Ogier de Busbecq in 16th-century İstanbul

[Turkey Through a Traveler’s Eyes] Musings from the ‘capital of the world’: Ogier de Busbecq in 16th-century İstanbul


Olgier de Busbecq had to obtain special permission to enter the Aya Sofya, then the Empire’s most important mosque. (Photo: Today’s Zaman, Kürşat Bayhan)

February 19, 2013, Tuesday/ 16:47:00/ TERRY RICHARDSON

The concept of travel for leisure rather than need began in the latter half of the 17th century with the advent of the Grand Tour. From that period on, it became de rigueur for young men from wealthy, aristocratic families to take off on a lengthy tour of Europe to experience, among other things, the wonders of classical antiquity in Greece, the glories of the Renaissance in Italy and the natural drama of the Alps. The more adventurous stretched their horizons a little further, to the Near East, and travelled through the then-Ottoman Turkish domains of Anatolia, the biblical lands of the Levant and Egypt.

The journey was about broadening one’s cultural horizons by viewing great art, worthy buildings and dramatic scenery, mixing with like-minded people (invariably fellow “Grand Tourers” and the aristocracy of continental Europe) and, of course, sampling the local cuisine and wines. In other words, a good time was had by all. Today’s travelers and tourists usually have much the same aspirations when they set out on their journeys, though few probably realize what a debt they owe to the Grand Tour in establishing the concept of travel as a pleasurable choice rather than an arduous necessity.

From Vienna to Budapest

When Olgier de Busbecq, scion of a noble family from Lille (northern France), set out for Constantinople from Vienna in 1555 the Grand Tour was still more than a century away. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that in his account of his adventures as Habsburg ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Busbecq dwells little on either the art or great buildings he saw, or the stunning landscapes unfolding before him. That was simply not the mindset of the time. Instead, today’s reader of Busbecq’s “Turkish Letters” is left to enjoy what the ambassador and writer did deliver with considerable style — an intimate portrait of the customs and politics of an empire at the height of its powers from a man who mixed with grand viziers as well as with lowly artisans and soldiers.

Busbecq entered Ottoman territory at Gran (today’s Esztergom) in Hungary, where he was met with the “charming spectacle” of some 150 Ottoman horsemen “with their brightly painted shields and spears, their jeweled scimitars, their many colored plumes, their turbans of the purest white, their garments mostly of purple or bluish green, their splendid horses and fine trappings.” He was less pleased with the accommodation proffered by his Ottoman hosts. “Instead of beds, shaggy rugs of rather a rough kind were spread over planks, and there were no mattresses or linen.” The next morning he met the helpful local sancak (Ottoman governor), who provided him with an escort to Buda (Budapest).

Wine, flowers and dolphins

Busbecq spent some time in Buda, largely recording the customs of the Muslim Turks he was now travelling among. He noted, rather ruefully, on his arrival that “the first concern of the Turks is to secure the safety of the horses, carriages and luggage, for human beings they think they have taken enough trouble if they protect them from the severity of the weather.” Once settled in his lodgings, he is amused to find that “many Turks were attracted to my table by the lure of my wine, a luxury they appreciate all the more because they have little opportunity of enjoying it.” He later commented: “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 they will suffer in a future life be just as heavy whether they drink much or little, and so… they drink deep.”

From Buda, Busbecq rode on to Nish (Serbia) and Sofia (Bulgaria) before reaching what is today the soil of the Turkish Republic at Edirne (then Adrianople). The meadows around what remains an attractive city were carpeted by wild flowers, and Busbecq wrote, “The Turks are very fond of flowers, and though they are otherwise anything but extravagant, they do not hesitate to pay several aspres for a fine blossom.” Silivri, today little more than a suburb of İstanbul, home to Turkey’s largest prison and scene of an increasingly convoluted and bizarre courtroom saga, was then rather more rural and our traveler clearly enjoyed its seaside serenity “the calm sea tempted us to a halt, and we enjoyed picking up the shells and watching the shoals of dolphins, while waves played upon the shore.”

A grand vizier and the Aya Sofya

The intrepid ambassador finally reached Constantinople on Jan. 20, 1556. The then-sultan, best known to Westerners today as Süleyman the Magnificent, was campaigning against the Persians in Anatolia at the time. In his absence, Busbecq sought out the former grand vizier, Rüstem Paşa, benefactor of the famous İznik-tile-bedecked mosque, still standing close to the waterfront in İstanbul’s Eminönü district, and husband of Süleyman’s favorite daughter, Mihrimah. Ensconced in the Ottoman Empire’s major city and awaiting developments, Busbecq wrote ‘I had an opportunity to see the sights of Constantinople at my leisure.”

He had to obtain special permission to enter the Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia), then the Empire’s most important mosque, as “the Turks hold that the entrance of a Christian profanes their places of worship” and wrote of what remains one of the most important buildings in the world even today: “It is indeed a magnificent mass of buildings and well worth a visit, with its huge vault or dome in the middle and lighted only by an open space at then top. Almost all the Turkish mosques are modeled upon St. Sophia.” Reflecting on Constantinople in a more general sense, Busbecq wrote, “as for the site of the city itself, it seems to have been created nature for the capital of the world.”

Fish, a palace and the remnants of Byzantium

Many of the inhabitants of today’s resurgent city would heartily agree with Busbecq’s words, although the same famously fish-loving citizens can only look back in envy at the period the Habsburg ambassador visited their city. “The sea is everywhere full of fish, either making their way down from the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Sea of Marmora to the Aegean and Mediterranean, or else on their journey up thence to the Black Sea. They travel in such large and densely packed shoals that they can sometimes even by captured hand. Mackerel, tunny, mullet, bream and swordfish are caught in great abundance.”

Despite noting that “no place could be more beautiful or conveniently situated,” Busbecq professed himself to be less than impressed with the nerve centre of the mighty Ottoman Empire, the Topkapı Palace, writing, “The Palace of the Sultans… is not remarkable for the splendor of its architecture or decoration.” He was also dismissive of the general appearance of the city, noting “you will look in vain for elegant buildings in Turkish cities, nor are the streets fine, being so narrow as to preclude any pleasing appearance.”

Busbecq also expressed surprise that so few buildings erected under the rule of Constantinople’s previous masters, the Byzantines, had survived, although he does write that “in the space occupied by the ancient Hippodrome two serpents of bronze are to be seen, also a fine obelisk.” Like many visitors today, Busbecq’s eyes were deceived by the bronze column (the Serpentine Column) that still stands opposite the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), which actually consists of three, not two, intertwined bronze snakes. The 3,500-year-old obelisk, shipped from Egypt to Constantinople in the late fourth century A.D., survives to this day too, as does another famous Byzantine landmark recorded by Busbecq. Çemberlitaş, or the Burnt Column, just north of the modern tramway and close to the Grand Bazaar, was then as now “bound together by numerous iron rings to prevent it falling to pieces.”

Across Anatolia to see the sultan

Busbecq was forced to cut short his sojourn in Constantinople by a summons to appear before Sultan Süleyman, then encamped in distant Amasya. He crossed the Bosporus to Scutari (modern Üsküdar), then made his way across Anatolia to Nicomedia (İzmit), Nicea (İznik) and Angora (Ankara), before crossing the Halys (Kızılirmak) river to approach Amasya. En route he commented on everything from Angora’s famous mohair wool to yoghurt, writing of the latter, “The Turks are so frugal and think so little of the pleasures of eating that if they have bread and salt and some garlic or an onion, and a kind of sour milk… which they call yoghoort, they ask for nothing more.”

Busbecq reached Amasya in a little over a month, and was finally introduced to the campaign court of a man history has rightly judged the greatest of the Ottoman sultans. He found Sultan Süleyman “seated on a rather low sofa, not more than a foot from the ground, and spread with many costly coverlets and cushions embroidered with exquisite work… His expression is… anything but smiling, and has a sternness which, though sad, is full of majesty.” Having delivered his master’s message to the all-powerful Süleyman, Busbecq was dismissed and left to explore the camp of his hosts. He was mightily impressed with the good discipline of the Ottoman army, writing, “There was none of the cries and murmurs which usually proceed from a motley concourse, and there was no crowding.”

Busbecq made the return journey to Constantinople in June, disappointed in his diplomatic efforts as Süleyman, having successfully concluded a peace treaty with the Persians, was unwilling to offer more than a six-month truce to his Habsburg master, Ferdinand I. The weather too was trying and Busbecq records dolefully, “the extreme heat of June… was more than I could endure, with the result that I fell into a state of fever.”

Return to Vienna

After a couple of weeks in the capital, Busbecq recovered his health and set out for Vienna, noting with despondency, “Just as we were leaving the city, we were met by wagon loads of boys and girls who were being brought from Hungary to be sold in Constantinople… Youths and men were of advanced years were driven along in herds or else were tied together with chains, as with horses taken to market, and trailed along in a long line. At the sight I could scarcely restrain my tears in pity for the wretched plight of the Christian population.”

Despite his ordeals Busbecq was to return to Constantinople in the summer of 1556 and was able to regale his readers with more tales from “the capital of the world.”

“Turkish Letters” by Olgier de Busbecq is published by Eland Books ISBN-13: 978 0-907871-69-9.


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