Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xliv.

From Tunis. — Vovage from Constantinople — the Hellespont, and castles of Sestos and Abydos — reflections on the story of Hero and Leander — the burial-places of Hecuba and Achilles — antiquities — habits of the Greek peasants — conjectures as to the ruins of a large city — remarks on the face of the country illustrated by reference to passages from Homer — Troy, no remains of it existing — ruins of old Constantinople — Latin inscriptions, and remains of antiquity — isle of Tenedos — Mytilene — Lesbos — Scio, and its inhabitants — promontory of Lunium the present Cape Colonna — temple of Theseus, how destroyed present condition of the Morea, the ancient Peloponnesus — Candia — reflections on the contrast between ancient and modern Greece — Trinacria — Malta — arrival at Tunis — face of the country — manner of celebrating the Mahometan ramadan or Lent — the natives — ruins of the aqueduct of Carthage — description and chronological anecdotes of the city of Tunis — ruins of Carthage.

To the Abbot of ——.

Tunis, July 31. O. S. 1718

I LEFT Constantinople the sixth of the last month, and this is the first post from whence I could send a letter, though I have often wished for the opportunity, that I might impart some of the pleasure I found in this voyage, through the most agreeable part of the world, where every scene presents me some poetical idea,

Warm’d with poetic transport I survey

Th’ immortal islands, and the well known sea.

For here so oft the muse her harp has strung,

That not a mountain rears its head unsung.

I BEG your pardon for this sally, and will, if I can, continue the rest of my account in plain prose. The second day after we set sail, we passed Gallipolis, a fair city, situated in the bay of Chersonesus, and much respected by the Turks, being the first town they took in Europe. At five the next morning, we anchored in the Hellespont, between the castles of Sestos and Abydos, now called the Dardanelli. These are now two little ancient castles, but of no strength, being commanded by a rising ground behind them, which, I confess, I should never have taken notice of, if I had not heard it observed by our captain and officers, my imagination being wholly employed by the tragic story, that you are well acquainted with:

The swimming lover, and the nightly bride,

How HERO lov’d, and how LEANDER died.

Verse again! — I am certainly infected by the poetical air I have passed through. That of Abydos is undoubtedly very amorous, since that soft passion betrayed the castle into the hands of the Turks who besieged it in the reign of Orchanes. The governor’s daughter, imagining to have seen her future husband in a dream, (though I don’t find she had either slept upon bride-cake, or kept St Agnes’s fast) fancied she saw the dear figure in the form of one of her besiegers; and, being willing to obey her destiny, tossed a note to him over the wall, with the offer of her person, and the delivery of the castle. He shewed it to his general, who consented to try the sincerity of her intentions, and withdrew his army, ordering the young man to return with a select body of men at midnight. She admitted him at the appointed hour; he destroyed the garrison, took the father prisoner, and made her his wife. This town is in Asia, first founded by the Milesians. Sestos is in Europe, and was once the principal city of Chersonesus. Since I have seen this strait, I find nothing improbable in the adventure of Leander, or very wonderful in the bridge of boats of Xerxes. ’Tis so narrow, ’tis not surprising a young lover should attempt to swim, or an ambitious king try to pass his army over it. But then, ’tis so subject to storms, ’tis no wonder the lover perished, and the bridge was broken. From hence we had a full view of mount Ida;

Where Juno once caress’d her am’rous Jove,

And the world’s master lay subdu’d by love.

Not many leagues sail from hence, I saw the point of land where poor old Hecuba was buried, and about a league from that place is Cape Janizary, the famous promontory of Sigaeum, where we anchored. My curiosity supplied me with strength to climb to the top of it, to see the place where Achilles was buried, and where Alexander ran naked round his tomb, in honour of him, which, no doubt, was a great comfort to his ghost. I saw there the ruins of a very large city, and found a stone, on which Mr W——y plainly distinguished the words of Sigaen Polin. We ordered this on board the ship; but were shewed others much more curious by a Greek priest, tho’ a very ignorant fellow, that could give no tolerable account of any thing. On each side the door of this little church ly two large stones, about ten feet long each, five in breadth, and three in thickness. That on the right is a very fine white marble, the side of it beautifully carved in bas-relief; it represents a woman, who seems to be designed for some deity, sitting on a chair with a footstool, and before her another woman, weeping, and presenting to her a young child that she has in her arms, followed by a procession of women with children in the same manner. This is certainly part of a very ancient tomb; but I dare not pretend to give the true explanation of it. On the stone, on the left side, is a very fair inscription; but the Greek is too ancient for Mr W——y’s interpretation. I am very sorry not to have the original in my possession, which might have been purchased of the poor inhabitants for a small sum of money. But our captain assured us, that without having machines made on purpose, ’twas impossible to bear it to the sea-side; and, when it was there, his long-boat would not be large enough to hold it.

THE ruins of this great city are now inhabited by poor Greek peasants, who wear the Sciote habit, the women being in short petticoats, fastened by straps round their shoulders, and large smock sleeves of white linen, with neat shoes and stockings, and on their heads a large piece of muslin, which falls in large folds on their shoulders. — One of my countrymen, Mr Sands, (whose book I doubt not you have read, as one of the best of its kind) speaking of these ruins, supposes them to have been the foundation of a city begun by Constantine, before his building Byzantium; but I see no good reason for that imagination, and am apt to believe them much more ancient.

WE saw very plainly from this promontory, the river Simois rolling from mount Ida, and running through a very spacious valley. It is now a considerable river, and is called Simores, it is joined in the vale by the Scamander, which appeared a small stream half choaked with mud, but is perhaps large in the winter. This was Xanthus amongst the gods, as Homer tells us; and ’tis by that heavenly name, the nymph Oenone invokes it, in her epistle to Paris. The Trojan virgins used to offer their first favours to it, by the name of Scamander, till the adventure, which Monsieur de la Fontaine has told so agreeably, abolish’d that heathenish ceremony. When the stream is mingled with the Simois, they run together to the sea.

ALL that is now left of Troy is the ground on which it stood; for, I am firmly persuaded, whatever pieces of antiquity may be found round it, are much more modern, and I think Strabo says the same thing. However, there is some pleasure in seeing the valley where I imagined the famous duel of Menelaus and Paris had been fought, and where the greatest city in the world was situated. ’Tis certainly the noblest situation that can be found for the head of a great empire, much to be preferred to that of Constantinople, the harbour here being always convenient for ships from all parts of the world, and that of Constantinople inaccessible almost six months in the year, while the north-wind reigns.

NORTH of the promontory of Sigaeum we saw that of Rhaeteum, famed for the sepulchre of Ajax. While I viewed these celebrated fields and rivers, I admired the exact geography of Homer, whom I had in my hand. Almost every epithet he gives to a mountain or plain, is still just for it; and I spent several hours here in as agreeable cogitations, as ever Don Quixote had on mount Montesinos. We sailed next night to the shore, where ’tis vulgarly reported Troy stood; and I took the pains of rising at two in the morning to view cooly those ruins which are commonly shewed to strangers, and which the Turks call Eski Stamboul, i.e. Old Constantinople. For that reason, as well as some others, I conjecture them to be the remains of that city begun by Constantine. I hired an ass (the only voiture to be had there) that I might go some miles into the country, and take a tour round the ancient walls, which are of a vast extent. We found the remains of a castle on a hill, and of another in a valley, several broken pillars and two pedestals, from which I took these Latin inscriptions:



I do not doubt but the remains of a temple near this place, are the ruins of one dedicated to Augustus; and I know not why Mr Sands calls it a Christian temple, since the Romans certainly built hereabouts. Here are many tombs of fine marble, and vast pieces of granate, which are daily lessened by the prodigious balls that the Turks make, from them, for their cannon. We passed that evening the isle of Tenedos, once under the patronage of Apollo, as he gave it in, himself, in the particulars of his estate, when he courted Daphne. It is but ten miles in circuit, but, in those days, very rich and well-peopled, still famous for its excellent wine. I say nothing of Tenes, from whom it was called; but naming Mytilene, where we passed next, I cannot forbear mentioning Lesbos, where Sappho sung, and Pittacus reigned, famous for the birth of Alcaeus, Theophrastus and Arion, those masters in poetry, philosophy, and music. This was one of the last islands that remained in the Christian dominion after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks. But need I talk to you of Catucuseno, &c. princes that you are as well acquainted with as I am. ’Twas with regret I saw us sail from this island into the Egean sea, now the Archipelago, leaving Scio (the ancient Chios) on the left, which is the richest and most populous of these islands, fruitful in cotton, corn and silk, planted with groves of orange and lemon trees, and the Arvisian mountain, still celebrated for the nectar that Virgil mentions. Here is the best manufacture of silks in all Turkey. The town is well built, the women famous for their beauty, and shew their faces as in Christendom. There are many rich families; though they confine their magnificence to the inside of their houses, to avoid the jealousy of the Turks, who have, a bassa here: however, they enjoy a reasonable liberty, and indulge the genius of their country:

And eat, and sing, and dance away their time,

Fresh as their groves, and happy as their clime.

Their chains hang lightly on them, tho’ ’tis not long since they were imposed, not being under the Turk till 1566. But perhaps ’tis as easy to obey the grand signior as the state of Genoa, to whom they were sold by the Greek emperor. But I forget myself in these historical touches, which are very impertinent when I write to you. Passing the strait between the islands of Andros and Achaia, now Libadia, we saw the promontory of Lunium, now called Cape Colonna, where are yet standing the vast pillars of a temple of Minerva. This venerable sight made me think, with double regret, on a beautiful temple of Theseus, which, I am assured, was almost entire at Athens, till the last campaign in the Morea, that the Turks filled it with powder, and it was accidentally blown up. You may believe I had a great mind to land on the fam’d Peloponnesus, tho’ it were only to look on the rivers of Asopus, Peneus, Inachus and Eurotas, the fields of Arcadia, and other scenes of ancient mythology. But instead of demigods and heroes, I was credibly informed, ’tis now over-run by robbers, and that I should run a great risque of falling into their hands, by undertaking such a journey through a desert country, for which, however, I have so much respect, that I have much ado to hinder myself from troubling you with its whole history, from the foundation of Nycana and Corinth, to the last campaign there; but I check the inclination, as I did that of landing. We sailed quietly by Cape Angelo, once Malea, where I saw no remains of the famous temple of Apollo. We came that evening in sight of Candia: it is very mountainous; we easily distinguished that of Ida. — We have Virgil’s authority, that here were a hundred cities —

— Centum urbes habitant magnas —

The chief of them — the scene of monstrous passions. — Metellus first conquered this birth-place of his Jupiter; it fell afterwards into the hands of —— I am running on to the very siege of Candia; and I am so angry with myself, that I will pass by all the other islands with this general reflection, that ’tis impossible to imagine any thing more agreeable than this journey would have been two or three thousand years since, when, after drinking a dish of tea with Sappho, I might have gone, the same evening, to visit the temple of Homer in Chios, and passed this voyage in taking plans of magnificent temples, delineating the miracles of statuaries, and conversing with the most polite and most gay of mankind. Alas! art is extinct here; the wonders of nature alone remain; and it was with vast pleasure I observed those of mount Etna, whose flame appears very bright in the night many leagues off at sea, and fills the head with a thousand conjectures. However, I honour philosophy too much, to imagine it could turn that of Empedocles; and Lucian shall never make me believe such a scandal of a man, of whom, Lucretius says,

— Vix humana videtur stirpe creatus —

WE passed Trinacria without hearing any of the syrens that Homer describes; and, being thrown on neither Scylla nor Charybdis, came safe to Malta, first called Melita, from the abundance of honey. It is a whole rock covered with very little earth. The grand master lives here in the state of a sovereign prince; but his strength at sea now is very small. The fortifications are reckoned the best in the world, all cut in the solid rock with infinite expence and labour. — Off this island we were tossed by a severe storm, and were very glad, after eight days, to be able to put into Porta Farine on the African shore, where our ship now rides. At Tunis we were met by the English consul who resides here. I readily accepted of the offer of his house there for some days, being very curious to see this part of the world, and particularly the ruins of Carthage. I set out in his chaise at nine at night, the moon being at full. I saw the prospect of the country almost as well as I could have done by day-light; and the heat of the sun is now so intolerable, ’tis impossible to travel at any other time. The soil is, for the most part, sandy, but every where fruitful of date, olive, and fig-trees, which grow without art, yet afford the most delicious fruit in the world. There vineyards and melon-fields are inclos’d by hedges of that plant we call Indian-fig, which is an admirable fence, no wild beast being able to pass it. It grows a great height, very thick, and the spikes or thorns are as long and sharp as bodkins; it bears a fruit much eaten by the peasants, and which has no ill taste.

IT being now the season of the Turkish ramadan, or Lent, and all here professing, at least the Mahometan religion, they fast till the going down of the sun, and spend the night in feasting. We saw under the trees, companies of the country people, eating, singing, and dancing, to their wild music. They are not quite black, but all mulattoes, and the most frightful creatures that can appear in a human figure. They are almost naked, only wearing a piece of coarse serge wrapped about them. — But the women have their arms, to their very shoulders, and their necks and faces, adorned with flowers, stars, and various sorts of figures impressed by gunpowder; a considerable addition to their natural deformity; which is, however, esteemed very ornamental amongst them; and I believe they suffer a good deal of pain by it.

ABOUT six miles from Tunis, we saw the remains of that noble aqueduct, which carried the water to Carthage, over several high mountains, the length of forty miles. There are still many arches entire. We spent two hours viewing it with great attention, and Mr W——y assured me that of Rome is very much inferior to it. The stones are of a prodigious size, and yet all polished, and so exactly fitted to each other, very little cement has been made use of to join them. Yet they may probably stand a thousand years longer, if art is not made use of to pull them down. Soon after day-break I arrived at Tunis, a town fairly built of very white stone, but quite without gardens, which, they say, were all destroyed when the Turks first took it, none having been planted since. The dry land gives a very disagreeable prospect to the eye; and the want of shade contributing to the natural heat of the climate, renders it so excessive, that I have much ado to support it. ’Tis true, here is, every noon, the refreshment of the sea-breeze, without which it would be impossible to live; but no fresh water but what is preserved in the cisterns of the rains that fall in the month of September. The women of the town go veiled from head to foot under a black crape, and being mixed with a breed of renegadoes, are said to be many of them fair and handsome. This city was besieged in 1270, by Lewis king of France, who died under the walls of it, of a pestilential fever. After his death, Philip, his son, and our prince Edward, son of Henry III. raised the siege on honourable terms. It remained under its natural African kings, till betrayed into the hands of Barbarossa, admiral of Solyman the Magnificent. The emperor Charles V. expelled Barbarossa, but it was recovered by the Turk, under the conduct of Sinan Bassa, in the reign of Selim II. From that time till now, it has remained tributary to the grand signior, governed by a bey, who suffers the name of subject to the Turk, but has renounced the subjection, being absolute, and very seldom paying any tribute. The great city of Bagdat is, at this time, in the same circumstances, and the grand signior connives at the loss of these dominions, for fear of losing even the titles of them.

I WENT very early yesterday morning (after one night’s repose) to see the ruins of Carthage. — I was, however, half broiled in the sun, and overjoyed to be led into one of the subterranean apartments, which they called, The stables of the elephants, but which I cannot believe were ever designed for that use. I found in them many broken pieces of columns of fine marble, and some of porphyry. I cannot think any body would take the insignificant pains of carrying them thither, and I cannot imagine such fine pillars were designed for the use of stables. I am apt to believe they Were summer apartments under their palaces, which the heat of the climate rendered necessary. They are now used as granaries by the country people. While I sat here, from the town of Tents not far off, many of the women flocked in to see me, and we were equally entertained with viewing one another. Their posture in sitting, the colour of their skin, their lank black hair falling on each side their faces, their features, and the shape of their limbs, differ so little from their country-people the baboons, ’tis hard to fancy them a distinct race; I could not help thinking there had been some ancient alliances between them.

WHEN I was a little refreshed by rest, and some milk and exquisite fruit they brought me, I went up the little hill where once stood the castle of Byrsa, and from thence I had a distinct view of the situation of the famous city of Carthage, which stood on an isthmus, the sea coming on each side of it. ’Tis now a marshy ground on one side, where there are salt ponds. Strabo calls Carthage forty miles in circumference. There are now no remains of it, but what I have described; and the history of it is too well known to want my abridgement of it. You see, Sir, that I think you esteem obedience better than compliments. I have answered your letter by giving you the accounts you desired, and have reserved my thanks to the conclusion. I intend to leave this place tomorrow, and continue my journey through Italy and France. In one of those places I hope to tell you, by word of mouth, that I am,

Your humble servant, &c. &c.


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