Many of the anecdotes attributed to Nasreddin Hodja today do not belong to him, and his historical identity is shrouded in shadows.
6 Aralık 2023 Çarşamba

Some regard him as a wali (an Islamic saint) endowed with miracles, while others see him as a great folk philosopher and master of humor. His fame has spread throughout the world, and his witty remarks have been translated into numerous languages. However, the life of this great individual is not well-known. Among the public, there are various conflicting narratives about his life.

This stems from the failure of the enlightened class, literary figures, historians, and biographers of the Ottoman era to show the deserved interest in this Turkish sage. The information extracted from his anecdotes has always been misleading because perhaps even half of the widely loved Nasreddin Hodja stories are not truly his own.

For centuries, every witty remark and joke admired by the public has been directly attributed to Nasreddin Hodja. Years ago, I listened with amazement to dozens of "Molla Nasreddin" jokes that my Azerbaijani friend Mukhtar Ismailov shared in Russia. Among them were jokes related to the Pope, Stalin, and even Brigitte Bardot.

A picture of Nasreddin Hodja drawn by Ratip Tahir Bey
A picture of Nasreddin Hodja drawn by Ratip Tahir Bey

Last Stop: Akşehir

Bursalı Mehmet Tahir, Turkish biographer (d.1925), meticulously examined Hodja's life on-site and provided the information he obtained to Mehmet Fuat Köprülü, Turkish historian (d. 1966), who then published this information at the beginning of the verses containing Hodja's anecdotes. The data extracted from old waqf records appears to be the closest to truth and reason among the existing narratives.

According to this, Nasreddin Hodja was born in 1208 in the village of Horto in Sivrihisar. Sivrihisar is now a district of Eskişehir. He is the son of the village's imam, Abdullah Efendi. He initially learned to read, write, Arabic, and religious knowledge from his father.

According to the information provided in the incomplete work titled "Majmua al-Ma'arif," written by Hasan Efendi, the mufti of Sivrihisar (d. 1887), based on old records, Nasreddin Hodja, at that time, sought knowledge and guidance from Sayyid Mahmud-i Hayrani (d. 1269) and Sayyid Haci İbrahim Sultan (XIIIth century), who had gained great renown in the vicinity. He transferred the village imamate inherited from his father to someone named Mehmed and left the village.

It is understood from various narratives that Nasreddin Hodja studied at a madrasa, traveled to and from Arabia, and served as a qadi (judge). He taught the jurisprudence book named "the Mukhtasar al-Quduri" and traveled to Konya, Ankara, and Bursa. Finally, upon arriving in Akşehir, Hodja liked the place very much, got married there, and lived a modest life. He passed away in Akşehir in 1284, and his tomb is also located there. Akşehir is now a district of Konya.

A picture of Nasreddin Hodja drawn by the painter Halid Bey
A picture of Nasreddin Hodja drawn by the painter Halid Bey

Are All Nasreddins the Same?

The name Nasreddin has misled some. İsmail Hami Bey, Turkish historian (d. 1967), claims that Nasreddin Mahmud, the son of Yavlak Aslan from The Chobanids (Turkish: Çobanoğulları), who served as the governor in Kastamonu and even for a while the Ottomans were subordinate to, is the same person as Nasreddin Hodja. However, İbrahim Hakkı Konyalı, Turkish historian (d. 1984), has refuted this claim with documents.

In recent times, some have claimed, without considering any documents or investigations, that Hodja is the same person as Nasiruddin Mahmud al-Khoyi, also known as Ahi Evran. There are even assertions that he was supposedly killed by Mawlana Rumi, who allegedly collaborated with the Mongols. The idea that Ahi Evran (d. 1261), who is already a legendary figure, was killed by the Turkish ruler of Kırşehir, Nureddin Jibril bin Cacabey (d. 1301), in collaboration with the Mongols, is a weak and dubious rumor.

Hodja's character and his anecdotes have counterparts found all over the world. Is it a mere coincidence? Most likely, many of them stem from the same source. In Arab culture, there's Juha; in German folklore, Till Eulenspiegel; among Americans, Paul Bunyan; in Bulgarian tradition, Hitar Petar; for the English, there's Joe Miller; among Italians, Bertoldo; in Russian culture, Balakirev; among Serbs, Kerempuh and Era; and in Japanese tradition, Ikkyu. The anecdotes share similar themes across these diverse cultures.

A 17th-century miniature depicting Nasreddin Hodja
A 17th-century miniature depicting Nasreddin Hodja

A Discerning Mind Would Understand

Although some verses may be incorrect, Nasreddin Hodja has been introduced through old stone-printed folk books. Unlike some foreign anecdotes inserted by the financial interests of old book printers, Hodja is noble, honest, elegant, and witty. He is entirely free from theft, sycophancy, and moral indecency. Anecdotes related to these subjects or deemed obscene are not his; they are attributed to him. A careful and discerning mind faces no difficulty in identifying what belongs to him.

His are the subtle and wise words that carry the true spirit of a man of the people. One can only expect such content from this contented, clever, and religious individual who earns his bread with his hands and mind in his own land and study.

If there is an air of excessive naivety in some of Hodja's stories, it is not due to his lack of knowledge or foolishness, but rather it stems from his desire to teach something to the people, make a witty remark, or simply his mischievous nature.

Some of his anecdotes contain such subtle satire that expressing them in the form of popular humor elevates his value to the highest degree.

Yes, he enjoys speaking in a contrary manner. However, there is no mockery or insult in him. Outgoing, cheerful, fatherly, and rational, he stands out as a character. He is quick-witted. The Turkish people appreciate figurative and allegorical speech, and his anecdotes have articulated the feelings of people.

A smile immediately forms on the lips at the mere mention of his name. Then, a wise, meaningful, pleasant, and amusing anecdote is expected. He is engaged with his personal circle, consisting of his wife, daughter, son, and donkey. His private world, which includes his students whom he loved and who loved him, locals, villagers, and townspeople, revolves around the triangle formed by Akşehir, Sivrihisar, and the village.

Popular Expressions

One of the events that has clouded the historical personality of Hodja is that the famous story of "appraising in the bath," which originally occurred between the 14th-century poet Taceddin Ahmedi and Timur (Tamerlane) was attributed to Hodja in later sources.

There is a gap of 1.5 centuries between them. Timur who was frequently mentioned in Nasreddin Hodja anecdotes was actually the commander of the Mongol army occupying Anatolia at that time, known as Gaykhatu. The story goes that Nasreddin Hodja, in his role as a defterdar (treasurer), managed to occasionally meet with him, gaining his trust and winning the gratitude of the people by preventing his oppressions.

Nasreddin Hodja's strong worldview has influenced both his contemporaries and those who came after him. Various folk beliefs have emerged around his persona. Even after his death in Akşehir, it became a tradition to visit his grave and invite him to weddings. Many expressions in folk culture, such as a stranger searching for another stranger's donkey while singing a song (indicating that a stranger won't try to solve your problem by putting in actual effort), spreading flour on a rope (avoiding doing something by making up excuses), sawing off the branch one is sitting on, saying "you are right too," and "his mother is crying" (indicating he is suffering a lot), are based on him.

Some later writers like Güvâhî, Lâmiî Çelebi, Yahya bey Dukagjini, Nevizade Atai, have included his anecdotes and jokes in their books with moral lessons. The oldest among them is Saltukname from 1480. It contains two anecdotes. In Hikayat-i Kitab-ı Nasreddin (1571), there are 43 anecdotes, and in the illustrated Letaif-i Nasreddin (1883), there are 71. Today, there are around 500 anecdotes attributed to Hodja, but most of them have passed into fictional books.

A photo of Nasreddin Hodja's tomb as it looked a century and a half ago
A photo of Nasreddin Hodja's tomb as it looked a century and a half ago

His Tomb Is Another Joke

Evliya Çelebi, famous traveler and writer (d. 1682), mentions that those who go to Akşehir and do not visit Hodja will face a punishment, while those who do visit will definitely encounter amusing things. He also narrates an incident from his own experience: "To check if the rumors were true, I turned left from the wide road towards the cemetery and headed straight to the blessed tomb of Hodja on horseback. I greeted once, and when a voice responded with 'wa alaykumu as-salam' from inside the tomb, my horse got scared and stood on its hind legs. One of its legs went into a grave. Poor me, I was about to experience the torment of the grave. A voice from the tomb shouted, 'Sir, come here, give your alms, and then go in peace.' It turns out the one speaking was the caretaker of the tomb."

The tomb was a tent-shaped dome supported by columns in the middle of the cemetery. It had no walls but was closed with a large lock on a door. This door was considered as evidence of Hodja's eccentricity, and the expression "Nasreddin Hodja's Tomb" originated from there, referring to open and dilapidated places. In 1878, railings were added around it. In the restoration during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1905, a conical dome was built.

In an extensive article about Hodja in the magazine named Bosphorus, Gottfried Albert writes that he traveled to Anatolia in 1915. Albert mentions that when he visited Akşehir, he put the large lock he had built in Istanbul on the tomb there to caricaturize the view. The date of death on the gravestone is also written in reverse with the same eccentricity.

According to popular rumors, Hodja's wife is buried in the Kozağaç village of Akşehir. There used to be a ruined house in Hortu, which was said to belong to Hodja, and there were people claiming to be his descendants. The gravestone of his sons is in Sultana village in Sivrihisar, and the gravestone of his daughter is in Sivrihisar. Hızır Bey, the first qadi of Istanbul and the teacher of Sultan Mehmed II, is the grandson of Hodja's daughter.

A photo of the current state of Nasreddin Hodja's tomb
A photo of the current state of Nasreddin Hodja's tomb

Run Run!

A while after Hodja's passing, on a Friday, the people had gathered for prayer at the Akşehir Ulu Mosque. Just as the prayer was about to begin, the elderly caretaker of the tomb rushed to the mosque. He loudly exclaimed, "Oh congregation, just as I was about to leave the tomb a short while ago, Hodja appeared. He quickly told me to run to the Ulu Mosque, call all the congregation here; if anyone doesn't come, he won't forgive them." They did not want to believe it, but upon his insistence, they couldn't resist and rushed to the tomb. As soon as the mosque emptied, there was a loud noise, and the dome collapsed. Faced with this miracle, everyone once again deeply connected to Hodja.