Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xliii

From Constantinople. — Observations on the accounts given by Sir Paul Rycaut and Gemelli — the canal between Constantinople and Calcedon — the precarious nature of human grandeur in Turky — description of the house of the grand vizier who was killed at Peterwaradin — moral reflections on the difference between the taste of the Europeans and the Easterns.

To the Abbot of ——.

Constantinople, May 19. O. S. 1718.

I AM extremely pleased with hearing from you, and my vanity (the darling frailty of mankind) not a little flattered by the uncommon questions you ask me, though I am utterly incapable of answering them. And, indeed, were I as good a mathematician as Euclid himself, it requires an age’s stay to make just observations on the air and vapours. I have not been yet a full year here, and am on the point of removing. Such is my rambling destiny. This will surprise you, and can surprise no body so much as myself. Perhaps you will accuse me of laziness, or dulness, or both together, that can leave this place, without giving you some account of the Turkish court. I can only tell you, that if you please to read Sir Paul Rycaut, you will there find a full and true account of the vizier’s, the beglerbys, the civil and spiritual government, the officers of the seraglio, &c. things that ’tis very easy to procure lists of, and therefore may be depended on; though other stories, God knows — I say no more — every body is at liberty to write their own remarks; the manners of people may change; or some of them escape the observation of travellers; but ’tis not the same of the government; and, for that reason, since I can tell you nothing new, I will tell you nothing of it. In the same silence shall be passed over the arsenal and seven towers; and for mosques, I have already described one of the noblest to you very particularly. But I cannot forbear taking notice to you of a mistake of Gemelli, (though I honour him in a much higher degree than any other voyage-writer:) he says that there are no remains of Calcedon; this is certainly a mistake: I was there, yesterday, and went cross the canal in my galley, the sea being very narrow between that city and Constantinople. ’Tis still a large town, and has several mosques in it. The Christians still call it Calcedonia, and the Turks give it a name I forgot, but which is only a corruption of the same word. I suppose this is an error of his guide, which his short stay hindered him from rectifying, for I have, in other matters, a very just esteem for his veracity. Nothing can be pleasanter than the canal; and the Turks are so well acquainted with its beauties, that all their pleasure-seats are built on its banks, where they have, at the same time, the most beautiful prospects in Europe and Asia; there are near one another some hundreds of magnificent palaces. Human grandeur being here yet more unstable than any where else, ’tis common for the heirs of a great three-tailed bassa, not to be rich enough to keep in repair the house he built; thus, in a few years, they all fall to ruin. I was yesterday to see that of the late grand Vizier, who was killed at Peterwaradin. It was built to receive his royal bride, daughter of the present sultan; but he did not live to see her there. I have a great mind to describe it to you; but I check that inclination, knowing very well, that I cannot give you, with my best description, such an idea of it as I ought. It is situated on one of the most delightful parts of the canal, with a fine wood on the side of a hill behind it. The extent of it is prodigious; the guardian assured me, there are eight hundred rooms in it; I will not, however, answer for that number, since I did not count them; but ’tis certain the number is very large, and the whole adorned with a profusion of marble, gilding, and the most exquisite painting of fruit and flowers. The windows are all sashed with the finest crystalline glass brought from England; and here is all the expensive magnificence that you can suppose in a palace founded by a vain luxurious young man, with the wealth of a vast empire at his command. But no part of it pleased me better than the apartments destined for the bagnios. There are two built exactly in the same manner, answering to one another; the baths, fountains, and pavements, all of white marble, the roofs gilt, and the walls covered with Japan china. Adjoining to them are two rooms, the uppermost of which is divided into a sofa, and in the four corners are falls of water from the very roof, from shell to shell, of white marble, to the lower end of the room, where it falls into a large basin, surrounded with pipes, that throw up the water as high as the roof. The walls are in the nature of lattices; and, on the outside of them, there are vines and woodbines planted, that form a sort of green tapestry, and give an agreeable obscurity to those delightful chambers. I should go on and let you into some of the other apartments (all worthy your curiosity); but ’tis yet harder to describe a Turkish palace than any other, being built entirely irregular. There is nothing that can be properly called front or wings; and though such a confusion is, I think, pleasing to the sight, yet it would be very unintelligible in a letter. I shall only add, that the chamber destined for the sultan, when he visits his daughter, is wainscotted with mother of pearl, fastened with emeralds like nails. There are others of mother of pearl and olive wood inlaid, and several of Japan china. The galleries, which are numerous, and very large, are adorned with jars of flowers, and porcelain dishes of fruit of all sorts, so well done in plaster, and coloured in so lively a manner, that it has an enchanting effect. The garden is suitable to the house, where arbours, fountains, and walks, are thrown together in an agreeable confusion. There is no ornament wanting, except that of statues. Thus, you see, Sir, these people are not so unpolished as we represent them. ’Tis true, their magnificence is of a very different taste from ours, and perhaps of a better. I am almost of opinion, they have a right notion of life. They consume it in music, gardens, wine, and delicate eating, while we are tormenting our brains with some scheme of politics, or studying some science to which we can never attain; or, if we do, cannot persuade other people to set that value upon it we do ourselves. ’Tis certain, what we feel and see is properly (if any thing is properly) our own; but the good of fame, the folly of praise, are hardly purchased, and, when obtained, a poor recompence for loss of time and health. We die or grow old before we can reap the fruit of our labours. Considering what short-liv’d, weak animals men are, is there any study so beneficial as the study of present pleasure? I dare not pursue this theme; perhaps I have already said too much, but I depend upon the true knowledge you have of my heart. I don’t expect from you the insipid railleries I should suffer from another in answer to this letter. You know how to divide the idea of pleasure from that of vice, and they are only mingled in the heads of fools. — But I allow you to laugh at me for the sensual declaration in saying, that I had rather be a rich effendi, with all his ignorance, than Sir Isaac Newton with all his knowledge.

I am, Sir, &c. &c.

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