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

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If I had not visited the Black Sea when I had an opportunity of sailing thither I should deserve to be regarded as very lazy; for to have seen the Black Sea was regarded as not less difficult than to have sailed to Corinth (n). I had a delightful excursion, and was allowed to enter several of the Sultan’s country-houses, places of pleasure and delight. On the folding doors of one of them I saw a vivid representation in mosaic of the famous battle of Selim against Ismael, King of Persia. I also saw numerous parks belonging to the Sultan situated in charming valleys. What homes for the Nymphs! What abodes of the Muses! What places for studious retirement! The very earth, as I have said, seemed to mourn and to long for Christian care and culture. And even more so Constantinople itself; nay, the whole of Greece (n). The land which discovered all the arts and all liberal learning seems to demand back the civilization which she has transmitted to us and to implore our aid, in the name of our common faith, against savage barbarism. But all in vain; for the lords of Christendom have their minds set on other objects. The grievous bonds wherewith the Turks oppress the Greeks are no worse than the vices which hold us in thrall—luxury, gluttony, pride, ambition, avarice, hatred, envy, and jealousy. By these our hearts are so weighed down and stifled that they cannot look up to heaven, or harbour any noble thought or aspire to any great achievement. Our religion and our sense of duty ought to have urged us to help our afflicted brethren; nay, even if fair glory and honour fail to illumine our dull minds, yet at any rate self-interest, the ruling principle of these days, ought to stir us to rescue from the barbarians regions so fair and so full of resources and advantages, and possess them in their stead. As it is, we seek the Indies and the Antipodes over vast fields of ocean, because there the booty and spoil is richer and can be wrung from the ignorant and guileless natives without the expenditure of a drop of blood. Religion is the pretext, gold the real object.

It was far otherwise in the days of our forefathers. So far from thinking that, like traders, they ought to seek those lands where gold was most plentiful, they went wherever the best chance was offered for showing their valour and doing their duty. Honour, not self-interest, was the goal of their toils, their dangers, and their distant expeditions. They returned from their wars, every one of them, not wealthier in money but richer in renown. These opinions of mine are for your ear alone, lest haply any one should deem it a crime that I find anything lacking in the morals of the present age. However that may be, I see that the arrows are being whetted for our destruction, and I fear that in the future, if we refuse to fight for glory, we shall be obliged to fight for our very existence.

But to return to the Black Sea, or as the Turks call it, Karadenis, which means the same thing. It flows through narrow straits into the Thracian Bosporus, along which, buffeted against headlands, it reaches Constantinople with many eddyings and bendings in one day’s journey. Then through an almost equally narrow passage it bursts its way into the Sea of Marmora. In the middle of the entrance into the Bosporus is a rock with a column upon it inscribed with the name of some Roman (Octavian, if I remember right). On the European shore is a high tower, called the Pharos, on which a light is burnt to guide sailors at night. Not very far away a little stream flows into the sea, in the bed of which we picked up pebbles hardly inferior to onyxes and sardonyxes; at any rate, when they were polished, they were almost as brilliant. A few miles from the entrance is shown the narrow passage over which Darius led his army into Europe against the Scythians. About half-way down the Bosporus are two castles, one in Europe (Roumeli Hissar) and the other opposite on the Asiatic shore (Anatoli Hissar). The latter was held by the Turks before their attack on Constantinople; the former with its strong towers was built by Mahomet some years before the storming of the city, and is used at the present day as a prison for distinguished captives.

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