Read CHAPTER IX - CONSTANTINOPLE of As Seen By Me, free online book, by Lilian Bell, on

Constantinople had three different effects upon me. The first was to make me utterly despise it for its sickening dirt; the second was when I forgot all about the mud and garbage, and went crazy over its picturesque streets with their steep slopes, odd turns, and bewitching vistas, and the last was to make me dread Cairo for fear it would seem tame in comparison, for Constantinople is enchanting. If I were a painter I would never leave off painting its delights and spreading its fascinations broadcast; and then I would take all the money I got for my pictures and spend it in the bazaars, and if I regretted my purchases I would barter them for others, because Constantinople is the beginning of the Orient, and if you remain long you become thoroughly metamorphosed, and you bargain, trade, exchange, and haggle until you forget that you ever were a Christian. The hour of our arrival in Constantinople was an accident. The steamer Nickolai II. was late, and as no one may land there after sunset, we were forced to lie in the Bosphorus all night.

It was dark when we sighted the city, but it was one of those clear darks where without any apparent light you can see everything. Surely no other city in the world has so beautiful an approach! Our great black steamer threaded her way between men-of-war, sail-boats, and all sorts of shipping, and if there were a thousand lights twinkling in the water there were a million from the city. It lies on a series of hills curved out like a monster amphitheatre, and it stretches all the way around. I looked up into the heavens, and it seemed to me that I never had seen so many stars in my life. Our sky at home has not so many. Yet there were no more than the yellow points of flame which flickered in every part of that sleeping city. Three tall minarets pierced above the horizon, and each of these wore circles of light which looked like necklaces and girdles of fire. Patches of black now and then showed where there were trees or marked a graveyard. Occasionally we heard a shrill cry or the barking of dogs, but these sounds came faintly, and seemed a part of the fairy-picture. It looked so much like a scene from an opera that I half expected to see the curtain go down and the lights flare up, and I feared the applause which always spoils the dream.

But nothing spoiled this dream. All night we lay in the beautiful Bosphorus, and all night at intervals I looked out of my porthole at that lovely sleeping princess. It never grew any less lovely. Its beauty and charm increased.

But in the morning everything was changed. A band of howling, screaming, roaring, fighting pirates came alongside in dirty row-boats, and to our utter consternation we found these bloodthirsty brigands were to row us to land. Not one word could we understand in all that fearful uproar. We were watching them in a terror too abject to describe, when, to our joy, an English voice said, “I am the guide for the two American ladies, and here is the kavass which the American minister sent down to meet you. The consul at Odessa cabled your arrival.”

Oh, how glad we were! We loaded them with thanks and hand-luggage, and scrambled down the stairway at the side of the steamer. A dozen dirty hands were stretched out to receive us. We clutched at their sleeves instead, and pitched into the boat, and our trunks came tumbling after us, and away we went over the roughest of seas, which splashed us and made us feel a little queer; and then we landed at the dirtiest, smelliest quay, and picked our way through a filthy custom-house, where, in spite of bribery and corruption, they opened my trunk and examined all the photographs of the family, which happened to be on top, and made remarks about them in Turkish which made the other men laugh. The mud came up over our overshoes as we stood there, so that altogether we were quite heated in temper when we found ourselves in an alley outside, filled with garbage which had been there forever, and learned that this alley was a street, and a very good one for Constantinople, too.

The porters in Turkey are marvels of strength. They wear a sort of cushioned saddle on their backs, and to my amazement two men tossed my enormous trunk on this saddle. I saw it leave their hands before it reached his poor bent back; he staggered a little, gave it a hitch to make it more secure, then started up the hill on a trot.

I never saw so much mud, such unspeakably filthy streets, and so many dogs as Constantinople can boast. You drive at a gallop up streets slanting at an angle of forty-five degrees, and you nearly fall out of the back of the carriage. Then presently you come to the top of that hill and start down the other side, still at a gallop, and you brace your feet to keep from pitching over the driver’s head. You would notice the dogs first were it not for the smells. But as it is, you cannot even see until you get your salts to your nose. The odors are so thick that they darken the air. You are disappointed in the dogs, however. There are quite as many of them as you expected. You have not been misled as to the number of them, but nowhere have I seen them described in a satisfactory way so that you knew what to expect, I mean. In the first place, they hardly look like dogs. They have woolly tails like sheep. Their eyes are dull, sleepy, and utterly devoid of expression. Constantinople dogs have neither masters nor brains. No brains because no masters. Perhaps no masters because no brains. Nobody wants to adopt an idiot. They are, of course, mongrels of the most hopeless type. They are yellowish, with thick, short, woolly coats, and much fatter than you expect to find them. They walk like a funeral procession. Never have I seen one frisk or even wag his tail. Everybody turns out for them. They sleep from twelve to twenty of them on a single pile of garbage, and never notice either men or each other unless a dog which lives in the next street trespasses. Then they eat him up, for they are jackals as well as dogs, and they are no more epicures than ostriches. They never show interest in anything. They are blase. I saw some mother dogs asleep, with tiny puppies swarming over them like little fat rats, but the mothers paid no attention to them. Children seem to bore them quite as successfully as if they were women of fashion.

We went sailing up the Golden Horn to the Skutari cemetery, one of the loveliest spots of this thrice-fascinating Constantinople. As we were descending that steep hill upon which it is situated we met a darling little baby Turk in a fez riding on a pony which his father was leading. This child of a different race, and six thousand miles away, looked so much like our Billy that I wanted to eat him up dirt and all. I contented myself with giving him backsheesh, while my companion photographed him. Such an afternoon as that was on that lovely golden river, with the sun just setting, and our picturesque boatmen sending the boat through thousands upon thousands of sea-gulls just to make them fly, until the air grew dark with their wings, and the sunlight on their white breasts looked like a great glistening snow-storm!

One night we went to a masked ball given for the benefit of a new hospital which is situated upon the Golden Horn. It was given by Mr. Levy, one of the Turkish Commissioners at the World’s Fair, and the decorations were something marvellous. The walls were hung with embroideries which drove us the next day to the bazaars and nearly bankrupted us. Every street of Constantinople looks like a masked ball, so this one merely continued the illusion. We could distinguish the Mohammedan women from the others because they all went home before midnight without unmasking.

This ball is interesting because it is called “The Engagement Ball.” We were told that only at a subscription ball given for a charity in which their parents are interested and feel under moral obligation to support by their presence are the young people of Constantinople allowed to meet each other. The fathers and mothers occupy the boxes, and thus, under their very eyes, and masked, can love affairs be brought to a conclusion. During the week which followed no fewer than ten important engagements were duly heralded in the columns of the newspapers.

The most exciting things in Constantinople are the earthquakes. We were afraid they would not have any while we were there, but they accommodated us with a very satisfactory one! It upset my ink-bottle and broke the lamp and rattled everything in the room until I was delighted. When my companion came in she was indignant to think that I had enjoyed the earthquake all to myself, for she was in the rooms of the American Bible Society, and being thus protected, did not feel it. But I told her that that was her punishment for trying to prove that a missionary had cheated her, for she was not in that place for a godly purpose.

At another time, however, we met with better success in obtaining a sensation of a different sort. We visited, in company with our Turkish friend, a small but wonderfully beautiful mosque not often seen by ordinary tourists, and afterwards went up on Galata tower to get the fine view of Constantinople which may be had there. It was just before sunset again, and I am quite unable to make you see the utter loveliness of it. We crawled out on the narrow ledge which surrounds the top, and I had just got a capital picture of my companion as she clutched the Turk to prevent being blown off, for the wind was something terrible, when suddenly the keepers rushed to the windows and jabbered excitedly in Turkish and ran up a flag, and behold, there was a fire! Galata tower is the fire observatory. By the flags they hoist you can tell where the fire is. I never was at a fire in my life. Even when our stables burned down I was away from home. So here was my opportunity. The way we drove down those narrow streets was enough to make one think that we were the fire department itself. But when we arrived we found to our grief that it was our dear little mosque which was burning. Undoubtedly we were the last visitors to enter it.

We went back to the hotel for dinner, and about nine o’clock, hearing that the fire was spreading, we drove down again with our Turk, who regarded it as no unusual thing to take American women to two fires in the same day. We found the tenement-houses burning. Our carriage gave us no vantage-ground, so our friend, who speaks twelve languages, obtained permission to enter a house and go up on the roof. We never stopped to think that we might catch all sorts of diseases; we were so pleased at the courtesy of the poor souls. They had all their poor belongings packed ready to remove if the fire crept any nearer, but they ran ahead and lighted us up the dark stairway with candles, and told us in Turkish what an honor we were doing their house, all of which touched me deeply. I wondered how many people I would have assisted up to our roof if my clothes were tied up in sheets in the hall, with the fire not a square away!

Fortunately, it came no nearer, and from that high, flat roof we watched the seething mass of yellow flames grow less and less and then go completely under control. It was Providence which did it, however, and not the Constantinople fire department, with its little streams of water the size of slate-pencils!

The dogs were one of the sights we were anxious to see; the Sultan was the other. We found the bazaars more fascinating than either. But we wanted to photograph the Sultan chiefly, I think, because it was forbidden. I have an ever-present unruly desire to do everything which these foreign countries absolutely forbid. But everybody said we could not. So we very meekly went to see him go to prayers, and left our cameras with the kavass. We had, with our customary good fortune, a window directly in front of the Sultan’s gate, not twenty feet from the door of the mosque.

“If I had that camera here I could get him, and nobody would know!” I declared.

“But there are so many spies,” our Turkish friend said. “It would be too dangerous.”

We waited, and waited, and waited. Never have the hours seemed so mortally long as they seemed to us as we watched the hands of the clock crawl past luncheon-time, hours and hours later than the Sultan was announced to pray, and still no Sultan. His little six-and seven-year old sons, in the uniform of colonels, were mounted on superb Arabian horses. These horses had tails so long that servants held them up going through the mud, as if they were ladies’ trains. The children were dear things, with clear olive complexions and soft, dark eyes Italian eyes. Then they grew tired of waiting, and dismounted, and came up to where we were, and shook hands in the sweetest manner. My companion was for coaxing the little one into her lap, but she looked somewhat staggered when I reminded her that she would be trotting the colonel of the regiment on her knee.

Then more cavalry came, and more bands, playing a little the worst of any that I ever heard, and we impatiently thrust our heads out of the window, thinking, of course, the Sultan was coining, but he was not. Then some infantry with white leggings and stiff knee-joints, with coils of green gas-pipe on their heads, like our student-lamps, marched by with a gait like a battalion of horses with the string-halt, and we shrieked with laughter. Our friend said they called that the German step. Germany would declare war with Turkey if she ever heard that.

By this time we were so tired and hungry and disgusted that we were about to go home and give up the Sultan when we saw no fewer than fifty men come toiling up the hill with carpet-bags, as if they had brought their clothes, and intended to see the Sultan if it took a week. I do not know who or what they were, and I do not want to know. They served their purpose with us in that they put us into instantaneous good humor, and just then there was a commotion, and everybody straightened up and craned their necks; and then, preceded by his body-guard, the Sultan drove slowly down, looked directly up at our window (and we groaned), and then turned in at the gate. Opposite to him sat Osman Pasha, the hero of Plevna. The ladies of the harem were driven into the court-yard surrounded by eunuchs, the horses were taken from their carriages, and there the ladies sat, guarded like prisoners, until the Sultan came out again. He then mounted into a superb gold chariot drawn by two beautiful white horses, and he himself drove out. Everybody salaamed, and he raised his hand in return as if it was all the greatest possible bore.

While he was driving into the court-yard the priest came out on the minaret and called men to prayer, and an English girl who sat at the next window informed her mother that he was announcing the names of the important persons in the procession! Her mother trained her glasses on him a mere speck against the sky and said, “Fancy!”

The Sultan is not a beauty. If he were in America his sign would be that of the three golden balls.

We went to see the mosques, and the officials and priests and boatmen were so cross and surly on account of the fast of Ramazan that they would not let us take photographs without a fight. During Ramazan they neither eat nor drink between sunrise and sunset.

On the fifteenth day of Ramazan the Sultan goes to the mosque of Eyoob to buckle on the sword of Mohammed in order to remind himself that the power of that sword has descended to himself. He does not announce his route, therefore the whole city is in a commotion, and they spread miles of streets with sand for fear he might take it into his head to go by some unusual way. It passes my comprehension why they should ever put any more dirt in the streets even for a Sultan. But sand is a mark of respect in Russia and Turkey, and it really cleans the streets a little. At least it absorbs the mud. Just as we were about to start for a balcony beneath which he was almost sure to pass, our Turkish friend whispered to us that if we wore capes we might take our cameras. Imagine our delight, for it was so dangerous. But the capes! Ours were not half long enough to conceal the camera properly. It was growing late. So in a perfect frenzy I dragged out my long pale blue sortie du bal, ripped the white velvet capes from it, pinned a short sable cape to the top of it with safety-pins, and enveloped myself in this gorgeousness at eleven o’clock in the morning. We made a curious trio. Our Turk was in English tweeds with a fez. My companion wore a smart tailor gown, and I was got up as if for a fancy-dress ball, but in the streets of Constantinople no one gave me a second glance. I was in mourning compared to some of the others.

On the balcony with us were two small boys with projecting ears, of whom I stood in deadly terror, for if their boyish interest centred in that camera of mine I was lost. Presently, however, with a tremendous clatter, the Sultan’s advance-guard came galloping down the street. I got them, turned the film, and was ready for the next the carriages of the state officials. I aimed well, and got them, but I was growing nervous. The boys writhed closer. I shoved them a little when their mother was not looking.

“Don’t try to take so many,” said our Turk. “Here comes the Sultan. Aim low, and don’t fire until you see the whites of his eyes.”

Again he looked up directly at us, and I snapped the shutter promptly. It was done. I had succeeded in photographing the Sultan! To be sure, it was an offense against the state, punishable by fine and imprisonment, but nobody had caught me. The little boy next to me, who had walked on my dress and ground his elbows into me, craned his neck and stared at the Sultan with round eyes. He had been in my way ever since we arrived, but in an exuberance of tenderness I patted his head.

But when we had those negatives developed I discovered to my disgust that instead of the Sultan I had taken an excellent photograph of that wretched little boy’s ear.