Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter III

Constantinople

Even if we don’t take a part in the chant about “mosques and minarets,” we can still yield praises to Stamboul. We can chant about the harbour; we can say, and sing, that nowhere else does the sea come so home to a city; there are no pebbly shores — no sand bars — no slimy river-beds — no black canals — no locks nor docks to divide the very heart of the place from the deep waters. If being in the noisiest mart of Stamboul you would stroll to the quiet side of the way amidst those cypresses opposite, you will cross the fathomless Bosphorus; if you would go from your hotel to the bazaars, you must go by the bright, blue pathway of the Golden Horn, that can carry a thousand sail of the line. You are accustomed to the gondolas that glide among the palaces of St. Mark, but here at Stamboul it is a 120 gun ship that meets you in the street. Venice strains out from the steadfast land, and in old times would send forth the chief of the State to woo and wed the reluctant sea; but the stormy bride of the Doge is the bowing slave of the Sultan. She comes to his feet with the treasures of the world — she bears him from palace to palace — by some unfailing witchcraft she entices the breezes to follow her 5 and fan the pale cheek of her lord — she lifts his armed navies to the very gates of his garden — she watches the walls of his serai — she stifles the intrigues of his ministers — she quiets the scandals of his courts — she extinguishes his rivals, and hushes his naughty wives all one by one. So vast are the wonders of the deep!

All the while that I stayed at Constantinople the plague was prevailing, but not with any degree of violence. Its presence, however, lent a mysterious and exciting, though not very pleasant, interest to my first knowledge of a great Oriental city; it gave tone and colour to all I saw, and all I felt — a tone and a colour sombre enough, but true, and well befitting the dreary monuments of past power and splendour. With all that is most truly Oriental in its character the plague is associated; it dwells with the faithful in the holiest quarters of their city. The coats and the hats of Pera are held to be nearly as innocent of infection as they are ugly in shape and fashion; but the rich furs and the costly shawls, the broidered slippers and the gold-laden saddle-cloths, the fragrance of burning aloes and the rich aroma of patchouli — these are the signs that mark the familiar home of plague. You go out from your queenly London — the centre of the greatest and strongest amongst all earthly dominions — you go out thence, and travel on to the capital of an Eastern Prince, you find but a waning power, and a faded splendour, that inclines you to laugh and mock; but let the infernal Angel of Plague be at hand, and he, more mighty than armies, more terrible than Suleyman in his glory, can restore such pomp and majesty to the weakness of the Imperial city, that if, WHEN HE IS THERE, you must still go prying amongst the shades of this dead empire, at least you will tread the path with seemly reverence and awe.

It is the firm faith of almost all the Europeans living in the East that Plague is conveyed by the touch of infected substances, and that the deadly atoms especially lurk in all kinds of clothes and furs. It is held safer to breathe the same air with a man sick of the plague, and even to come in contact with his skin, than to be touched by the smallest particle of woollen or of thread which may have been within the reach of possible infection. If this be a right notion, the spread of the malady must be materially aided by the observance of a custom prevailing amongst the people of Stamboul. It is this; when an Osmanlee dies, one of his dresses is cut up, and a small piece of it is sent to each of his friends as a memorial of the departed — a fatal present, according to the opinion of the Franks, for it too often forces the living not merely to remember the dead man, but to follow and bear him company.

The Europeans during the prevalence of the plague, if they are forced to venture into the streets, will carefully avoid the touch of every human being whom they pass. Their conduct in this respect shows them strongly in contrast with the “true believers”: the Moslem stalks on serenely, as though he were under the eye of his God, and were “equal to either fate”; the Franks go crouching and slinking from death, and some (those chiefly of French extraction) will fondly strive to fence out destiny with shining capes of oilskin!

For some time you may manage by great care to thread your way through the streets of Stamboul without incurring contact, for the Turks, though scornful of the terrors felt by the Franks, are generally very courteous in yielding to that which they hold to be a useless and impious precaution, and will let you pass safe if they can. It is impossible, however, that your immunity can last for any length of time if you move about much through the narrow streets and lanes of a crowded city.

As for me, I soon got “compromised.” After one day of rest, the prayers of my hostess began to lose their power of keeping me from the pestilent side of the Golden Horn. Faithfully promising to shun the touch of all imaginable substances, however enticing, I set off very cautiously, and held my way uncompromised till I reached the water’s edge; but before my caique was quite ready some rueful-looking fellows came rapidly shambling down the steps with a plague-stricken corpse, which they were going to bury amongst the faithful on the other side of the water. I contrived to be so much in the way of this brisk funeral, that I was not only touched by the men bearing the body, but also, I believe, by the foot of the dead man, as it hung lolling out of the bier. This accident gave me such a strong interest in denying the soundness of the contagion theory, that I did in fact deny and repudiate it altogether; and from that time, acting upon my own convenient view of the matter, I went wherever I chose, without taking any serious pains to avoid a touch. It seems to me now very likely that the Europeans are right, and that the plague may be really conveyed by contagion; but during the whole time of my remaining in the East, my views on this subject more nearly approached to those of the fatalists; and so, when afterwards the plague of Egypt came dealing his blows around me, I was able to live amongst the dying without that alarm and anxiety which would inevitably have pressed upon my mind if I had allowed myself to believe that every passing touch was really a probable death-stroke.

And perhaps as you make your difficult way through a steep and narrow alley, shut in between blank walls, and little frequented by passers, you meet one of those coffin-shaped bundles of white linen that implies an Ottoman lady. Painfully struggling against the obstacles to progression interposed by the many folds of her clumsy drapery, by her big mud-boots, and especially by her two pairs of slippers, she works her way on full awkwardly enough, but yet there is something of womanly consciousness in the very labour and effort with which she tugs and lifts the burthen of her charms. She is closely followed by her women slaves. Of her very self you see nothing except the dark, luminous eyes that stare against your face, and the tips of the painted fingers depending like rose-buds from out of the blank bastions of the fortress. She turns, and turns again, and carefully glances around her on all sides, to see that she is safe from the eyes of Mussulmans, and then suddenly withdrawing the yashmak, 6 she shines upon your heart and soul with all the pomp and might of her beauty. And this, it is not the light, changeful grace that leaves you to doubt whether you have fallen in love with a body, or only a soul; it is the beauty that dwells secure in the perfectness of hard, downright outlines, and in the glow of generous colour. There is fire, though, too — high courage and fire enough in the untamed mind, or spirit, or whatever it is, which drives the breath of pride through those scarcely parted lips.

You smile at pretty women — you turn pale before the beauty that is great enough to have dominion over you. She sees, and exults in your giddiness; she sees and smiles; then presently, with a sudden movement, she lays her blushing fingers upon your arm, and cries out, “Yumourdjak!” (Plague! meaning, “there is a present of the plague for you!”) This is her notion of a witticism. It is a very old piece of fun, no doubt — quite an Oriental Joe Miller; but the Turks are fondly attached, not only to the institutions, but also to the jokes of their ancestors; so the lady’s silvery laugh rings joyously in your ears, and the mirth of her women is boisterous and fresh, as though the bright idea of giving the plague to a Christian had newly lit upon the earth.

Methley began to rally very soon after we had reached Constantinople; but there seemed at first to be no chance of his regaining strength enough for travelling during the winter, and I determined to stay with my comrade until he had quite recovered; so I bought me a horse, and a “pipe of tranquillity,” 7 and took a Turkish phrase-master. I troubled myself a great deal with the Turkish tongue, and gained at last some knowledge of its structure. It is enriched, perhaps overladen, with Persian and Arabic words, imported into the language chiefly for the purpose of representing sentiments and religious dogmas, and terms of art and luxury, entirely unknown to the Tartar ancestors of the present Osmanlees; but the body and the spirit of the old tongue are yet alive, and the smooth words of the shopkeeper at Constantinople can still carry understanding to the ears of the untamed millions who rove over the plains of Northern Asia. The structure of the language, especially in its more lengthy sentences, is very like to the Latin: the subject matters are slowly and patiently enumerated, without disclosing the purpose of the speaker until he reaches the end of his sentence, and then at last there comes the clenching word, which gives a meaning and connection to all that has gone before. If you listen at all to speaking of this kind your attention, rather than be suffered to flag, must grow more and more lively as the phrase marches on.

The Osmanlees speak well. In countries civilised according to the European plan the work of trying to persuade tribunals is almost all performed by a set of men, the great body of whom very seldom do anything else; but in Turkey this division of labour has never taken place, and every man is his own advocate. The importance of the rhetorical art is immense, for a bad speech may endanger the property of the speaker, as well as the soles of his feet and the free enjoyment of his throat. So it results that most of the Turks whom one sees have a lawyer-like habit of speaking connectedly, and at length. Even the treaties continually going on at the bazaar for the buying and selling of the merest trifles are carried on by speechifying rather than by mere colloquies, and the eternal uncertainty as to the market value of things in constant sale gives room enough for discussion. The seller is for ever demanding a price immensely beyond that for which he sells at last, and so occasions unspeakable disgust in many Englishmen, who cannot see why an honest dealer should ask more for his goods than he will really take! The truth is, however, that an ordinary tradesman of Constantinople has no other way of finding out the fair market value of his property. The difficulty under which he labours is easily shown by comparing the mechanism of the commercial system in Turkey with that of our own country. In England, or in any other great mercantile country, the bulk of the things bought and sold goes through the hands of a wholesale dealer, and it is he who higgles and bargains with an entire nation of purchasers by entering into treaty with retail sellers. The labour of making a few large contracts is sufficient to give a clue for finding the fair market value of the goods sold throughout the country; but in Turkey, from the primitive habits of the people, and partly from the absence of great capital and great credit, the importing merchant, the warehouseman, the wholesale dealer, the retail dealer, and the shopman, are all one person. Old Moostapha, or Abdallah, or Hadgi Mohamed waddles up from the water’s edge with a small packet of merchandise, which he has bought out of a Greek brigantine, and when at last he has reached his nook in the bazaar he puts his goods BEFORE the counter, and himself UPON it; then laying fire to his tchibouque he “sits in permanence,” and patiently waits to obtain “the best price that can be got in an open market.” This is his fair right as a seller, but he has no means of finding out what that best price is except by actual experiment. He cannot know the intensity of the demand, or the abundance of the supply, otherwise than by the offers which may be made for his little bundle of goods; so he begins by asking a perfectly hopeless price, and then descends the ladder until he meets a purchaser, for ever

“Striving to attain By shadowing out the unattainable.”

This is the struggle which creates the continual occasion for debate. The vendor, perceiving that the unfolded merchandise has caught the eye of a possible purchaser, commences his opening speech. He covers his bristling broadcloths and his meagre silks with the golden broidery of Oriental praises, and as he talks, along with the slow and graceful waving of his arms, he lifts his undulating periods, upholds and poises them well, till they have gathered their weight and their strength, and then hurls them bodily forward with grave, momentous swing. The possible purchaser listens to the whole speech with deep and serious attention; but when it is over HIS turn arrives. He elaborately endeavours to show why he ought not to buy the things at a price twenty times larger than their value. Bystanders attracted to the debate take a part in it as independent members; the vendor is heard in reply, and coming down with his price, furnishes the materials for a new debate. Sometimes, however, the dealer, if he is a very pious Mussulman, and sufficiently rich to hold back his ware, will take a more dignified part, maintaining a kind of judicial gravity, and receiving the applicants who come to his stall as if they were rather suitors than customers. He will quietly hear to the end some long speech that concludes with an offer, and will answer it all with the one monosyllable “Yok,” which means distinctly “No.”

I caught one glimpse of the old heathen world. My habits for studying military subjects had been hardening my heart against poetry; for ever staring at the flames of battle, I had blinded myself to the lesser and finer lights that are shed from the imaginations of men. In my reading at this time I delighted to follow from out of Arabian sands the feet of the armed believers, and to stand in the broad, manifest storm-track of Tartar devastation; and thus, though surrounded at Constantinople by scenes of much interest to the “classical scholar,” I had cast aside their associations like an old Greek grammar, and turned my face to the “shining Orient,” forgetful of old Greece and all the pure wealth she left to this matter-of-fact-ridden world. But it happened to me one day to mount the high grounds overhanging the streets of Pera. I sated my eyes with the pomps of the city and its crowded waters, and then I looked over where Scutari lay half veiled in her mournful cypresses. I looked yet farther and higher, and saw in the heavens a silvery cloud that stood fast and still against the breeze: it was pure and dazzling white, as might be the veil of Cytherea, yet touched with such fire, as though from beneath the loving eyes of an immortal were shining through and through. I knew the bearing, but had enormously misjudged its distance and underrated its height, and so it was as a sign and a testimony, almost as a call from the neglected gods, and now I saw and acknowledged the snowy crown of the Mysian Olympus!

5 There is almost always a breeze either from the Marmora or from the Black Sea, that passes along the course of the Bosphorus.

6 The yashmak, you know, is not a mere semi-transparent veil, but rather a good substantial petticoat applied to the face; it thoroughly conceals all the features, except the eyes; the way of withdrawing it is by pulling it down.

7 The “pipe of tranquillity” is a tchibouque too long to be conveniently carried on a journey; the possession of it therefore implies that its owner is stationary, or at all events, that he is enjoying a long repose from travel.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44