Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter lviii.

Observations on the koran, and the conduct of the Greek priests with regard to it — women not excluded from Mahomet’s paradise — who among the women excluded — the exhortations of Mahomet to the women, compared with the monastic institution of popery — the sciences cultivated among the Turks by the effendis — sentiments of an intelligent one respecting abstinence from wine — strange mixture of different countries in the suburbs of Constantinople — different species of men asserted — mongrels in the human species — why the English women so fond of hoop-petticoats.

Translated from the French.

To the Count ——.

I AM charmed, Sir, with your obliging letter; and you may perceive, by the largeness of my paper, that I intend to give punctual answers to all your questions, at least if my French will permit me; for, as it is a language I do not understand to perfection, so I much fear, that, for want of expressions, I shall be quickly obliged to finish. Keep in mind, therefore, that I am writing in a foreign language, and be sure to attribute all the impertinencies and triflings dropping from my pen, to the want of proper words for declaring my thoughts, but by no means to dulness, or natural levity.

THESE conditions being thus agreed and settled, I begin with telling you, that you have a true notion of the alcoran, concerning which the Greek priests (who are the greatest scoundrels in the universe) have invented, out of their own heads, a thousand ridiculous stories, in order to decry the law of Mahomet; to run it down, I say, without any examination, or so much as letting the people read it; being afraid, that if once they began to sift the defects of the alcoran, they might not stop there, but proceed to make use of their judgment about their own legends and fictions. In effect, there is nothing so like as the fables of the Greeks and of the Mahometans; and the last have multitudes of saints, at whose tombs miracles are by them said to be daily performed; nor are the accounts of the lives of those blessed musselmans much less stuffed with extravagancies, than the spiritual romances of the Greek papas.

AS to your next inquiry, I assure you, ’tis certainly false, though commonly believed in our parts of the world, that Mahomet excludes women from any share in a future happy state. He was too much a gentleman, and loved the fair sex too well, to use them so barbarously. On the contrary, he promises a very fine paradise to the Turkish women. He says, indeed, that this paradise will be a separate place from that of their husbands; but I fancy the most part of them won’t like it the worse for that; and that the regret of this separation will not render their paradise the less agreeable. It remains to tell you, that the virtues which Mahomet requires of the women, to merit the enjoyment of future happiness, are, not to live in such a manner as to become useless to the world, but to employ themselves, as much as possible, in making little musselmans. The virgins, who die virgins, and the widows who marry not again, dying in mortal sin, are excluded out of paradise: For women, says he, not being capable to manage the affairs of state, nor to support the fatigues of war, God has not ordered them to govern or reform the world; but he has entrusted them with an office which is not less honourable; even that of multiplying the human race: and such as, out of malice or laziness, do not make it their business to bear or to breed children, fulfil not the duty of their vocation, and rebel against the commands of God. Here are maxims for you, prodigiously contrary to those of your convents. What will become of your St Catharines, your St Theresas, your St Claras, and the whole bead-roll of your holy virgins and widows; who, if they are to be judged by this system of virtue, will be found to have been infamous creatures, that passed their whole lives in most abominable libertinism.

I KNOW not what your thoughts may be, concerning a doctrine so extraordinary with respect to us; but I can truly inform you, Sir, that the Turks are not so ignorant as we fancy them to be in matters of politics, or philosophy, or even of gallantry. ’Tis true, that military discipline, such as now practised in Christendom, does not mightily suit them. A long peace has plunged them into an universal sloth. Content with their condition, and accustomed to boundless luxury, they are become great enemies to all manner of fatigues. But, to make amends, the sciences flourish among them. The effendis (that is to say, the learned) do very well deserve this name: They have no more faith in the in inspiration of Mahomet, than in the infallibility of the Pope. They make a frank profession of Deism among themselves, or to those they can trust; and never speak of their law but as of a politic institution, fit now to be observed by wise men, however at first introduced by politicians and enthusiasts.

IF I remember right, I think I have told you, in some former letter, that, at Belgrade, we lodged with a great and rich effendi, a man of wit and learning, and of a very agreeable humour. We were in his house about a month, and he did constantly eat with us, drinking wine without any scruple. As I rallied him a little on this subject, he answered me, smiling, that all creatures in the world were made for the pleasure of man; and that God would not have let the vine grow, were it a sin to taste of its juice; but that, nevertheless, the law, which forbids the use of it to the vulgar, was very wise, because such sort of folks have not sense enough to take it with moderation. This effendi appeared no stranger to the parties that prevail among us: Nay, he seemed to have some knowledge of our religious disputes, and even of our writers; and I was surprised to hear him ask, among other things, how Mr Toland did.

MY paper, large as it is, draws towards an end. That I may not go beyond its limits, I must leap from religions to tulips, concerning which you ask me news. Their mixture produces surprising effects. But, what is to be observed most surprising, are the experiments of which you speak concerning animals, and which are tried here every day. The suburbs of Pera, Jophana, and Galata, are collections of strangers from all countries of the universe. They have so often intermarried, that this forms several races of people, the oddest imaginable. There is not one single family of natives that can value itself on being unmixed. You frequently see a person, whose father was born a Grecian, the mother an Italian, the grandfather a Frenchman, the grandmother an Armenian, and their ancestors English, Muscovites, Asiatics, &c.

THIS mixture produces creatures more extraordinary than you can imagine; nor could I ever doubt, but there were several different species of men; since the whites, the woolly and the long-haired blacks, the small-eyed Tartars and Chinese, the beardless Brasilians, and (to name no more) the oily-skinned yellow Nova Zemblians, have as specific differences, under the same general kind, as grey-hounds, mastiffs, spaniels, bull-dogs, or the race of my little Diana, if nobody is offended at the comparison. Now, as the various intermixing of these latter animals causes mongrels, so mankind have their mongrels too, divided and subdivided into endless sorts. We have daily proofs of it here, as I told you before. In the same animal is not seldom remarked the Greek perfidiousness, the Italian diffidence, the Spanish arrogance, the French loquacity; and, all of a sudden, he is seized with a fit of English thoughtfulness, bordering a little upon dulness, which many of us have inherited from the stupidity of our Saxon progenitors. But the family which charms me most, is that which proceeds from the fantastical conjunction of a Dutch male with a Greek female. As these are natures opposite in extremes, ’tis a pleasure to observe how the differing atoms are perpetually jarring together in the children, even so as to produce effects visible in their external form. They have the large black eyes of the country, with the fat, white, fishy flesh of Holland, and a lively air streaked with dulness. At one and the same time, they shew that love of expensiveness, so universal among the Greeks, and an inclination to the Dutch frugality. To give an example of this; young women ruin themselves, to purchase jewels for adorning their heads, while they have not the heart to buy new shoes, or rather slippers for their feet, which are commonly in a tattered condition; a thing so contrary to the taste of our English women, that it is for shewing how neatly their feet are dressed, and for shewing this only, they are so passionately enamoured with their hoop petticoats. I have abundance of other singularities to communicate to you; but I am at the end, both of my French and my paper.

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