To the Rev. Dr. Fundgruben Chaplain to the Swedish Embassy at the Ottoman Porte
ESTEEMED AND LEARNED SIR, You will be astonished to see yourself addressed by one, of whose existence you are, perhaps, ignorant, and whose name doubtless long since been erased from your memory. But when I put you in mind of an English traveller, who (forgive my precision) sixteen years ago was frequently admitted to enjoy the pleasure of your conversation, and who was even honoured with a peculiar share of your attention, perhaps then you may indulgently recollect him, and patiently submit to peruse the following volumes, to which he now takes the liberty of prefixing your name.
At the time to which I allude, your precious hours were employed in searching into the very depths of hieroglyphic lore, and you were then almost entirely taken up in putting together the fruits of those your researches, which have since appeared, and astonished the world in that very luminous work, entitled “The Biography of Celebrated Mummies.” I have frequently since reflected upon the debt of gratitude which you imposed by allowing me to engross so much of your time, and upon matters of comparatively trivial importance, when your mind must have been so much engaged upon those grave and weighty subjects, which you have treated with such vast learning, clearness, and perspicuity in your above-mentioned treatise. In particular I have ever borne in mind a conversation when one beautiful moonlight night, reclining upon a sofa of the Swedish palace, and looking out of those windows which command so magnificent and extensive a view of the city and harbour of Constantinople, we discussed subjects which had reference to the life and manners of the extraordinary people its inhabitants.
Excuse me for reporting back your own words; but as the subject interested me much, I recollect well the observation you made, that no traveller had ever satisfied you in his delineation of Asiatic manners; ‘for,’ said you, ‘in in general their mode of treating the subject is by sweeping assertions, which leave no precise image on the mind, or by disjointed and insulated facts, which, for the most part, are only of consequence as they relate to the individual traveller himself.’ We were both agreed, that of all the books which have ever been published on the subject, the “Arabian Nights’ Entertainments” give the truest picture of the Orientals, and that, for the best of all reasons, because it is the work of one of their own community. ‘But,’ said you, ‘notwithstanding they have been put into an European dress, weeded of their numerous repetitions, and brought as near to the level of our ideas as can be, still few would be likely to understand them thoroughly who have not lived some time in the East, and who have not had frequent opportunities of associating with its inhabitants. For,’ you added, opening a volume of that work at the same time, ‘to make a random observation upon the first instance which occurs here in the history of the three Calendars, I see that Anima, after having requested the porter whom she had met to follow her with his basket, stopped at a closed door, and having rapped, a Christian with a long white beard opened it, into whose hand she put some money without saying a single word. But the Christian, who knew what she wanted, went in again, and a little while after returned, bringing a large pitcher full of excellent wine.’ You observed, ‘that although we who lived in Turkey might know that wine was in most cities prohibited to be sold openly, and that if it was to be found it would be in the house of a Christian, many of whom disposed of it in a mysterious manner to the Mohammedans; yet that circumstance would not immediately occur to the mere European reader, who, perhaps, would expect something to be forthcoming in the future narrative, from what is, in fact, only a trait of common life.’
I then suggested, that, perhaps, if an European would give a correct idea of Oriental manners, which would comprehend an account of the vicissitudes attendant upon the life of an Eastern, of his feelings about his government, of his conduct in domestic life, of his hopes and plans of advancement, of his rivalities and jealousies, in short, of everything that is connected both with the operations of the mind and those of the body, perhaps his best method would be to collect so many facts and anecdotes of actual life as would illustrate the different stations and ranks which compose a Mussulman community, and then work them into one connected narrative, upon the plan of that excellent picture of European life, “Gil Blas” of Le Sage.
To this you were pleased to object, because you deemed it almost impossible that an European, even supposing him to have rejected his own faith and adopted the Mohammedan, as in the case of Monsieur de Bonneval, who rose to high rank in the Turkish government, and of Messrs. C—— and B—— in more modern times (the former a Topchi Bashi, or general of artillery, the latter an attendant upon the Capitan Pasha), could ever so exactly seize those nice shades and distinctions of purpose, in action and manner, which a pure Asiatic only could. To support your argument, you illustrated it by observing, that neither education, time, nor talent, could ever give to a foreigner, in any given country, so complete a possession of its language as to make him pass for a native; and that, do what he would, some defect in idiom, or even some too great precision in grammar, would detect him. ‘But,’ said you, ‘if a native Oriental could ever be brought to understand so much of the taste of Europeans, in investigations of this nature, as to write a full and detailed history of his own life, beginning with his earliest education, and going through to its decline, we might then stand a chance of acquiring the desired knowledge.
This conversation, reverend sir, has remained treasured up in my mind; for having lived much in Eastern countries, I never lost sight of the possibility of either falling in with a native who might have written his own adventures, or of forming such an intimacy with one, as might induce him faithfully to recite them, and thus afford materials for the work which my imagination had fondly conceived might be usefully put together. I have always held in respect most of the customs and habits of the Orientals, many of which, to the generality of Europeans, appear so ridiculous and disgusting, because I have ever conceived them to be copies of ancient originals. For, who can think the custom of eating with one’s fingers disgusting, as now done in the East, when two or more put their hands into the same mess, and at the same time read that part of our sacred history which records, ‘He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish,’ etc.? I must own, every time that, dining with my Eastern friends, I performed this very natural operation (although, at the same time, let it be understood that I have a great respect for knives and forks), I could not help feeling myself to be a living illustration of an ancient custom, and a proof of the authenticity of those records upon which our happiness depends. Whenever I heard the exclamation so frequently used in Persia, on the occasion of little miseries, ‘What ashes are fallen on my head!’ instead of seeing anything ridiculous in the expression, I could not but meditate on the coincidence which so forcibly illustrated one of the commonest expressions of grief as recorded in ancient writ.
It is an ingenious expression which I owe to you, sir, that the manners of the East are, as it were, stereotype. Although I do not conceive that they are quite so strongly marked, yet, to make my idea understood, I would say that they are like the last impressions taken from a copperplate engraving, where the whole of the subject to be represented is made out, although parts of it from much use have been obliterated.
If I may be allowed the expression, a picturesqueness pervades the whole being of Asiatics, which we do not find in our own countries, and in my eyes makes everything relating to them so attractive as to create a desire to impart to others the impressions made upon myself. Thus, in viewing a beautiful landscape, the traveller, be he a draughtsman or not, tant bien que mal, endeavours to make a representation of it; and thus do I apologise for venturing before the public even in the character of a humble translator.
Impressed with such feelings you may conceive the fulness of my joy, when not very long after the conversation above mentioned, having returned to England, I was fortunate enough to be appointed to fill an official situation in the suite of an ambassador, which our government found itself under the necessity of sending to the Shah of Persia. Persia, that imaginary seat of Oriental splendour! that land of poets and roses! that cradle of mankind, that uncontaminated source of Eastern manners lay before me, and I was delighted with the opportunities which would be afforded me of pursuing my favourite subject. I had an undefined feeling about the many countries I was about to visit, which filled my mind with vast ideas of travel.
'Sive per Syrtes iter aestuosas,
Sive facturus per inhospitalem
Caucasum, vel quae loca fabulosus
I was in some degree like a French lady of my acquaintance, who had so general a notion of the East, that upon taking leave of her, she enjoined me to get acquainted with a friend of hers, living, as she said, quelque part dans les Indes, and whom, to my astonishment, I found residing at the Cape of Good Hope!
I will not say that all my dreams were realised; for, perhaps, no country in the world less comes up to one’s expectation than Persia, whether in the beauties of nature, or the dress and magnificence of its inhabitants. But in what regards manners and customs, it appears to me that no Asiatics bear so strong the stamp of an ancient origin as they. Even in their features I thought to have distinguished a decided originality of expression; which was confirmed when I remarked, that the numerous faces seen among the sculptures of Persepolis, so perfect as if chiselled but yesterday, were so many likenesses of modern Persians, more particularly of the natives of the province of Fars.
During my long residence there, I never lost the recollection of our conversation on the sofa of the Swedish palace; and every time I added an anecdote or an observation illustrative of Oriental manners to my store, or a sketch to my collection, I always thought of the Reverend Doctor Fundgruben, and sighed after that imaginary manuscript which some imaginary native of the East must have written as a complete exposition of the life of his countrymen.
I will not say, learned sir, that the years I passed in Persia were years of happiness, or that during that time I could so far keep up an illusion, that I was living among the patriarchs in the first ages of the world, or among those Persians whose monarchs gave laws to almost the whole of Asia: no, I sighed for shaven chins and swallow-tailed coats; and, to speak the truth, though addressing an antiquary of your celebrity, I felt that I would rather be one among the crowd in the Graben at Vienna, or in our own Bond Street, than at liberty to range in the ease of solitude among the ruins of the palaces of Darius.
At length the day of my departure came, and I left Persia with books filled with remarks, and portfolios abounding in original sketches. My ideas during the journey were wholly taken up with schemes for the future, and, perhaps, like every other traveller, I nourished a sort of sly and secret conviction that I had seen and observed things which no one before me had ever done; and that when I came to publish to the world the fruits of my discoveries, I should create a sensation equal at least to the discovery of a new planet.
I passed at the foot of the venerable Mount Ararat, and was fortunate enough to meet with a favourable moment for traversing the cold regions of Arminia, ‘nec Armeniis in oris stat glacies iners menses per omnes’; and I crossed the dangerous borders of Turkey and Persia without any event occurring worthy of record. But I must request your indulgent attention to what befell me at Tocat; for it is to that occurrence you are indebted for this letter, and the world for the accompanying volume.
It was at the close of a fatiguing days journey, that I and my escort, consisting of two Tatars, two servants, and the conductors of our baggage and post-horses, entered the city of Tocat. Our approach was as usual announced by the howls of the Surujees, who more than usually exerted their lungs in my service, because they felt that these sounds, the harbingers of rest and entertainment, could but be agreeable to weary and jaded travellers like ourselves. The moon was shining bright as our cavalcade clattered over the long paved road leading to the city, and lighted up, in awful grandeur, the turret-topped peaks which rear their heads on the crest of the surrounding abrupt crags. On entering the post-house, I was immediately conducted into the travellers’ room, where, having disencumbered myself of my cloak, arms, and heavy boots, and putting myself at ease in my slippers and loose dress, I quietly enjoyed, the cup of strong coffee and the chibouk, which were immediately handed to me, and after that my dish of rice, my tough fowl, and my basin of sour curds.
I was preparing to take my night’s rest on the sofas of the post-house, where my bed had been spread, when a stranger unceremoniously walked into the room, and stood before me. I remarked that he was a Persian, and, by his dress, a servant. At any other moment I should have been happy to see and converse with him; because having lived so long in Persia, I felt myself, in some measure, identified with its natives, and now in a country where both nations were treated with the same degree of contempt, my fellow-feeling for them became infinitely stronger.
I discovered that he had a tale of misery to unfold, from the very doleful face that he was pleased to make on the occasion, and I was not mistaken. It was this — that his master, one Mirza Hajji Baba, now on his return from Constantinople, where he had been employed on the Shah’s business, had fallen seriously ill, and that he had been obliged to stop at Tocat; that he had taken up his abode at the caravanserai, where he had already spent a week, during which time he had been attended by a Frank doctor, an inhabitant of Tocat, who, instead of curing, had, in fact, brought him to his last gasp — that having heard of my arrival from Persia, he had brightened up and requested, without loss of time, that I would call upon him, for he was sure the presence of one coming from his own country would alone restore him to health. In short, his servant, as is usual on such occasions, finished his speech by saying, that, with the exception of God and myself, he had nothing left to depend upon in this life.
I immediately recollected who Mirza Hajji Baba was; for though I had lost sight of him for several years, yet once on a time I had seen much of him, and had taken great interest in everything that regarded him, owing to his having been in England, whither, in quality of secretary, he accompanied the first ambassador which Persia had sent in modern times. He had since been employed in various ways in the government, sometimes in high, and sometimes in lower situations, undergoing the vicissitudes which are sure to attend every Persian; and at length had been sent to Constantinople, as resident agent at the Porte on the part of the Shah.
I did not hesitate an instant, tired and jaded as I was, immediately to accompany his servant; and in the same garb in which I was, only throwing a cloak over my shoulders, I walked in all haste to the caravanserai.
There, on a bed spread in the middle of a small room, surrounded by several of his servants, I found the sick Mirza, looking more like a corpse than a living body. When I had first known him he was a remarkably handsome man, with a fine aquiline nose, oval face, an expressive countenance, and a well-made person. He had now passed the meridian of life, but his features were still fine, and his eye full of fire. As soon as he saw he recognised me, and the joy which he felt at the meeting broke out in a great animation of his features, and in the thousand exclamations so common to a Persian’s lips.
‘See,’ said he, ‘what a fortunate destiny mine is, that at a moment when I thought the angel of death was about to seize me for his own, the angel of life comes and blows a fresh existence into my nostrils.’
After his first transports were over, I endeavoured to make him explain what was the nature of his complaint, and how it had hitherto been treated. I saw enough by his saffron hue, that bile was the occasion of his disorder; and, as I had had great experience in treating it during my stay in Persia, I did not hesitate to cheer up his hopes by an assurance of being able to relieve him.
‘What can I say?’ said he. ‘I thought at first that I had been struck with the plague. My head ached intensely, my eyes became dim, I had a pain in my side, and a nauseous taste in my mouth, and expected to die on the third day; but no, the symptoms still continue, and I am alive. As soon as I arrived here, I enquired for a physician, and was told there were two practitioners in the town, a Jew and a Frank. Of course I chose the latter; but ’tis plain, that my evil star had a great deal to say in the choice I made. I have not yet been able to discover to what tribe among the Franks he belongs — certainly he is not an Englishman. But a more extraordinary ass never existed in this world, be his nation what it may. I began by telling him that I was very, very ill. All he said in answer, with a grave face, was ”Mashallah! Praise be to God!” and when, in surprise and rage, I cried out, “But I shall die, man!” with the same grave face, he said, ”Inshallah! Please God!” My servants were about to thrust him from the room, when they found that he knew nothing of our language excepting these two words, which he had only learnt to misapply. Supposing that he still might know something of his profession, I agreed to take his medicine; but I might have saved myself the trouble, for I have been daily getting worse.’
Here the Mirza stopped to take breath. I did not permit him to exert himself further; but, without loss of time, returned the post-house, applied to my medicine-chest, and prepared a dose of calomel, which was administered that evening with due solemnity. I then retired to rest.
The next morning I repaired to his bedside, and there, to my great satisfaction, found that my medicine had performed wonders. The patient’s eyes were opened, the headache had in great measure ceased, and he was, in short, a different person. I was received by him and his servants with all the honours due to the greatest sage, and they could not collect words sufficiently expressive of their admiration of my profound skill. As they were pouring forth their thanks and gratitude, looking up I saw a strange figure in the room, whose person I must take the liberty to describe, so highly ludicrous and extravagant did it appear. He was of the middle size, rather inclined to be corpulent, with thick black eyebrows, dark eyes, a three days’ beard, and mustachios. He wore the Turkish bag dress, from his shoulders downwards, yellow pabouches, shawl to his waist, and carried a long cane in his hand; but from his shoulders up he was an European, a neckcloth, his hair dressed in the aile de pigeon fashion, a thick tail clubbed, and over all an old-fashioned, three-cornered laced hat. This redoubtable personage made me a bow, and at the same time accosted me in Italian. I was not long in discovering that he was my rival the doctor, and that he was precisely what, from the description of the Mirza, I expected him to be, viz. an itinerant quack, who, perhaps, might once have mixed medicines in some apothecary’s shop in Italy or Constantinople, and who had now set up for himself in this remote corner of Asia where he might physic and kill at his pleasure.
I did not shrink from his acquaintance, because I was certain that the life and adventures of such a person must be highly curious and entertaining, and I cordially encouraged him in his advances, hoping thus to acquire his confidence.
He very soon informed me who he was, and what were his pursuits, and did not seem to take the least umbrage at my having prescribed for his patient without previously consulting him. His name was Ludovico Pestello, and he pretended to have studied at Padua, where he had got his diploma. He had not long arrived at Constantinople, with the intention of setting up for himself, where, finding that the city overflowed with Esculapii, he was persuaded to accompany a Pasha of two tails to Tocat, who had recently been appointed to its government, and was there now established as his body physician. I suspected this story to be fabrication, and undertook to examine his knowledge of physic, particularly in the case of my friend the Persian Mirza. The galimatia which he unfolded, as we proceeded, was so extremely ridiculous, and he puzzled himself so entirely by his answers to the plain questions which I put, that at length, not being able to proceed, he joined, with the best good-nature possible, in the horse-laugh, from which I could not refrain. I made him candidly confess that he knew nothing of medicine, more than having been servant to a doctor of some eminence at Padua, where he had picked up a smattering; and that, as all his patients were heretics and abominable Mussulmans, he never could feel any remorse for those which, during his practice, he had despatched from this world.
‘But, caro Signor Dottore,’ said I, ‘how in the name of all that is sacred, how have you managed hitherto not to have had your bones broken? Turks are dangerous tools to play with.’
‘Oh,’ said he, in great unconcern, ‘the Turks believe anything, and I take care never to give them medicine that can do harm.’
‘But you must have drugs, and you must apply them,’ said I. ‘Where are they?’
‘I have different coloured liquids,’ said he, ‘and as long as there is bread and water to be had I am never at a loss for a pill. I perform all my cures with them, accompanied by the words Inshallah and Mashallah!’
‘Bread and water! wonderful!’ did I exclaim.
‘Signor, si,’ said he, ‘I sprinkle my pills with a little flour for the common people, cover them with gold leaf for my higher patients, the Agas and the Pasha, and they all swallow them without even a wry face.’
I was so highly amused by the account which this extraordinary fellow gave of himself, of the life he led, and of the odd adventures which he had met with, that I invited him to dine; and were it not for the length which this letter has already run, I should, perhaps, have thought it right to make partake of my entertainment by retailing his narrative. I repaid him, as he said, over and above, by presents from my medicine-chest, which he assured me would be plentifully sufficient to administer relief to the whole of Asia Minor.
I could not think of leaving the poor Persian in such hands; and feeling that I might be the means of saving his life, I determined to remain at Tocat until I saw him out of danger.
After three days’ administration of calomel, Hajji Baba’s complexion was nearly restored to its original hue; and as he might now be said to be free from danger, and in a fair way of recovery, I proposed proceeding on my journey. The poor man could not find words for the expression of his gratitude, and I saw that he was labouring hard to discover a present worthy of my acceptance. At length, just before taking my leave, he desired his servants to leave us alone, and spoke to me in the following words:—
‘You have saved my life; you are my old friend and my deliverer. What can I do to show my gratitude? Of worldly goods I have but few: it is long since I have received any salary from my government, and the little money I have here will barely suffice, to take me to my own country. Besides, I know the English — they are above such considerations; it would be in vain to offer them a pecuniary reward. But I have that by me which, perhaps, may have some value in your eyes; I can assure you that it has in mine. Ever since I have known your nation, I have remarked their inquisitiveness, and eagerness after knowledge. Whenever I have travelled with them, I observed they record their observations in books; and when they return home, thus make their fellow-countrymen acquainted with the most distant regions of the globe. Will you believe me, that I, Persian as I am, have followed their example; and that during the period of my residence at Constantinople, I have passed my time in writing a detailed history of my life, which, although that of a very obscure and ordinary individual, is still so full of vicissitude and adventure, that I think it would not fail to create an interest if published in Europe? I offer it to you; and in so doing, I assure you that I wish to show you the confidence I place in your generosity, for I never would have offered it to any one else. Will you accept it?’
Conceive, my dear sir, conceive my happiness upon hearing this — upon at length getting into my possession precisely the sort of work which you so long since had looked upon as a desideratum in the history of mankind, and which I had utterly despaired of ever seeing in reality.
My eyes, I am sure, glistened with pleasure when I expressed my sense of the Mirza’s liberality; and as fast as I refused his offer (for I thought it but generous to do so upon the terms he proposed), the more he pressed it upon me.
As a further inducement, he said, that he was going back to his country, uncertain if he enjoyed the favour of the Shah; and as he had freely expressed his sentiments, which included his observations upon England, he was afraid, should he be in disgrace, and his work be found upon him, that it might lead to his destruction.
Unable to withstand these entreaties, I at length acceded to his request, and became the possessor of the manuscript. It forms the subject of the following work; and tell me, can I dedicate it to any but him who first awakened my mind to its value? If you will do me the favour to peruse it, you will find I have done my best endeavour to adapt it to the taste of European readers, divesting it of the numerous repetitions, and the tone of exaggeration and hyperbole which pervade the compositions of the Easterns; but still you will, no doubt, discover much of that deviation from truth, and perversion of chronology, which characterise them. However, of the matter contained in the book, this I must say, that having lived in the country myself during the time to which it refers, I find that most of the incidents are grounded upon fact, which, although not adhered to with that scrupulous regard to truth which we might expect from an European writer, yet are sufficient to give an insight into manners. Many of them will, no doubt, appear improbable to those who have never visited the scenes upon which they were acted; and it is natural it should be so, because, from the nature of circumstances, such events could only occur in Eastern countries.
A distinct line must ever be drawn between ‘the nations who wear the hat and those who wear the beard’; and they must ever hold each other’s stories as improbable, until a more general intercourse of common life takes place between them. What is moral and virtuous with the one, is wickedness with the other — that which the Christian reviles as abominable, is by the Mohammedan held sacred. Although the contrast between their respective manners may be very amusing, still it is most certain that the former will ever feel devoutly grateful that he is neither subject to Mohammedan rule, nor educated in Mohammedan principles; whilst the latter, in his turn, looking upon the rest of mankind as unclean infidels, will continue to hold fast to his bigoted persuasion, until some powerful interposition of Providence shall dispel the moral and intellectual darkness which, at present, overhangs so large a portion of the Asiatic world.
Fearing to increase the size of the work, I have refrained adding the numerous notes which my long residence in Persia would have enabled me to do, and have only occasionally made explanations necessary to understand the narrative. In the same fear, I have not ventured to take Hajji out of his own country. His remarks upon England during his residence there, and during his travels, may perhaps be thought worthy of future notice; and should they be called for, I will do my best endeavour to interpret his feelings as near to nature as possible.
I must now, dear sir, take my leave, expressing my regret at your absence from Constantinople on my return from Persia; for had I then been fortunate enough to meet you, no doubt, from the valuable hints which you would have afforded me, the work now presented to you would have been in every way more worthy of your acceptance. But you were far better engaged; you were seeking another oasis in the wilds of the desert (that emblem of yourself in hieroglyphic lore), to which, so I was informed, you expected to have been guided information gained in the inside wrappers of one of your most interesting mummies.
May your footsteps have been fortunate, and may I live to have the pleasure of assuring you by word of mouth how truly I am, esteemed and learned sir,
Your very devoted and Obliged humble servant,
LONDON, 1st December 1823.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53