Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxxvii.

Belgrade Village. — Turkish female slaves described — voyages to the Levant filled with untruths — balm of Mecca, its extraordinary effects on the ladies faces — Turkish ladies great dealers in magic charms, to command love.

To the Lady ——.

Belgrade Village, June 17 O. S.

I HEARTILY beg your ladyship’s pardon; but I really could not forbear laughing heartily at your letter, and the commissions you are pleased to honour me with. You desire me to buy you a Greek slave, who is to be mistress of a thousand good qualities. The Greeks are subjects, and not slaves. Those who are to be bought in that manner, are either such as are taken in war, or stolen by the Tartars from Russia, Circassia, or Georgia, and are such miserable, awkward, poor wretches, you would not think any of them worthy to be your house-maids. ’Tis true, that many thousands were taken in the Morea; but they have been, most of them, redeemed by the charitable contributions of the Christians, or ransomed by their own relations at Venice. The fine slaves that wait upon the great ladies, or serve the pleasures of the great men, are all bought at the age of eight or nine years old, and educated with great care, to accomplish them in singing, dancing, embroidery, &c. They are commonly Circassians, and their patron never sells them, except it is as a punishment for some very great fault. If ever they grow weary of them, they either present them to a friend, or give them their freedom. Those that are exposed to sale at the markets, are always either guilty of some crime, or so entirely worthless, that they are of no use at all. I am afraid you will doubt the truth of this account, which, I own, is very different from our common notions in England; but it is no less truth for all that. — Your whole letter is full of mistakes, from one end to the other. I see you have taken your ideas of Turkey, from that worthy author Dumont, who has wrote with equal ignorance and confidence. ’Tis a particular pleasure to me here, to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far removed from truth, and so full of absurdities, I am very well diverted with them. They never fail giving you an account of the women, whom, ’tis certain, they never saw, and talking very wisely of the genius of the men, into whose company they are never admitted; and very often describe mosques, which they dare not even peep into. The Turks are very proud, and will not converse with a stranger they are not assured is considerable in his own country. I speak of the men of distinction; for, as to the ordinary fellows, you may imagine what ideas their conversation can give of the general genius of the people.

AS to the balm of Mecca, I will certainly send you some; but it is not so easily got as you suppose it, and I cannot, in conscience, advise you to make use of it. I know not how it comes to have such universal applause. All the ladies of my acquaintance at London and Vienna, have begged me to send pots of it to them. I have had a present of a small quantity (which, I’ll assure you, is very valuable) of the best sort, and with great joy applied it to my face, expecting some wonderful effect to my advantage. The next morning, the change indeed was wonderful; my face was swelled to a very extraordinary size, and all over as red as my lady H——‘s. It remained in this lamentable state three days, during which, you may be sure, I passed my time very ill. I believed it would never be otherways; and to add to my mortification, Mr W——y reproached my indiscretion, without ceasing. However, my face is since in statu quo; nay, I am told by the ladies here, that it is much mended by the operation, which, I confess, I cannot perceive in my looking-glass. Indeed, if one was to form an opinion of this balm from their faces, one should think very well of it. They all make use of it, and have the loveliest bloom in the world. For my part, I never intend to endure the pain of it again; let my complexion take its natural course, and decay in its own due time. I have very little esteem for medicines of this nature, but do as you please, madam; only remember, before you use it, that your face will not be such as you will care to shew in the drawing-room for some days after. If one was to believe the women in this country, there is a surer way of making one’s self beloved, than by becoming handsome; though, you know that’s our method. But they pretend to the knowledge of secrets, that, by way of inchantment, give them the entire empire over whom they please. For me, who am not very apt to believe in wonders, I cannot find faith for this. I disputed the point last night with a lady, who really talks very sensibly on any other subject; but she was downright angry with me, in that she did not perceive, she had persuaded me of the truth of forty stories she told me of this kind; and, at last, mentioned several ridiculous marriages, that there could be no other reason assigned for. I assured her, that, in England, where we were entirely ignorant of all magic, where the climate is not half so warm, nor the women half so handsome, we were not without our ridiculous marriages; and that we did not look upon it as any thing supernatural, when a man played the fool, for the sake of a woman. But my arguments could not convince her against (as she said) her certain knowledge. To this she added, that she scrupled making use of charms herself; but that she could do it whenever she pleased; and, staring me in the face, said, (with a very learned air) that no enchantments would have their effects upon me; and that there were some people exempt from their power, but very few. You may imagine how I laughed at this discourse; but all the women are of the same opinion. They don’t pretend to any commerce with the devil; but only that there are certain compositions adapted to inspire love. If one could send over a ship-load of them, I fancy it would be a very quick way of raising an estate. What would not some ladies of our acquaintance give for such merchandize? Adieu, my dear lady ——. I cannot conclude my letter with a subject that affords more delightful scenes to the imagination. I leave you to figure to yourself the extreme court that will be made to me, at my return, if my travels should furnish me with such a useful piece of learning.

I am, dear madam, yours, &c. &c.


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