Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxxv.

From Constantinople. — Journey from Adrianople — the little seraglio — the Greek church at Selivrea — singular lodging of a hogia or schoolmaster — general view of Pera — Constantinople — their burial places and tombs — manner of renewing a marriage after a divorce — unmarried women, why supposed in Turkey to die in a state of reprobation — this notion compared with the catholic veneration for celibacy — the Eastern taste for antiquities.

To The Abbot ——.

Constantinople, May 29. O. S.

I HAVE had the advantage of very fine weather, all my journey; and as the summer is now in its beauty, I enjoyed the pleasure of fine prospects; and the meadows being full of all sorts of garden flowers, and sweet herbs, my berlin perfumed the air as it pressed them. The grand signior furnished us with thirty covered waggons for our baggage, and five coaches of the country for my women. We found the road full of the great spahis and their equipages coming out of Asia to the war. They always travel with tents; but I chose to ly in houses all the way. I will not trouble you with the names of the villages we passed, in which there was nothing remarkable, but at Ciorlei, where there was a conac, or little seraglio, built for the use of the grand signior, when he goes this road. I had the curiosity to view all the apartments destined for the ladies of his court. They were in the midst of a thick grove of trees, made fresh by fountains; but I was most surprised to see the walls almost covered with little distiches of Turkish verse, wrote with pencils. I made my interpreter explain them to me, and I found several of them very well turned; though I easily believed him, that they had lost much of their beauty in the translation. One was literally thus in English:

We come into this world; we lodge, and we depart;

He never goes, that’s lodged within my heart.

THE rest of our journey was through fine painted meadows, by the side of the sea of Marmora, the ancient Propontis. We lay the next night at Selivrea, anciently a noble town. It is now a good sea-port, and neatly built enough, and has a bridge of thirty-two arches. Here is a famous ancient Greek church. I had given one of my coaches to a Greek lady, who desired the conveniency of travelling with me; she designed to pay her devotions, and I was glad of the opportunity of going with her. I found it an ill-built edifice, set out with the same sort of ornaments, but less rich, as the Roman-catholic churches. They shewed me a saint’s body, where I threw a piece of money; and a picture of the virgin Mary, drawn by the hand of St Luke, very little to the credit of his painting; but, however, the finest Madona of Italy, is not more famous for her miracles. The Greeks have a monstrous taste in their pictures, which, for more finery, are always drawn upon a gold ground. You may imagine what a good air this has; but they have no notion, either of shade or proportion. They have a bishop here, who officiated in his purple robe, and sent me a candle almost as big as myself for a present, when I was at my lodging. We lay that night at a town called Bujuk Cekmege, or Great Bridge; and the night following, at Kujuk Cekmege, or Little Bridge; in a very pleasant lodging, formerly a monastery of dervises; having before it a large court, encompassed with marble cloisters, with a good fountain in the middle. The prospect from this place, and the gardens round it, is the most agreeable I have seen; and shews, that monks of all religions know how to chuse their retirements. ’Tis now belonging to a hogia or schoolmaster, who teaches boys here. I asked him to shew me his own apartment, and was surprised to see him point to a tall cypress tree in the garden, on the top of which was a place for a bed for himself, and a little lower, one for his wife and two children, who slept there every night. I was so much diverted with the fancy, I resolved to examine his nest nearer; but after going up fifty steps, I found I had still fifty to go up, and then I must climb from branch to branch, with some hazard of my neck. I thought it therefore the best way to come down again.

WE arrived the next day at Constantinople; but I can yet tell you very little of it, all my time having been taken up with receiving visits, which are, at least, a very good entertainment to the eyes, the young women being all beauties, and their beauty highly improved by the high taste of their dress. Our palace is in Pera, which is no more a suburb of Constantinople, than Westminster is a suburb to London. All the ambassadors are lodged very near each other. One part of our house shews us the port, the city, and the seraglio, and the distant hills of Asia; perhaps, all together, the most beautiful prospect in the world.

A CERTAIN French author says, Constantinople is twice as big as Paris. Mr W——y is unwilling to own ’tis bigger than London, though I confess it appears to me to be so; but I don’t believe it is so populous. The burying fields about it are certainly much larger than the whole city. ’Tis surprising what a vast deal of land is lost this way in Turkey. Sometimes I have seen burying places of several miles, belonging to very inconsiderable villages, which were formerly great towns, and retain no other mark of their ancient grandeur, than this dismal one. On no occasion do they ever remove a stone that serves for a monument. Some of them are costly enough, being of very fine marble. They set up a pillar, with a carved turbant on the top of it, to the memory of a man; and as the turbants, by their different shapes, shew the quality or profession, ’tis in a manner putting up the arms of the deceased; besides, the pillar commonly bears an inscription in gold letters. The ladies have a simple pillar without other ornament, except those that die unmarried, who have a rose on the top of their monument. The sepulchres of particular families are railed in, and planted round with trees. Those of the sultans, and some great men, have lamps constantly burning in them.

WHEN I spoke of their religion, I forgot to mention two particularities, one of which I have read of, but it seemed so odd to me, I could not believe it; yet ’tis certainly true; that when a man has divorced his wife, in the most solemn manner, he can take her again, upon no other terms, than permitting another man to pass a night with her; and there are some examples of those who have submitted to this law, rather than not have back their beloved. The other point of doctrine is very extraordinary. Any woman that dies unmarried is looked upon to die in a state of reprobation. To confirm this belief, they reason, that the end of the creation of woman is to increase and multiply; and that she is only properly employed in the works of her calling, when she is bringing forth children, or taking care of them, which are all the virtues that God expects from her. And indeed, their way of life, which shuts them out of all public commerce, does not permit them any other. Our vulgar notion, that they don’t own women to have any souls, is a mistake. ’Tis true, they say, they are not of so elevated a kind, and therefore must not hope to be admitted into the paradise appointed for the men, who are to be entertained by celestial beauties. But there is a place of happiness destined for souls of the inferior order, where all good women are to be in eternal bliss. Many of them are very superstitious, and will not remain widows ten days, for fear of dying in the reprobate state of an useless creature. But those that like their liberty, and are not slaves to their religion, content themselves with marrying when they are afraid of dying. This is a piece of theology, very different from that which teaches nothing to be more acceptable to God than a vow of perpetual virginity: which divinity is most rational, I leave you to determine.

I HAVE already made some progress in a collection of Greek medals. Here are several professed antiquaries, who are ready to serve any body that desires them. But you cannot imagine how they stare in my face, when I enquire about them, as if no body was permitted to seek after medals, till they were grown a piece of antiquity themselves. I have got some very valuable ones of the Macedonian kings, particularly one of Perseus, so lively, I fancy I can see all his ill qualities in his face. I have a prophyry head finely cut, of the true Greek sculpture; but who it represents, is to be guessed at by the learned when I return. For you are not to suppose these antiquaries (who are all Greeks) know any thing. Their trade is only to sell; they have correspondents at Aleppo, Grand Cairo, in Arabia and Palestine, who send them all they can find, and very often great heaps, that are only fit to melt into pans and kettles. They get the best price they can for them, without knowing those that are valuable from those that are not. Those that pretend to skill, generally find out the image of some saint in the medals of the Greek cities. One of them, shewing me the figure of a Pallas, with a victory in her hand on a reverse, assured me, it was the Virgin, holding a crucifix. The same man offered me the head of a Socrates, on a sardonyx; and, to enhance the value, gave him the title of saint Augustine. I have bespoke a mummy, which I hope will come safe to my hands, notwithstanding the misfortune that befel a very fine one, designed for the king of Sweden. He gave a great price for it, and the Turks took it into their heads, that he must have some considerable project depending upon it. They fancied it the body of, God knows who; and that the state of their empire mystically depended on the conversation of it. Some old prophecies were remembered upon this occasion, and the mummy committed prisoner to the Seven Towers, where it has remained under close confinement ever since, I dare not try my interest in so considerable a point, as the release of it; but I hope mine will pass without examination. I can tell you nothing more at present of this famous city. When I have looked a little about me, you shall hear from me again. I am, Sir,

Your’s, &c. &c.

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