Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxiv.

From Belgrade. — Character of the Rascian soldiers — their priests — appearance of the field of Carlowitz, after the late battle between prince Eugene and the Turks — reception at, and account of Belgrade — the murder of the late Bassa — character of Achmet Beg.

To Mr Pope.

Belgrade, Feb. 12. O. S. 1717.

I DID verily intend to write you a long letter from Peterwaradin, where I expected to stay three or four days; but the bassa here was in such haste to see us, that he dispatched the courier back (which Mr W—— had sent to know the time he would send the convoy to meet us) without suffering him to pull off his boots. My letters were not thought important enough to stop our journey; and we left Peterwaradin the next day, being waited on by the chief officers of the garrison, and a considerable convoy of Germans and Rascians. The emperor has several regiments of these people; but, to say the truth, they are rather plunderers than soldiers; having no pay, and being obliged to furnish their own arms and horses; they rather look like vagabond gypsies, or stout beggars, than regular troops. I cannot forbear speaking a word of this race of creatures, who are very numerous all over Hungary. They have a patriarch of their own at Grand Cairo, and are really of the Greek church; but their extreme ignorance gives their priests occasion to impose several new notions upon them. These fellows, letting their hair and beard grow inviolate, make exactly the figure of the Indian bramins. They are heirs-general to all the money of the laity; for which, in return, they give them formal passports signed and sealed for heaven; and the wives and children only inherit the house and cattle. In most other points they follow the Greek church. — This little digression has interrupted my telling you we passed over the fields of Carlowitz, where the last great victory was obtained by prince Eugene over the Turks. The marks of that glorious bloody day are yet recent, the field being yet strewed with the skulls and carcasses of unburied men, horses, and camels. I could not look, without horror, on such numbers of mangled human bodies, nor without reflecting on the injustice of war, that makes murder not only necessary but meritorious. Nothing seems to be a plainer proof of the irrationality of mankind (whatever fine claims we pretend to reason) than the rage with which they contest for a small spot of ground, when such vast parts of fruitful earth lie quite uninhabited. ’Tis true, custom has now made it unavoidable; but can there be a greater demonstration of want of reason, than a custom being firmly established, so plainly contrary to the interest of man in general? I am a good deal inclined to believe Mr Hobbs, that the state of nature is a state of war; but thence I conclude human nature, not rational, if the word reason means common sense, as I suppose it does. I have a great many admirable arguments to support this refection; I won’t however trouble you with them, but return, in a plain style, to the history of my travels.

WE were met at Betsko (a village in the midway between Belgrade and Peterwaradin) by an aga of the janizaries, with a body of Turks, exceeding the Germans by one hundred men, though the bassa had engaged to send exactly the same number. You may judge by this of their fears. I am really persuaded, that they hardly thought the odds of one hundred men set them even with the Germans; however, I was very uneasy till they were parted, fearing some quarrel might arise, notwithstanding the parole given. We came late to Belgrade, the deep snows making the ascent to it very difficult. It seems a strong city, fortified on the east side by the Danube; and on the south by the river Save, and was formerly the barrier of Hungary. It was first taken by Solyman the Magnificent, and since by the emperor’s forces, led by the elector of Bavaria. The emperor held it only two Years, it being retaken by the grand vizier. It is now fortified with the utmost care and skill the Turks are capable of, and strengthened by a very numerous garrison of their bravest janizaries, commanded by a bassa seraskier (i.e. general) though this last expression is not very just; for, to say truth, the seraskier is commanded by the janizaries. These troops have an absolute authority here, and their conduct carries much more the aspect of rebellion, than the appearance of subordination. You may judge of this by the following story, which, at the same time, will give you an idea of the admirable intelligence of the governor of Peterwaradin, though so few hours distant. We were told by him at Peterwaradin, that the garrison and inhabitants of Belgrade were so weary of the war, they had killed their bassa about two months ago, in a mutiny, because he had suffered himself to be prevailed upon, by a bribe of five purses (five hundred pounds sterling) to give permission to the Tartars to ravage the German frontiers. We were very well pleased to hear of such favourable dispositions in the people; but when we came hither, we found the governor had been ill-informed, and the real truth of the story to be this. The late bassa fell under the displeasure of his soldiers; for no other reason, but restraining their incursions on the Germans. They took it into their heads, from that mildness, that he had intelligence with the enemy, and sent such information to the grand signior at Adrianople; but, redress not coming quick enough from thence, they assembled themselves in a tumultuous manner, and by force dragged their bassa before the cadi and mufti, and there demanded justice in a mutinous way; one crying out, Why he protected the infidels? Another, Why he squeezed them of their money? The bassa easily guessing their purpose, calmly replied to them, that they asked him too many questions, and that he had but one life, which must answer for all. They then immediately fell upon him with their scimitars (without waiting the sentence of their heads of the law) and in a few moments cut him in pieces. The present bassa has not dared to punish the murder; on the contrary, he affected to applaud the actors of it, as brave fellows, that knew to do themselves justice. He takes all pretences of throwing money among the garrison, and suffers them to make little excursions into Hungary, where they burn some poor Rascian houses.

You may imagine, I cannot be very easy in a town which is really under the government of an insolent soldiery. — We expected to be immediately dismissed, after a night’s lodging here, but the bassa detains us till he receives orders from Adrianople, which may, possibly be a month a-coming. In the mean time, we are lodged in one of the best houses, belonging to a very considerable man amongst them, and have a whole chamber of janizaries to guard us. My only diversion is the conversation of our host, Achmet Beg, a title something like that of count in Germany. His father was a great bassa, and he has been educated in the most polite eastern learning, being perfectly skilled in the Arabic and Persian languages, and an extraordinary scribe, which they call effendi. This accomplishment makes way to the greatest preferments; but he has had the good sense to prefer an easy, quiet, secure life, to all the dangerous honours of the Porte. He sups with us every night, and drinks wine very freely. You cannot imagine how much he is delighted with the liberty of conversing with me. He has explained to me many pieces of Arabian poetry, which, I observe, are in numbers not unlike ours, generally of an alternate verse, and of a very musical sound. Their expressions of love are very passionate and lively. I am so much pleased with them, I really believe I should learn to read Arabic, if I was to stay here a few months. He has a very good library of their books of all kinds; and, as he tells me, spends the greatest part of his life there. I pass for a great scholar with him, by relating to him some of the Persian tales, which I find are genuine. At first he believed I understood Persian. I have frequent disputes with him concerning the difference of our customs, particularly the confinement of women. He assures me, there is nothing at all in it; only, says he, we have the advantage, that when our wives cheat us, nobody knows it. He has wit, and is more polite than many Christian men of quality. I am very much entertained with him. — He has had the curiosity to make one of our servants set him an alphabet of our letters, and can already write a good Roman hand. But these amusements do not hinder my wishing heartily to be out of this place; though the weather is colder than I believe it ever was, any where, but in Greenland. — We have a very large stove constantly kept hot, and yet the windows of the room are frozen on the inside. — God knows when I may have an opportunity of sending this letter: but I have written it, for the discharge of my own conscience and you cannot now reproach me, that one of yours makes ten of mine. Adieu.

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