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Volume 34, Number 6November/December 1983

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A Gift for the Sultan

"A great and curious present is going to the Grand Turk which will scandalize other nations…"

Written by Peter English
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

"Whoever commands the sea, commands the trade of the world, and whoever commands the trade, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself." —Henry VIII.

In the mid-16th century, Queen Elizabeth's tenacious grip on her homogenous subjects promised stability and ambition. With French and Spanish belligerence crushed, England was free to pursue scientific thought and mercantile success - and did. By a combination of naval power and maritime excellence and the formation of great monopoly trading companies, England edged ahead of her rivals. In 1556, the Muscovy Company penetrated Archangel waters; in 1581 Mediterranean commerce expanded with the formation of the Levant Company; in 1599 the East India Company also received Royal approval.

In this effort, Elizabeth I - "Good Queen Bess" - had excellent support: a host of cartographers who mapped routes and trade winds, and advised her where to pursue commerce most profitably -specifically the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia and Turkey. To Elizabeth the lure of "Eastern promise" was irresistible.

There was, however, one formidable obstacle blocking mercantile expansion toward India: the Ottoman Empire, too big to ignore, too powerful to attack. Thus Elizabeth, needing access to Ottoman overland caravan routes, prudently decided on a conciliatory course, and to this end chose a man named Thomas Dallam to construct and deliver to the Ottoman sultan a unique gift: an organ.

During the 17th century, the Dallams were famous organ builders in England. Thomas Dallam is thought to have built the organ in King's College, Cambridge, and in 1613 erected an organ in Worcester Cathedral. Other Dallams installed organs in St. Paul's Cathedral, York Minster, Canterbury Cathedral, St. George Chapel, Windsor and in Hereford Cathedral.

The Turkish project got underway, apparently, in 1598, according to a State Paper dated 31 January 1599 - just a month before Dallam set out. "A great and curious present is going to the Grand Turk, which will scandalize other nations, especially the Germans." This "great and curious present" was the organ which Thomas Dallam had already built, and was now about to take out in person to Istanbul.

According to a voluminous diary - now in the British Museum - that he kept of his trip, Dallam prepared carefully for the journey - drawing up a list of "Nessecaries for my voyage into Turkie, the which I bought upon a verrie short warninge, having no friend to advise me in any thing." Included as "Nessecaries" were:

   Pounds  Shillings  Pence
 One suit of sackcloth to wear at sea




 Two waistcoats of flannel




 One armed sword


  6.   0.
 One chest     9.   8.
 Three shirts  


 Dozen handkerchiefs    10.   0.
 Pair of garters     4.   0.
 Pair of linen britches     1.   4.
 Pair of fustion britches     2.   6.
 Hatband     4.   2.
 Oil and vinegar     2.   0.
 Sun dried raisins     1.   4.
 Gloves     3.   0.
 Knives     5.   0.
 Gross of spoons     9.   0.
Oatmeal 10.
 Pair of virginals   1.  15.   0.

At first there were problems. "The ship wherein I was to make my voyage to Constantinople lying at Gravesend, I departed from London with my chest on February 9, 1599. But the ship being very unready and no cabins appointed for passengers, I went into lodgings. It was the thirteenth day before anchor was weighed."

Eventually, though, they got underway and by April 1 Dallam was ashore in Algiers:

The town or city is very full of people for it is a place of great trade and merchandise. They have two market days weekly unto which great numbers of people descend from the mountains. They bring huge quantities of corn, fruit, fowl - both wild and tame. There be great store of partridge and quale very cheap: a partridge for less than a penny and three quale for the same price. Hens and chickens abound, for they are hatched by artificial means in stoves or hot houses without the means of a hen. The manner of it I cannot at this time plainly describe but hereafter I may if God permits.

That, obviously, was Dallam's first view of an incubator, but it wasn't the end of surprises for him; at Alexandretta, on the Syrian coast, Dallam and others engaged in sport with near dire consequences, for "we were chased by huge animals which I think are called buffalos."

At the next stop, Rhodes, they played their "virginals," a kind of harpsichord, charming Turkish bystanders, and found "a huge galleon of the great Turks, the biggest ship they hath, about 1,000 tons, yet a ship of no strength although richly laden and arrived from Syria."

After a six-month voyage, Dallam finally arrived at Istanbul, by which time "all the glewing work of the organ was clean decayed." Still, he had arrived, so he saw to it that the organ was "carried ... to our ambassordor's house in the city of Gallata" and on the 11th September, hauled it to "The Grand Signor" (the sultan) and "began to set it up."

While he worked, Dallam seems to have taken particular note of the Sultan's household: "... he has a thousand gardens and a captain to manage who assures me there are none kept so well in the world. There are also many courts and pavements each delicately constructed with marble and such like stone. Excellent fruit trees abound and a great abundance of grapes which a man may gather every day of the year. In November as I sat at dinner they gathered grapes especially for me."

By November 18, Dallam was able to try out the organ. Everyone was pleased, but he received a warning from Elizabeth's Ambassador to the Sublime porte. "You have come with a present from your gracious Queen, not to an ordinary prince or king but to a mighty monarch of the world... He will give you nothing in return for your trouble of journey or our great preparations. Complete your work lest he pulls it down to trample under his feet."

Dallam did complete his work and at last the Sultan, consenting to look at the organ, ordered a "festive occasion.. .with amnesty for over three hundred prisoners, and upon sight of the musical masterpiece his great admiration was transposed into a joyous commotion..."

The Grand Signor then commanded for silence. All being quiet, the clock struck twenty-two hours followed by a chiming of sixteen bells and a four-party song. That over, two persons stood on the second storey holding silver trumpets sticking out a tantarra. Such revelry continued for an hour. Then the Grand Signor sat near to me before the (organ) keys where a man should play upon the instrument ... There were some four hundred at the gathering of which half were young, apparelled in rich gold (laced) cloth made into gowns; upon their heads little caps of gold; great pieces of silk about their waists instead of girdles, and upon their legs Cordivan buskins. All heads were shaven, saving that behind their ears did hand a lock of hair like a squirrel's tail. Their beards were shaven excepting upper lips parts...

At last it was time to play the organ and a spokeman for the sultan approached Dallam and told him to play. "I refused to because the Grand Signor sat so near that I would embarrass him by having to turn my back to his presence and touch his knee with my britches..."

He then sat in a very rich chair of estate; upon his thumb I noticed a ring with a diamond half an inch square. He stood up whereby... he might see my hands. He then gave me a thrust forward in such a way I thought he might be drawing his scimitar... So I stood and played the organ until the next chime of the clock. I bowed my head as low as I could and went from him in this crawling position...

At that point, despite the British Ambassador's concern, the sultan gave an order and Dallam received a gift. "It consisted of forty and five pieces of gold... I was indeed joyful over my success."

One can scarcely wonder at Sultan Murat III's delight, for the organ could sound a fanfare, chime the hours, simulate a drum roll and on a full supply of controlled wind release, play several tunes by itself. Dallam too seems to have made a favorable impression upon the Turks he had met - from the Sultan downwards. Indeed, they offered him all kinds of Oriental delights in order to induce him to stay in Istanbul. "The last day of September," Dallam wrote in his diary, "I was sent for again by the Sultan's chief servant, and noticed the house had been rearranged, though it was still in good order. Their kindly welcome was followed by a request that I should answer if I was contented (in Istanbul), and if I stayed all my desires would be realized. I answered that I had a wife and children in England who expected my return. They asked how long I had been married etc., and, though without these responsibilities, I made them once more that same answer."

That same night, at supper Dallam told the chief servant what they had offered him to stay and "he bid me that by no means should I flatly turn them down. He then said it was up to me, but I would not be held by force."

He wasn't. Having honorably discharged his duties, he departed from Istanbul and, after being absent from England for some 15 months, he went ashore at Dover, then by stagecoach to London via Canterbury and Rochester, where Queen Elizabeth expressed her pleasure - and gratitude. From then on Dallam's future was assured. And the long-term outcome? Well, British merchants subsequently enjoyed a relatively unhindered traverse across Turkey to India, and when the Crimean War broke out Turkey and Britain fought shoulder to shoulder - 400 years of harmony thanks to the foresight of Queen Elizabeth I and Thomas Dallam, whose great organ has a small but justifiable niche in history.

Peter English, a British engineer and engineering writer, is the author of "Islamic Influence in European Classical Music."

This article appeared on pages 32-35 of the November/December 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1983 images.