Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxxix.

Pera of Constantinople. — Lady M. brought to bed — visits the sultana Hafiten — anecdotes of that lady — her dress — entertainment — story of the sultan’s throwing a handkerchief contradicted — amusements of the seraglio — the sultana Hafiten’s gardens, bed chamber, and slaves — the Arabian tales, a true representation of Eastern manners — magnificence of the Turkish harams — visit to the fair Fatima — the characters of the sultana Hafiten and Fatima compared — story of Fatima — magnificence of her habitation.

To the Countess of ——.

Pera of Constantinople, March 10. O. S.

I HAVE not written to you, dear sister, these many months — a great piece of self-denial. But I know not where to direct, or what part of the world you are in. I have received no letter from you since that short note of April last, in which you tell me, that you are on the point of leaving England, and promise me a direction for the place you stay in; but I have, in vain, expected it till now; and now I only learn from the gazette, that you are returned, which induces me to venture this letter to your house at London. I had rather ten of my letters should be lost, than you imagine I don’t write; and I think it is hard fortune, if one in ten don’t reach you. However, I am resolved to keep the copies, as testimonies of my inclination, to give you, to the utmost of my power, all the diverting part of my travels, while you are exempt from all the fatigues and inconveniences.

IN the first place, then, I wish you joy of your niece; for I was brought to bed of a daughter [The present Countess of Bute] five weeks ago. I don’t mention this as one of my diverting adventures; though I must own, that it is not half so mortifying here as in England; there being as much difference, as there is between a little cold in the head, which sometimes happens here, and the consumption cough, so common in London. No body keeps their house a month for lying in; and I am not so fond of any of our customs, as to retain them when they are not necessary. I returned my visits at three weeks end; and, about four days ago, crossed the sea, which divides this place from Constantinople, to make a new one, where I had the good fortune to pick up many curiosities. I went to see the sultana: Hafiten, favourite of the late emperor Mustapha, who, you know, (or perhaps you don’t know) was deposed by his brother, the reigning sultan, and died a few weeks after, being poisoned, as it was generally believed. This lady was, immediately after his death, saluted with an absolute order to leave the seraglio, and chuse herself a husband among the great men at the Porte. I suppose you may imagine her overjoyed at this proposal. — Quite the contrary. — These women, who are called, and esteem themselves queens, look upon this liberty as the greatest disgrace and affront that can happen to them. She threw herself at the sultan’s feet, and begged him to poniard her, rather than use his brother’s widow with that contempt. She represented to him, in agonies of sorrow, that she was privileged from this misfortune, by having brought five princes into the Ottoman family; but all the boys being dead, and only one girl surviving, this excuse was not received, and she was compelled to make her choice. She chose Bekir Effendi, then secretary of state, and above four score years old, to convince the world, that she firmly intended to keep the vow she had made, of never suffering a second husband to approach her bed; and since she must honour some subject so far, as to be called his wife, she would chuse him as a mark of her gratitude, since it was he that had presented her, at the age of ten years, to, her last lord. But she never permitted him to pay her one visit; though it is now fifteen years she has been in his house, where she passes her time in uninterrupted mourning, with a constancy very little known in Christendom, especially in a widow of one and twenty, for she is now but thirty-six. She has no black eunuchs for her guard, her husband being obliged to respect her as a queen, and not to inquire at all into what is done in her apartment.

I WAS led into a large room, with a sofa the whole length of it, adorned with white marble pillars like a ruelle, covered with pale blue figured velvet, on a silver ground, with cushions of the same, where I was desired to repose, till the sultana appeared, who had contrived this manner of reception, to avoid rising up at my entrance, though she made me an inclination of her head, when I rose up to her. I was very glad to observe a lady that had been distinguished by the favour of an emperor, to whom beauties were, every day, presented from all parts of the world. But she did not seem to me, to have ever been half so beautiful as the fair Fatima I saw at Adrianople; though she had the remains of a fine face, more decayed by sorrow than time. But her dress was something so surprisingly rich, that I cannot forbear describing it to you. She wore a vest called dualma, which differs from a caftan by longer sleeves, and folding over at the bottom. It was of purple cloth, strait to her shape, and thick set, on each side, down to her feet, and round the sleeves, with pearls of the best water, of the same size as their buttons commonly are. You must not suppose, that I mean as large as those of my Lord —— but about the bigness of a pea; and to these buttons large loops of diamonds, in the form of those gold loops, so common on birth-day coats. This habit was tied, at the waist, with two large tassels of smaller pearls, and round the arms embroidered with large diamonds. Her shift was fastened at the bottom with a great diamond, shaped like a lozenge; her girdle as broad as the broadest English ribband, entirely covered with diamonds. Round her neck she wore three chains, which reached to her knees; one of large pearl, at the bottom of which hung a fine coloured emerald, as big as a turkey-egg; another, consisting of two hundred emeralds, close joined together, of the most lively green, perfectly matched, every one as large as a half-crown piece, and as thick as three crown pieces, and another of small emeralds, perfectly round. But her ear-rings eclipsed all the rest. They were two diamonds, shaped exactly like pears, as large as a big hazle-nut. Round her talpoche she had four strings of pearl — the whitest and most perfect in the world, at least enough to make four necklaces, every one as large as the duchess of Marlborough’s, and of the same shape, fastened with two roses, consisting of a large ruby for the middle stone, and round them twenty drops of clean diamonds to each. Besides this, her head-dress was covered with bodkins of emeralds and diamonds. She wore large diamond bracelets, and had five rings on her fingers (except Mr Pitt’s) the largest I ever saw in my life. ’Tis for jewellers to compute the value of these things; but, according to the common estimation of jewels, in our part of the world, her whole dress must be worth a hundred thousand pounds sterling. This I am sure of, that no European queen has half the quantity; and the empress’s jewels, though very fine would look very mean near her’s. She gave me a dinner of fifty dishes of meat, which (after their fashion) were placed on the table but one at a time, and was extremely tedious. But the magnificence of her table answered very well to that of her dress. The knives were of gold, and the hafts set with diamonds. But the piece of luxury which grieved my eyes, was the table-cloth and napkins, which were all tiffany, embroidered with silk and gold, in the finest manner, in natural flowers. It was with the utmost regret that I made use of these costly napkins, which were as finely wrought as the finest handkerchiefs that ever came out of this country. You may be sure, that they were entirely spoiled before dinner was over. The sherbet (which is the liquor they drink at meals) was served in china bowls; but the covers and salvers massy gold. After dinner, water was brought in gold basons, and towels of the same kind with the napkins, which I very unwillingly wiped my hands upon, and coffee was served in china, with gold soucoups [Saucers.]

THE sultana seemed in a very good humour, and talked to me with the utmost civility. I did not omit this opportunity of learning all that I possibly could of the seraglio, which is so entirely unknown amongst us. She assured me, that the story of the sultan’s throwing a handkerchief, is altogether fabulous; and the manner, upon that occasion, no other than this: He sends the kyslir aga, to signify to the lady the honour he intends her. She is immediately complimented upon it, by the others, and led to the bath, where she is perfumed and dressed in the most magnificent and becoming manner. The emperor precedes his visit by a royal present, and then comes into her apartment: neither is there any such thing as her creeping in at the bed’s foot. She said, that the first he made choice of was always after the first in rank, and not the mother of the eldest son, as other writers would make us believe. Sometimes the sultan diverts himself in the company of all his ladies, who stand in a circle round him. And she confessed, they were ready to die with envy and jealousy of the happy she that he distinguished by any appearance of preference. But this seemed to me neither better nor worse than the circles in most courts, where the glance of the monarch is watched, and every smile is waited for with impatience, and envied by those who cannot obtain it.

SHE never mentioned the sultan without tears in her eyes, yet she seemed very fond of the discourse. “My past happiness, said she, “appears a dream to me. Yet I cannot forget, that I was beloved by “the greatest and most lovely of mankind. I was chosen from all the “rest, to make all his campaigns with him; and I would not survive “him, if I was not passionately fond of the princess my daughter. “Yet all my tenderness for her was hardly enough to make me preserve “my life. When I left him, I passed a whole twelvemonth without “seeing the light. Time has softened my despair; yet I now pass some “days every week in tears, devoted to the memory of my sultan.” There was no affectation in these words. It was easy to see she was in a deep melancholy, though her good humour made her willing to divert me.

SHE asked me to walk in her garden, and one of her slaves immediately brought her a pellice of rich brocade lined with sables. I waited on her into the garden, which had nothing in it remarkable but the fountains; and from thence she shewed me all her apartments. In her bed-chamber, her toilet was displayed, consisting of two looking-glasses, the frames covered With pearls, and her night talpoche set with bodkins of jewels, and near it three vests of fine sables, every one of which is, at least, worth a thousand dollars, (two hundred pounds English money.) I don’t doubt but these rich habits were purposely placed in sight, though they seemed negligently thrown on the sofa. When I took my leave of her, I was complimented with perfumes, as at the grand vizier’s, and presented with a very fine embroidered handkerchief. Her slaves were to the number of thirty, besides ten little ones, the eldest not above seven years old. These were the most beautiful girls I ever saw, all richly dressed; and I observed that the sultana took a great deal of pleasure in these lovely children, which is a vast expence; for there is not a handsome girl of that age to be bought under a hundred pounds sterling. They wore little garlands of flowers, and their own hair, braided, which was all their head-dress; but their habits were all of gold stuffs. These served her coffee kneeling; brought water when she washed, &c. —’Tis a great part of the work of the older slaves to take care of these young girls, to learn them to embroider, and to serve them as carefully as if they were children of the family. Now, do you imagine I have entertained you, all this while, with a relation that has, at least, received many embellishments from my hand? This, you will say, is but too like the Arabian tales. — These embroidered napkins! and a jewel as large as a turkey’s egg! — You forget, dear sister, those very tales were written by an author of this country, and (excepting the enchantments) are a real representation of the manners here. We travellers are in very hard circumstances: If we say nothing but what has been said before us, we are dull, and we have observed nothing. If we tell any thing new, we are laughed at as fabulous and romantic, not allowing either for the difference of ranks, which affords difference of company, or more curiosity, or the change of customs, that happen every twenty years in every country. But the truth is, people judge of travellers, exactly with the same candour, good nature, and impartiality, they judge of their neighbours upon all occasions. For my part, if I live to return amongst you, I am so well acquainted with the morals of all my dear friends and acquaintances, that I am resolved to tell them nothing at all, to avoid the imputation (which their charity would certainly incline them to) of my telling too much. But I depend upon your knowing me enough, to believe whatever I seriously assert for truth; though I give you leave to be surprised at an account so new to you. But what would you say if I told you, that I have been in a haram, where the winter apartment was wainscoted with inlaid work of mother of pearl, ivory of different colours, and olive wood, exactly like the little boxes you have seen brought Out of this country; and in whose rooms designed for summer, the walls are all crusted with japan china, the roofs gilt, and the floors spread with the finest Persian carpets? Yet there is nothing more true; such is the palace of my lovely friend, the fair Fatima, whom I was acquainted with at Adrianople. I went to visit her yesterday; and, if possible, she appeared to me handsomer than before. She met me at the door of her chamber, and, giving me her hand With the best grace in the world; You Christian ladies (said she, with a smile that made her as beautiful as an angel) have the reputation of inconstancy, and I did not expect, whatever goodness you expressed for me at Adrianople, that I should ever see you again. But I am now convinced that I have really the happiness of pleasing you; and, if you knew how I speak of you amongst our ladies, you would be assured, that you do me justice in making me your friend. She placed me in the corner of the sofa, and I spent the afternoon in her conversation, with the greatest pleasure in the world. — The sultana Hafiten is, what one Would naturally expect to find a Turkish lady, willing to oblige, but not knowing how to go about it; and ’tis easy to see, in her manner, that she has lived excluded from the world. But Fatima has all the politeness and good breeding of a court, with an air that inspires, at once, respect and tenderness; and now, that I understand her language, I find her wit as agreeable as her beauty. She is very carious after the manners of other countries, and has not the partiality for her own, so common in little minds. A Greek that I carried with me, who had never seen her before, (nor could have been admitted now, if she had not been in my train,) shewed that surprise at her beauty and manners, which is unavoidable at the first sight, and said to me in Italian — This is no Turkish lady, she is certainly some Christian. — Fatima guessed she spoke of her, and asked what she said. I would not have told her, thinking she would have been no better pleased with the compliment, than one of our court beauties to be told she had the air of a Turk; but the Greek lady told it to her; and she smiled, saying, It is not the first time I have heard so: my mother was a Poloneze, taken at the siege of Caminiec; and my father used to rally me, saying, He believed his Christian wife had found some gallant; for that I had not the air of a Turkish girl. — I assured her, that if all the Turkish ladies were like her, it was absolute necessary to confine them from public view, for the repose of mankind; and proceeded to tell her, what a noise such a face as hers would make in London or Paris. I can’t believe you, replied she agreeably; if beauty was so much valued in your country, as you say, they would never have suffered you to leave it. — Perhaps, dear sister, you laugh at my vanity in repeating this compliment; but I only do it, as I think it very well turned, and give it you as an instance of the spirit of her conversation. Her house was magnificently furnished, and very well fancied; her winter rooms being furnished with figured velvet, on gold grounds, and those for summer, with fine Indian quilting embroidered with gold. The houses of the great Turkish ladies are kept clean with as much nicety as those in Holland. This was situated in a high part of the town; and from the window of her summer apartment, we had the prospect of the sea, the islands, and the Asian mountains. — My letter is insensibly grown so long, I am ashamed of it. This is a very bad symptom. ’Tis well if I don’t degenerate into a downright story-teller. It may be, our proverb, that knowledge is no burden, may be true, as to one’s self but knowing too much, is very apt to make us troublesome to other people.

I am, &c, &c.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09