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Observing the Ottomans – Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq in Istanbul (1552-62)

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At the end of the promontory, which I have mentioned, is the Palace of the Sultans, which, as far as I can judge (for I have not yet myself entered it), is not remarkable for the splendour of its architecture or decoration. Beneath the Palace, on lower ground, stretching right down to the sea, lie the Imperial Gardens. It is usually held that the ancient Byzantium lay in this quarter. You must not expect me to tell you why the people of Chalcedon, the site of which was opposite Byzantium and scarcely shows a trace at the present day, were called blind; nor about the perpetual and tideless current which flows down the Straits; nor about the pickled delicacies which are brought to Constantinople from the Sea of Azof and are called by the Italians moronella, botarga, and caviare. All these details are unsuited to a letter, the limits of which I have already exceeded; besides, they can be learnt from authors, both ancient and modern.

But to return to Constantinople. No place could be more beautiful or more conveniently situated. As I have already said, 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.

In many places there are remarkable remains of ancient monuments, though one cannot help wondering why so few have survived, when one considers the number which were brought by Constantine from Rome. It is beside my present purpose to describe them in detail; but I will mention a few of them. In the space occupied by the ancient Hippodrome two serpents of bronze are to be seen, also a fine obelisk. Two remarkable columns are also to be seen in the city. One of them stands in the neighbourhood of the caravanserai where we lodged, the other in the market which the Turks call Avret-Bazar, that is, the Women’s Market. This column is covered with reliefs from top to bottom representing some expedition of Arcadius, who set it up and whose statue long surmounted it. It would be more accurate to describe it as a spiral than as a column, on account of the interior staircase which gives access to the summit. The column which stands opposite the apartments usually occupied by the imperial representatives is composed, except for the base and capital, of eight solid blocks of porphyry so fitted together that they appear to form a monolith; and indeed this is the popular belief. Where the blocks fit into one another there are laurel-wreaths surrounding the whole column, so that the joints are hidden from those who look up from below. This column, having been shaken by frequent earthquakes and burnt by a neighbouring fire, is splitting in many places, and is bound together by numerous iron rings to prevent it from falling to pieces. It is said to have been crowned by statues, first of Apollo, then of Constantine, and finally of Theodosius the elder, all of which were dislodged by gales or earthquakes.

The following story is told by the Greeks about the obelisk in the Hippodrome, which I have mentioned above. It was torn from its base and for many centuries lay upon the ground, until in the days of the later Emperors an architect was discovered who undertook to re-erect it on its base. When the price had been agreed upon, he set up an elaborate apparatus consisting chiefly of wheels and ropes, whereby he raised the immense stone and lifted it into the air, so that it was only a finger’s length from the top of the base on which it had to rest. The spectators imagined that he had wasted his time and trouble on such vast preparations and would have to make a fresh start with great labour and expense. However, he was not in the least discouraged, and, profiting by his knowledge of natural science, ordered an immense quantity of water to be fetched. With this he drenched his machine for many hours, with the result that ropes which held the obelisk in position gradually became soaked and naturally tightened and contracted, so that they lifted the obelisk higher and set it upon the base, amid the admiration and applause of the multitude.

At Constantinople I saw wild beasts of various kinds—lynxes, wild cats, panthers, leopards, and lions. One of these was so well broken in and tamed that it allowed the keeper before my eyes to pull out of its mouth a sheep, which had just been given to it to eat, and remained quite calm, though its jaws had barely tasted blood. I also saw a quite young elephant which greatly amused me, because it could dance and play ball. I imagine that you will be unable to suppress a smile and will exclaim: ‘What! an elephant playing ball and dancing!’ But why not, when Seneca tells us of one which walked the tight rope, and Pliny is our evidence for another which knew the Greek alphabet? Now listen to my account, so that you may not think I am inventing or misunderstand what I say. When the elephant was ordered to dance it advanced on alternate feet, swaying to and fro with its whole body, so that it obviously meant to dance a jig. It played with a ball by cleverly catching it, when it was thrown, with its trunk and hurling it back, as we do with the hand. If you are not satisfied from my account that it danced and played ball, you must find some one to give a clearer and more learned description.

There had been a camelopard (giraffe) among the animals at Constantinople, but it had died just before my arrival. But I had its bones, which had been buried, dug up for my inspection. This animal is much taller in front than behind; it is, therefore, ill adapted for carrying a rider or a load. It is called a camelopard because it has a head and neck like a camel’s and a skin covered with spots like a leopard’s.

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