Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxxii.

Adrianople. — Description of the camel — their use, and method of managing them — the buffalo — the Turkish horses — their veneration for storks — the Turkish houses — why Europeans so ignorant Of the insides of the Turkish houses — their gardens — their mosques and hanns.

To Mrs T——.

Adrianople, April 1. O. S. 1718.

I CAN now tell dear Mrs T—— that I am safely arrived at the end of my very long journey. I will not tire you with the account of the many fatigues I have suffered. You would rather be informed of the strange things that are to be seen here; and a letter out of Turkey, that has nothing extraordinary in it, would be as great a disappointment, as my visitors will receive at London, if I return thither without any rarities to shew them. — What shall I tell you of? — You never saw camels in your life; and perhaps the description of them will appear new to you; I can assure you the first sight of them was so to me; and though I have seen hundreds of pictures of those animals, I never saw any that was resembling enough, to give a true idea of them. I am going to make a bold observation, and possibly a false one, because nobody has ever made it before me; but I do take them to be of the stag kind; their legs, bodies, and necks, are exactly shaped like them, and their colour very near the same. ’Tis true they are much larger, being a great deal higher than a horse; and so swift, that, after the defeat of Peterwaradin, they far outran the swiftest horses, and brought the first news of the loss of the battle to Belgrade. They are never thoroughly tamed; the drivers take care to tie them one to another, with strong ropes, fifty in a string, led by an ass, on which the driver rides. I have seen three hundred in one caravan. They carry the third part more than any horse; but ’tis a particular art to load them, because of the bunch on their backs. They seem to be very ugly creatures, their heads being ill-formed and disproportioned to their bodies. They carry all the burdens; and the beasts destined to the plough, are buffaloes, an animal you are also unacquainted with. They are larger and more clumsy than an ox; they have short thick black horns close to their heads, Which grow turning backwards. They say this horn looks very beautiful when ’tis well polished. They are all black, with very short hair on their hides, and have extremely little white eyes, that make them look like devils. The country people dye their tails, and the hair of their forehead, red, by way of ornament. Horses are not put here to any laborious work, nor are they at all fit for it. They are beautiful and full of spirit, but generally little, and not strong, as the breed of colder countries; very gentle, however, with all their vivacity, and also swift and surefooted. I have a little white favourite, that I would not part with on any terms; he prances under me with so much fire, you would think that I had a great deal of courage to dare to mount him; yet I’ll assure you, I never rid a horse so much at my command in my life. My side-saddle is the first that was ever seen in this part of the world, and is gazed at with as much wonder as the ship of Columbus in the first discovery of America. Here are some little birds, held in a sort of religious reverence, and, for that reason, multiply prodigiously: turtles, on the account of their innocence; and storks, because they are supposed to make every winter the pilgrimage to Mecca. To say truth, they are the happiest subjects under the Turkish government, and are so sensible of their privileges, that they walk the streets without fear, and generally build in the low parts of houses. Happy are those whose houses are so distinguished, as the vulgar Turks are perfectly persuaded that they will not be, that year, attacked either by fire or pestilence. I have the happiness of one of their sacred nests under my chamber-window.

NOW I am talking of my chamber, I remember the description of the houses here will be as new to you, as any of the birds or beasts. I suppose you have read, in most of our accounts of Turkey, that their houses are the most miserable pieces of building in the world. I can speak very learnedly on that subject, having been in so many of them; and, I assure you, ’tis no such thing. We are now lodged in a palace belonging to the grand signior. I really think the manner of building here very agreeable, and proper for the country. ’Tis true, they are not at all solicitous to beautify the outsides of their houses, and they are generally built of wood; which, I own, is the cause of many inconveniencies; but this is not to be charged on the ill taste of the people, but on the oppression of the government. Every house, at the death of its master, is at the grand signior’s disposal; and therefore, no man cares to make a great expence, which he is not sure his family will be the better for. All their design is to build a house commodious, and that will last their lives; and they are very indifferent if it falls down the year after. Every house, great and small, is divided into two distinct parts, which only join together by a narrow passage. The first house has a large court before it, and open galleries all round it, which is to me a thing very agreeable. This gallery leads to all the chambers, which are commonly large, and with two rows of windows, the first being of painted glass; they seldom build above two stories, each of which has galleries. The stairs are broad, and not often above thirty steps. This is the house belonging to the lord, and the adjoining one is called the haram, that is, the ladies apartment, (for the name of seraglio is peculiar to the grand signior;) it has also a gallery running round it towards the garden, to which all the windows are turned, and the same number of chambers as the other, but more gay and splendid, both in painting and furniture. The second row of windows is very low, with grates like those of convents; the rooms are all spread with Persian carpets, and raised at one end of them (my chambers are raised at both ends) about two feet. This is the sofa, which is laid with a richer sort of carpet, and all round it a sort of couch, raised half a foot, covered with rich silk, according to the fancy or magnificence of the owner. Mine is of scarlet cloth, with a gold fringe; round about this are placed, standing against the wall, two rows of cushions, the first very large, and the next, little ones; and here the Turks display their greatest magnificence. They are generally brocade, or embroidery of gold wire upon white sattin. — Nothing can look more gay and splendid. These seats are also so convenient and easy, that I believe I shall never endure chairs as long as I live. — The rooms are low, which I think no fault, and the ceiling is always of wood, generally inlaid or painted with flowers. They open in many places, with folding doors, and serve for cabinets, I think, more conveniently than ours. Between the windows are little arches to set pots of perfume, or baskets of flowers. But what pleases me best, is the fashion of having marble fountains in the lower part of the room, which throw up several spouts of water, giving, at the same time, an agreeable coolness, and a pleasant dashing sound, falling from one basin to another. Some of these are very magnificent. Each house has a bagnio, which consists generally in two or three little rooms, leaded on the top, paved with marble, with basins, cocks of water, and all conveniencies for either hot or cold baths.

YOU will perhaps be surprised at an account so different from what you have been entertained with by the common voyage-writers, who are very fond of speaking of what they don’t know. It must be under a very particular character, or on some extraordinary occasion, that a Christian is admitted into the house of a man of quality; and their harams are always forbidden ground. Thus they can only speak of the outside, which makes no great appearance; and the womens apartments are always built backward, removed from sight, and have no other prospect than the gardens, which are inclosed with very high walls. There are none of our parterres in them; but they are planted with high trees, which give an agreeable shade, and, to my fancy, a pleasing view. In the midst of the garden is the chiosk, that is, a large room, commonly beautified with a fine fountain in the midst of it. It is raised nine or ten steps, and inclosed with gilded lattices, round which, vines, jessamines, and honey-suckles, make a sort of green wall. Large trees are planted round this place, which is the scene of their greatest pleasures, and where the ladies spend most of their hours, employed by their music or embroidery. — In the public gardens, there are public chiosks where people go, that are not so well accommodated at home, and drink their coffee, sherbet, &c. — Neither are they ignorant of a more durable manner of building: their mosques are all of free-stone, and the public hanns, or inns, extremely magnificent, many of them taking up a large square, built round with shops under stone arches, where poor artificers are lodged gratis. They have always a mosque joining to them, and the body of the hann is a most noble hall, capable of holding three or four hundred persons, the court extremely spacious, and cloisters round it, that give it the air of our colleges. I own, I think it a more reasonable piece of charity than the founding of convents. — I think I have now told you a great deal for once. If you don’t like my choice of subjects, tell me what you would have me write Upon; there is nobody more desirous to entertain you, than, dear Mrs T— —

Your’s, &c. &c.

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