Adventures in the Near East with Alexander Kinglake

8th, 2014
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[Turkey through a traveler’s eyes] Adventures in the Near East with Alexander Kinglake

In many ways, Alexander Kinglake, poised in 1834 to cross the border between Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire near Belgrade, was the prototype of the modern backpacker.

Like the vast majority of those nomadic hordes who crisscross the globe today, Kinglake was young (25), bursting with energy, consumed with curiosity, burning with the desire to have a good time — and had the financial means to indulge his passion. What’s more, in line with today’s traveling youth but unlike his fellow 19th century travelers, he felt no need to justify his journey with worthy causes such as missionary work or compiling detailed reports for learned bodies like the Royal Geographical Society. Kinglake’s account of his adventures, first published in 1844 under the title “Eothen” (Greek for “from the east”), has become one of the classic travel books.

Of course, Kinglake was no impecunious backpacker (who, whilst often better off than the “common man” of the developing countries they are traveling around, are invariably on a tight budget) but a man of considerable means. Preparing to leave Belgrade, he writes, “In two or three hours our party was ready; the servants, the Tatar [Ottoman Turk], the mounted Suridgees [Gypsies], and the baggage-horses, altogether made up a strong cavalcade.” Amongst Kinglake’s servants was Mysseri, who acted as dragoman (the multi-lingual, semi-official guides who acted as intermediaries between travelers and Ottoman officialdom). His main companion though, was Methley, Earl of Mexborough, an old friend from Eton.

The first night out they were forced to overnight in a mud-floored cottage belonging to suspicious Serbian villagers, but they soon “furnished our den: a couple of quilts spread upon the floor with a carpet-bag at the head of each, became capital sofas — portmanteaus, and hat-boxes, and writing-cases, and books, and maps, and gleaming arms soon lay strewed around us in pleasant confusion.” The locals were at first unwilling to provide the travelers with food. “The natives declared that their hens were mere old maids and all their cows unmarried,” but were soon persuaded to part with some produce by the Tatar, who “fingered the hilt of his yataghan [dagger] with such persuasive touch, that the land soon flowed with milk, and mountains of eggs arose.”

Kinglake was very much the modern traveler in his outlook, confessing quite freely as they rode towards Adrianople (modern Edirne and the party’s first goal in what is now the Republic of Turkey), “As for me and my comrade, however, in this part of our journey we often forgot Stamboul, forgot all the Ottoman Empire, and only remembered old times.” By this he meant reliving fond memories of their time together at Eton and gossiping about old chums. “We bullied Keate, and scoffed at Larrey Miller, and Okes; we rode along loudly laughing, and talked to the grave Servian forest.”

The whole of the Ottoman Empire was at that time suffering from an outbreak of the plague. When the party had crossed the Sava River into Ottoman territory a few days earlier, Kinglake wrote, “After coming into contact with any creature or thing belonging to the Ottoman Empire it would be impossible for us to return to the Austrian territory without undergoing an imprisonment for fourteen days in the odious lazaretto.” So the worst must have crossed their minds as “Methley had been seized with we knew not what ailment, and when we had taken up our quarters in the city [Edirne] he was cast to the very earth by sickness.” Like many a young man today, sympathy was not Kinglake’s strong point, and he wrote: “I felt intolerant of illness … as if the poor fellow in falling ill had betrayed a want of spirit. I entertained too a most absurd idea — an idea that his illness was partly affected.” Given his selfish (though at least he had the honesty to record it) attitude, it’s little surprise that the two friends later parted company in İzmir and were to remain estranged for many years.

A tough journey

Kinglake tells us nothing of Edirne, only that they managed to organize an araba (the horse drawn carriage ubiquitous through the empire) for Methley there. The last day of the journey from Edirne to İstanbul was a tough one, with the party “struggling face to face with an icy storm that swept right down from the steppes of Tartary, keen, fierce, and steady as a northern conqueror.” They were aiming for the city’s European quarter, Pera (modern Beyoğlu), and “crossed the Golden Horn in a caique.” Drenched to the skin and supporting the two sick men (Methley’s servant had just fallen unconscious from his horse), they made their way up the hill from the docks “dripping, and sloshing, and looking very much like men that had been turned back by the Royal Humane Society as being incurably drowned.” Their worst fears that the inhabitants of Pera would take one look at the sick amongst the party, the bedraggled state of the rest, and turn them back in case they were carrying the plague, proved groundless. Before long they were “admitted as guests” to Guiseppeni’s boarding house.

Kinglake was lost in admiration for İstanbul’s unparalleled location. “Even if we don’t take a part in the chant about ‘mosques and minarets,’ we can still yield praises to Stamboul. We can chant about the harbour; we can say, and sing, that nowhere else does the sea come so home to a city: there are no pebbly shores — no sand bars — no slimy river-beds — no black canals — no locks nor docks to divide the very heart of the place from the deep waters.”

Even the plague hanging over the city he finds thrilling: “Its presence, however, lent a mysterious and exciting, though not very pleasant, interest to my first knowledge of a great Oriental city.” Intrigued by the veiled women in the streets, he cannot hide his masculine interest in the “coffin-shaped bundles of white linen that implies an Ottoman lady,” writing: “Of her very self you see nothing except the dark, luminous eyes that stare against your face, and the tips of the painted fingers depending like rose-buds. … She turns, and turns again … to see that she is safe from the eyes of Mussulmans, and then suddenly withdrawing the yashmak, she shines upon your heart and soul with all the pomp and might of her beauty.”

Arrested by the sights of the city and the beauty of its veiled women, Kinglake goes someway to appeasing his still weakened friend Methley. “I determined to stay with my comrade until he had quite recovered.” Not that he intended sitting by his old friend’s sickbed. “I bought me a horse, and ‘pipe of tranquility’ [a nargile or hookah pipe], and a Turkish phrase-master.” Like all old Etonians, he had studied Latin, which he found very useful in helping him learn Turkish. “The structure of the language, especially in its lengthy sentences, is very like to the Latin; the subject matters are slowly and patiently enumerated, without disclosing the purpose of the speaker until he reaches the end of the sentence, and then at last there comes the clenching word, which gives a meaning and connection to all that has gone before.” He had gained a taste for the nargile whilst being entertained by the local pasha back in Belgrade. “When I pressed the amber up to mine, there was no coyness to conquer; the willing fume came up … till it touched me with some faint sense and understanding of Asiatic contentment.” It seems that Kinglake had soon acquired a taste for opium.

With Methley fully recovered, the old Etonian pair headed out for the Troad. Then, of course, the site of Homer’s Troy was some decades away from being discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, but most scholars agreed that it was situated somewhere on the plain south of the mouth of the Dardanelles. Having explored the plain and declared themselves satisfied that it must, indeed, have been the location of “the Grecian camp,” the party moved on, via Edremit and Pergamon, to Smyrna (now İzmir). Kinglake begins his chapter on the cosmopolitan city with the lines “Smyrna, or Giaour İzmir, ‘Infidel Smyrna’ … is the main point of commercial contact betwixt Europe and Asia. You are there surrounded by the people, and the confused customs of many and various nations.” Today’s İzmir, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, is a homogenous city with only faint traces left of the Jews, Greeks, Armenians and Levantines who once lived alongside its Turkish inhabitants.

In Smyrna, Kinglake and Methley run into an old school friend, a gentleman of leisure called Carrigaholt, who “had a good, or at all events a gentleman-like, judgment in matters of taste, and his great object was to surround himself with all that his fancy could dictate.” Although we learn rather a lot about an old school friend, true to Kinglake’s words in the preface of “Eothen,” “where the countries which one visits have been thoroughly and ably described … by others … one is fully at liberty to say as little … as one chooses,” we’re told nothing of the physical appearance of İzmir as it was in 1834.

After İzmir, he spent several months wandering along the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean between Beirut and Egypt (then Ottoman dominions). Returning, via Damascus, to the Mediterranean coast north of Beirut, he set sail for İzmir in the company of a Russian general, Sataliefsky. Bored of the sluggish progress aboard their “Ionian brigantine,” the pair elected to disembark at Satalieh, today’s Mediterranean resort of Antalya. Ignoring local orders not to disembark because “strictest orders had been received for maintaining a quarantine of three weeks against all vessels coming from Syria,” an incensed Kinglake soon forced his way into the presence of the local pasha. He concludes the polished account of his 15-month jaunt with the words: “The Pasha now gave us a splendid feast. Our promised horses were brought without much delay. I gained my loved saddle once more, and when the moon got up and touched the heights of Taurus, we were joyfully winding our way from the first of his rugged defiles.”

Alexander Kinglake

Kinglake was born into a rich, land-owning family in 1809. Typical of his era and class in many ways, he was unusual in growing up with a healthy skepticism of Christianity. After Eton, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, later training, like his father, to be a lawyer. “Eothen” made him rich(er) and famous, but he never wrote another travel book. He became a lawyer, then a member of Parliament, but after 1868 devoted his life to gentlemanly pleasures. He never married and died in 1891.

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