When The Ottoman Turk Was In His Prime

But what must this city have been in the times of Ottoman glory ! I can not get that thought out of my head. The enormous turban gave a colossal and magnificent aspect to the male population. All the women, except the mother of the Sultan, went completely veiled, leaving nothing but the eyes visible, forming an anonymous and enigmatic population apart, and giving a gentle air of mystery to the city. A severe law determining the dress of all ranks, offices, grades, ages, they could be distinguished by the form of the turban, or the color of the caftan, as if Constantinople, had been one great court. The horse being still “man’s only coach,” the streets were filled with horsemen, and long files of camels and dromedaries belonging to the army, traversed the city in all directions and gave it the grand and barbarous aspect of an Asiatic metropolis. Gilded arabas drawn by oxen, crossed the green draped carriages of the “ulemas,” the red of the “Kadi-aschieri,” or the light teleka with satin curtains and panels ornamented with fantastic paintings. Slaves of all countries, from Poland to Ethiopia, hurried by, rattling the chains that had been riveted on the field of battle. Groups of soldiers clothed only in glorious rags filled the squares, and the courts of the mosques, showing their scars yet great from the battles of Vienna, Belgrade, Rodi, Damascus. Hundreds of story-tellers, with loud voices and inspired gestures, recounted to de-lighted Mussulmans the glorious actions of the army that was fighting at three months march from Stamboul. Pashas, Beys, Aghas, Musselims, a crowd of dignitaries and great nobles,, drest with theatrical splendor, accompanied by a throng of servants, pushed through the press of people that gave way before them like ripe grain before the wind; ambassadors from European states passed by, coming to ask peace or conclude affiances; and caravans bringing gifts from African and Asiatic monarchs went in long procession.

In all Constantinople’s enormous body there boiled a plethoric and feverish life. The treasure overflowed with jewels, the arsenals with arms, the barracks with soldiers, the caravanseries with travelers; the slave markets swarmed with beauties, dealers, and great lords; learned men thronged the places where the archives of the mosque were kept; long-winded viziers prepared for future generations the interminable annals of the Empire; poets, pensioners of the Seraglio, sang at the baths the imperial wars and loves; armies of Bulgarian and Armenian laborers toiled to build mosques with blocks of granite from Egypt or marble from Paros, while by sea were arriving columns from the temples of the Archipelago, and by land the spoils of the churches of Pesth and Ofen; in the port they made ready the fleet of three hundred sails that was to carry dismay to the shores of the Mediterranean; between Stamboul and Adrianople spread cavalcades of seven thousand falconers, and seven thousand huntsmen, and in the intervals of military revolts, foreign wars, conflagrations that destroyed twenty thousand houses in one night, they celebrated feasts of thirty days’ duration before the plenipotentiaries of all the states of Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Then Mussulman enthusiasm turned to madness. In the presence of the Sultan and his court, in the midst of those immeasurable palms, filled with birds, fruits, and looking-glasses, to give passage to which whole houses and walls were thrown down, among trains of lions and sirens in sugar, carried by horses caparisoned in silver damask; among mountains of royal presents gathered from all parts of the Empire and from all the courts in the world, alternated the mock battles of the Janissaries, the furious dances of the dervishes, the sanguinary murders of Christian prisoners, and the popular feasts of ten thousand dishes of “Cascassa; elephants and giraffes danced in the hippodrome; bears and foxes rushed through the crowd with rockets tied to their tails; to allegorical pantomimes succeeded lascivious dances, grotesque maskings, fantastic processions, races, symbolical cars, games, and comedies; as the sun went down the festival degenerated into a mad tumult, and five hundred mosques sparkling with lights formed over the city an immense aureole of fire that announced to the shepherds in the mountains of Asia, and the sailors of the Propontis, the orgies of the new Babylon. Such was Stamboul, the formidable, voluptuous, and unbridled; beside which the city of today is nothing but an old queen sick of hypochondria.