Konstantinos of Rhodes, an important Byzantine poets of the tenth century, describes Istanbul as “the city the world desires.”1 Geoffroi de Villehardouin, who was a knight in the Crusade armies that occupied Istanbul in 1204, regarded as one of the most important historians of the era, supported what Konstantinos of Rhodes had said:

Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes-and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign.2

Over the course of its long history, Istanbul has always been a subject of curiosity, and has been described as a place that nations want to conquer or that those who live outside want to discover. In this context, the history of the city that became an object and center of desire, has been shaped by intensive warfare, sieges and negotiations.

After rebuilding the city, the Roman emperor Constantine I (306-337) declared Byzantium to be the new capital city of the East Roman Empire in 330; this constitutes one of the most important turning points in the history of the city. From this date, the city of Byzantium was known as Constantinople. The city had been subject to conquests and had undergone sieges. It experienced massacres and plundering at the hands of the Crusaders who invaded it (1204) during the Fourth Crusade. The Latin state established here continued to exist until 1261, after which the city of Constantinople was retaken by its previous owners.

Within the context of the “world of civilizations,” the place of Constantinople, located in the west of the Muslim world and the east of Christian Rome, was quite fluctuating. Until the Turkish conquest of 1453 Westerners regarded the city as being on the periphery of the Western world. After 1453, it started to be regarded as the capital of the Orient,3 and thus became one of the main places which shaped the Western perception of the Orient.

Istanbul, which from this date became the Western image of an Oriental city, according to many sources was also regarded as the place where the continents of the West and East meet. At this point, it would be helpful to point out that geographic continents do not always coincide with Oriental and Occidental civilizations or even European and Asian civilizations. With its cultural diversity, Istanbul, located at the meeting-point of two continents, has been a place where the West and East, or rather the citizen of the Occident and that of the Orient can frequently encounter one another. However, such an encounter is not to be limited to one of religion, with the West representing Christians; indeed, although the term “oriental” was used mostly to refer to Muslims, it could include Christians, Jews and people from other traditions.

In this text, how Orientalists - or in a broader context, texts with an Orientalist view - present an image of Istanbul will be examined. The number of works that can be classified under the “Istanbul in Oriental literature” notwithstanding, what will be examined for the most part are travel writings (travelogues/seyahatnames); in addition, examples from letters, novels, stories, tales, theater and poetry will be provided. Although the travelogues and letters are for the most part non-fiction, they include hearsay, epic stories and colloquialisms that feed, propagate and re-transform the expectations of the Oriental image in the mind of the reader. In addition to these examples, there are fictional travelogues that, although completely fictional, are based on actual historical events (like Voltaire’s (1694‐1778) Candide (1759), Priscilla Wakefield’s (1751-1832) fictional travelogue The Young Travelers (1801)) as well as fictional letters (like Montesquieu’s (1689‐1755) Iranian Letters. One of the important aspects of this literature is that this genre was preferred over fictional genres like novels, romances or fictional travelogues as a source of knowledge, as long as the connections they had established with reality remained sound. Furthermore, as in the example of Lady Julia Pardoe (1839), the fictional product is preferred.4 In fact, the novel Love in the Harem was more popular than the realities shared in the dairies in the magazine Athenaeum.5

At this point, it should be emphasized that travelogues should not be seen as texts which record the absolute truth nor as texts which provide only fictional narrations. The most common kind of intermediary text that we come across among the types related to the subject matter of this essay is travelogues. Therefore, travelogues will be the basis for this work. In addition, there is a very important feed-feedback relationship between fictional products and travelogues. Celebrated pioneering writers of the Age of Enlightenment, like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and John Locke (d. 1704) also wrote travel-writings.

Travelogues provide a great deal of detailed information about Istanbul, and certain routes, roads and touristic places come to the fore. Orientalist literature relies for the most part upon travel literature, as applies also to all fictional genres - like poetry, novels, tales, fables, and theater. The framework of the travelogues and mentioned stories used in this text is also established by genres that are not the same as the travelogue. This work bases itself on narrations about Istanbul by Lord Byron (d. 1824), Mary Shelley (d. 1851), Percy Shelley (d. 1822), Thomas Hope (d. 1831), Charles and Macfarlane, who wrote their works in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, to the extent that these narrations are concerned with Istanbul. This was a time when romantic orientalism in particular was dominant; these authors wrote works other than travelogues, and knew each other well.

Who Came to Istanbul?

Despite the fact that Edward Said (d. 2003) established a link between Orientalism and Western imperialism, and selected 1798, that is, the year in which Egypt was occupied by Napoleon (1804-1815),6 as the starting date of his book on Orientalism, the history of the Orient as an object of research and of Orientalism as a discipline of research dates much further back. It is very interesting that the journey of Guillaume Postel (d. 1581), considered the first Orientalist,7 to Istanbul is a turning point in the history of Orientalism. Postel worked as the official translator for the committee that was sent to Istanbul by the French king Francois I (1515-1547). The negotiations of this committee resulted, in addition to many other developments, with capitulations granted to France, and the initiation of trade between France and the Levant. Postel’s other mission was to collect rare manuscripts for the Imperial Library in Fontainebleau, and therefore,: “The first Orientalist who was patronized and supported by the French Palace, marking the birth of Orientlism supported by the French palace and French trade in the Levant, was Guillaume Postel.”8

Most of the Orientalists in Istanbul were traders or ambassadors who came to Istanbul for trade or affairs of state; they were supported by the state. Just as in the example of Postel, these officers were in charge of collecting books, antique manuscripts and artwork for imperial libraries in Europe, like Antoine Galland (d. 1715). Istanbul was a popular place to visit, not only for merchants and envoys, but also for travelers who came from different backgrounds - such as artists, members of the church (and more specifically missionaries in the nineteenth century), pilgrims, adventurers, soldiers, archeologists, geologists, geographers, prisoners and smugglers. However, after the middle of the nineteenth century, in the place of those who were traveling because they were interested in Ancient Greek civilization, or wanted to visit places the Bible mentions as holy or for scientific purposes have been replaced by modern day tourists.

1- A view of Istanbul from the hillside of Eyüp (Melling)

As it was difficult to come to Istanbul by land, many travelers preferred to come by sea. Those who travelled to Istanbul used two routes: the first one was via İzmir, Çanakkale and finally Istanbul; this route follows important port cities. The second route followed the important cities through the Danube River and then came down to the Black Sea and then reached Istanbul. “The transportation of passengers on ships that were sailing for purpose of trade started in the 1830s; this coincided with the increase in the number of people who came to Turkey for touristic reasons.” Any travelers who came to Istanbul and the Orient before this time primarily traveled for diplomatic, military or commercial purposes, and there was no way to complete this journey other than via commercial or military ships.9

The gender of the travelers also played a major role in shaping the travelogues; at this point, it would be useful to mention that the vast majority of those who traveled to Istanbul were men. Therefore, a vast majority of those whose letters and travelogues were published were male authors. Most of the female writers who came to Istanbul were only in Istanbul due to the fact that their husbands had to come to Istanbul for work. These women were uniquely able to gain access to places not open to men, and this provided them with the opportunity to observe the most interesting places for Orientalists, such as the harems and the women’s baths. Amongst these women, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu deserves special attention. She also came to Istanbul because of her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu’s (1716-1718), ambassadorial mission. She learned Turkish in a very short time, thus allowing her to meet with elite women. Lady Montagu’s accounts caught the imagination of travelers who came to the East, and more particularly, to Istanbul over the next 150 years; she inspired many writers, giving form to encounters that were yet to take place.

Despotism of the Orient and Harem Fantasies:
The Thousand and One Nights

While talking about the experiences of seeing Istanbul for the first time, it would be quite inadequate to speak only of the first physical contact with the city. People were often first introduced to Istanbul when they are in Europe. Almost all the first impression of Istanbul for travelers were marred by information, ideas and prejudices. According to numbers provided by İlber Ortaylı, Publications on Istanbul were plentiful - for example, more than 5,000 books related to travelers to the Ottomans were published (and readily available) in the nineteenth century alone.10

Two periods and two narrations will be dealt in this article: The first one is the narration of the despotism of the East which kept thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment exceedingly busy, and the second is romantic Orientalism, which came into existence in the nineteenth century.

People came into contact with Istanbul for the first time through stories, novels, travelogues, poetry, theater plays and songs; sometimes Istanbul is mentioned, sometimes it is not. In the Age of Enlightenment, the image of the Orient in the minds of travelers was shaped to a large extent by stories, fables and narrations of Oriental despotism.

2- Eminönü New Valide Mosque (Bartlett)

The narrations of Oriental despotism were invented at a time when the structures of social and political structures of modernity were formed, and while the foundations of rational and civil society, democratic freedom, citizenship and division of powers were established; these narrations were formed as a contrasting image to all parallel efforts and as the fantastic “other.” This fantasy was further perpetuated by endless narrations of travelers and the fictional “feedback” of these narrations.11 In this regard, particularly the work of authors from the Age of Enlightenment in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries like Montesquieu, Voltaire and John Locke, were both determinative and significant.

Although One Thousand and One Nights, well known by almost all those who traveled to Istanbul, does not accurately narrate Ottoman Istanbul for place and time, yet it shaped the image of Ottomans in the West. These stories do not take place in Istanbul, but the chain of events which made these stories known in the West must have been initiated in Istanbul. While in Istanbul in the 1690s, Antonie Galland translated the manuscript Denizci Sinbad’ın Masalı (The Tale of Sindbad the Sailor) into French and published it in 1701. Upon seeing that Sinbad was well received, Galland decided to translate and publish One Thousand and One Nights. One Thousand and One Nights was first introduced to French readers, and in a very short time was translated into several other languages, including English, German, Italian, Dutch and Russian.

Westerners deemed these literary products to be realistic depictions of Ottoman Istanbul, however, in reality it is not possible to be sure whether these stories belong to Arab culture or not. Beattie, who had never seen the East, shares the same opinions with Lady Montagu, who had seen the East. As mentioned earlier, she was in Istanbul to accompany her husband while he was on an ambassadorial mission. In a letter to her sister, dated March 10, 1718, Montagu states that One Thousands and One Nights was written by someone from Turkey, and it was in keeping with reality (except for the spells).12

The main subject matters that the narration of Oriental despotism, as well as One Thousand and One Nights, focuses on was palaces, and the harems. The source of Oriental despotism was, naturally, seen to be the palace, and those affected most by these powers were the women kept captive in the harem. The main component of this narration was the belief that Turkish men possessed an excessive and perverse sexuality. According to this, the Turkish man was someone whose innate bestial features were more dominant compared to the European man, and his ability to control his basic instincts far lower than Europeans.13 Again, this fallacious perspective depicted the harem as a brothel and female slaves as prostitutes.

Roxelane (Roxane, Roxana), which is thought to have been Hürrem Sultan’s name before she became Muslim, is mentioned in many of the stories and plays about the harem; she became well known in Europe via Richard Knolles’ General History of the Turks, published in 1603.14 The character with the name of Roxalana who is found in Isaac Bickerstaffe’s (d. 1812?) play The Sultan, or a Peep into the Seraglio (1775) would later appear in Mozart’s (1756- 1791) popular opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, as Constanze.15 These names became so widespread throughout the eighteenth century and were used with such prejudice that the word “Roxana” became synonymous with “prostitute” or “a palace with a brothel” in Europe.16

The “excessive” and “perverse sexuality” found in narrations of the harem continued almost until the present day. In addition to this narration, which treats men as the subject and females as the object, what Lady Montagu wrote is unique in terms of showing cases in which the female is the subject. In fact, upon establishing relationships with the women of the palace in the harem, Lady Montagu thought that the harem and hijab provided woman with a place that actually made them freer. This approach was unlike what other people in Europe thought:

It is very entertaining to watch Aaron Hill17 and other travelers mourn with affection the pitiable captivity of Turkish women. However, these women may be freer than any other women in the universe, far from worries, leading a life of continuous entertainment.18

While narratives that were of a fable or fairy tale-style, such as One Thousand and One Nights, were important during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, romantic Orientalism began to gain popularity at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century via the analogy of the Orient, creating a more concentrated and developed interest in the Orient.19 For example, towards the eighteenth century20 there are narrations which represent women in the harems as experiencing the same problems as their European counterparts and which present them as victims of lustful Turks or their black castrated masters; this opened the position of the “Western hero (or anti-hero)21 who could magnetically attract Oriental women of the harem.”

This hero was usually a Byron-like man who attracted women to himself magnetically, as in the example of Don Juan. What happens in the fifth canto of Don Juan is a good example of this: Don Juan is captured and brought to the slave market in Istanbul, where he is purchased by Gülbeyaz, who is a favorite of the sultan. He is brought into the palace as a woman in disguise, after which Gülbeyaz could not take him as her slave; Dudu, one of the slave women in the harem, cannot resist Juan’s charms. As we can see, the despotism of the Orient and stories of harem continued to exist in romantic Orientalism.

Romantic Orientalism, Philhellenism, the Picturesque Style and Epidemics

The list of what Lord Byron read before he came to Istanbul is quite comprehensive. Lord Byron states in his diaries and letters that he read not only about the Ottoman Empire, but also almost everything to which he had access that was concerned with the Orient. Thomas Moore’s biography of Lord Byron (1779 - 1852) reveals that he read the vs of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Baron De Tott (d. 1793), as well as all travelogues he had access to; he also read history books on the Ottomans by Dimitrie Cantemir (Kantemiroğlu) (1673- 1723), Richard Knolles (1545- 1610), Vincent Mignot (dates unknown), and Paul Rycaut (1629- 1700), as well as One Thousand and One Nights.22

3- Daily entertainment of men and women in Istanbul

One of the main reasons for the interest in the Orient is that Greek literature had begun to be taught in schools in Europe. Another reason, also nourished by this interest, is the expansion of the limits of the Grand Tour taken by elite European youth; now this journey also included Istanbul.23 Philhellenism was a common passion for all Orientalists who had been to Istanbul.

4- Haseki Sultan one of the most powerful women of the sultan’s harem which was always wondered by Orientalists

One of the main changes in the perception of romanticizing the Orient and Orientalism was that visual representation started to gain importance, not only for architecture and similar branches of art, but also in literary genres. Reinhold Schiffer also attributes this change to the fact that the picturesque style was gaining importance.24 Travelers started to come to Istanbul for a “sublime” experience, particularly at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is an important correlation between the picturesque fashion and the interest of travelers in Istanbul. Above all, it should be pointed out that this idea is very important, especially for the ethical approach of English travelers to Istanbul “not only in their depiction of Istanbul, but also their description of Istanbul.”25 This esthetic ideal, which started in the 1770s in England, gained importance and became increasingly popular. Travelers who came to Istanbul were impressed; the travelogues of Charles Pertusier, Antoine Ignace Melling (d. 1831) and James Stuart are examples of this.26

5- The Mansion of Aynalıkavak and the shipyard (Melling)

Lord Byron describes picturesque images of Istanbul, and he speaks of how a Turkish warship was anchored in the port of Istanbul, creating a poetic image.27 In addition, he mentions Istanbul in the first canto of Don Juan as “picturesque Constantinople.”28 The following example is from the third octant of the fifth canto:

The European with the Asian shore
Sprinkled with palaces – the Ocean stream
Here and there studded with a seventy-four,
Sophia’s Cupola with golden gleam,
The cypress groves, Olympus high and hoar,
The twelve isles, and the more than I could dream,
Far less describe, present the very view
Which charmed the charming Mary Montagu.29

Like Byron, Thomas Hope travelled through the Ottoman State and Eastern Europe for eight years to complete his novel Anastasius; the most important part of the stories take place in Istanbul.30 Hope’s novel also describes Istanbul in an extremely picturesque way. Although a novel, this work describes the Orient in a poetical way, and does so in such a successful manner that Charles MacFarlane mentions it in his novel, A Tale of Constantinople. In the following excerpt, he refers to Thomas Hope:

I feel that nothing can be added to the great poetic features of your picture of the Orient (…) It might be easier to find a more complex story or to embellish it, but I used this story only as a tool for its local and picturesque description.31

6- Women of Istanbul playing mangala (Ferriol)

Those who travelled to Istanbul usually stayed in Pera, an area in which a large number of diplomatic envoys lived, and where the Levantines constituted the majority of the population. The elite and those who came for state missions were put up in the embassies here. Alexandar Kinglake (1809- 1891), who came in 1830s, stayed in Giuseppine’s hostel; this was where his guide Misseri had brought him. Misseri would later open the first European-like hotel in Istanbul, known as Hotel d’Angleterre; in a very short period of time, he became very successful.32 Mustafa (Mustapha) was another important man who worked as a guide and translator in Istanbul like Misseri. Mustafa, who was worked as a dragoman (translator) in the British embassy in Istanbul, in fact “was born in one of the German provinces of Switzerland, was taken prisoner by the Algerians while still a little boy, and was purchased by an Egyptian trader, who later made him Muslim and then emancipated him. Later he started working as a dragoman in the British embassy in Constantinople.”33 Mustafa also appears as a character in James Justinian Morier’s (d. 1849) three volume novel Ayesha, published in 1834. It is apparent that Mustafa, who was still working as a long distance courier when Morier met him (between 1808 and 1816),34 was a man who could no longer make long distance deliveries due to his advanced age. He therefore was serving as a guide of Istanbul, according to what James Baillie Fraser (d. 1856) wrote in 1834. However, Mustafa’s two son-in-laws had taken over the job of courier from him; Mustafa saw to other tasks, such as advising those who had to travel great distances and providing them with equipment. Fraser stated in his travelogue that he was pleased with Mustafa’s services, and that he would certainly recommend him.35 From Fraser we learn that Mustafa took travelers not only to the places they wanted to visit, but also to places Mustafa wanted them to see. We learn again from Fraser that Mustafa did not just take visitors to the places they wanted to go, but also to the places he wanted to take them. From the fact that Mustafa insisted upon taking Fraser and his friends to a perfumery gives us an important insight. That is, the fact that travelers to Istanbul went to similar places was not merely because Europeans wanted to see similar places; this could also be the result of the guides who followed similar routes for their charges.

William Knight also states that “the best guide to see the most important places of Istanbul” was Mustafa, adding that “his efforts to show you many places over a very short period of time are invaluable.” Knight states that Miss Pardoe’s (d. 1862) book, City of Sultan, which he considered to be the best source on Istanbul, and Adolphus Slade’s (d. 1877) work Record of Travels, which is offered as a second source, offer practical information on sights to see in Istanbul. In addition, he provides a list of sights that should be seen weekly; this list is important for providing an idea of Istanbul for readers today:36

Sunday: The French Church in Pera, two tombs, go up the Galata Tower.
Monday: Bridge, Shipyard, Kâğıthane, Military Academy and Okmeydanı.
Tuesday: Yedikule, the Walls of Istanbul, Eyüp in the morning, in the midday the sema display of dervishes in the Mevlevîhane in Galata, spend the night Tophane.
Wednesday: Markets of Istanbul, its baths, slave market, going up the Serasker Tower, inside Süleymaniye Mosque, the mental hospital.
Thursday: The Maiden’s Tower, the Selimiye Barracks in Üsküdar.
Friday: Sultan’s Friday Procession to the mosque for the Friday prayer, Küçüksu, Mawlawi dervishes in Galata.
Saturday: Jewish synagogue, a ride to Tarabya and Büyükdere, boating from the Bosphorus to Tophane.37

Under this list, Knights notes that “A theatre was opened in Pera in this year (1839).” Indeed, the greatest problem Westerners faced in Istanbul at that time was that European entertainment arts did not yet exist in Istanbul.

At first, Istanbul was described in travelogues as consisting of number of cities, with provinces like Stambul (Historical Peninsula), Pera (North of Golden Horn), Scutari (Üsküdar) and Chalcedon (Kadıköy). It was quite natural that almost all of the travelers who visited the city came in hopes of seeing the palace and harem, which was the sum of all they had read about stories from the Orient. Although they were preoccupied with the issue of the harem, it was not possible, particularly for men, to have access to the palace harem. But it was more possible to be able to see the sultan.

The only occasion that a visitor could easily see the sultan was when he would take part in the procession for the Friday prayer. For example, Gustave Flaubert (d. 1880) waited in front of a ruined wall across from the Fındıklı Mosque on a Friday in 1850 in order to see the sultan, and Sultan Abdülmecid (1839-1861) even threw a glance at him and his friend. Flaubert wrote that, for some reason, the sultan was uneasy: “Turning his head towards the right, pale-skinned and black-bearded, he was a person with a small body (Sultan Abdülmecid), and he looked at us at length. It was obvious from all his manners that he was troubled.”38

After the palace and the harem, Hagia Sophia was next most popular site for tourists. The architecture of this building is discussed a great deal, and the remains of ancient Byzantium attracted the attention of many travelers. Some travelers stated that they were very impressed by the glory of Hagia Sophia, whereas others thought that Hagia Sophia was not as magnificent as others had described. However, in both cases, the common expectation of the travelers was to see the most glorious church in the world, as it was always described as in travelogues. To give an example, while Lady Montagu said that St. Paul’s Cathedral paled in comparison to Hagia Sophia, Lord Byron stated that the Seville Cathedral was far superior to both St. Paul’s and Hagia Sophia or any other religious buildings he had ever seen.39

Another point regarding Hagia Sophia that attracted the attention of writers was that it had been converted into a mosque from a church after the conquest of Istanbul. As it was now a mosque, non-Muslims were not allowed to enter. Those who were fortunate enough to do so, for example, those who came for a state mission, or the elite, could enter Hagia Sophia easily with permission from the palace. Some travelers wrote that they had been able to enter Hagia Sophia despite the ban, and that they even ate pork and drank wine inside of it. We learn from guidebooks that travelers had to get advance permission in order for them to enter the mosques, especially after the opening of hotels.40

Recreation areas like Sadabad, Kâğıthane, villages along the Bosphorus and Küçüksu were places to which people would frequently go; these were areas in which women could readily be seen outside of the harem. One of the subject matters that travelers emphasized were that the residents of Istanbul knew how to relax, or, in other words, how to find recreation. There are such narrations in almost every travelogue under the title of “Entertainment”. Some travelers consider this behavior as normal, while others perceive it as being backward, a sign of ignorance or idleness, and peculiar to Eastern peoples.

Hamams (Turkish baths) are also amongst the important destinations for visitors to Istanbul. Istanbul’s bathhousess and their attendants are leading subject matters that attracted both men and women. This subject drew attention of Orientalists as much as the harem did due to the fact that these were places for socializing, particularly for women. The women’s bathhouse, which has decorated the fantasies of the Orientalists and has been the subject of many paintings, was described by Lady Montagu as like “coffeehouses for women, where all of the news of the city was told, and scandals were made up.”41

7- Anatolian and Rumelian castles and Bosporus (Pardoe)

Coffeehouses where places were men, for the most part, socialized; these, alongside Turkish coffee, were also described in great detail. Subjects discussed in coffeehouses, the mannerisms of people, the skills of the story-tellers, musicians and dancer boys give details for life in Istanbul; these descriptions found their way into travelogues. Pubs in Pera and Galata were amongst the most popular places for travelers due to the troupes of dancer boys. Although travelers, who came to see these dancers almost always responded negatively when they saw that male dancers were disguised as women, they never ceased watching them. This was also true for Lord Byron and his school friends and fellow travelers, John Hobhouse (1786- 1869) and Gustave Flaubert.42

In addition to the dancer boys and folk dances which attracted the attention of travelers, there was the sema ceremony performed by dervishes. Travelers who watched the whirling dervishes did not just describe them with a few sentences, like they did for the dancers. They described every detail about the Mawlawi dervishes, their movements, the music, and their reflections. Another particular ceremony they frequented were the rituals of the Rufaî dervishes, which they described as “shouting dervishes”, due to their audible invocations.

In addition, it is frequently stated in the travelogues that the city was filled with lunatics, people with disabilities and beggars. This may have had something to do with the presence of dervishes in the city. Many of the dervishes made a living by begging, and the line between insanity and sainthood is often blurred. Another place that travelers found to be different were the graveyards. Travelers talked about the giant graveyards that cover most of the city, and particularly about their beauty. They narrated the beauty of the graveyards, along with describing the old cypress trees that also were plentiful in the city. Almost all travelers visited the graveyards, as can be seen in the list of William Knight. One of the graveyards that they would visit was the one that used to be where Taksim Square is now located. This graveyard, which began with the Maksem building, was quite large. It stretched down to the beach from Ayazpaşa; here too it was possible to see both men and women picnicking and enjoying themselves, just like in Küçüksu or Kâğıthane.

Another point on which the Orientalists often commented was the reduction in the population. These travelers, who saw the grand cemeteries as evidence that Istanbul’s population was in decline, to an important extent associated the falling population with despotism. For example, Montesquieu speaks about this in Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters):

Constantinople and Isfahan are the capitals of the largest empires in the world; (…) however, these cities are dying, and if their emperors do not bring all of their populations to these cities, they will perish.43

Montesquieu, who attributed the decrease in population to ethical and physical causes, also claimed that polygamy, which he said was unique to the Islamic world, played a role in the declining population. Thus the harem came under scrutiny; on the one hand, it was claimed that the practices restricted women, while it desexualized and weakened men.44 This idea was reinforced by the places where the population was low, by the remnants of the ancient cities and particularly by the fact that the graveyards covered a large part of the city, as well as the devastating effects of the epidemics on the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The epidemics in Istanbul was only one factors that negatively affected the population and as such it constituted an important topic for the Orientalists. First of all, epidemics, in particular cholera and the plague, led to many problems for visitors to Istanbul. There were theories on how the diseases would spread, but these were far from offering an explanation of the disease, as at this time microorganisms had not yet been discovered; as a result, there were no effective treatments for these diseases. In particular, the outbreak of two epidemics in the beginnings of the nineteenth century led to many deaths in Istanbul. According to Daniel Panzac, about 100,000 people perished in the first outbreak in 1811-1812, and 25,000 people lost their lives in the second outbreak in 1836-1837.45

Narrations by Orientalists about epidemic diseases examine the matter from a broad perspective. First of all, they consider that the plague, as well as other diseases in the cities of the Orient, like Istanbul, were endemic. Another important theme in narrations of epidemic diseases is the fatalism and listlessness they observed in the people, which they claim originates from them being Muslim.

Another traveler who witnessed one of the oldest epidemics in Ottoman Istanbul was Augier Ghislain Busbecq (d. 1592), who visited Istanbul in the sixteenth century on a diplomatic mission. In order to avoid the risk of these epidemics, Busbecq sent a petition to Sultan Süleyman I (1520-1566), demanding to be relocated. At first, he received a negative response. The sultan sent a message to him saying that the disease had been sent by Allah, and it is not possible to oppose the will of Allah. It was impossible to escape from fate or to hide from it, even the sultan would not leave the city although he was also under the same threat.46 The increase in the threat of the epidemic, along with the fact that the doctor of the embassy died when he caught the disease, must have worried Busbecq to such an extent that he wrote another letter to the sultan; this time he was able to get the permission he needed. He moved from Pera to Büyükada, and lived on the island for exactly three months. From time to time, Busbecq acquired information regarding the disease from his friends who came to the island from Istanbul or Beyoğlu to visit him.47

Charles Pertusier, an officer at the French embassy, witnessed the epidemic of 1812 firsthand; he states that 2,000 people would die every day when the disease was at its worst. Pertusier also mentions that the Turks did not try to avoid the disease, but just let things go. In fact, we even see that some Turks do not like to even mention the name of the disease, instead referring to it as mübarek, as we learn from another writer, Thomas Thornton.48

Helmuth Von Moltke (1800-1891), who was in Turkey between 1835 and 1839, speaks of the ignorance of Turks during the great epidemic of 1837.49 The Ottoman State finally decided to put Istanbul under quarantine, a system that the Europeans had had in place for almost a hundred years. Moltke, however, speaks of how quarantines worked in cities in Europe; unfortunately, he tells us that this would not work in Istanbul. He offered a new method for Istanbul - to establish a health police that worked efficiently, and would be located in “Davutpaşa and Rami Çiftliği Barracks, which are not in use.” These would be quarantine centers when the plague was no longer an epidemic threat, but still posed a threat.


Istanbul, which throughout its long history has been described as “the city the world desires”, still continues to maintain this quality - a city that is desired. While Orientalists described the East (and thus also the West) through important political, economic, and social sub-texts in their narrations, they were widely enraptured with the attractive nature of this desire produced by the city. In this article, we have mostly dealt with romantic Orientalists who were impressed by Istanbul’s picturesque beauty, its ancient past and its daily routine. In addition, Orientalists, who produced many different types of genres, re-produced the narrations of the despotism of the Orient and harem, which go far back in history, even being discussed by thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment. Although romantic Orientalists play an important position in the history of Istanbul “becoming the desired city,” it must be said that this represents only one aspect, and the desire in question had different sources at different periods of history. Analyzing the changes that Istanbul “the city the world desires” went through within this scope opens new opportunities to understand “the city”, and more broadly, “this city and anything pertaining to cities.”


1 Norman Hepburn Baynes, The Byzantine Empire, New York: H. Holt and Company, 1926, p. 11.

2 Geoffroi de Villehardouin, Chronicles of the Crusades, tr. with an introduction by M.R.B. Shaw, New York: Penguin, 1963, pp. 58-59.

3 Joseph W. Lew, “Plague of Imperial Desire: Montesquieu, Gibbon, Brougham and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man”, Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830, ed. Timothy Fulford and Peter J. Kitson, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 264.

4 Reinhold Schiffer, Oriental Panorama: British Travellers in 19th Century Turkey, Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999, p. 343.

5 Schiffer, Oriental Panorama, p. 343.

6 Edward W. Said, Orientalism, London: Penguin Books, 2003, p. 42.

7 Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, Orientalism in Early Modern France: Eurasian Trade, Exoticism, and the Ancien Régime, Oxford, New York: Berg, 2008, pp. 15-36.

8 McCabe, Orientalism in Early Modern France, p. 38, 46.

9 Schiffer, Oriental Panorama, p. 38

10 İlber Ortaylı, Osmanlı’yı Yeniden Keşfetmek, Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2006, p. 86. Moreover, Esra Danacıoğlu mentions that more than 3,000 works were published in the sixteenth century (Esra Danacıoğlu, Geçmişin İzleri: Yanıbaşımızdaki Tarih İçin Bir Kılavuz, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2001, p. 64).

11 Mladen Dolar, “Introduction: The Subject Supposed to Enjoy”, The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East, London, New York: Verso, 1998, p. xi.

12 Dolar, “Introduction”, p. 5.

13 Schiffer, Oriental Panorama, p. 253 .

14 Roderick Cavaliero, Ottomania: The Romantics and the Myth of the Islamic Orient, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010, p. 37.

15 Cavaliero, Ottomania, p. 37

16 Ros Ballaster, Fabulous Orients Fictions of the East in England, 1662-1785, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 16.

17 Aaron Hill lived between 1685 and 1750 and was an English author who traveled to the Orient.

18 Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Harems of the Mind; Passages of Western Art and Literature, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 84.

19 Cavaliero, Ottomania, p. 192.

20 Ballaster, Fabulous Orients Fictions, p. 365.

21 Ballaster, Fabulous Orients Fictions, p. 365.

22 Thomas Moore, The Life of Lord Byron with His Letters and Journals and Complete in One Volume, London: John Murray, 1844, pp. 46-47, 119; Philip Mansel, “The Grand Tour in the Ottoman Empire, 1699-1826”, Unfolding the Orient: Travellers in Egypt and the Near East, ed. Paul Starkey, Janet Starkey, Reading: Ithaca Press, 2001, p. 41-65.

23 Philip Mansel, “The Grand Tour in the Ottoman Empire, 1699-1826”, Unfolding the Orient; Travelleres in Egypt and the Near East, pp. 41-65.

24 Schiffer, Oriental Panorama, pp. 135-139.

25 Schiffer, Oriental Panorama, p. 137.

26 We can mention examples of books like Alessandro Bisani and James Stuart’s A Picturesque Tour Through Part of Europe, Asia, and Africa, which was published in 1793; Antoine-Ignace Melling’s Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore, which was published in 1807; Charles Pertusier’s Promenades Pittoresques dans Constantinople published in 1815; Aubrey de Vere’s Picturesque Sketches of Greece and Turkey published in 1850 and Louis Enault’s Constantinople et la Turquie dated 1855.

27 George Gordon Noël Byron, The Works of Lord Byron: Complete in One Volume, Frankfort: Printed by and for H.L. Broenner, 1826, p. 685.

28 Moore, The Life of Lord Byron with His Letters, p. 108.

29 Moore, The Life of Lord Byron with His Letters, p. 108.

30 Reşat Kasaba, “The Enlightenment, Greek Civilization and the Ottoman Empire: Reflections on Thomas Hope’s Anastasius”, Journal of Historical Sociology, vol.16, issue 1 (2003), p. 7

31 Charles MacFarlane, The Armenians: A Tale of Constantinople: By Charles Mac Farlane, London: Saunders and Otley, 1830, vol. 1, pp. iii-vii.

32 Schiffer, Oriental Panorama, p. 166.

33 James Justinian Morier, Ayesha, the Maid of Kars: In Three Volumes, London: Bentley, 1834, vol. 1, pp. 10-175.

34 Morier traveled in the East between 1808-1816 (see: James Justinian Morier, A Journey Through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, in the Years 1808 and 1809, London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812; James Justinian Morier, A Second Journey Through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, Between the Years 1810 and 1816, London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1818).

35 James Baillie Fraser, A Winter’s Journey (Tâtar) from Constantinople to Teheran, with Travels Through Various Parts of Persia, London: R. Bentley, 1838, vol. 1, p. 168.

36 Other guides may have similar lists (see: for instance, John Murray, Handbook for Travellers in Constantinople: The Bosphorus, Dardanelles, Brousa and Plain of Troy, London: J. Murray, 1871).

37 William Knight, Oriental Outlines: Or a Rambler’s Recollections of a Tour in Turkey, Greece, & Tuscany, London Sampson Low, 1839, p. 176.

38 Gustave Flaubert, “İstanbul”, Bu Şehr-i İstanbul Ki: İstanbul Üzerine Anılar, Gözlemler, İzlenimler, Sohbetler, edited by Şemsettin Kutlu, Istanbul: Milliyet Yayınları, 1972, p. 83.

39 Baron George Gordon Byron, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, edited by Thomas Moore, New York: J.& J. Harper, 1830, vol. 1, p. 176.

40 Murray, Handbook for Travellers in Constantinople, p. 75.

41 Mary Wortley Montagu, The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Lord Wharncliffe, London: R. Bentley, 1837, p. 355.

42 See: Baron John Cam Hobhouse Broughton, A Journey Through Albania and Other Provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia, to Constantinople, Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1817, vol. 2, p. 279. Also see Flaubert, “İstanbul”, p. 83.

43 See 110th and 117th letters: Montesquieu, Persian Letters, ed. Andrew Kahn, tr. Margaret Mauldon, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 153-154, 162.

44 Schiffer, Oriental Panorama, p. 92.

45 Nalan Turna, “İstanbul’un Veba ile İmtihanı: 1811- 1812 Veba Salgını Bağlamında Toplum ve Ekonomi”, Studies of the Ottoman Domain, vol. 1, issue 1 (2011), pp. 36-37.

46 Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, Türkiye’yi Böyle Gördüm, tr. Aysel Kurutluoğlu, Istanbul, Istanbul: Tercüman 1001 Temel Eser, n.d. p. 167.

47 Busbecq, Türkiye’yi Böyle Gördüm, p. 96.

48 Thomas Thornton, The Present State of Turkey, London: J. Mawman, 1802, vol. 2, p. 217.

49 Helmuth Moltke, Moltke’nin Türkiye Mektupları, tr. Hayrullah Örs, Istanbul: Remzi Kitabevi, 1969, p. 93.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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