Travels and Discoveries in the Levant/Volume 1/Letter III

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Constantinople—First Impressions—The Walls—Depopulation of the City since the Byzantine Empire—Ancient Mosaics in Mosque of Kachreie—St. Sophia—Museum of St. Irene—Fragment from Frieze of Mausoleum—Jaw from Bronze Serpent—Silver Plate with Figure of Diana—Collections of Coins—Smyrna—M. Ivanoff's Coins—Arrival at Mytilene—The Pasha


Mytilene, May 10, 1852.

On our return from Mycente we proceeded by steamer to Constantinople. After passing the Dardanelles we found ourselves in a climate almost as wintry as we had left behind us in England, and though the month was April, the shores on each side were covered with snow. It was a miserable sleety morning when we approached the Golden Horn, and I cannot say that the first aspect of

Constantinople corresponded with that gorgeous picture which the celebrated description in Anastasius presents to the imagination. But when, after landing on the muddy wharf at Tophanah, we began to plod our way through the steep and narrow streets which lead from Galata to Pera, we realized at every step all the annoyances which the accounts of former travellers had prepared us to expect in this detestable thoroughfare. Juvenal, in his third satire, describes in a few terse lines the miseries and perils encountered by an unhappy pedestrian in the streets of ancient Rome; how he has to fight his way through the mud, forced forward by the throng behind, only to be driven back by the counter-stream, jostled and elbowed at every turn by porters carrying great beams or barrels, while ever and anon the nailed boot of some rough soldier stamps on his toes; the rich man, meanwhile, surveys from his luxurious litter the struggling crowd, as the dense mass yields to the momentum of his sturdy bearers. This description, written more than seventeen centuries ago, will serve for the streets of Galata at the present day, if we substitute the arabah and the sedan chair for Juvenal's litter, and for the swaggering Roman soldier the cavass who clears the way for some Pasha, prancing through the mud on a gaily caparisoned steed.

Immediately after our arrival I presented my credentials to Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, who received me with a most cordial welcome, and entered into the project of my future researches with a lively interest, promising that whenever it should be necessary to apply to the Porte for a Firman to enable me to make excavations, his influence should be exerted to the utmost in my behalf.

Among the letters of introduction which I took out from England, was one to Dr. Mordtmann, the Charge d'Aflaires of the Hanseatic towns, and one of the few learned men at present resident at Constantinople. He is well acquainted with Turkish and Greek, and has devoted much time to the study of coins of the Sassanid dynasty, of which he has a large collection. He is at present engaged in preparing a work on the ancient monuments of Constantinople, for the illustration of which so little has been done since the time of Banduri.

I rode with him round the walls of the city, which seem much in the state in which they were during the Byzantine empire. Built into the masonry are many Greek inscriptions, which Dr. Mordtmann copies with great care. Mounting on a high tower, we had a fine bird's-eye view of Stamboul, and I was surprised to see how large a portion of the space enclosed within the ancient walls is devoted to gardens. During the earlier period of the Byzantine empire, the population was far more densely crowded than at present, as appears from a passage in the historian Zosimus,14 who flourished in the latter part of the 5th century. We learn from an edict of the Emperor Zeno, that about this time it was customary to build very lofty houses, with projecting loggie, or balconies, and terraces on the roofs; while in the public porticos and squares the spaces between the columns were everywhere encroached upon by shops and stalls. The effect of these must have been very unsightly, for it is enacted that in those parts of the city which lead from the Milliarium to the Capitol, any stalls placed in the colonnades must be faced with marble and must not exceed six feet in width and seven in height, so as to afford free access to the street in parts of the colonnades.15 This practice of placing stalls under public porticos in the ancient Byzantine cities may have suggested to the Turks the plan of their covered bazaars, and in this arrangement the uncivilized conqueror seems certainly to have improved on his predecessors.

We must not, however, take for granted, that because the city was so crowded during the earlier period of the Byzantine empire, the number of inhabitants was necessarily much larger than at present; for till the Latin conquest, much of the space of the ancient city was occupied by churches, monasteries, palaces, and other public buildings. Many of these edifices must have been destroyed long before the Turkish occupation, either by the barbarous Latin invaders, or by conflagrations, as may be inferred from the description of the city given by Bertrandon de la Broquière, a Burgundian knight, who visited Constantinople in 1433, and who remarks that the open spaces within the walls equalled in extent the portion still covered with buildings.16 It is probable that the Turks in many cases built their wooden houses on the solid vaulted substructions which they must have found everywhere under the ruins; and excavations in their gardens would probably bring to light many architectural remains.

After reading the pompons descriptions of ancient Constantinople in Byzantine writers, it is certainly- surprising to find so few extant monuments of its former magnificence. I was much interested in seeing the building which the laquais de place call the Palace of Belisarius, but which seems to be the palace which Byzantine writers call Hebdomon or Magnaura. This is one of the few extant specimens of Byzantine civil architecture. It is built of bricks of different colours, arranged so as to form rich bands of inlaid- work : in the interior are columns with highly orna- mented capitals. This edifice, called by the Turks Tekir Serai, is built on a rentrant angle of the city wall. Near it is a Byzantine church, now converted into a mosque, called Kachi'eie, which I believe few travellers visit.17

The entrance, as is usually the case in Byzantine churches, is through a narthex, or vestibule, on the west, in which are some faded frescoes. A side aisle on the south is richly decorated with mosaics both on the walls and cupolas above: these cupolas are divided into segments, each of which contains the figure of one of the Prophets. In the space between the cupolas are represented the miracles of the New Testament and other incidents from sacred history. On the walls are colossal figures much defaced, and smaller compositions. The larger figures were detached against a gold background; in the smaller compositions landscapes were represented in the distance, very like those in early Italian pictures. The figures have very long proportions, and are simply and grandly composed. The colouring is very rich and harmonious throughout, and the general effect solemn and majestic, as in the early mosaics of the church of St. Paolo fuori le Mura, and that of St. Cosmas and St. Damian, at Rome.

The effect of the mosaics on the walls and vault- ing must have been greatly heightened by the decorations of the pavement, which is still in many places inlaid with coloured marbles. The body of the church, now used as the mosque, was probably still more richly ornamented; but here the pious zeal of the Mussulman has long since effaced all traces of Christian art.

Of St. Sophia I had but a confused impression, for we could only see the interior by joining a large misbellaneous party gathered together from several hotels by the laquais de place, who undertook to obtain the necessary firman at a charge of a napoleon for each person, probably double what it really cost him.

Taking our places in this drove of nose-led tourists, we gave ourselves up with a feeling of abject dependence, to be dragged through the muddy streets of Stamboul from mosque to mosque, compelled to listen to the lanmeaning jabbering of a Levantine cicerone, instead of being allowed to halt for a while and contemplate at leisure the mighty structure which, even in its present desecration, the Eastern Christian still venerates as the noblest monument of his faith, which in his eyes is a visible symbol, not less of the fixture destiny, than of the past history of the Oriental Church.

The day may come when the staring green and gold texts from the Koran, fixed like hatchments on the pilasters; the chandeliers suspended from the dome as if to plumb its vast abyss; the prayer- carpets strewn with the books of the Mollah, and the other outward signs and appurtenances of Mussul- man worship will be banished from St. Sophia; when its internal perspective will no longer be disturbed by an arrangement which forces the eye of the reluctant Giaour to squint Mecca-ward; when its mosaics, now overlaid with whitewash, and faintly visible here and there like the text of a palimpsest, will shine forth in renewed glory, and in their original combination with the precioixs many-coloured columns and the exquisite lace-like carving of the capitals.

But what modern Anthemius could restore the exterior of the building, what amount of polychrome decoration could make this huge, clumsy, naked mass of brickwork pleasant to the eye? Admitting that the original design has been much mutilated and defoced, still I think the exterior of St. Sophia shows that Byzantine architecture depended for its external effect almost entirely on inlaid polychrome decoration, and very little on the harmony of chiaroscuro produced by the judicious opposition of plane and projecting surfaces.

Within the precinct of the Seraglio, the govern- ment has recently made a small museum in the ancient church of St. Irene. Here a few fragments of sculptures and inscriptions are flung together without any attempt at arrangement. Among these I noticed the upper part of an Amazon, in high relief: she is represented as rushing forward and about to deal a blow with her battle-axe. (Plate I.) To my surprise, I recognized this as a fragment from the frieze of the Mausoleum, twelve slabs of which were removed from the castle at Budrum by Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, in 1846, and are now in the British Museum. I could get no information as to how this fragment found its way into the Museum in Constantinople. The figure is, I think, finer than any on the slabs in the British Museum, and the surface less defaced than most of them.

I also noticed here the head of a serpent in bronze, said to have been broken off from the cele- brated triple serpent of the Hippodrome. It is rather coarsely executed and deficient in style; the eyes, of which only the sockets remain, have been inlaid in silver or precious stones. There is also a curious plate, with silver figures raised in relief, representing Diana seated, holding in her left hand her bow, and wearing a mantle ornamented with stars: horns rise straight from the top of her head. Below are two grotesque figures, holding, one, a lion, the other a tiger in a leash: both these figures have horns. On each side of Diana is a dog, and above her, on the right, a turkey, and on the left a parrot. This is of the late Roman period.

The few fragments of sculpture which have been found in Constantinople itself of late years, seem to be all Byzantine, and of little interest as works of art, though they are curious for details of costume. A sepulchral relief of this class in white marble may be seen lying in the garden of the British Embassy, in

digging the foundations of which it was discovered. I
Travels & discoveries in the Levant (1865) Vol. 1-Plate 1.jpg
visited two interesting collections of Greek coins,—

that of Ishmael Pasha, and M. Michanowitz, the Austrian Cousul-General. Ishmael Pasha has no numismatic knowledge, but has a very clear idea of the value of ancient coins as articles of commerce. He keeps his collection in great sacks, which are brought in by a dozen attendants. He rolls them out on the table in great heaps, jingles them in his hands as if they were so many piastres, and then begins cross-examining the Frank numismatist as to their genuineness and value; their historical interest being utterly overlooked.

His collection is rich in coins of Macedonia and Thrace. The position of a Pasha gives him of course great opportunities of collecting coins at a cheap rate. On my taking leave, he presented me with a small dagger, mounted in silver, accompanying the gift with an intimation that he hoped I would send him a coin or two from Mytilene.

The collection of M. Michanowitz not being arranged in cabinets, I could only examine it in a cursory manner; but the coins I saw interested me very much. During a long residence at Salonica, M. Michanowitz collected almost exclusively the coins of Thrace and Macedon. His series from the two provinces was, therefore, a most rich and instructive one. He has a most beautiful gold coin of Chaleis, in Macedon, identical in type with the silver coins of the same place.

The time which had been allowed for my journey from England to Mytilene having drawn to a close, we proceeded to Smyrna, where we halted for a couple of days before going to Mytilene. We had brought letters of introduction to Her Majesty's Consul Mr. Brant, and also to Mr. Hanson, who both received us with that genial hospitality for which Smyrna has always been so justly celebrated.

Here I saw the fine collection of coins belonging to M. Ivanoff, the Russian Consul-General, which is particularly rich in specimens from the western and southern coasts of Asia Minor. He also possesses a very fine head of a Satyr in red marble, found at Aidin, the ancient Tralles. From the expression of anguish in the features, I should imagine that this represents the Satyr Marsyas when about to imdergo liis terrible doom at the hand of Apollo.

As Mytilene lies directly on the track of the French and Austrian mail packets which ply between Smyrna and Constantinople, it has the benefit of steam communication every two days, an advantage which few islands in the Archipelago enjoy.

One of these steamers conveyed us accordingly to our new home, where we landed at eleven o'clock p.m. The night was very dark, and the twenty-three packages which formed our luggage were picked out by the aid of one very inefficient lantern on deck, and pitched into a shore-boat, amid the vociferations of a swarm of Greek boatmen, mingled with an occasional deep sonorous growl from a Turkish custom-house ofiicer. We should have felt very forlorn at being thrown out on a strange shore like a shipwrecked plank, had it not been for the kindness of two Mytileniote gentlemen, Dr. Bargigli and M. Amira, who had come on board to escort us on shore. On landing, we were received under the hospitable roof of my predecessor, Mr. Werry, who had been promoted, on my appointment, to Benghazi, and who was anxiously waiting my arrival in order to be relieved from his old post. I got up very early the next morning to take a look at my new home, which the darkness had entirely hidden the night before. Before I had gone many yards I met a Greek funeral. On the bier was laid out a young girl about fourteen years old, the face exposed, the head encircled by a chaplet of fresh flowers, after the manner of the ancients. If I had been in the mood to care about omens, here was one such as in antiquity might have detained a traveller ready girt for a journey, or a ship with a fair wind.

After breakfasting with our host, I arrayed myself in a magnificent new uniform, too much paadded for the climate of the Levant, and proceeded with Mr. Werry to pay visits of ceremony to the Pasha, the Vice-Consuls, my future colleagues, and other magnates of the place.

The Pasha was a gentleman about fifty years of age, with an aristocratic aquiline nose, a restless wary eye, and a sinister mouth, weak, but cunning. He is excessively rich, and has an advantage which Turkish officials can seldom boast of; he can trace his descent to a grandfather. His family name is Kulaksiz, or "the Earless;" some ancestor having, it is to be presumed, been deprived of those members by an angry Padischah. His father was Pasha of Mytileue during the Greek revolution, and having large landed possessions in the island, and the exclusive monopoly of the oil-trade, took very good care that it should not be sacked like Scio.

In those days the power of a Pasha in a Greek island was a despotism unchecked except by the occasional intervention of some greater despot like the Capudan Pasha. The life and property of the rich Rajahs were always in jeopardy, for the Pasha was only too happy to find a pretext for confiscation; and as the Greeks were disaffected, and informers plentiful, such pretexts were never wanting.

This arbitrary government has ceased since the Tanzimat, and the present Pasha reigns over his paternal dominions not, perhaps, according to strict constitutional forms, but with some check from public opinion and the fear of an appeal to Constantinople.

He received me with that suave urbanity and those gracious platitudes with which official Turks know so well to adorn their discourse in a first interview ; but

medio de fonte leponim
Surgit amari aliquid.

The Pasha's manner inspired me with a secret distrust; there was something feline in his blandishments.

I must reserve my first impressions of Mytilene

for my next letter.
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