Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxviii

From Adrianople. — Marriage of the grand signior’s eldest daughter — the nature of the Turkish government — grand signior’s procession to mosque — his person described — particulars relating to the French ambassador’s lady — character and behaviour of the janizaries — the janizaries formidable to the seraglio.

To The Countess or B——.

Adrianople, April 1. O. S. 1717.

AS I never can forget the smallest of your ladyship’s commands, my first business here has been to enquire after the stuffs you ordered me to look for, without being able to find what you would like. The difference of the dress here and at London is so great, the same sort of things are not proper for caftans and manteaus. However, I will not give over my search, but renew it again at Constantinople, though I have reason to believe there is nothing finer than what is to be found here, as this place is at present the residence of the court. The grand signior’s eldest daughter was married some few days before I came hither; and, upon that occasion, the Turkish ladies display all their magnificence. The bride was conducted to her husband’s house in very great splendor. She is widow of the late vizier, who was killed at Peterwaradin, though that ought rather to be called a contract than a marriage, since she never has lived with him; however, the greatest part of his wealth is hers. He had the permission of visiting her in the seraglio; and, being one of the handsomest men in the empire, had very much engaged her affections. — When she saw this second husband, who is at least fifty, she could not forbear bursting into tears. He is indeed a man of merit, and the declared favourite of the sultan, (which they call mosayp) but that is not enough to make him pleasing in the eyes of a girl of thirteen.

THE government here is entirely in the hands of the army, the grand signior, with all his absolute power, is as much a slave as any of his subjects, and trembles at a janizary’s frown. Here is, indeed, a much greater appearance of subjection than amongst us; a minister of state is not spoke to, but upon the knee: should a reflection on his conduct be dropt in a coffee-house (for they have spies every where) the house would be raz’d to the ground, and perhaps the whole company put to the torture. No huzzaing mobs, senseless pamphlets, and tavern disputes about politics;

A consequential ill that freedom draws;

A bad effect — but from a noble cause.

None of our harmless calling names! but when a minister here displeases the people, in three hours time he is dragged even from his master’s arms. They cut off hands, head, and feet, and throw them before the palace gate, with all the respect in the world; while the sultan (to whom they all profess an unlimited adoration) sits trembling in his apartment, and dare neither defend nor revenge his favourite. This is the blessed condition of the most absolute monarch upon earth, who owns no law but his will.

I CANNOT help wishing, in the loyality of my heart, that the parliament would send hither a ship-load of young passive obedient men, that they might see arbitrary government in its clearest, and strongest light, where ’tis hard to judge, whether the prince, people, or ministers, are most miserable. I could make many reflections on this subject; but I know, madam, your own good sense has already furnished you with better than I am capable of.

I WENT yesterday along with the French ambassadress to see the grand signior in his passage to the mosque. He was preceded by a numerous guard of janizaries, with vast white feathers on their heads, as also by the spahis and bostangees, (these are foot and horse guards) and the royal gardeners, which are a very considerable body of men, dressed in different habits of fine lively colours, so that at a distance, they appeared like a parterre of tulips. After them the aga of the janizaries, in a robe of purple velvet, lined with silver tissue, his horse led by two slaves richly dressed. Next him the kyzlier-aga (your ladyship knows, this is the chief guardian of the seraglio ladies) in a deep yellow cloth (which suited very well to his black face) lined with sables. Last came his sublimity himself, arrayed in green, lined with the fur of a black Moscovite fox, which is supposed worth a thousand pounds sterling, and mounted on a fine horse, with furniture embroidered with jewels. Six more horses richly caparisoned were led after him; and two of his principal courtiers bore, one his gold, and the other his silver coffee-pot, on a staff; another carried a silver stool on his head for him to sit on. —— It would be too tedious to tell your ladyship the various dresses and turbants by which their rank is distinguished; but they were all extremely rich and gay, to the number of some thousands; so that perhaps there cannot be seen a more beautiful procession. The sultan appeared to us a handsome man of about forty, with something, however, severe in his countenance, and his eyes very full and black. He happened to stop under the window where he stood, and (I suppose being told who we were) looked upon us very attentively, so that we had full leisure to consider him. The French ambassadress agreed with me as to his good mien; I see that lady very often; she is young, and her conversation would be a great relief to me, if I could persuade her to live without those forms and ceremonies that make life so formal and tiresome. But she is so delighted with her guards, her four and twenty footmen, gentlemen, ushers, &c. that she would rather die than make me a visit without them; not to reckon a coachful of attending damsels ycleap’d maids of honour. What vexes me is, that as long as she will visit me with a troublesome equipage, I am obliged to do the same: however, our mutual interest makes us much together. I went with her the other day all round the town, in an open gilt chariot, with our joint train of attendants, preceded by our guards, who might have summoned the people to see what they had never seen, nor ever perhaps would see again, two young Christian ambassadresses at the same time. Your ladyship may easily imagine, we drew a vast crowd of spectators, but all silent as death. If any of them had taken the liberties of our mobs upon any strange sight, our janizaries had made no scruple of falling on them with their scimitars, without danger for so doing, being above law. These people however (I mean the janizaries) have some good qualities; they are very zealous and faithful where they serve, and look upon it as their business to fight for you on all occasions. Of this I had a very pleasant instance in a village on this side Philippopolis, where we were met by our domestic guards. I happened to bespeak pigeons for supper, upon which one of my janizaries went immediately to the cadi (the chief civil officer of the town) and ordered him to send in some dozens. The poor man answered, that he had already sent about, but could get none. My janizary, in the height of his zeal for my service, immediately locked him up prisoner in his room, telling him he deserved death for his impudence, in offering to excuse his not obeying my command; but, out of respect to me, he would not punish him but by my order. Accordingly he came very gravely to me, to ask what should be done to him; adding, by way of compliment, that if I pleased he would bring me his head. — This may give you some idea of the unlimited power of these fellows, who are all sworn brothers, and bound to revenge the injuries done to one another, whether at Cairo, Aleppo, or any part of the world. This inviolable league makes them so powerful, that the greatest man at court never speaks to them but in a flattering tone; and in Asia, any man that is rich is forced to enrol himself a janizary, to secure his estate. — But I have already said enough; and I dare swear, dear madam, that, by this time, ’tis a very comfortable reflection to you, that there is no possibility of your receiving such a tedious letter but once in six months; ’tis that consideration has given me the assurance of entertaining you so long, and will, I hope, plead the excuse of, dear madam, Your’s, &c.

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