As most of us know, Julien Viaud, the French author who is also known as Pierre Loti (1850-1923), was a traveler who was in love with Istanbul. From Japan to Senegal, India to China, USA to Iran, Loti, a marine officer, traveled around the world. He was introduced to the Ottoman realms for the first time when he visited İzmir in 1870, Six years later, in 1876, he reached a turning point in his life: he arrived in the capital of the Ottoman State. He was on a mission on Le Gladiateur, the patrol ship of the French Embassy. After this time, Istanbul became an inseparable part of Loti’s life. Between 1876 and 1919, Loti went to Istanbul many times, simply because he fell in love with this fascinating city. His first encounter with the city was in Beyoğlu, and over time this relationship became a way of life experience, taking place between Bosphorus and Eyüp. Due to this life he was able to observe the Ottoman people, the Muslim lifestyle, the daily life of people, the politics and economics of the time. All of those observations and memories gave fruit to two novels: Aziyadé (1879), a love story between Istanbul and Thessaloniki, and Les Desenchantées (1906), a book about harem life and women whose freedom was restricted in the Ottoman State. La Turquie Agonisante (1913) was a criticism of the political attitudes of Western countries towards the Ottoman State during the Balkan Wars. In the work Suprèmes Visions d’Orient (1921), Loti defended Turkey’s rights against European countries.
A traveler cannot help but remain a foreigner to cities that fascinate them; they are an observer from outside and remain a guest. If they want to observe from within, they need to enter inside that particular city. This is the point that makes Pierre Loti different from Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier (other travelers and lovers of Istanbul). Loti learnt how to be a local in a society to which he was a stranger, and because of this he partly managed to blend in life in Istanbul. He did not just get to know the cosmopolitan life of Istanbul, but also had local friendships. Loti ceased to be a stranger as he became well-acquainted with deep-rooted social relationships and neighborhoods with different characteristics. With all of these efforts, Loti managed not to be just a “stranger” in Istanbul. He was a marine officer on duty, yet frequently he wore a fez, as well as the regular clothes of Istanbul’s ordinary people, and wandered around the city. He loved to live in Eyüp, smoke water pipes in Beyazıt-Süleymaniye and socialize not just with the upper class, but also with the middle class. He wanted to get to know all the people, and thus he learned Turkish.
Pierre Loti naturally adapted to Istanbul. Actually, this sudden adaptation was the sign of a longing for the past. He had been unable to find tranquility in his homeland, but he found it in Istanbul. For him, Istanbul was the city of peace, silence, tranquility, relaxation, calmness and tolerance. However, the pigeons in the mosque courtyards, the storks in the streets, the swaying cypresses near the minarets, the silence of the coffeehouses with customers with white beards and white turbans, and the magnificent view of the Bosphorus started to fade in the fog and darkness. These images would soon be nothing but nostalgia.
Pierre Loti reacted against this transformation; his romanticist and nostalgic point of view gave way to criticism. His criticism was for European colonialist civilization, that incredibly turned a blind eye to the loss of a civilization. Claude Frère, one of Loti’s students, also supported him. Loti now had a bad name in the West because he defended Turks and Turkey; nevertheless, he received great attention in the world of Turkish politics and culture after 1910. He became “The only friend of the Turk except the Turk” - a wordplay on the motto ‘Turk is the only friend of the Turk’. The Turcophile Loti was now a friend of Turkish people as well. His name was given to a street in Divanyolu and to one of his favorite coffeehouses in Eyüp. However, his Istanbul, the city he desperately loved, was bound to remain as a reality of the past. This was unavoidable in the new world order.
Unfortunately, Pierre Loti, the “the friend of the Turks,” was unable to avoid falling in the grasp of the Orientalist discourse which the West had formulated towards the Orient despite his great love for Turks and Turkey, notwithstanding his efforts to eliminate the Western prejudice against the Orient, and the Turks in particular. It was possible to see the traces of conceptions such as “Oriental Despotism” and “the Orient as the other.” In this context, Loti maintains orientalist discourse described by Edward Said in his work Orientalism, as, “The Oriental man lives in the Orient, lives in an environment where there is extreme bullying and passion. With exaggerated belief in fate, the Oriental man continues to live peacefully”1 By the same token, Loti also sketched the mystical “harem life” in the Ottoman State in his novels, especially in Aziyade, while narrating a passionate love story,. Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman State, was described as a center of hedonism –a theme much popular in French and English literature since the beginning of the nineteenth century based on the travellers’ accounts. Loti shared this view with travellers before him. He was criticized in the West for his desire to reconstruct the Orient in the West, for his efforts to understand and explain “strange” customs and manners of a society that he wanted to be a part of. Yet, he is also criticized for reducing the Orient to a fancy world. Thus, Pierre Loti could not help but be the “other” in both civilizations.
Baldıran, Galip, Pierre Loti ve Oryantalist Söylem, Konya: Çizgi Kitabevi, 2005.
Brodin, Pierre, Pierre Loti, tr. Vahdi Hatay, Ankara: Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı, 1973.
Gidersoy, Bahar, “Pierre Loti’nin Gözüyle Türkiye ve Batı Medeniyeti,” PhD thesis, Istanbul University Atatürk İlkeleri ve Inkılap Tarihi Enstitüsü, Istanbul, 2010.
Hisar, Abdülhak Şinasi, Istanbul ve Pierre Loti, Istanbul: İstanbul Fetih Cemiyeti İstanbul Enstitüsü, 1958.
Özdoğan, Esra (ed.), Pierre Loti’nin Istanbul’u, Istanbul’un Pierre Lotisi, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2003.
Quella-Villéger, Alain, Pierre Loti: Gezegen Seyyahı, tr. Aysel Bora, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2002.
1 Edward W. Said, Şarkiyatçılık, tr. Berna Üner, Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 1995, p. 112.