Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxxiv.

Adrianople. — Description of Adrianople — the exchange — the principal traders Jews — the Turkish camp — procession of the grand signior going to command his troops in person — the manner by which Turkish lovers shew their affection for their mistresses — description of sultan Selim’s mosque — the seraglio — the young princes.

To the Abbot of ——.

Adrianople, May 17. O. S.

I AM going to leave Adrianople, and I would not do it without giving you some account of all that is curious in it, which I have taken a great deal of pains to see. I will not trouble you with wise dissertations, whether or no this is the same city that was anciently called Orestesit or Oreste, which you know better than I do. It is now called from the emperor Adrian, and was the first European seat of the Turkish empire, and has been the favourite residence of many sultans. Mahomet the fourth, and Mustapha, the brother of the reigning emperor, were so fond of it, that they wholly abandoned Constantinople; which humour so far exasperated the janizaries, that it was a considerable motive to the rebellions that deposed them. Yet this man seems to love to keep his court here. I can give you no reason for this partiality. ’Tis true, the situation is fine, and the country all round very beautiful; but the air is extremely bad, and the seraglio itself is not free from the ill effect of it. The town is said to be eight miles in compass, I suppose they reckon in the gardens. There are some good houses in it, I mean large ones; for the architecture of their palaces never makes any great shew. It is now very full of people; but they are most of them such as follow the court, or camp; and when they are removed, I am told, ’tis no populous city. The river Maritza (anciently the Hebrus) on which it is situated, is dried up every summer, which contributes very much to make it unwholesome. It is now a very pleasant stream. There are two noble bridges built over it. I had the curiosity to go to see the exchange in my Turkish dress, which is disguise sufficient. Yet I own, I was not very easy when I saw it crowded with janizaries; but they dare not be rude to a woman, and made way for me with as much respect as if I had been in my own figure. It is half a mile in length, the roof arched, and kept extremely neat. It holds three hundred and sixty-five shops, furnished with all sorts of rich goods, exposed to sale in the same manner as at the new exchange in London. But the pavement is kept much neater; and the shops are all so clean, they seem just new painted. — Idle people of all sorts walk here for their diversion, or amuse themselves with drinking coffee, or sherbet, which is cried about as oranges and sweet-meats are in our play-houses. I observed most of the rich tradesmen were Jews. That people are in incredible power in this country. They have many privileges above all the natural Turks themselves, and have formed a very considerable commonwealth here, being judged by their own laws. They have drawn the whole trade of the empire into their hands, partly by the firm union amongst themselves, and partly by the idle temper and want of industry in the Turks. Every bassa has his Jew, who is his homme d’affaires; he is let into all his secrets, and does all his business. No bargain is made, no bribe received, no merchandise disposed of, but what passes through their hands. They are the physicians, the stewards, and the interpreters of all the great men. You may judge how advantageous this is to a people who never fail to make use of the smallest advantages. They have found the secret of making themselves so necessary, that they are certain of the protection of the court, whatever ministry is in power. Even the English, French, and Italian merchants, who are sensible of their artifices, are, however, forced to trust their affairs to their negotiation, nothing of trade being managed without them, and the meanest amongst them being too important to be disobliged, since the whole body take care of his interests, with as much vigour as they would those of the most considerable of their members. They are many of them vastly rich, but take care to make little public shew of it, though they live in their houses in the utmost luxury and magnificence. This copious subject has drawn me from my description of the exchange, founded by Ali Bassa, whose name it bears. Near it is the sherski, a street of a mile in length, full of shops of all kind of fine merchandise, but excessive dear, nothing being made here. It is covered on the top with boards, to keep out the rain, that merchants may meet conveniently in all weathers. The besiten near it, is another exchange, built upon pillars, where all sorts of horse-furniture is sold: glittering every where with gold, rich embroidery, and jewels, it makes a very agreeable shew. From this place I went, in my Turkish coach, to the camp, which is to move in a few days to the frontiers. The sultan is already gone to his tents, and all his court; the appearance of them is, indeed, very magnificent. Those of the great men are rather like palaces than tents, taking up a great compass of ground, and being divided into a vast number of apartments. They are all of green, and the bassas of three tails, have those ensigns of their power placed in very conspicuous manner before their tents, which are adorned on the top with gilded balls, more or less, according to their different ranks. The ladies go in coaches to see the camp, as eagerly, as ours did to that of Hyde-park; but ’tis very easy to observe, that the soldiers do not begin the campaign with any great cheerfulness. The war is a general grievance upon the people, but particularly hard upon the tradesmen, now that the grand signior is resolved to lead his army in person. Every company of them is obliged, upon this occasion, to make a present according to their ability.

I TOOK the pains of rising at six in the morning to see the ceremony which did not, however, begin till eight. The grand signior was at the seraglio window, to see the procession, which passed through the principal streets. It was preceded by an effendi, mounted on a camel, richly furnished, reading aloud the alcoran, finely bound, laid upon a cushion. He was surrounded by a parcel of boys, in white, singing some verses of it, followed by a man dressed in green boughs, representing a clean husbandman sowing seed. After him several reapers, With garlands of ears of corn, as Ceres is pictured, with scythes in their hands, seeming to mow. Then a little machine drawn by oxen, in which was a wind-mill, and boys employed in grinding corn, followed by another machine, drawn by buffaloes, carrying an oven, and two more boys, one employed in kneading the bread, and another in drawing it out of the oven. These boys threw little cakes on both sides amongst the crowd, and were followed by the whole company of bakers, marching on foot, two by two, in their best clothes, with cakes, loaves, pasties, and pies of all sorts on their heads, and after them two buffoons, or jack-puddings, with their faces and clothes smeared with meal, who diverted the mob with their antic gestures. In the same manner followed all the companies of trade in the empire; the nobler sort, such as jewellers, mercers, &c. finely mounted, and many of the pageants that represent their trades, perfectly magnificent; amongst which, that of the furriers made one of the best figures, being a very large machine, set round with the skins of ermines, foxes, &c. so well stuffed, that the animals seemed to be alive, and followed by music and dancers. I believe they were, upon the whole, twenty thousand men, all ready to follow his highness, if he commanded them. The rear was closed by the volunteers, who came to beg the honour of dying in his service. This part of the shew seemed to me so barbarous, that I removed from the window upon the first appearance of it. They were all naked to the middle. Some had their arms pierced through with arrows, left sticking in them. Others had them sticking in their heads, the blood trickling down their faces. Some slashed their arms with sharp knives, making the blood spring out upon those that stood there; and this is looked upon as an expression of their zeal for glory. I am told that some make use of it to advance their love; and, when they are near the window where their mistress stands, (all the women in town being veiled to see this spectacle) they stick another arrow for her sake, who gives some sign of approbation and encouragement to this gallantry. The whole shew lasted for near eight hours, to my great sorrow, who was heartily tired, though I was in the house of the widow of the captain bassa (admiral) who refreshed me with coffee, sweetmeats, sherbet, &c. with all possible civility.

I WENT two days after, to see, the mosque of sultan Selim I. which is a building very well worth the curiosity of a traveller. I was, dressed in my Turkish habit, and admitted without scruple; though I believe they guessed who I was, by the extreme officiousness of the door-keeper, to shew me every part of it. It is situated very advantageously in the midst of the city, and in the highest part of it, making a very noble show. The first court has four gates, and the innermost three. They are both of them surrounded with cloisters, with marble pillars of the Ionic order, finely polished, and of very lively colours; the whole pavement is of white marble, and the roof of the cloisters divided into several cupolas or domes, headed with gilt balls on the top. In the midst of each court, are fine fountains of white marble; and, before the great gate of the mosque, a portico, with green marble pillars, which has five gates, the body of the mosque being one prodigious dome. I understand so little of architecture, I dare not pretend to speak of the proportions. It seemed to me very regular, this I am sure of, it is vastly high, and I thought it the noblest building I ever saw. It has two rows of marble galleries on pillars, with marble balusters; the pavement is also marble, covered with Persian carpets. In my opinion, it is a great addition to its beauty, that it is not divided into pews, and incumbered with forms and benches like our churches; nor the pillars (which are most of them red and white marble) disfigured by the little tawdry images and pictures, that give Roman-catholic churches the air of toy-shops. The walls seemed to be inlaid with such very lively colours, in small flowers, that I could not imagine what stones had been made use of. But going nearer, I saw they were crusted with japan china, which has a very beautiful effect. In the midst hung a vast lamp of silver, gilt; besides which, I do verily believe, there were at least two thousand of a lesser size. This must look very glorious, when they are all lighted; but being at night, no women are suffered to enter. Under the large lamp is a great pulpit of carved wood, gilt; and just by, a fountain to wash, which, you know, is an essential part of their devotion. In one corner is a little gallery, inclosed with gilded lattices, for the grand-signior. At the upper end, a large niche, very like an altar, raised two steps, covered with gold brocade, and standing before it, two silver gilt candlesticks, the height of a man, and in them white wax candles, as thick as a man’s waist. The outside of the mosque is adorned with towers, vastly high, gilt on the top, from whence the imaums call the people to prayers. I had the curiosity to go up one of them, which is contrived so artfully, as to give surprise to all that see it. There is but one door, which leads to three different stair-cases, going to the three different stories of the tower, in such a manner, that three priests may ascend, rounding, without ever meeting each other; a contrivance very much admired. Behind the mosque, is an exchange full of shops, where poor artificers are lodged gratis. I saw several dervises at their prayers here. They are dressed in a plain piece of woolen, with their arms bare, and a woolen cap on their heads, like a high crowned hat without brims. I went to see some other mosques, built much after the same manner, but not comparable in point of magnificence to this I have described, which is infinitely beyond any church in Germany or England; I won’t talk of other countries I have not seen. The seraglio does not seem a very magnificent palace. But the gardens are very large, plentifully supplied with water, and full of trees; which is all I know of them, having never been in them.

I TELL you nothing of the order of Mr W——‘s entry, and his audience. These things are always the same, and have been so often described, I won’t trouble you with the repetition. The young prince, about eleven years old, sits near his father, when he gives audience: he is a handsome boy; but, probably, will not immediately succeed the sultan, there being two sons of sultan Mustapha (his eldest brother) remaining; the eldest about twenty years old, on whom the hopes of the people are fixed. This reign has been bloody and avaricious. I am apt to believe, they are very impatient to see the end of it.

I am, Sir, yours, &c. &c.

P. S. I will write to you again from Constantinople.

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