Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xli.

Suburbs of Constantinople — Turkish water-man — Constantinople, why not easy to be seen by Europeans — pleasure of rowing down the Bosphorus — view of Constantinople from the water — the seraglio — Sancta Sophia — the mosque Of sultan Solyman — of sultana Valida — the atlerdan — the brazen serpentine column — the exchange — the bisisten — humanity of the Turks towards their slaves — the historical pillar fallen down — the dervises — their devotion and dancing.

To the Countess of B——.

AT length I have heard from my dear Lady B—— for the first time. I am persuaded you have had the goodness to write before, but I have had the ill fortune to lose your letters. Since my last, I have staid quietly at Constantinople, a city that I ought in conscience to give your ladyship a right notion of, since I know you can have none but what is partial and mistaken from the writings of travellers. ’Tis certain, there are many people that pass years here in Pera, without having ever seen it, and yet they all pretend to describe it. Pera, Tophana, and Galata, wholly inhabited by French Christians (and which, together, make the appearance of a very fine town,) are divided from it by the sea, which is not above half so broad as the broadest part of the Thames; but the Christian men are loth to hazard the adventures they sometimes meet with amongst the levents or seamen, (worse monsters than our watermen) and the women must cover their faces to go there, which they have a perfect aversion to do. ’Tis true, they wear veils in Pera, but they are such as only serve to shew their beauty to more advantage, and would not be permitted in Constantinople. These reasons deter almost every creature from seeing it; and the French ambassadress will return to France (I believe) without ever having been there. You’ll wonder, madam, to hear me add, that I have been there very often. The asmack, or Turkish veil, is become not only very easy, but agreeable to me; and, if it was not, I would be content to endure some inconveniency, to gratify a passion that is become so powerful with me, as curiosity. And, indeed, the pleasure of going in a barge to Chelsea, is not comparable to that of rowing upon the canal of the sea here, where, for twenty miles together, down the Bosphorus, the most beautiful variety of prospects present themselves. The Asian side is covered with fruit-trees, villages, and the most delightful landskips in nature; on the European, stands Constantinople, situated on seven hills. — The unequal heights make it seem as large again as it is, (though one of the largest cities in the world) shewing an agreeable mixture of gardens, pine and cypress-trees, palaces, mosques, and public buildings, raised one above another, with as much beauty and appearance of symmetry, as your ladyship ever saw in a cabinet, adorned by the most skilful hands, where jars shew themselves above jars, mixed with canisters, babies and candlesticks. This is a very odd comparison; but it gives me an exact idea of the thing. I have taken care to see as much of the seraglio as is to be seen. It is on a point of land running into the sea; a palace of prodigious extent, but very irregular. The gardens take in a large compass of ground, full of high cypress-trees, which is all I know of them. The buildings are all of white stone, leaded on the top, with gilded turrets and spires, which look very magnificent; and, indeed, I believe there is no Christian-king’s palace half so large. There are six large courts in it, all built round, and set with trees, having galleries of stone; one of these for the guard, another for the slaves, another for the officers of the kitchen, another for the stables, the fifth for the divan, and the sixth for the apartment destined for audiences. On the ladies side, there are, at least, as many more, with distinct courts belonging to their eunuchs and attendants, their kitchens, &c.

THE next remarkable structure is that of St Sophia which is very difficult to see. I was forced to send three times to the caimairam, (the governor of the town) and he assembled the chief effendis, or heads of the law, and enquired of the mufti, whether it was lawful to permit it. They passed some days in this important debate; but I insisting on my request, permission was granted. I can’t be informed why the Turks are more delicate on the subject of this mosque, than on any of the others, where what Christian pleases may enter without scruple. I fancy they imagine, that, having been once consecrated, people, on pretence of curiosity, might profane it with prayers, particularly to those saints, who are still very visible in Mosaic work, and no other way defaced but by the decays of time; for it is absolutely false, though so universally asserted, that the Turks defaced all the images that they found in the city. The dome of St Sophia is said to be one hundred and thirteen feet diameter, built upon arches, sustained by vast pillars of marble, the pavement and stair-case marble. There are two rows of galleries, supported with pillars of party-coloured marble, and the whole roof Mosaic work, part of which decays very fast, and drops down. They presented me a handful of it; its composition seems to me a sort of glass, or that paste with which they make counterfeit jewels. They shew here the tomb of the emperor Constantine, for which they have a great veneration.

THIS is a dull, imperfect description, of this celebrated building; but I understand architecture so little, that I am afraid of talking nonsense, in endeavouring to speak of it particularly. Perhaps I am in the wrong, but some Turkish mosques please me better. That of sultan Solyman is an exact square, with four fine towers in the angles, in the midst is a noble cupola, supported with beautiful marble pillars; two lesser at the ends, supported in the same manner; the pavement and gallery round the mosque, of marble; under the great cupola is a fountain, adorned with such fine coloured pillars, that I can hardly think them natural marble; on one side is the pulpit, of white marble, and on the other, the little gallery for the grand signior. A fine stair-case leads to it, and it is built up with gilded lattices. At the upper end is a sort of altar, where the name of God is written; and before it stand two candlesticks, as high as a man, with wax candles as thick as three flambeaux. The pavement is spread with fine carpets, and the mosque illuminated with a vast number of lamps. The court leading to it is very spacious, with galleries of marble, of green columns, covered with twenty-eight leaded cupolas on two sides, and a fine fountain of basins in the midst of it.

THIS description may serve for all the mosques in Constantinople. The model is exactly the same, and they only differ in largeness and richness of materials. That of the sultana Valida is the largest of all, built entirely of marble, the most prodigious, and, I think, the most beautiful structure I ever saw, be it spoken to the honour of our sex, for it was founded by the mother of Mahomet IV. Between friends, Paul’s church would make a pitiful figure near it, as any of our squares would do near the atlerdan, or place of horses, (at signifying a horse in Turkish). This was the hippodrome, in the reign of the Greek emperors. In the midst of it is a brazen column, of three serpents twisted together, with their mouths gaping. ’Tis impossible to learn why so odd a pillar was erected; the Greeks can tell nothing but fabulous legends, when they are asked the meaning of it, and there is no sign of its having ever had any inscription. At the upper end is an obelisk of porphyry, probably brought from Egypt, the hieroglyphics all very entire, which I look upon as mere ancient puns. It is placed on four little brazen pillars, upon a pedestal of square free stone, full of figures in bas-relief on two sides; one square representing a battle, another an assembly. The others have inscriptions in Greek and Latin; the last I took in my pocket-book, and it is as follows:

Difficilis quondam, dominis parere serenis
Jussus, et extinctis palman portare tyrannis
Omnia Theodosio cedunt, sobolique perenni
.

Your lord will interpret these lines. Don’t fancy they are a love-letter to him.

ALL the figures have their heads on; and I cannot forbear reflecting again on the impudence of authors, who all say they have not; but I dare swear the greatest part of them never saw them; but took the report from the Greeks, who resist, with incredible fortitude, the conviction of their own eyes, whenever they have invented lies to the dishonour of their enemies. Were you to believe them, there is nothing worth seeing in Constantinople, but Sancta Sophia, though there are several large, and, in my opinion, more beautiful mosques in that city. That of sultan Achmet has this particularity, that its gates are of brass. In all these mosques there are little chapels, where are the tombs of the founders and their families, with wax candles burning before them.

THE Exchanges are all noble buildings, full of fine alleys, the greatest part supported with pillars, and kept wonderfully neat. Every trade has its distinct alley, where the merchandize is disposed in the same order as in the New Exchange at London. The besisten, or jeweller’s quarter, shews so much riches, such a vast quantity of diamonds, and all kinds of precious stones, that they dazzle the sight. The embroiderer’s is also very glittering, and people walk here as much for diversion as business. The markets are most of them handsome squares, and admirably well provided, perhaps better than in any other part of the world.

I KNOW, you’ll expect I should say something particular of the slaves; and you will imagine me half a Turk, when I don’t speak of it with the same horror other Christians have done before me. But I cannot forbear applauding the humanity of the Turks to these creatures; they are never ill used, and their slavery is, in my opinion, no worse than servitude all over the world. ’Tis true, they have no wages; but they give them yearly clothes to a higher value than our salaries to our ordinary servants. But you’ll object, that men buy women with an eye to evil. In my opinion, they are bought and sold as publicly, and as infamously, in all our Christian great cities.

I MUST add to the description of Constantinople, that the historical pillar is no more. It dropped down about two years before I came to this part of the world. I have seen no other footsteps of antiquity, except the aqueducts, which are so vast, that I am apt to believe they are yet more ancient than the Greek empire. The Turks indeed have clapped in some stones with Turkish inscriptions, to give their natives the honour of so great a work; but the deceit is easily discovered. — The other public buildings are the hanns and monasteries; the first are very large and numerous; the second few in number, and not at all magnificent. I had the curiosity to visit one of them, and to observe the devotions of the dervises, which are as whimsical as any at Rome. These fellows have permission to marry, but are confined to an odd habit, which is only a piece of coarse white cloth, wrapped about them, with their legs and arms naked. Their order has few other rules, except that of performing their fantastic rites, every Tuesday and Friday, which is done in this manner: They meet together in a large hall, where they all stand with their eyes fixed on the ground, and their arms across, while the imaum or preacher reads part of the alcoran from a pulpit placed in the midst; and when he has done, eight or ten of them make a melancholy concert with their pipes, which are no unmusical instruments. Then he reads again, and makes a short exposition on what he has read; after which they sing and play, ‘till their superior (the only one of them dressed in green) rises and begins a sort of solemn dance. They all stand about him in a regular figure; and while some play, the others tie their robe (which is very wide) fast round their waist, and begin to turn round with an amazing swiftness, and yet with great regard to the music, moving slower or faster as the tune is played. This lasts above an hour, without any of them shewing the least appearance of giddiness, which is not to be wondered at, when it is considered they are all used to it from their infancy; most of them being devoted to this way of life from their birth. There turned amongst them some little dervises, of six or seven years old, who seemed no more disordered by that exercise than the others. At the end of the ceremony, they shout out, There is no other god, but God, and Mahomet his prophet; after which, they kiss the superior’s hand, and retire. The whole is performed with the most solemn gravity. Nothing can be more austere than the form of these people; they never raise their eyes, and seem devoted to contemplation. And as ridiculous as this is in description, there is something touching in the air of submission and mortification they assume. — This letter is of a horrible length; but you may burn it when you have read enough, &c. &c.

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