Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xlii.

Mr Hill’s account of the sweating pillar, and of the Turkish ladies, contradicted — manner of living of the Turkish wives — ceremony of receiving a Turkish bride at the bagnio — no public cognizance taken of murder — generally compounded for by money — story of a Christian lady taken prisoner by a Turkish admiral, who chose to continue with and marry her ravisher — the Turks great venerators of truth — the Eastrn manner of adopting children — account of the Armenians — their strict observance of fasts — summary view of their religion — ceremonies at an Armenian marriage.

To the Countess of ——.

I AM now preparing to leave Constantinople, and perhaps you will accuse me of hypocrisy, when I tell you ’tis with regret, but as I am used to the air, and have learnt the language, I am easy here; and as much as I love travelling, I tremble at the inconveniencies attending so great a journey, with a numerous family, and a little infant hanging at the breast. However, I endeavour, upon this occasion, to do, as I have hitherto done in all the odd turns of my life; turn them, if I can, to my diversion. In order to this, I ramble every day, wrapped up in my serigee and asmack, about Constantinople, and amuse myself with seeing all that is curious in it. I know you will expect that this declaration should be followed with some account of what I have seen. But I am in no humour to copy what has been writ so often over. To what purpose should I tell you, that Constantinople is the ancient Byzantium? that ’tis at present the conquest of a race of people, supposed Scythians? that there are five or six thousand mosques in it? that Sancta Sophia was founded by Justinian? &c. I’ll assure you, ’tis not for want of learning, that I forbear writing all these bright things. I could also, with very little trouble, turn over Knolles and Sir Paul Rycaut, to give you a list of Turkish emperors; but I will not tell you what you may find in every author that has writ of this country. I am more inclined, out of a true female spirit of contradiction, to tell you the falsehood of a great part of what you find in authors; as, for instance, in the admirable Mr Hill, who so gravely asserts, that he saw, in Sancta Sophia, a sweating pillar, very balsamic for disordered heads. There is not the least tradition of any such matter; and I suppose it was revealed to him in vision, during his wonderful stay in the Egyptian catacombs; for I am sure he never heard of any such miracle here. ’Tis also very pleasant to observe how tenderly he and all his brethren voyage-writers lament the miserable confinement of the Turkish ladies, who are perhaps more free than any ladies in the universe, and are the only women in the world that lead a life of uninterrupted pleasure, exempt from cares; their whole time being spent in visiting, bathing, or the agreeable amusement of spending money, and inventing new fashions. A husband would be thought mad, that exacted any degree of economy from his wife, whose expences are no way limited but by her own fancy. ’Tis his business to get money, and hers to spend it: and this noble prerogative extends itself to the very meanest of the sex. Here is a fellow that carries embroidered handkerchiefs upon his back to sell. And as miserable a figure as you may suppose such a mean dealer, yet, I’ll assure you, his wife scorns to wear any thing less than cloth of gold; has her ermine furs, and a very handsome set of jewels for her head. ’Tis true, they have no places but the bagnios, and these can only be seen by their own sex; however, that is a diversion they take great pleasure in.

I WAS, three days ago, at one of the finest in the town, and had the opportunity of seeing a Turkish bride received there, and all the ceremony used on that occasion, which made me recollect the epithalamium of Helen, by Theocritus; and it seems to me, that the same customs have continued ever since. All the she-friends, relations and acquaintance of the two families, newly allied, meet at the bagnio; several others go, out Of curiosity, and I believe there were that day two hundred women. Those that were, or had been married, placed themselves round the rooms, on the marble sofas; but the virgins very hastily threw off their clothes, and appeared without other ornament or covering, than their own long hair braided with pearl or ribbon. Two of them met the bride at the door, conducted by her mother and another grave relation. She was a beautiful maid of about seventeen, very richly dressed, and shining with jewels, but was presently reduced to the state of nature. Two others filled silver gilt pots with perfume, and began the procession, the rest following in pairs, to the number of thirty. The leaders sung an epithalamium, answered by the others in chorus, and the two last led the fair bride, her eyes fixed on the ground, with a charming affectation of modesty. In this order they marched round the three largest rooms of the bagnio. ’Tis not easy to represent to you the beauty of this sight, most of them being well proportioned and white skinned; all of them perfectly smooth and polished by the frequent use of bathing. After having made their tour, the bride was again led to every matron round the rooms, who saluted her with a compliment and a present, some of jewels, others of pieces of stuff, handkerchiefs or little gallantries of that nature, which she thanked them for, by kissing their hands. I was very well pleased with having seen this ceremony; and you may believe me, the Turkish ladies have, at least, as much wit and civility, nay liberty, as among us. ’Tis true, the same customs that give them so many opportunities of gratifying their evil inclinations (if they have any), also put it very fully in the power of their husbands to revenge themselves, if they are discovered; and I do not doubt, but they suffer sometimes for their indiscretions in a very severe manner. About two months ago, there was found at day break, not very far from my house, the bleeding body of a young woman, naked, only wrapped in a course sheet, with two wounds of a knife, one in her side, and another in her breast. She was not quite cold, and was so surprisingly beautiful, that there were very few men in Pera, that did not go to look upon her; but it was not possible for any body to know her, no woman’s face being known. She was supposed to have been brought, in the dead of the night, from the Constantinople side, and laid there. Very little inquiry was made about the murderer, and the corpse was privately buried without noise. Murder is never pursued by the king’s officers, as with us. ’Tis the business of the next relations to revenge the dead person; and if they like better to compound the matter for money (as they generally do) there is no more said of it. One would imagine this defect in their government should make such tragedies very frequent, yet they are extremely rare; which is enough to prove the people are not naturally cruel. Neither do I think, in many other particulars, they deserve the barbarous character we give them. I am well acquainted with a Christian woman of quality, who made it her choice to live with a Turkish husband, and is a very agreeable sensible lady. Her story is so extraordinary, I cannot forbear relating it; but I promise you, it shall be in as few words as I can possibly express it.

SHE is a Spaniard, and was at Naples with her family, When that kingdom was part of the Spanish dominion. Coming from thence in a felucca, accompanied by her brother, they were attacked by the Turkish admiral, boarded and taken. — And now how shall I modestly tell you the rest of her adventure? The same accident happened to her, that happened to the fair Lucretia so many years before her. But she was too good a Christian to kill herself, as that heathenish Roman did. The admiral was so much charmed with the beauty and long-suffering of the fair captive, that, as his first compliment, he gave immediate liberty to her brother and attendants, who made haste to Spain, and, in a few months, sent the sum of four thousand pounds sterling, as a ransom for his sister. The Turk took the money, which he presented to her, and told her she was at liberty. But the lady very discreetly weighed the different treatment she was likely to find in her native country. Her relations (as the kindest thing they could do for her in her present circumstances) would certainly confine her to a nunnery for the rest of her days. — Her infidel lover was very handsome, very tender, very fond of her, and lavished at her feet all the Turkish magnificence. She answered him very resolutely, that her liberty was not so precious to her as her honour; that he could no way restore that, but by marrying her; and she therefore desired him to accept the ransom as her portion, and give her the satisfaction of knowing, that no man could boast of her favours, without being her husband. The admiral was transported at this kind offer, and sent back the money to her relations, saying, he was too happy in her possession. He married her, and never took any other wife, and (as she says herself) she never had reason to repent the choice she made. He left her, some years after, one of the richest widows in Constantinople. But there is no remaining honourably a single woman, and that consideration has obliged her to marry the present captain bassa (i.e. admiral) his successor. — I am afraid that you will think my friend fell in love with her ravisher; but I am willing to take her word for it, that she acted wholly on principles of honour, though I think she might be reasonably touched at his generosity, which is often found amongst the Turks of rank.

’TIS a degree of generosity to tell the truth, and ’tis very rare that any Turk will assert a solemn falsehood. I don’t speak of the lowest sort; for as there is a great deal of ignorance, there is very little virtue amongst them; and false witnesses are much cheaper than in Christendom; those wretches not being punished (even when they are publicly detected) with the rigour they ought to be.

NOW I am speaking of their law, I don’t know whether I have ever mentioned to you one custom peculiar to their country, I mean adoption, very common amongst the Turks, and yet more amongst the Greeks and Armenians. Not having it in their power to give their estates to a friend or distant relation; to avoid its falling into the grand signior’s treasury, when they are not likely to have any children of their own, they chuse some pretty child of either sex, amongst the meanest people, and carry the child and its parents before the cadi, and there declare they receive it for their heir. The parents, at the same time, renounce all future claim to it; a writing is drawn and witnessed, and a child thus adopted, cannot be disinherited. Yet I have seen some common beggars, that have refused to part with their children in this manner, to some of the richest among the Greeks; (so powerful is the instinctive affection that is natural to parents!) though the adopting fathers are generally very tender to these children of their souls, as they call them. I own this custom pleases me much better than our absurd one of following our name. Methinks, ’tis much more reasonable to make happy and rich an infant whom I educate after my own manner, brought up (in the Turkish phrase) upon my knees, and who has learned to look upon me with a filial respect, than to give an estate to a creature, without other merit or relation to me, than that of a few letters. Yet this is an absurdity we see frequently practised. — Now I have mentioned the Armenians, perhaps it will be agreeable to tell you something of that nation, with which I am sure you are utterly unacquainted. I will not trouble you with the geographical account of the situation of their country, which you may see in the maps; or a relation of their ancient greatness, which you may read in the Roman history. They are now subject to the Turks; and, being very industrious in trade, and increasing and multiplying, are dispersed in great numbers through all the Turkish dominions. They were, as they say, converted to the Christian religion by St Gregory, and are perhaps the devoutest, Christians in the whole world. The chief precepts of their priests enjoin the strict keeping of their lents, which are, at least seven months in every year, and are not to be dispensed with on the most emergent necessity; no occasion whatever can excuse them, if they touch any thing more than mere herbs or roots (without oil) and plain dry bread. That is their constant diet. — Mr W——y has one of his interpreters of this nation, and the poor fellow was brought so low, by the severity of his fasts, that his life was despaired of. Yet neither his master’s commands, nor the doctor’s entreaties (who declared nothing else could save his life) were powerful enough to prevail with him to take two or three spoonfuls of broth. Excepting this, which may rather be called a custom than an article of faith, I see very little in their religion different from ours. ’Tis true, they seem to incline very much to Mr Whiston’s doctrine; neither do I think the Greek church very distant from it, since ’tis certain, the holy Spirit’s proceeding only from the Father, is making a plain subordination in the Son. — But the Armenians have no notion of transubstantiation, whatever account Sir Paul Rycaut gives of them, (which account, I am apt to believe, was designed to compliment our Court in 1679;) and they have a great horror for those amongst them, that change to the Roman religion. What is most extraordinary in their customs, is their matrimony; a ceremony, I believe, unparallell’d all over the world. They are always promised very young; but the espoused never see one another, till three days after their marriage. The bride is carried to church, with a cap on her head, in the fashion of a large trencher, and over it a red silken veil, which covers her all over to her feet. The priest asks the bridegroom, Whether he is contented to marry that woman, be she deaf, be she blind? These are the literal words: to which having answered, yes, she is led home to his house, accompanied with all the friends and relations on both sides, singing and dancing, and is placed on a cushion in the corner of the sofa; but her veil is never lifted up, not even by her husband. There is something so odd and monstrous in these ways, that I could not believe them, till I had inquired of several Armenians myself, who all assured me of the truth of them, particularly one young fellow, who wept when he spoke of it, being promised by his mother to a girl that he must marry in this manner, though he protested to me, he had rather die than submit to this slavery, having already figured his bride to himself with all the deformities of nature. — I fancy I see you bless yourself at this terrible relation. I cannot conclude my letter with a more surprising story; yet ’tis as seriously true, as that I am,

Dear sister, yours, &c. &c.

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