Evliya Chelebi: Seyahatanamé (2)

In this selection, Evliya Chelebi describes the casting of cannon in Topkhané (Tophané), a district of Istanbul. Not surprisingly, the name means “cannon foundry” in Turkish.

Topkhané in the time of the Infidels was a convent situated in the midst of a forest where now stands the mosque of Jihangír. It was dedicated to St. Alexander, and the infidels still visit it once a year on that Saint's feast day. A tradition says that Iskendér Zulkarnéin chained to this spot a number of magicians and witches from the country of Gog and Magog by heaping mountains upon them, with the injunction to go to sea during the forty winter days in brazen ships and keep watch over the waters surrounding Constantinople; but those demons having cut passage through the mountains enclosing the Black Sea, it broke through the Bosphorus engulfing the demons in the waters.

Mehmét II erected at this spot the gun-foundry which Bayazít II subsequently enlarged, adding the barracks. In the time of Suleymán I, who reigned forty-eight years, all kings and monarchs yielded peacefully to his sway with the exception of the Emperor of Germany who continued at war. Of these forty-eight years Suleymán spent four in waging war in Arabia, four in Persia, four against the Venetians, and thirty-six against the Emperor of Germany. These Germans be a race of strong, warlike, cunning, devilish, coarse infidels whom, excelling as they did in artillery, Sultán Suleymán endeavored to get equal with by recruiting gunners and artillerymen from all countries with the offer of rich rewards. He pulled down the gun foundry built by his predecessors and erected a new one; no one who has not seen it is able to judge of that which may be achieved by human strength and intelligence....

On the day when cannon are to be cast, the masters, foremen, and founder, together with the Grand Master of Artillery, the Chief Overseer, Imam, Muézzin and timekeeper, all assemble and, to their cries of 'Allâh! Allâh!,' the wood is thrown into the furnaces. After these have been heated for twenty-four hours, the founders and stokers strip naked, wearing nothing but their slippers, an odd kind of cap which leaves nothing but their eyes visible, and thick sleeves to protect their arms; for, after the fire has been alight in the furnaces twenty-four hours, no person can approach on account of the heat save he be attired in the above manner. Whoever wishes to see a good picture of the fires of Hell should witness this sight.

The twenty-four hours having elapsed, the Vezirs, the Mufti and Sheikhs are summoned; only forty persons, besides the personnel of the foundry, are admitted all told. The rest of the attendants are shut out, because the metal, when in fusion, will not suffer to be looked at by evil eyes. The masters then desire the Vezirs and sheikhs who are seated on sofas at a great distance to repeat unceasingly the words 'There is no power and strength save Allâh!' 'Thereupon the master-workmen with wooden shovels throw several hundredweight of tin into the sea of molten brass, and the head-founder says to the Grand Vizier, Vezirs and Sheikhs: 'Throw some gold and silver coins into the brazen sea as alms, in the name of the True Faith!' Poles as long as the yards of ships are used for mixing the gold and silver with the metal and are replaced as fast as consumed.

As soon as the surface of the brass begins to bubble, the master workmen know that it is in a complete state of fusion. More wood is thrown into the furnaces, great care being taken that not a drop of water gets in, because a drop of water thrown into the molten brass would burst asunder the gun-mould and wipe out all those present. On both sides of the ovens forty to fifty sheep are kept in readiness. The whole company then rise to their feet, the timekeeper giving notice to the master of the furnace half an hour before it is time to open the mouth. The almoner recites the accustomed prayers, and the whole assembly cry aloud: 'Amen.' All are very fervent and zealous in their prayers, for it is a most dangerous business and one in which many master-workmen and vezirs have lost their lives.

The time-limit having expired and been announced by the timekeeper, the head-founder and master-workmen, attired in their clumsy felt dresses, open the mouth of the furnace with iron hooks exclaiming 'Allâh! Allâh!' The metal, as it begins to flow, casts a glare on the men's faces at a hundred paces' distance. The Vezirs and sheikhs, donning white shirts, sacrifice the sheep on either side of the furnace. The metal flows from channel to channel into the moulds, the largest taking half and hour to fill; the stream of brass is then stopped by a mass of oily clay and flows on to the next. Prayers are said once again, and so on till the end, when seventy robes of honour are distributed and increases of pay granted. The men doff their dresses of felt, and the Grand Master of Artillery gives a feast in honour of the Grand Vizier....

Alexander Pallis, In the Days of the Janissaries: Old Turkish Life as Depicted in the “Travel-Book” of Evliya Chelebi (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1951), pp. 89-91.

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