islamic law rulings) about the so-called vampires. So we understand that these events and rumours were spread over the Ottoman capital city, Istanbul, in the late 15th and early 16th century,'' Sofuoglu told TRT World, arguing that the fatwas on vampires issued by Sheikh al Islam Ebussud Efendi, the person who was granted the highest authority in religious matters by the Ottoman state, were exceptional.

As the Muslim people were afraid and concerned by these events near their villages, local Muslim judges were consulted on vampire and witch cases
As the Muslim people were afraid and concerned by these events near their villages, local Muslim judges were consulted on vampire and witch cases (Courtesy of Sedat Bornovali)

Seyahatname: Unfolding the supernatural

We mostly witness the stories and ventures of vampire and witch cases through Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi, who was one of the 17th century's few prose writers and leading wanderers.

Celebi was a very eccentric person who could not deprive his passion for journeying the vast expanse of Ottoman lands, covering at least 257 cities, moving from one territory to another, and spending 51 years of his 71-year lifetime on the road.

Desiring to immortalize and chronicle all his trips, he gathered what he saw in his 4,000-pages long, 10-volume book called Seyahatname (Book of Travels) which is considered as one of the most unique sources of world history.

Turkish historian Yaltırık stated that with his Seyahatname, Celebi was able to convey to the world many valuable narratives, not only in terms of historical studies but also in terms of folklore investigations and reconnaissances.

''Evliya Celebi wrote down all the beliefs he witnessed in the geographies and societies he went to in his Travel Book. There are many such supernatural elements in Seyahatname. We also understand that he personally experienced some of them,'' Yaltirik said.

The vampire and witch occasions that he told and witnessed through the pages of the Book of Travels are quite remarkable.

As an excessively bold investigator, Celebi narrated the extraordinary events he witnessed in the most remote places and darkest hours in his journey to the Balkans and the Caucasus.

We mostly witness the stories and ventures of vampire and witch cases through Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi.
We mostly witness the stories and ventures of vampire and witch cases through Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi. (Matt Dunham / AP)

War of witches

The first case occurred on the night of April 26, 1666, in the Pedsi village of the Caucasus, consisting of only 300 houses. In this village, Celebi experienced the war of witches in the sky. Then, one night, lightning hit suddenly.

Evliya Celebi asked Circassians to explain the situation to him.

And they answered that "Once a year, there is a night of karakoncolos. Circassian and Abkhaz witches fly in the sky and fight in a great war." Afterwards, they suggested not to be afraid of this view and to watch it at peace.

Karakoncolos denotes a mythical creature like a witch and demon in Circassian folklore. 

The battle, Celebi writes, lasted for about six hours. Limbs and pieces of flesh flew through the air while seven Abkhaz witches and Circassian witches fell to the ground, holding each other. 

Eventually, Circassian witches kill two Abkhaz witches by sucking their blood and throwing their remains into the fire. With the crowing of the roosters, as the day began to light up, the witches fled.

Celebi states that there are many denials about such stories, but many people witnessed that event with him.

Zombies and vampires

Celebi also tells the stories of vampires and zombies who drink human blood in the same region when it is the night of karakoncolos. 

According to what he learned from the local people, these zombies would come out at night and leave disease by sucking the blood of the person they pounced upon. After such cases, the people, together with a witch, set out to search for the grave where the blood-drinking zombie came from.

When the grave is found, they would dig and the zombie whose eyes have turned bloodshot from drinking blood would be taken out and stabbed with a blackberry stake. And, the sick person would regain his/her former health.

Again, according to what Celebi narrates, some witches would live undercover to avoid being recognized by the people. But when a witch gets mad, he/she would suck someone's blood from behind his/her ear. The victim's health would deteriorate day by day.

Immediately, that person's relatives would find a "witch master", who would wander from village to village and town to town in search of the witch with bloodshot eyes. They would chain the witch after capturing him  

After finding him/her, they would capture and chain the witch. 

And after confessing he or she is a witch, the locals would immediately stab it with the same blackberry stake. When the blood that comes out from stabbing is rubbed into the face of the soaked person, the patient begins to heal. On the other hand, the witch's carcass would be thrown into the fire and burned.

The fact that these and similar stories were included in the travel book of such a significant traveller like Evliya Celebi, and his mentioning of personal experiences, inevitably created debates among historians about the reality of these events.

Some witches would live undercover to avoid being recognized by the people. But when a witch gets mad, he/she would suck someone's blood from behind his/her ear.
Some witches would live undercover to avoid being recognized by the people. But when a witch gets mad, he/she would suck someone's blood from behind his/her ear. (Getty Images)

Were Celebi's assessments far-fetched?

First, it is useful to refer to the relationship between a well-known Ottoman strategy called the resettlement policy and these fatwas.

The resettlement policy was implemented by the Ottoman state to introduce the Muslim and Turkish culture to the conquered lands.

''Migration is a very important issue and the state did not want them to migrate back due to their fear of vampires and witches,'' said Sofuoglu.

For this reason, she added, these fatwas may have been issued with an intent to discourage the Muslim-Ottoman subjects from abandoning these lands. 

Sofuoglu said that although there is no agreed-upon point of emergence for these folklores, it may be related to ecological conditions, particularly in the Balkans.

''The Balkans are very wet places, they get a lot of rain. They say that unless you bury the dead too deep there, the corpse will likely come up in a swollen way. We can think that people were afraid of them and describe them as vampires. There can be such a rational explanation.''

Evliya Celebi's work on supernatural powers is exceptional in its narrative style, sharp prose and vivid detail, and it doesn't rely on displaying any material evidence.

''Evliya Celebi, as a matter of literary style, tells the stories as if he had experienced them. It is worth mentioning that he wrote what he heard from local people in a story-style.'' Yaltırık said while pointing that Çelebi tells the cultural background and beliefs of the places he travelled to in a personalized style.

"Consider him like a columnist of that period."

These justifications are still very controversial as there are many sources and travel books that explain such stories in these regions.

Although the authenticity of these stories can be debatable, one thing is clear, many Turkish historians would argue that Evliya Celebi's chronicles deserve to be remembered and recognized as one of the main inspirations behind modern-day literature on witches and vampires. 

Source: TRT World