Turkey through a traveler’s eyes: Frances Elliot, an ‘idle woman in Constantinople’
Water everywhere, clear, blue, and shimmering; away to the far south the placid sea of Marmora … To the north the long, low stretch of the Bosphorus teaming with steamers…and at hand the watery bosom of the Golden Horn cuts into the densest portion of the city, and disputes possession with the land.”
In these words at least I'll agree with their author, Frances Elliot. The self-styled “Idle Woman in Constantinople” visited the great city known today as İstanbul back in the May of 1892, and was more than justified in her assertion that the city's visual appeal derives, then as now, in large part from its situation astride these three great waterways.
Bleak and bigoted first impressionsBut overall, Elliot is so negative about one of the world's great cities that it's hard to fathom why she bothered visiting at all, let alone writing a book about it; and that's allowing for the bigoted and imperious attitudes of the average Westerner of the period and the fact that the city was then, like the Ottoman Empire of which it was capital, in precipitous decline.
Arriving from Europe by train, her first impressions were scathing. The handsome Ottoman-era wooden houses, the surviving examples of which today sell for exorbitant sums to be transformed into boutique hotels and the like, Elliot decries as “common little buildings, not two alike in the whole city, piled one on the other. … The diminutive windows half-closed with wooden shutters to conceal the life of the harem.”
Of a city packed with splendid Ottoman-era mosques, fountains, bath houses and other buildings, she writes: “Ruin more complete, more ruthless, never was beheld. Absolute, sordid ruin, without dignity or pathos. Dust, dirt, neglect and noise everywhere.” About the vibrant hustle and bustle of a city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia she is equally dismissive: “No quiet, no repose! A train rushes by, a passing cart raises clouds of dust out of the dry soil, a troop of Turkish children try to finger you. … a dragoman at your heels, whom you must have for protection […] mumbles incessantly in a sort of pigeon English; the cries of the vendors of cakes and water. The grunts of Persian and Armenian porters with their heavy loads, the click of the laden horses and donkeys […] make up a discord enough to crush the spirit of the most enthusiastic stranger.”
Across the Golden Horn to PeraTravelling only with her maid, Elliot was relieved to be met at İstanbul Sirkeci Terminal by a splendidly dressed Greek kavass (consular guard) sent by the British Embassy. He soon has all her luggage piled into a horse and carriage, which proceeds along “the most execrable road I ever was shaken on in my life,” reaching the Galata Bridge in the “full evening splendour of the setting sun.” Here at last she begins to appreciate the beauty of the old city on its peninsula, noting approvingly “the Moslem side crowned with a noble line of mosques with gilded minarets” and “the long dark point of the Seraglio [Topkapı Palace], running far out into the water, crowned with its dark mysterious groves, so weird and beautiful.”
She appreciates too the cosmopolitan hubbub of the Galata Bridge itself, with its “English with white umbrellas and low hats … Armenians, with coloured sash glaring out of rags … Greeks in white petticoats and gold embroidered vests … blind beggars in threadbare turbans… Albanian sellers of sesame, honey and sweets; Greek and Bulgarian fruit sellers (and oh! what tempting strawberries), dervishes in white turbans and long dark kaftans.”
These and a whole host of other colorful characters briefly lighten Elliot's spirits, but as her carriage proceeds up the narrow streets of Galata she is soon back to criticizing the city she has come to write about, with its “miserable-looking open shops, about the size of cupboards,” street dogs whose plight “became a great grief to me” and the “cynical desolation” of a Moslem cemetery they ride by. Even the British Embassy, just off the Grande Rue de Pera (today's İstiklal Caddesi), designed by the noted architect Charles Barry and completed in 1855, she castigates as “most incongruous in architecture. Tuscan Gothic, copied from the Palazzo Pitti at Florence! Now this for an Oriental capital strikes one as absurd.”
Exploring SultanahmetElliot based herself in the long-gone Hotel Royal, situated near the British Embassy, and set off daily to explore the city. Like so many visitors both before and after her, Elliot makes the cathedral built at the behest of the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), her first port of call. You won't be surprised to earn that this iconic building fails to impress the peevish Elliot. Berating its “agglomeration of shapeless roofs” and the “four clumsy minarets” added piecemeal after its conversion to a mosque following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of 1453, she was “quite bewildered with disappointment” before she'd even entered the holy building.
On entering her mood was not improved by the “slippers, dirty and old” she is compelled to wear over her shoes on entering the church-turned-mosque, which are too large and “keep dropping off, which enrages the door-keeper.” The cavernous interior, glittering with gold mosaic, its soaring dome floating of ethereally 55 meters above the floor the nave, she dismisses summarily: “The squareness of the church detracts from its size. […] the openness of the church offends by its plainness […] it did not impress me, and I am bound to tell the truth.”
Of course, the art and architecture of the Byzantine period had yet to undergo a rehabilitation that did not begin until the 20th century, and the Victorian world, of which Elliot was a typical product, remained in complete thrall to Classical Greece and Rome. But to find nary a good word to say about one of the world's most important buildings feels harsh even when judged by the standards of her time.
Her next stop, the nearby Hippodrome (At Meydan) fares no better, despite having its origins in the late-Roman, rather than Byzantine, period. To Elliot it is “an oblong area of a most vulgar and unpleasant aspect” where “horses ready saddled stand in the dust for hire, held by Turkish youths, and a crowd of fiacres with tourists, arabas, and ox-carts are drawn up in the shade; sellers of Turkish delight, water carriers and beggars” make the ancient chariot racing arena “a most unclean spot, and bitterly disappointing.”
The adjacent Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmed I in 1609 and today one of the most visited sights in İstanbul, she describes as an “ugly mosque, with its six heavy minarets and four great domes.” Of the city's renowned mosques in general, Elliot writes, “If you have seen one mosque you have seen all, the variations are so trifling, the absence of art complete and the monotony so excessive.” So much for the great works of Sinan and other notable Ottoman architects!
Trips up the Golden Horn and BosporusAt least Elliot was moderately adventurous, heading up the Golden Horn by caique, then following the line of the fifth century land walls of Theodosius. At last she finds something to praise, noting, “The walls of Rome, of which we hear so much, are not to be compared in height, strength or picturesqueness with those of Constantinople.” She also clearly enjoyed the pomp of a spectacle denied to today's visitors to the city, that of the sultan (Abdülhamit) and his entourage making his way from his palace in Yıldız to Friday prayers, and also reserved rare praise for the Süleymaniye Mosque complex, “of which the Turks are justly proud. It is by far the most artistic among the mosques which crown the hills.”
Enervated by the city's June heat, Elliot abandons the Hotel Royal and heads up the Bosporus to Therapia (today's Tarabya) by steamer, noting en-route, “Taken as a whole, the Bosphorus, though the slopes never rise to commanding heights, is excessively picturesque.” Arriving at Tarabya she heads for the “comfortable establishment of Petali's Hotel, with a charming view from every window” and settles herself in “a suite of airy rooms.” Here she has a very pleasant time of it, picnicking in the Belgrade Forest and hobnobbing with the Persian and British ambassadors. Elliot's last trip was to attend a social gathering across the Bosporus at the Sweet Waters of Asia, close to the fortification of Anadoluhisarı. Next day she “bade adieu to Constantinople from the deck of the ambassador's launch, and steamed by Vienna home into the Western world.”
Turkish readers will likely be very offended by Elliot's bigotry about their race and religion, but her visit does provide some useful and colorful information about İstanbul in the late 19th century.
Frances Minto ElliotBorn in 1820 in Berkshire, England, Frances Vickriss Dickinson married John Geils of Scotland when she was only 18. The marriage was a disaster, and after seven years she moved to London and filed for divorce. During the acrimonious and long-winded divorce proceedings she began writing for several noted London magazines, and soon got to know some of Victorian London's leading writers, including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Although the injured party in the divorce, she was ostracized from polite London society and moved to Italy, eventually remarrying an elderly widower, Gilbert Elliot, though this marriage too foundered. She wrote four books in the “Idle Woman in” genre, several other travelogues and three novels. Little known today, she was very popular in her time. Elliot died in Italy aged 78.
“Diary of an Idle Woman in Constantinople” is republished by Ulan Press through Amazon.co.uk
Sirkeci train station (Photo: Sunday's Zaman)