Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxvii.

Adrianople. — Why our account of the Turks are so imperfect — oppressed condition of the Servians — teeth money, what — character of the Turkish effendis — farther particulars of Achmet Beg — Mahometism like Christianity, divided into many sectaries — remarks on some of their notions — religion of the Arnounts — conjectures relating to Trajan’s gate — present view of the country.

To the Abbot ——.

Adrianople, April 1. O. S. 1717.

You see I am very exact in keeping the promise you engaged me to make. I know not, however, whether your curiosity will be satisfied with the accounts I shall give you, though I can assure you, the desire I have to oblige you to the utmost of my power, has made me very diligent in my enquiries and observations. ’Tis certain we have but very imperfect accounts of the manners and religion of these people; this part of the world being seldom visited, but by merchants, who mind little but their own affairs; or travellers, who make too short a stay, to be able to report any thing exactly of their own knowledge. The Turks are too proud to converse familiarly with merchants, who can only pick up some confused informations, which are generally false; and can give no better account of the ways here, than a French refugee, lodging in a garret in Greek-street, could write of the court of England. The journey we have made from Belgrade hither, cannot possibly be passed by any out of a public character. The desert woods of Servia, are the common refuge of thieves, who rob fifty in a company, so that we had need of all our guards to secure us; and the villages are so poor, that only force could extort from them necessary provisions. Indeed the janizaries had no mercy on their poverty, killing all the poultry and sheep they could find, without asking to whom they belonged; while the wretched owners durst not put in their claim, for fear of being beaten. Lambs just fallen, geese and turkies big with egg, all massacred without distinction! I fancied I heard the complaints of Melibeus for the hope of his flock. When the bassas travel, ’tis yet worse. These oppressors are not content with eating all that is to be eaten belonging to the peasants; after they have crammed themselves and their numerous retinue, they have the impudence to exact what they call teeth-money, a contribution for the use of their teeth, worn with doing them the honour of devouring their meat. This is literally and exactly true, however extravagant it may seem; and such is the natural corruption of a military government, their religion not allowing of this barbarity, any more than ours does.

I HAD the advantage of lodging three weeks at Belgrade, with a principal effendi, that is to say a scholar. This set of men are equally capable of preferments in the law or the church, these two sciences being cast into one, and a lawyer and a priest being the same word in the Turkish language. They are the only men really considerable in the empire; all the profitable employments and church revenues are in their hands. The grand signior, though general heir to his people, never presumes to touch their lands or money, which go, in an uninterrupted succession, to their children. ’Tis true, they lose this privilege, by accepting a place at court, or the title of Bassa; but there are few examples of such fools among them. You may easily judge of the power of these men, who have engrossed all the learning, and almost all the wealth of the empire. ’Tis they that are the real authors, though the soldiers are the actors of revolutions. They deposed the late sultan Mustapha; and their power is so well known, that ’tis the emperor’s interest to flatter them.

THIS is a long digression. I was going to tell you, that an intimate daily conversation with the effendi Achmet-beg, gave me an opportunity of knowing their religion and morals in a more particular manner than perhaps any Christian ever did. I explained to him the difference between the religion of England and Rome; and he Was pleased to hear there were Christians that did not worship images, or adore the Virgin Mary. The ridicule of transubstantiation appeared very strong to him. — Upon comparing our creeds together, I am convinced that if our friend Dr —— had free liberty of preaching here, it would be very easy to persuade the generality to Christianity, whose notions are very little different from his. Mr Whiston would make a very good apostle here. I don’t doubt but his zeal will be much fired, if you communicate this account to him; but tell him, he must first have the gift of tongues, before he can possibly be of any use. — Mahometism is divided into as many sects as Christianity; and the first institution as much neglected and obscured by interpretations. I cannot here forbear reflecting on the natural inclination of mankind, to make mysteries and novelties. — The Zeidi, Kudi, Jabari, &c. put me in mind of the Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, and are equally zealous against one another. But the most prevailing opinion, if you search into the secret of the effendis, is, plain deism. This is indeed kept from the people, who are amused with a thousand different notions, according to the different interest of their preachers. — There are very few amongst them (Achmet-beg denied there were any) so absurd, as to set up for wit, by declaring they believe no God at all. And Sir Paul Rycaut is mistaken (as he commonly is) in calling the sect muterin, (i. e. the secret with us) atheists, they being deists, whose impiety consists in making a jest of their prophet. Achmet-beg did not own to me that he was of this opinion; but made no scruple of deviating from some part of Mahomet’s law, by drinking wine with the same freedom we did. When I asked him how he came to allow himself that liberty? He made answer, that all the creatures of God are good, and designed for the use of man; however, that the prohibition of wine was a very wise maxim, and meant for the common people, being the source of all disorders amongst them; but, that the prophet never designed to confine those that knew how to use it with moderation; nevertheless, he said, that scandal ought to be avoided, and that he never drank it in public. This is the general way of thinking amongst them, and very few forbear drinking wine that are able to afford it. He assured me, that if I understood Arabic, I should be very well pleased with reading the alcoran, which is so far from the nonsense we charge it with, that it is the purest morality, delivered in the very best language. I have since heard impartial Christians speak of it in the same manner; and I don’t doubt but that all our translations are from copies got from the Greek priests, who would not fail to falsify it with the extremity of malice. No body of men ever were more ignorant, or more corrupt; yet they differ so little from the Romish church, that, I confess, nothing gives me a greater abhorrence of the cruelty of your clergy, than the barbarous persecution of them, whenever they have been their masters, for no other reason than their not acknowledging the pope. The dissenting in that one article, has got them the titles of heretics and schismatics; and, what is worse, the same treatment. I found at Philippopolis, a sect of Christians that call themselves Paulines. They shew an old church, where, they say, St Paul preached; and he is their favourite saint, after the same manner that St Peter is at Rome; neither do they forget to give him the same preference over the rest of the apostles.

BUT of all the religions I have seen, that of the Arnounts seems to me the most particular; they are natives of Arnountlich, the ancient Macedonia, and still retain the courage and hardiness, though they have lost the name of Macedonians, being the best militia in the Turkish empire, and the only check upon the janizaries. They are foot soldiers; we had a guard of them, relieved in every considerable town we passed; they are all cloathed and armed at their own expence, dressed in clean white coarse cloth, carrying guns of a prodigious length, which they run with upon their shoulders, as if they did not feel the weight of them, the leader singing a sort of rude tune, not unpleasant, and the rest making up the chorus. These people living between Christians and Mahometans, and not being skilled in controversy, declare, that they are utterly unable to judge which religion is best; but, to be certain of not entirely rejecting the truth, they very prudently follow both. They go to the mosques on Fridays, and to the church on Sunday, saying, for their excuse, that at the day of judgment they are sure of protection from the true prophet; but which that is, they are not able to determine in this world. I believe there is no other race of mankind, who have so modest an opinion of their own capacity.

THESE are the remarks I have made, on the diversity of religions I have seen. I don’t ask your pardon for the liberty I have taken in speaking of the Roman. I know you equally condemn the quakery of all churches, as much as you revere the sacred truths, in which we both agree.

YOU will expect I should say something to you of the antiquities of this country; but there are few remains of ancient Greece. We passed near the piece of an arch, which is commonly called Trajan’s Gate, from a supposition, that he made it to shut up the passage over the mountains, between Sophia and Philippopolis. But I rather believe it the remains of some triumphal arch, (tho’ I could not see any inscription;) for if that passage had been shut up, there are many others that would serve for the march of an army; and, notwithstanding the story of Baldwin earl of Flanders being overthrown in these straits, after he won Constantinople, I don’t fancy the Germans would find themselves stopped by them at this day. ’Tis true, the road is now made (with great industry) as commodious as possible, for the march of the Turkish army; there is not one ditch or puddle between this place and Belgrade, that has not a large strong bridge of planks built over it; but the precipices are not so terrible as I had heard them represented. At these mountains we lay at the little village Kiskoi, wholly inhabited by Christians, as all the peasants of Bulgaria are. Their houses are nothing but little huts, raised of dirt baked in the sun; and they leave them and fly into the mountains, some months before the march of the Turkish army, who would else entirely ruin them, by driving away their whole flocks. This precaution Secures them in a sort of plenty; for such vast tracts of land lying in common, they have the liberty of sowing what they please, and are generally very industrious husbandmen. I drank here several sorts of delicious wine. The women dress themselves in a great variety of coloured glass beads, and are not ugly, but of a tawny complexion. I have now told you all that is worth telling you, and perhaps more, relating to my journey. When I am at Constantinople, I’ll try to pick up some curiosities, and then you shall hear again from

Your’s, &c.

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