Those who hold the highest posts under the Sultan are very often the sons of shepherds and herdsmen, and, so far from being ashamed of their birth, they make it a subject of boasting, and the less they owe to their forefathers and to the accident of birth, the greater is the pride which they feel. They do not consider that good qualities can be conferred by birth or handed down by inheritance, but regard them partly as the product of good training and constant toil and zeal. Just as they consider that an aptitude for the arts, such as music or mathematics or geometry, is not transmitted to a son and heir, so they hold that character is not hereditary, and that a son does not necessarily resemble his father, but his qualities are divinely infused into his bodily frame. Thus, among the Turks, dignities, offices, and administrative posts are the rewards of ability and merit; those who are dishonest, lazy, and slothful never attain to distinction, but remain in obscurity and contempt. This is why the Turks succeed in all that they attempt and are a dominating race and daily extend the bounds of their rule.
— Turkish Letters, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq
Last time around I posted about the potential good travel writing has for providing writers of historical mystery with background material capable of providing color, flavor and context. In this post I highlighted the work of such storied "modern" travel writers as William Dalrymple and Patrick Leigh Fermor. This time around I would like to introduce you, the reader, to a man born nearly five hundred years ago, and the letters he wrote home from a diplomatic posting. These were more than letters, though. Travelogues constituted a popular literary form in sixteenth century Western Europe, and as such, they sparked public interest and consistently sold well. Especially those written about places far from the reader's home. And in the 1590s, when these letters were published in book form, the Ottoman Empire and its capitol city of Constantinople (Modern-day Istanbul) might as well have been the Moon, for all the familiarity most Western Europeans had with them. Thus, these letters form nothing short of a treasure trove of background info for writers interested in exploiting them as a resource.
|Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522—1592)|
Busbecq quickly showed an aptitude for languages which resulted in his father sending him to study in the Netherlands, with an eye toward a career in diplomatic service. Busbecq's illegitimacy did not seem to particularly hinder his career, although reading the quote which leads this post with the knowledge that it was written by someone who only became his father's legitimate heir at the age of 25, by act of the Austrian Habsburg emperor whom both men served, Ferdinand I does provide context as to his feelings about the then-uncontroversial notion of blood mattering more than ability amongst Europe's ruling elites and the nobility which served them.
|Charles de l'Ecluse|
Our method is very different; there is no room for merit, but everything depends on birth; considerations of which alone open the to high official position. On this subject I shall perhaps say more in another place, and you must regard these remarks as intended for your ears only.
These remarkable statements were originally written as part of a series of long letters addressed to his friend the doctor and botanist Charles de l'Ecluse, while Busbecq was serving the emperor as his ambassador to the Ottoman Turkish court in Constantinople for two separate periods during the 1550s and 1560s. And while he writes about these statements being "intended for your ears only," it is difficult to square this statement with the fact that Busbecq himself saw to it that all four of these very long, highly detailed letters were published in a single volume over two decades later, towards the end of his life, and after he had retired from Habsburg service.
|Statue of Suleiman the Magnificent in Trabzon|
But Busbecq's writings reveal him to have been an intelligent man with a deep and abiding curiosity both about the Turks and about the culture and natural history of the region they ruled–a region most Europeans only ever heard about. So he wrote about it.
Busbecq wrote about everything. Housing, clothing styles, the rampant corruption and culture of acceptable bribery which greased the skids of the "meritocratic" society he so lauded elsewhere in his writing. And Busbecq is credited with importing both the tulip and the angora goat back to his homeland (his friend l'Ecluse is credited with acclimating the tulip bulb to Northern Europe's colder, wetter climate). There is also some suggestion that Busbecq is responsible for exporting the lily to Northern Europe as well, but it's unclear whether that is true.
|Tulip Festival at the Sultanahmet Mosque Park, April, 2008|
Busbecq's writing is also replete with descriptions of the animals he acquired and kept with him at his house in Constantinople: bears, wolves, mules, weasels, deer, monkeys, and a pig. There are also countless stories which detail the workings of the Turkish capitol, such as the one he tells of how sailors would set parts of the city on fire so that they could get paid to work as firefighters run throughout his narrative.
|Modern view of Istanbul (Constantinople) from across the Golden Horn at Sunset|
He goes into some detail describing the city (modern day Istanbul) itself, saying of it:
As for the site of the city 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 Azov, round which many nations and into which many rivers flow on all sides, so that nothing useful to man is produced which cannot be transported by sea to Constantinople with the utmost ease. On one side the city is washed by the Sea of Marmara; on another side with a harbour formed by a river which [the ancient Greek geographer] 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 centre of Constantinople there is a charming view over the sea and the Asiatic Olympus, white with eternal snow.
|Not on the menu in 1550s Turkey|
In writing of Turkish customs Busbecq gives the reader wonderfully useful details such as: "I may mention in passing that a Turk would rather have his tongue cut out or his teeth drawn, than taste any food which he looks upon as unclean—frogs, for example, and snails and tortoises." And this about Turks and alcohol: "The drinking of wine is regarded by the Turks as a serious crime, especially among the older men; the younger men can commit the sin with greater hope of pardon and excuse. They think, however, that the punishment which they will suffer in a future life will be just as heavy whether they drink much or little, and so, if they taste wine, they drink deep; the punishment being already deserved, they incur no additional penalty, and they count their drunkenness as all to the good."
Busbecq's curiosity led him to ask probing questions everywhere. On his journey through Ottoman territory in the Balkans on his way to Constantinople, he noticed that many of the buildings had vast quantities of wadded up pieces of paper stuffed into the chinks in their masonry.
|Another of Busbecq's exports to Western Europe: the Angora Goat|
So he asked about it, and after being put off repeatedly, several of his Turkish guides confirmed for him that the Turks held a great reverence for paper, because "the name of God may be written upon it." And further, "so they never allow a scrap of paper to lie about, and immediately pick up any that they find and thrust it into some hole or cranny, in order that it may not be trodden underfoot," because they believed that on "the day of the Last Judgement, when Muhammed summons the faithful to heaven from the purgatory where they are being punished for their sins, in order that they may partake of eternal bliss, the only path on which they can tread will be a huge white-hot gridiron, over which they must pass with bare feet."
Paper, Busbecq relates, can save soles (pun intended), because, "all the paper which they have preserved from being trampled underfoot in the manner we have described will suddenly make its appearance and adhere to the soles of their feet and serve them well by preventing them from receiving any hurt from the hot iron." How such paper will avoid bursting into flames upon contact with said white hot gridiron, Busbecq does not tell us.
There is much more to say about this riveting account of the life of a 16th century Flemish diplomat during his sojourn among a truly alien culture. And it's well worth a look. You can find it here or in a free online version (which is a pain to read: you're better off paying for it), here.
And that's all for me this time. See you in two weeks!