home‎ > ‎

On Istanbul

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (Flemish Writer, Herbalist, Diplomat, 1522 - 1592)

As for the site of the city [Constantinople] itself, it seems to have been created by nature for the capital of the world. It stands in Europe but looks out over Asia, and has Egypt and Africa on its right. Although these latter are not near, yet they are linked to the city owing to ease of communication by sea. On the left lie the Black Sea and the Sea of Azof, round which many nations dwell and into which many rivers flow on all sides, so that nothing useful to man is produced through the length and breadth of these countries which cannot be transported by sea to Constantinople with the utmost ease. On one side city is washed by the Sea of Marmora; on another side a harbour is formed by a river which Strabo calls, from its shape, the Golden Horn. On the third side it is joined to the mainland, and thus resembles a peninsula or promontory running out with the sea on one side, on the other the bay formed by the sea and the above-mentioned river. From the center of Constantinople there is a charming view over the sea and the Asiatic Olympus, white with eternal snow.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, “The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Translated By Edward Seymour Forster”, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, USA, 2005, p. 34-35

***

Henry Fanshawe Tozer (English Traveler, Teacher, Writer, 1829-1916)

While our vessel was taking in merchandise, [July 14, 1879] we had time to survey the scene around us and on board. On one side was Galata with its massive Genoese tower, and the more aristocratic Pera on the hills above; on the other the Seraglio point, with its gardens and quaint buildings, behind which rose the gilded dome of St. Sophia, and the line of mosques and minarets which crown the successive heigths of Stamboul; while on the Asiatic side lay Scutari, surmounted by the dark cypress-grove of its vast cemetery. In the foreground of this unrivalled view, which from its steep yet graceful ascents, the combination of conspicuous edifices, irregular wooden buildings, and numerous trees, and the variety of colour which it presents, combines every element of picturesqueness, lay numerous vessels, principally French, Austrian, and Russian steamers, occupying the space between us and the sea of Marmora. A fresh north-east wind had set the blue water dancing, and crested it with white, and in the midst of this boats darted in all directions, some of them being gilded aiques, the gondolas of the Bosphorus, though far more elegant in shape and gayer in colour than their Venetian cousins. So numerous were they that it seemed as if they must come into collision with one another or with the buoys to which the vessels were moored; indeed, such casualties were not wholly avoided, and when they occured, or were on the eve of occuring, they occasioned wild and polyglot exclamations. Our vessel was crowded with deck-passengers -Armenians, Turks, and Persians with tall black caps, lying about on carpets and rugs, and closely packed together. The cabin was raised above the deck, and behind this, in the stern, the whole space was occupied by the ladies and children of a harem, who reclined on mattresses and bundles of various colours, few of them being veiled and fewer good-looking. The cabin passengers were not numerous, the principal being an old Russian lady, a vigorous smoker of cigarettes, who was on her way to visit a married daughter at Samsoun, together with her two sons.

At six o'clock we loosed our mooring and proceeded up the Bosphorus. We were both of us heartily glad to leave the city, for on no occasion had we been so much impressed by the contrast between the beauty of its appearance from without and the repulsiveness of the interior. We had been prepared to find considerable improvements introduced since our last visit, but in reality the change seemed to us to be rather for the worse. There is now, its true, a tramway across Stamboul, and a railway runs along the sea-wall in the direction of St. Stephano, if these are to be regarded as advantages, but one did not then see extravagant Parisian costumes side by side with loathsome squalor; and certainly at the present time the streets of Galata are not less filthy than formerly, nor the pavements of Pera less rugged, nor the scavenger dogs less numerous or less noisy. But the shores of the Bosphorus had lost none of their charm. First we passed along the magnificent palaces on the European shore, which represent the extravagance of successive Sultans and the money of ruined bondholders; and afterwards between villas and villages on both banks, sometimes lining the shore, sometimes creeping up the hillsides, and interspersed with abundant vegetation in the cypress-groves and gardens, though here and there ruin defaced the scene in the shape of handsome wooden houses deserted and falling into decay. As the evening advanced it rendered the scene doubly beautiful, throwing the Asiatic shore into light in contrast with the dark shade opposite, until we passed between the castles of Europe and Asia on corresponding promontories, and finally reached the lordly villages of Therapia and Buyukdere, the summer resorts of ambassadors and wealthy Greek and Armenian merchants. Night had fallen before we issued from the narrow strait, but we discovered that we had entered the Black Sea from the plunging of the vessel, owing to the long waves that were brought down by the wind.

Henry Fanshawe Tozer, "Turkish Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor", Longmans, Green & Co, 1881, pp. 2-4

***
A. Rawlinson (British Soldier, Adventurer, Writer, 1894-1984)
 
During the five days which I spent this time at Constant [inople], it was cold and some snow fell, which is quite unusual. Almost everyday the mornings were lovely, with a bright sun and the keen air which is so invigorating. However, our ship came in on the 4th, and on the morning of the 5th [March 1919] we sailed, bound first of all for the Bulgarian port of Varna, then across the Black Sea to Samsun, on the Anatolian coast, and on to Batoum, the Russian port in the Caucasus.

On leaving Constant [inople] I went down to the Bosphorus for the first time, and felt that all I had read about it -and that was much- had not done it justice, for it certainly is a wonderfully beautiful place, even in winter, and I will quote the little I say about it from my letter at that time, and wait to give a better account when I was there in the late summer, when the Allied fleets were all anchored there. The letter is as follows:

"Going down the Bosphorus was a wonderful sight. I have seen no place in the world like that. The sun came out, and it all looked too beautiful, and must be still more so in summer. It is a narrow strait, varying from 4 miles to 1 mile in width, and it winds in and out the mountains on either side for 25 miles from the Sea of Marmora to the Black Sea. Leaving Constant [inople], the European shore is a line of palaces and fine houses built right on the water's edge, with others on the slopes behind them which rise steeply from the water, itself of the deepest blue. All the houses look from the water like fairy palaces, though, like most things Turkish, they are probably very much less pleasing when seen from near-by.

"The Sultan's old palace of Dolma Batchke, on the water's edge, is about the first on leaving the city, followed by the Yildiz Kiosk (where he now lives) a little farther on, lying farther back up the hill, surrounded by a fine-looking park and woods; these are very handsome buildings in Oriental style, and look as if they were of white marble, which they probably are not. And there are many others nearly as fine scattered about as one goes on, with queer old forts and fortified villages also, relics of times long past, but interesting to see. About 10 miles or more from Constant [inople] is Therapia, a lovely spot in a deep bay on the European side, with the hills rising steeply behind it. Here are the summer quarters of many of the prominent residents in Constaninople, who have the advantage of enjoying there as beautiful a summer retreat as can be found in any country.

"On leaving Therapia the hills become wilder and more rugged, with much more rock showing, and at last two old forts appear, one on the European and one on the Asiatic side of the water, and, the land falling away on either hand, we find ourselves quite suddenly on the open waters of the Black Sea."

A. Rawlinson, “Adventures In The Near East, 1918-1922”, Andrew Melrose (Ltd), London, Third Edition, December 1924, Pg. 136-137
***

Robert D. Kaplan (American Traveler, Writer, 1952- ....)

I stood on a promontory, "Seraglio Point," the eastern extremity of the Balkan Peninsula and the former headquarters of the Ottoman sultan. On the opposite shore commenced the Asian plateau. The mood on this charged spot, as always, is one of sanctuary. The seagulls flutter, the weeds grow between the flagstones, the wind blows in from three converging bodies of water: the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus Straits, and the Sea of Marmara. Here in T. S. Eliot's words, is "the still point of turning world."

Robert D. Kaplan, "The Ends Of The Earth", Random House, New York, 1996, p.129-130

 
***
Edward Gibbon (English Historian, Member of Parliament, Writer, 1737-1794)

During the vigour of his age Constantine, according to the various exigencies of peace and war, moved with slow dignity or with active dilligence along the frontiers of his extensive dominions; and was always prepared to take the field either against a foreign or domestic enemy. But as he gradually reached the summit of prosperity and the decline of life, he began to meditate the design of fixing in a more permanent station the strength as well as majesty of the throne. In the choice of an advantageous situation he preferred the confines of Europe and Asia; to curb with a powerful arm the barbarians who dwelt between the Danube and the Tanais; to watch with an eye of jealousy the conduct of the Persian monarch, who indignantly supported the yoke of an ignominious treaty. With these views Diocletian has selected and embellished the residence of Nicomedia: but the memory of Diocletian was justly abhorred by the protector of the church; and Constantine was not insensible to the ambition of founding a city which might perpetuate the glory of his own name. During the late operations of the war against Licinius he had sufficient opportunity to contemplate, both as a soldier and as a statesman, the incomparable position of Byzantium; and to observe how it was accessible on every side to the benefits of commercial intercourse. Many ages before Constantine, one of the most judicious historians of antiquity (1) had described the advantages of a situation from whence a feeble colony of Greeks derived the command of the sea, and the honors of a flourishing and independent republic. (2)

If we survey Byzantium in the extent it acquired with the august name of Constantinople, the figure of the Imperial city may be represented under that of an unequal triangle. The obtuse point, which advances towards the east and the shores of Asia, meets and repels the waves of the Thracian Bosphorus. The northern side of the city is bounded by the harbour, and the southern is washed by the Propontis or Sea of Marmora. The basis of the triangle is opposed to the west, and terminates the continent of Europe. But the admirable form and divison of the circumjacent land and water cannot, without a more ample explanation, be clearly or sufficiently understood.

The winding channel through which the waters of the Euxine flow with a rapid and incessant course towards the Mediterranean received the apellation of Bosphorus, a name not less celebrated in the history than in the fables of antiquity. A crowd of temples and votive altars, profusely scattered along its steep and woody banks, attested the unskilfullness, the terrors, and the devotion of the Grecian navigators who, after the example of the Argonauts, explored the dangers of the inhospitable Euxine. On these banks tradition long preserved the memory of the palace of Phinens, infested by the obscene harpies, and of the sylvan reign of Amycus, who defied the son of Leda to the combat of the Cestus. The straits of the Bosphorus are terminated by the Cyanean rocks, which, according to the description of the poets, had once floated on the face of the waters, and were destined by the gods to protect the entrance of the Euxine against the eye of profane curiosity. From the Cyanean rocks to the point and harbour of Byzantium the winding length of the Bosphorus extends about sixteen miles, and its most ordinary breadth may be computed at about one mile and a half. The new castles of Europe and Asia are constructed, on either continent upon the foundations of two celebrated temples, of Serapis and of Jupiter Urius. The old castles, a work of the Greek emperors, command the narrowest part of the channel, in a place where the opposite banks advance within five hundred paces of each other. These fortresses were restored and strengthened by Mahomet the Second when he meditated the siege of Constinople: but the Turkish conqueror was not probably ignorant that, near two thousand years before his reign, Darius had chosen the same situation to connect two continents by a bridge of boats. At a small distance from the old castles we discover the little town of Chrysopolis, or Scutari, which may almost be considered as the Asiatic suburb of Constantinople. The Bosphorus, as it begins to the open into the Propontis, passes between Byzantium and Chalcedon. The latter of those cities was built by the Greeks a few years before the former; and the blindness of its founders, who overlooked the superior advantages of the opposite coast, has been sigmatised by a proverbal expression of contempt.

The harbour of Constantinople, which may be considered as an arm of the Bosphorus, obtained, in a very remote period, the denomination of the Golden Horn. The curve which it describes might be compared to the horn of stag, or as it should seem, with more propriety, to that of an ox. 'The epiteth of golden was expressive of the riches which every wind wafted from the most distant countries into the secure and capacious port of Constantinople. The river Lycus, formed by the conflux of two little streams, pours into the harbour a perpetual supply of fresh water, which serves to cleanse the bottom and to invite periodical shoals of fish to seek their retreat in that convenient recess. As the vicissitudes of tides are scarcely felt in those seas, the constant depth of the harbour allows goods to be landed on the quays without the assistance of boats; and it has been observed that, in many places, the largest vessels may rest their prows against the houses while their sterns are floating in the water. From the mouth of the Lycus to that of the harbour this arm of the Bosphorus is more than seven miles in length. The entrance is about five hundred yards broad, and a strong chain could be occasionally drawn across it to guard the port and the city from the attack of an hostile navy.

Between the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, the shores of Europe and Asia receding on either side inclose the Sea of Marmora, which was known to the ancients by the denomination of Propontis. The navigation from the issue of the Bosphorus to the entrance of the Hellespont is about one hundred and twenty miles. Those who steer their westward course through the middle of the Propontis may at once descry the high lands of Thrace and Bithyna, and never lose the sight of the lofty summit of Mount Olympus, covered with eternal snows. They leave on the left a deep gulf, at the bottom of which Nicomedia was seated, the imperial residence of Diocletian; and they pass the small islans of Cyzicus and Proconnesus before they can cast anchor at Gallipoli, where the sea, which separates Asia from Europe, is again contracted into a narrow channel.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(1) Polybius, I.iv. [c.45] p.423, edit. Casanbon. He observes that the peace of the Byzantines was frequently disturbed, and the extent of their territory contracted, by the inroads of the wild Thracians.

(2) The navigator Byzas, who was styled the son of Neptune, founded the city 656 [rateher 667-S.] years before the Christian era. His followers were drawn from Argos and Megara. Byzantium was afterwards rebuilt and fortified by the Spartan general Pausanias. See Scaliger, Animadvers. ad Euseb. p.81. Ducange, Constantinopolis, I.i. part 15, 16. With regard to the wars of the Byzantines against Philip, the Gauls, and the kongs of Bithyna, we should trust none but the ancient writers who lived before the greatness of the Imperial city had excited as spirit of flattery and fiction.

Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, Fourth Printing, New York, 1993, pp. 81-86

 ***

Field-Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke (Prussian Soldier, Writer, 1800-1891)

Bujukdere, Near Constantinople, November 30th, 1835

(...)

I only wish you could spend a quarter of an hour here at my window, under which the waves of the Bosphorus splash as clear as crystal, exactly as if I were sitting in the cabin of a man-of-war.*

Those hills which are so near that one can count the windows in the houses are in another continent -are in Asia. To the right you see in the little green valley a group of gigantic plane-trees; they bear the name of Godfrey of Boullion, for it is supposed that he rested under them when he went as a crusader to Palestine. The old Genoese castle rises up out of that mountain, with the arms of the Italian Republic and the date 1100 over the doorway. On the left you see a lake; it is the Black Sea, the dreaded Pontus Euxinus. Quickly, noiselessly, the light caiques pass by under my window, powerful war-ships anchor close to the houses, and the steamers fly past with waving flags. The extensive burial grounds are really cypress forests. Laurels grow to trees here, and the Italian pines, with their soft, bright green, contrast well with the almost black and motionless cypress trees. Roses are still in bloom in the gardens everywhere, and have days when it is almost too hot.

* He is thus represented in a picture which he sent to his mother in a later letter of January 10th, 1837.

Helmuth von Moltke, “Letters of the Field-Marshal Count helmuth von Moltke To His Mother And His Brothers", Translated by Clara Bell andHenry W. Fischer, with illustrations, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1892, pp. 80-81
 
Arnautekioj, Near Constantinople, February 9th, 1836.*
 
Dear Mother,
(...)
 
I have been going for some days to the house of a dragoman who is the Seraskier's chief interpreter, and who translates into Turkish whatever I write down in French. Business gets done very slowly here; happily they write less in Turkey than in our country. Writing generally is done here about as fast, and in very much the same way, as ladies' worsted work at home; that is to say, sitting on a sofa with your legs crossed and a long strip of paper on your kness, on which the characters are made with a reed-pen, from right to left. The Armenian with whom I live has a large household , and is reckoned here as a wealthy and important personage. I want for nothing; the table is excellent, and the whole insight into a household on the Turkish plan is extremely amusing. Every other dish is sweet, and besides these, ten dishes of cold hors d'ouevre stand on the table, from which every one helps himself as he likes between whiles. There are oysters, shell-fish or caviar, cheese, olives, goat's milk curd, salads, sardines, cray-fish, lobster, peppers, onions, and fruits of various kinds. Coffee is served six or seven times a day in tiny cups. The preparation of it is quite unlike our way of infusing coffee; the grounds are poured into the cup with the liquor and without sugar or milk; but one soon gets used to thinking it very good. Preserves are handed round with it; each one takes a spoonful into his mouth, and then drinks water to wash it down; and everyone smokes. I myself can already take a pull with some, though very small satisfaction, at a pipe six feet long, with a large amber mouth-piece and a small red clay bowl. The worst thing is that not a room ever has a stove. People sit -for no one ever thinks of walking for months at a time- wrapped in furs with their legs under them, and scarcely trouble themselves as to whether the doors are open or shut. However, in the middle of the room stands a table covered with a large quilted cloth, under it a brazier is placed. Everyone sits round it to get warm. They get up late, usually not before nine, a good breakfast is served one, of five to eight dishes; dinner at seven in the evening, and bed not till one or two in the morning. However, everyone is at liberty to please himself. The sitting room is all sofa, the floor is strewn with rugs, and round the room, close to the wall, runs a deep divan, on which twenty men often sit or recline. Some smoke, others sleep, others again play dominoes, ecarte or whist; but for the most part they do nothing and say little. If one is intimate in the house, the ladies will appear, and very pretty they are.

Nothing can be more delightful than the ride by the shore. On the edge of the Bosphorus stands an ancient castle, built by the Turks before taking of Constantinople. The high white walls with towers and pinnacles twist about so strangely up and down the steep cliffs, that the legend really seems possible which says that Sultan Mahmoud had then planned to form the letters of his name. Shafts of columns, bits of frieze and beautiful carving stick out of the walls of the gigantic towers, which they are built into, as well as grave-stones, bricks, and blocks of stone. Five centuries have hardly effaced any of these footprints, set by Islam on European soil when it first crossed over from Asia. From hence it made its way as far as the Tyrol and Germany, and its followers very nearly succeeded in turning St. Stephen's church in Vienna into a mosque, as they had done at St. Sophia's, where the cross had been adored more than a thousand years.
This old castle is generally the end of my ride. The Bosphorus rushes past like a great raging river, and hundreds of dolphines leap along, splashing and snorting on the surface. No one is allowed to catch these creatures, which probably feed on the delicious flounders, palamides and gold carp, like the whole population of the capital. The rocky cliff by the water's edge are overgrown with evergreen cypresses, but the shores are edged with an unbroken line of pretty wooden summer residences.

I cross to Pera in a caique, or ride round in about an hour. The day after to-morrow, being Shrove Tuesday, there is to be a masquerade at the Russian Ambassador's. I have ordered a Slavonian costume from Smyrna, but unluckily it has not yet arrived. I shall have to go disguised as an European after all.

* In this letter passages occur like the contents of the letters under date of February 9th and 12th, 1836, printed in the "Turkischen Briefe." (Letters from Turkey.)

Helmuth von Moltke, “Letters of the Field-Marshal Count helmuth von Moltke To His Mother And His Brothers", Translated by Clara Bell andHenry W. Fischer, with illustrations, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1892, pp. 83-85
 
(...) This is the land of lazy ease, a whole nation in slippers. Towards evening i ride out to the Valley of Sweet Waters; we dine at seven, and what we do for the rest of the evening I really do not know.
 
The festivities in honor of the wedding of Princess Sonnemond (Sun-moon), or Mihrimah, begin this evening with fire-works on the Bosphorus. There was a little display about four weeks ago inside the factory, by which 180 men were blown to the winds; but it was Kismet -their fate.
Helmuth von Moltke, “Letters of the Field-Marshal Count helmuth von Moltke To His Mother And His Brothers", Translated by Clara Bell andHenry W. Fischer, with illustrations, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1892, p. 90

***

Theresa Huntington Ziegler (American Missionary to Turkey, 1875-1945)

Theresa seems to have been far too impatient for the tezkerehs to take in much of the sights of the Queen City. She was also not much given flowery language. A woman visitor from England provides us with a word picture of the Constantinople of that time: "The glittering cupolas of the mosques, the minarets like tall white tapers around each sanctuary, the brilliant white marble facades of the numerous palaces, the brownish roofs and greyish wooden balconies of the Turkish houses, projecting over the sea, and surrounded by dark cypresses, and the soft green foliage that covers the hills on both sides of the straits; lastly, the sea itself, like a blue satin ribbon with slippery ripples, alive with sails of every hue -all these together make up a picture which it would be difficult to match anywhere else." (*) But while Theresa was waiting for the official travel permits, she did make a voyage out to the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara:

Dear family,

Yesterday was a delightful day. Seventeen people, including ourselves, went on a picnic to one of the Prince's Islands in the sea of Marmora. We took a steamer from Bebek at 6.15, and left Galata Bridge, where we met the others, at 8.15. The sail to Antigone, the island to which we went, takes over two hours. At the wharf we engaged two or three donkeys for the ascent of the high, steep hill. Soon several more little beasts came rattling down the stoney road, so that in all we had ten donkeys, which we took turn riding. They don't seem to understand English but will respond to Turkish. It was very shaky business -this riding- because most of the saddles were for men and we rode woman fashion. On the way up, I tried several times to make my donkey stop but every time the donkey-boy saw me gesticulating and talking to him, he gave a yell and began to ply his stick and hurry things up a little. I found the best thing to do was to run the donkey into a tree. On the way down I cut a great "dash, as my steed went thundering by." I wasn't well mounted and the boy made my donkey trot most of the way. My skirt blew out in the wind and I hung onto the back of the saddle with one hand and to the reins in the other. The stirrups were too long and of no use, so when we swung around a corner, my feet flew up and my legs stuck out straight at one side. Everybody cheered as the grinning donkey-boy and I went bumping by. Some of the others when they couldn't make their donkeys stop called friends to their assistance to hold the donkey by the tail.

The island is almost covered with a growth of small pines. On the southern side it slopes very abruptly to the water. The view over the sea of Marmara is magnificent as, indeed, are the views of the coast range of Asia Minor, and of Constantinople. The temperature of these islands is on an average ten degrees higher than it is along the Bosphorus. This means that we had a wonderfully soft, warm air as well as a clear blue sky. We ate our dinner sitting on the pine needles on the hill-top. After some merry games of puss-in-the-corner and three-deep, and some conversation and naps, we started for home about 2.30. We reached Bebek at six, just before dark. The Turkish day ends at sunset, that is at 5.15 just now, and no boats starts from the city after that. Accordingly it is compulsory to keep early hours.

(*) Mrs Max Muller, Letters from Constantinople, London: Longmans, Green, and Co, p.11.

Theresa Huntington Ziegler, “Great Need Over The Water, The Letters of Theresa Huntington Ziegler, Missionary To Turkey, 1898-1905", Edited with an Introduction and Commentary by Stina Katchaddurian, Gomidas Institute, Taderon Press, USA, 1999, pp. 33-34

 ***

Archie Roosevelt (American Intelligence Officer, Writer, 1918 – 1990)

I did eventually have a chance to improve my knowledge of the Turkish language, as Lucky and I for a time occupied a house in Bebek, a few miles up the Bosphorus from Istanbul. It was a one-storied house, with a large living room and porch looking over the Bosphorus. I have always found it satisfying to live near the water, and the Bosphorus was a continual source of pleasure then. Today, alas, this same view in Bebek is obstructed by ugly new buildings.

In our day it was a comparatively quiet place, in the shadow of the tower of Rumeli Hisar, built by Mohammed the Conqueror in 1452 in preparation for his final assault on Constantinople. Its twin on the Asian side of the Bosphorus was Anadolu Hisar, also the work of Mohammed. Rumeli Hisar sheltered some of the houses of Robert College, a comfortable presence in the background.

Along the Bosphorus passed a continual procession of boats and ships of various sizes, including great tankers, freighters, and war ships from the Soviet part of the Black Sea. A ferry constantly crisscrossed the water between the European and the Asian side, where one could still see a few old-fashioned wooden Turkish summer homes, yalis, overhanging the banks. In the morning and evening alike from our porch we contemplated the passing scene. At night we watched the lights of the small craft fishing out the delights of the next day's table -especially that most succulent fish, the lufer; swordfish soon to be spitted as kebab; and five-or ten-pound lobsters, as large as a small pet. In fact, someone once put a leash to one in our kitchen! A few miles up to Bosphorus, in the village of Therapia, we often went to a Greek restaurant where they pulled these huge lobsters up from a cage beneath a trap door in the center of the room for us to admire before they went to chef.

Archie Roosevelt, “For Lust of Knowing, Memoirs of an Intelligence Officer", Little, Brown And Company, USA, 1988, pp. 338-339
 
***
 
Clarence D. Ussher, M.D (American Missionary to Turkey, 1870-1955)
 
We glided through a dreamland of beauty in steaming slowly up the Bosphorus; low hills wooded to the very edge of the sparkling waves, glittering bubbles of mosque domes, fairy minarets, pastel-tinted houses gleaming palely amid their embowering  trees, with red-tiled roofs to lend a dash of warm color to the scene and black pointed cypresses to give it character and a somber dignity, anchoring it to reality; then, orchards, vineyards, scattered villas, and gray crenellated walls and towers centuries old; and the mountain-bordered shores of the Black Sea were a constant delight to the eye with their rich verdure and their picturesque towns and villages climbing steep slopes, clinging to jutting headlands, or encircling deep bays.

Clarence D. Ussher, M.D-Grace H. Knapp, “An American Physician In Turkey, A Narrative of Advantures In Peace and War", Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge, USA, 1917, p. 6

 ***

Philip Mansel (English Historian, Writer, 1951-...)

Constantinople was a natural object of desire, for it appeared to have been designed by geography and history to be capital of a great empire. Situated at the end of a triangular peninsula, it was surrounded by water on three sides. To the north lay a harbour a kilometre wide and six kilometres long, called the Golden Horn, probably because it turns golden in the rays of the setting sun; to the east the Bosphorus, a narrow waterway separating Europe and Asia; to the south, the sea of Marmara, a small inland sea connecting the Aegean to the Black Sea. In addition it was situated on the crossroads of the mainland routes between Europe and Asia, the Danube and the Euphrates. Its site seemed to have been expressly created to receive the wealth of the four corners of the earth.

Founded as a Greek colony, allegedly in the seventh century BC, Byzantium had been re-founded in 324 AD by Constantine the Great as New Rome, a new capital in a better strategic position than the old Rome on the Tiber. For over a thousand years thereafter, it had been capital of the Roman Empire in the East. In the sixth century the emperor Justinian, the builder of Haghia Sophia, had ruled in Constantinople over an empire which stretched from the Euphrates to the Straits of Gibraltar. To the grandeur of Rome, the city added the magic of time: ninety-two emperors had reigned in the 'Queen of Cities'. No other city in the world has such a continuous imperial history. Moreover, for much of its thousand years of empire it had been the largest and most sophisticated city in Europe, a treasure-house of the statues and manuscripts of the classical past, and the nerve-centre of Eastern Christendom. Its wealth had led one medieval traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, to write: 'The Greek inhabitants are very rich in gold and precious stones and they go clothed in garments of silk with gold embroidery, and they ride horses and look like princes... Wealth like that of Constantinople is not to be found in the whole world.' A crusadeing knight, the Sieur de Villehardoine, wrote that in 1203 his fellow Crusaders looked with wonder at Constantinople 'when they saw these hugh walls and these rich towers by which it was completely enclosed and those rich palaces and those lofty chuches of which there were so many that no one could believe it unless he had seen it with his own eyes.'

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, pp.2-3

Ottoman Constantinople had external as well as internal foes. In Florence, Venice and Rome (where the Pope appointed the leading pro-Western Greek, Cardinal Bessarion, Patriarch of Constantinople in 1463), Greek exiles from 'the city' urged Western powers to launch a crusade against the Ottomans, assuring them of Greek support. Janus Lascaris, for example, born in Constantinople around 1445, spent much of his career as a Greek teacher in Florence and Venice urging Christian monarchs, the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France, to lead a crusade against the Ottoman Empire. Many Venetians and Genoese hoped to recapture the city, as they had during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. What nineteenth-century statesmen referred to as the 'Eastern Question' -the design of the European powers to conquer Ottoman territory- began in 1453.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.26

The Sultanahmed mosque is the only mosque outside Medina with six minarets. By the second half of the the seventeenth century there were 485 mosques and 4'492 mesjids (oratories not used for Friday noon prayers) in Constantinople.* Constantinople was not the most Muslim city in the world, but no city had more mosques. The question is frequently asked -where did the wealth of the Ottoman Empire go? One answer is: on mosque construction.

*In comparison there were about 100 churches in in the city of London in the sixteenth century, and 162 churches and chapels in Paris in the eighteenth century.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, pp.35-36

It is often claimed that Islamic history is distinguished by an absence of representative assemblies, which had functioned continuously in the West since the eleventh century or earlier. Constantinople, however, was a law to itself. Since the reign of Suleyman the Magnificient, the Sultan and Grand Vizier often summoned an assembly of viziers, notables and ulema known as 'the high consultative council', to legitimize, and deflect responsibility for, decisions.* However, the Ottoman elites lacked the inherited taste for liberty and privilege which was a crucial force behind the Dutch revolt, the English revolutions and the outbreak of the French revolution. Silence, or demand for further orders, was the usual reply to the government's request for advice. This silence, bred of fear of the Sultan's power of execution, is one of the distinguishing marks of the Ottoman capital. Assemblies in Western countries might be distinguished by radicalism or conservatism, particularism or patriotism. Yhey were rarely silent.

*Thus when the first Ottoman written constitution was introduced in 1876, the newspaper Vakit described it as a wise return to the past.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.143


Choiseul-Gouffier brought a military and naval staff of thirty officers to help the Ottoman Empire modernize its armed forces (and two artists, Jean-Baptiste Hilair and Louis-Francois Cassas, for whom he paid out of his own pocket). In 1783 a modern military engineering school was attended by Kaptan Pasha himself, and French engineers strengthened the forts defending the entrance to the Bosphorus. Works on naval manoeuvres, the art of war and Ottoman grammar were printed in Ottoman on the French embassy press. Two engineers, Kauffer and Le Chevalier, completed the first accurate map of the city in 1786. French engineers began to work in the arsenal on the Golden Horn, and helped build a modern ship, launched in the Sultan's presence on 30 May 1787.

Choiseul-Gouffier proved an able diplomat who became so popular that, when there was question of his recall, the Grand Vizier wrote to Louis XVI, praising his zeal for 'the friendship which reigns between the august empire and the court of France' and asking for him to stay. Choiseul-Gouffier could keep his composure in the most testing circumtenses. During one conference the Kaptan Pasha's pet lion put its head on Choiseul-Gouffier's lap. The ambassador murmured, 'Il est beau, forth beau', and carried on talking.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, pp.205-206

(..) However Pera also had the allure of cosmopolitanism. Until this century many of its inhabitants could speak five or six languages. In 1718 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu compared it to the tower of Babel:

In Pera they speak Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, Slavonian (Serbo-Croat), Wallachian, German, Dutch, French, English, Italian, Hungarian; and, what is worse, there is ten of these languages spoke in my own family. My grooms are Arabs, my footmen French, English and Germans, my Nurse an Armenian, my housemaids Russians, half a dozen other servants Greeks; my steward an italian, my Janissaries Turks.

Pera attracted Jews, Orthodox and Protestants as well as Catholics. It was a city where, more even than Vienna, Rome or Valetta, capital of the Knights of Malta, Europe was visible and audible.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, pp.209-210

The crowd of the bridge symbolized the open spirit of the reign of Abdulmecid. He loved wine, women and reform. In 1847 the city's slave market was closed: the slaves, landed by night on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, were henceforth on sale in private houses around Tophane and Suleymaniye. The Sultan's verdict on slavery, delivered to the British dragoman Frederick Pisani in 1851, revealed an apparent change in Ottoman attitudes: 'Its a shameful and barbarous practice ... for rational beings to buy and sale their fellow creatures. Though slaves in Turkey are treated better than elsewhere, yet they are sometimes very ill-used. Are not these poor creatures our equals before God? However, slavery remained legal until the end of the empire. Nor did the Sultan stop the acquisition of slave women for his own harem, although he allowed them exceptional licence: their veils were thinnest in the city, and they conversed with young men from their carriages or the palace windows 'in the most lively manner'. A favorite of the Sultan, Safinaz Hanim, his a secret lover in the imperial garden of Yildiz, on the hill above Ciragan palace. When the Sultan found out, his rival was not executed, but merely sent to Bursa.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.264

Some of the guards at the selamlik were the famous zouaves a turban, Arabs from Tripolitania who wore green turbans. Many of the spectators on terrace were Arab leaders once at war with the Sultan, now his guests clothed in Ottoman robes of honour. Under Abdulhamid, the Ottoman Empire still included almost all the Arab world, and Constantinople was both an Arab capital and an Ottoman weapon. Since the sixteenth century there had been Arab teachers, poets and merchants who had preferred Constantinople to the backwaters of Baghdad and Cairo. Arabs had introduced the city to the pleasures of coffee in the sixteenth century, and opera in the nineteenth. Abdulhamid was the first Sultan to use Arabs as political agents. He appointed a seyh (religious elder) from Aleppo, Abu'l Huda, as an instructor in doctrine at Yildiz and Rumeli kadiasker (chief judge for the European provinces). Abu'l Huda wrote as many as 212 books and pamphlets, stressing that absolutism was natural to Islam. God, the Koran and the Prophet commanded obedience to the Sultan Caliph. Pious and just, he cared for the welfare of his subjects. It was a duty to submit to his commands, especially in times of war against oppressive enemies and of struggle against dissenters. Constantinople was the new Baghdad.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.322
 

Both Sherif Huseyin and Sherif Ali Haydar and their families maintained two identities, Ottoman and Arab. The sons of the former were forced, by teachers provided by the Sultan, to speak Turkish-which, to the end of their lives, they used as oral chipher when surrounded by Arabs. In his memoirs Sherif Huseyin's second son Abdullah (by then King of Jordan), while praising 'the bloved Arab calls, palm trees and Arab buildings' of the Hejaz, was more enthusiastic about Constantinople, the 'seat of Caliphate ... fascinating beyond description, a city of great beauty enthralling in every season, summer and winter alike. How pure are its springs, how fine its fruits|... It contains Muslims of every walk of life, of different fashions and tongues, yet nobody and nothing seems strange and you can find anything you want from any country.'

Sherif Abdullah remembered the Bosphorus with particular pleasure. While the Sultan ruled from behind the high walls of Yildiz, the Bosphorus experienced a second golden age. Every may the road over the hills from Constantinople to Tarabya was dotted with ox-carts taking furniture to villas on the Bosphorus. Leaving early in the morning, the servants could have their master's new residence ready by the time he arrived in the evening. The air on the upper Bosphorus was so pure that it was described as 'tonic to the body and exhilaration to the spirit'. Louis Rambert, who worked in the Ottoman Bank in the reign of Abdulhamid, was enthralled: 'What light| What sunshine| From the month of May to the month of November the summer season follows its course, almost without a cloud, filling the air with intense clarity, reflected by the great blue mirror. The arrival every morning in the capital and the departure in the evening of the Bosphorus boats and by engraving on your imagination a spectacle of real enchantment.' The douceur de vivre  of pre-1912 Constantinople, like that of Paris before 1789, was never forgotten by those who knew it.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.325

Yildiz had become so powerful that 'the palace' and 'the Porte' were sometimes compared to two separate states. Torn between the two, Ferid Pasha, Grand Vizier from 1903 to 1908, said he would prefer to be a hamal on the quays of Galata. The palace and the Porte had different attitudes to the rule of law. The Bedir Han family, rich and powerful Kurdish notables brought to the city by the Sultan, assimilated metropolitian habits without losing their own. When asked by a bridge partner if the Kurds were thieves, Abdul Razzak Bedir Han, a master of ceremonies at Yildiz, replied: 'Madame, we are brigands if you wish, but not thieves.' In 1906, after a dispute between the prefect of Constantinople and two of the Bedir Hans, the prefect was shot dead on a railway platform. To the fury of his government, the Sultan, without following due process of law, merely sent the Bedir Han family into exile.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.341

The atmosphere, and actions, of autocracy at bay gave Constantinople an aura of evil. Other large European cities, particularly since the industrial revolution, had been frequently denounced as new Babylons, intrinsically evil on account of their assumed depravity, poverty, ugliness and over-crowding. Shelley, for example, wrote: 'Hell is a city much like London.' Smog and disease earned its names like 'the great wen', 'the smoke', 'desolation'. Le Corbusier called Par's a cancer. Constantinople's undisputed beauty, the prevalence of gardens and scarcity of factories, saved it from such excoriation. It was the people, and the government, which tainted its reputation.

Louis Rambert wrote: 'Nowhere else do human turpitudes have a finer stage on which to flourish.' A pious Muslim student who had grown up in the mountains of Kurdistan had a similar reaction. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi had imagined 'the seat of Caliphate to be a beautiful place. I arrived in Constantinople }in 1896} and saw that the hatred which persons nourished against one another made them all into well-dressed savages... I saw and understood that Islam was behind, far behind the civilization of our times.' The most powerful denunciation came from the poet Tevfik Fikret, who had been editor of great cultural review Servet-i Funun, before becoming Professor of Turkish Literature at Robert College. A hundred and seventy years earlier Nedim had compared Constantinople to the sun warming the entire world. Tevfik Fikret wrote that it was a city shrouded in fog: 'This veil suits you so well, O realm of the oppressions, cradle and tomb of magnificence and splendour.' The eternally attractive Queen of the East was in reality a senile sorceress, poisoned with hypocrisy, jealousy and greed. It was a city of spies and beggars, fear, lies, injustice and dishonour:

Veil yourself then, O tragedy, yes, veil yourself, O city.
Veil yourself, and sleep forever, whore of the world.

- a cruel reference to the Ottoman epithet 'refuge of the world'.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, pp.342-343


The Allied naval bombardment of the Dardanelles fortifications began on 19 February. Three British battleships were sunk, and many other ships damaged, by floating mines at the Dardanelles. On 25 April Allied troops landed on beaches near Gallipoli. The resulting butchery needs no retelling. In all 539'000 troops were engaged on the Allied side, and 310'000 on the Ottoman. Several times an Allied breakthrough, either on land or sea, was likely. The price of wheat in Chicago fell in the expectation that Russian wheat would be exported through the Straits again. Panic swept Constantinople when a British submarine broke through the Dardanelles and started sinking ships in the Bosphorus: by the end of the year Allied submarines had brought daytime traffic on the Sea of Marmara almost to a halt. At times the Ottoman government planned to move to Bursa, or beyond. The final Ottoman victory was helped by the terrain, Allied incompetence and the skill of the Ottoman commanders, Liman von Sanders and Mustafa Kemal. However, in the opinion of one German officer Hans Kannengiesser Pasha, it owed most to the psychological factor: the Ottoman troops' 'firm will, stubborn devotion and unsheakeable loyalty to their Sultan and Caliph'. The last Allied troops withdrew in January 1916.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.374

The wartime alliance turned Constantinople into a magnet for Germans. (...) One German said he liked sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Tokatliyan, as it was a comfortable position from which to spit on Turks in the street. However, watching the sun set over the Golden Horn from the Gartenbar in the Petit Champs, Merten Pasha, commander of the Dardanelles forts, said: 'There are times when I would prefer being a beggar in Constantinople to anything anywhere else.'

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.377

The history of Contantinople had been made by individuals such as Catherine II, Mahmud II, Abdulhamid, Enver, Curzon, as well as by the impersonal forces of dynastic power, geography, nationality and religion. No individual, however, had such an impact on the city, since Fatih himself, as Mustafa Kemal. having removed the Allies, he proceeded to humiliate the city and eliminate the Ottomans. On 13 October the Grand National Assembly approved an amendment to the constitution stating: 'Ankara is the seat of government of the Turkish state.' On 23 October Refet, the only nationalist who had paid court to the Caliph, was deprived of military command of the city. Since Kemal controlled the army and the Grand National Assembly, no action could be taken. On the night of 29/30 October residents of Constantinople were awoken by the sound of 101 guns firing an artillery salute to mark the proclamation of the republic. The city which had been an imperial capital for 1'593 years, longer than any other, was now the second city of a republic.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.412

I was the last of the railway journeys which had interred the empires of Europe, taking the Romanovs to death in Siberia, the Hohenzollerns wand Habsburgs to exile in the Netherlands and Switzerland respectively. No imperial dynasty had lasted longer than the Ottomans. None left more regrets in its capital.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.414

After 1923 the Turkish republic denied Kurds freedom and identity. Although initially the nationalists favoured Kurdish autonomy, from 1923 to 1991 the language was proscribed and Kurds were known as 'mountain Turks'. Lord Curzon pointed out that, for the first time in history, a Turkish government had decided that Kurds were Turks.During the occupation many Kurds had turned to foreign powers. The Bedir Han family, some of whom had helped Russia during the war, won a reputation for being pro-British and probably received money from the Greek High Commission. British intelligence reported that 'the Kurdish party in Constantinople had been taken over by the Greek authorities owing to the absence of funds at the disposal of the Kurdish leaders'. In 1925 the rebellion of Said Mullah=in favour of the Ottoman Caliphate as well as the Kurdish nation - was crushed. 

Thereafter the Turkish government hoped, in the words of the Foreign Minister in 1927, Tevfik Rushdi Bey, that the Kurds, 'inevitably doomed', would suffer the fate of the 'Red Hindus {Indians}'. He told the British High Commissioner in Baghdad that 'it was the intention of the Turkish government to expel the Kurds of Anatolia, just as they have expelled the Greeks and Armenians'. He and Mustafa Kemal talked of 'the defective mentality of the Kurds and of the impossibility of inducing them to accept the realistic and rationalizing policies of modern Turkey'. Thereafter large numbers of troops were deployed in the East; many Kurds were deported west, much of the area slipped out of government control. Istanbul lost its role as a Kurdish centre. The Bedir Han family left for Cairo and Europe. Dr Kamran Bedir Han, born in Constantinople in 1895, died in 1978 in Paris, where he taught Kurdish at the Sorbonne. He had founded and funded the Institute d'Etudes Kurdes, which remains to this day the centre of Kurdish scholarship.

Philip Mansel, “Constantinople, City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924", London, 2006, p.420

***

Paul Theroux (American Travel Writer and Novelist, 1941-...)

Istanbul begins as train passes the city wall at the Golden Gate, the Arch of Triumph of Theodosius-built in 380 but not appreciably more decrepit than the strings of Turkidh laundry that flap at its base. Here, for no apparent reason, the train picked up speed and rushed east along Istanbul's snout, past the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Sarayi, and then circled to the Golden Horn. Sirkeci Station is nothing compared to its sister station, Haydarpasa, just across the Bosphorus, but it's nearness to the busy Eminonu Square and one of the prettiest mosques in the city, Yeni Valide Camii, not to mention the Galata Bridge ( which accommodates a whole community of hawkers, fish stalls, shops, restaurants, and pickpockets disguised as peddlers and touts), gives to one's arrival in Istanbul by the Direct-Orient Express the combined shock and exhilaration of being pitched headfirst into a bazaar.

Paul Theroux, "The Great Railway Bazaar, By Train Through Asia", Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1979, P.45



Comments