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Volume 36, Number 2March/April 1985

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Elizabeth and the Sultan's Fete

Written by Malcolm P. Stevens
Photographed by Marcia R. Stevens
Additional illustrations by William J. Griswold

In the mid-1860's, an impressionable and artistic young woman named Elizabeth Washburn arrived in Istanbul to visit her brother, George Washburn, later president of Robert College (See Aramco World, March-April 1984). Elizabeth stayed several months in an old house in Kandilli on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus, some 11 kilometers or so (6-7 miles) from Istanbul. In those days, Kandilli was a charming village, replete with summer homes for those fleeing the heat of the city.

Scattered along the shores of the Bosporus, the beautiful waterway separating Europe from Asia and linking Istanbul with the Black Sea, lay numerous picturesque villages like Kandilli, nestled among tree-covered hills. Prosperous villas and elaborate palaces edged its shores. Flowers, fruit trees and stately dark green cypresses enhanced the exotic setting - more beautiful than anything Elizabeth could have imagined from tales of the Arabian Nights. Each evening, as all nature seemed to sleep, melodious tones of the elusive nightingale underlined the enchantment of her Eastern home.

Elizabeth spent much time sketching and day-dreaming in her private refuge among the ruins of an unfinished palace on a hill high above Kandilli, directly across the Bosporus from the village of Bebek, the site of Robert College and the scene of "the sultan's fete," an event she faithfully recorded in a vivid chronicle of her sojourn in Istanbul.

This first-hand account - of the kind of pomp and splendor now relegated to the annals of history - is at once charming and accurate, combining, as it does, a fresh breathless wonder with touches of humor, insight and detailed description.

The fete was hosted by Grand Vizier Ali Pasha, on June 25,1860, the anniversary of the coronation of Sultan Abdul Mecid I, who ruled from 1839 to 1861. Although it was given in his honor, the sultan - by custom - did not attend. He might appear offshore aboard his stately barge - a splendid craft, long and sharp, richly carved and gilded, and rowed by at least two dozen athletic men in white robes, who stood and bowed ritualistically to the sultan after every stroke. The barge, covered by a royal canopy supported on gilded columns and covered by crimson curtains wrought with gold and silver flowers, presented its own glittering pageant. Beneath this magnificent canopy sat the sultan in all his imperial splendor, while Elizabeth, eyes alight, began to jot down notes...

"Soon after sunset," Elizabeth began, "the palaces, which line both sides of the Bosporus, began to be illuminated. As the soft twilight came on, one after another became a mass of twinkling lights. Then thousands of fire-flies seemed to cover the distant shipping. The vessels that were nearer were like floating kiosks.

"The little children, looking from the window, clapped their hands in delight, and then kept still in silent rapture.

"Soon, beautiful fireworks began to light up the dancing waves. And all the time the sound of the Sultan's band playing at the palace opposite added to the feeling of enchantment. Sometimes the music was the Sultan's favorite

Turkish march, and again some bewitching waltz of Strauss."

Elizabeth, as she wrote, made it clear that, in the midst of such an Oriental scene, she found Turkish music preferable. "The harmony is good, and the curious repetition adds to the general dreaminess that even a Yankee feels after living...in the physical and mental atmosphere of this country.

"The crowning beauty of all this brilliant display was the palace of the Grand Vizier at Bebek. As I looked over the heads of the eager little children, just before we started, I could see it, like a palace of light, with gardens of light behind it.

"Back of the palace there are large and beautiful terraced gardens and every tree and shrub was illuminated with little stars of light. These made a faint shimmering across the water. A few hours after, when we were walking there, we were in a blaze of light."

To get from her house in Kandilli to the boat landing involved negotiating streets that were "steep and narrow, but well and cleanly paved." Elizabeth contemplated hiring an arraba, a highly decorated carriage drawn by oxen or horses, with cheerful red and blue cushions to sit on in place of the usual seats. Two long poles attached above the oxen were decorated with numerous scarlet tassels gently fluttering in the breeze, and the animals themselves were adorned with shells and tiny bits of reflecting glass. Elizabeth also considered a donkey or a sedan chair. "But I think our feet served us better than either. I went down from our house... in my pink and white dress and white slippers. . . without soiling either.

"In democratic fashion we were about to call the first 'caiquegee' (boatman) we saw, when our English friends...called us and gave us seats in their own beautiful caique with its six oars."

The caique too, Elizabeth thought, was a magical form of transport. Light in weight, similar to a narrow wooden canoe with a long beak and lacking a keel, the caique was painted black, with a ship of bright red inside the stern. The interior was white as snow; an ornamented backboard protected the passengers as they sat comfortably on a Persian carpet in the bottom of the boat. Long paddles, broadened at the end were grasped securely by strong "caiquegees" in transparent shirts of raw silk and cotton trousers attached at the knee. And as they skimmed along in the moonlight, the Bosporus shimmering like molten silver, and many a sail dancing upon it, seemed enchanted.

At last they arrived at the grand vizier's palace. And yeu can almost hear Elizabeth's gasp of delight.

"I wish I could find words to describe the sensation I had when we entered the gateway! We were in a... courtyard where everything seemed to be pencilled out with lights; every railing, every flower bed and all tracery and carving wherever it might be. In the center was a fountain of light that played like water, and was in shape like those in front of St. Peter's at Rome.

"The bodyguard of the Sultan had been sent...as a personal compliment to the Grand Vizier. It is composed of a certain number of men from all the nations, tribes or countries that are subject to 'His Supreme Highness.' Each is dressed in his national costume. I have never...seen anything that began to be so gorgeous and beautiful as the grouping of these men. The Greeks and Arabians seemed the most imposing. Many of them were new and strange to me.

"There is one thing that to some minds adds a very great charm to beautiful costumes in this country - everything is real. Lace, gold, diamonds, whatever it may be, you may be sure it is (the best) of its kind. Even in the bazaars one seldom finds fine things imitated.

"These costumes may last a lifetime, and they are often all the wealth of the wearers. Many a woman, too, wears her fortune on her hand. Gorgeous as they were at this fete, they were equally fresh and brilliant when I saw them during the Bayram (holiday) early one spring morning.

"We passed through crowds of the Imperial Guard, servants in livery, and newly-arrived guests...scattered about in the lower halls. At the foot of the grand staircase several ushers met us. They led us through large and beautiful rooms to the chief salon. We found ourselves among hundreds of gentlemen, in ball and court dresses, and a much smaller number of ladies in all sorts of evening costume. There is no such thing here as 'the fashion' except perhaps the national...dress of the Turkish ladies."

There was no formal receiving line. Those who made an attempt to reach the host were always greeted with grateful salaams. "Indeed, compared with Turkish politeness - or rather elegance - even some French manners seem rude, and I grieve to say, English and American might be classed by them as barbarian.

"There were some young Turks, fresh from Paris, dancing with pretty young 'Franks' or 'Christians' as they call all European nationals here. Their Papas were doubtless scandalized...

"We soon found ourselves in the midst of a crowd of friends. We had hardly recognized them at first, they seemed so a part of the bewildering scene. When we realized they were, like ourselves, plain 'Jones, Brown, and Robinson,' we were partly amused and partly chagrined, for really one begins to feel in such a fairy-like place as if they themselves might be somebody else.

"One cannot exactly analyze the fascination of these Eastern fetes. They seem to surpass everything else in the world in their exquisite combination of light and color."

While they were eating ices and bonbons, which were provided for "Franks" only, even though, said Elizabeth, they would have preferred Turkish dishes, someone came with an invitation for Elizabeth and her "Frankish" lady friends to visit the women's quarters.

"I had never seen a Turkish woman except veiled in public, and this was the last touch of 'Aladdin's lamp' for me." In a few moments she found herself before "a brilliantly lighted salon full of Turkish ladies, in their bright evening dresses."

In the salon, she went on, she was presented to "Madame Aali, "Ali," the grand vizier's wife who stood graciously receiving her friends, quite in French fashion. Her dress, or rather drapery, seemed a mass of soft blue silk and diamonds. She gave us her hand, because she knew it was our custom. I was a little in doubt whether to kiss it or not. It was gloved, however, and I thought it quite so well to 'do as we do at home,' as that seemed her wish."

Introduced to the daughter-in-law of one Fuad Pasha, Elizabeth called her "by far the loveliest lady in the room. Indeed, she is said by many people to be the prettiest woman in Turkey. She speaks French and with the help of a mutual friend...we had quite a gay little chat. She is Circassian by birth, so she told me afterwards, and has the famous almond shaped eyes which are peculiar to her race. Her hair is dark and this evening she wore a crown of diamonds and emeralds. Her dress of rose colored silk was made like any French ball dress, except the skirt, which was a mixture of French and Turkish that was charming in its effect. She wore a girdle of diamonds and bracelets that matched her tiara and earrings. The very short sleeve was also looped up with a cluster of diamonds.

"There were other costumes in the room quite as splendid, but I did not notice them so especially, because none of the wearers were so pretty as Madame Cassim - and I did not talk with anyone else much. One truth was, I only knew about a dozen Turkish words, and they knew no English... The little I do know, I found of the greatest use, and they were charmed and no doubt thought it is a great joke to hear the wonderful number of times and ways I managed to say 'It is very warm,' and 'very pretty,'... But they use the same expressions themselves a great deal, so I flattered myself my conversation was quite effective!

"The Turks consider stoutness a beauty, and the last thing a Turkish lady would dream of would be to try and give herself a small waist. Their feet, too, grow in natural freedom. When they sit down, they slip off even their embroidered slippers and tuck their feet under them. There are a few wives who do about what they like in dress, who buy and wear high colored French boots, but this is exceptional."

After that visit, Elizabeth continue, they went out to inspect the gardens. "These gardens are in terraces that extend up the side of the hill behind the Grand Vizier's palace for about half a mile. I have spoken before about the very tasteful way in which every shrub, tree, flowerbed, was marked out with hundreds of little lights. In the midst of the garden is a large conservatory. This was lined with flowers whose rich perfumes filled the air. It was so arranged that quite a crowd could walk about in it without any danger of hurting the flowers. It was glass, of course, and so lighted by the outside illumination, giving by its subdued light a refreshing relief from the almost dazzling light everywhere else. It seemed a pity some Romeos and Juliets should not have the benefit of it...

"The supper was served in a gay pavilion built for the occasion, near the greenhouse. It was lighted by colored lanterns, and the tables loaded with French dainties! They were dainties, it is true, and it was absurd to sigh because one must eat boned turkey and chicken salad. But for days we had seen a most unusual amount of smoke pouring from the kitchen chimneys, and we knew a great Turkish feast was being prepared. But in mistaken kindness, and doubtless at enormous expense and inconvenience, the Sultan's guests must be served with a French supper. There had been a dinner in the afternoon thoroughly à la Turque. As they had over fifty courses, each supposed to be a little bit better than the last, I wondered the gentlemen who were favored with invitations to attend it, were able to move. But the Turkish feasts are so unlike English dinners they seem to have quite a different effect. It seems as if their cooking was so perfect that the food digested directly.

"When we had feasted...we went into the palace again...found our cloaks, and...went out the way we had come in a few hours before. We found 'here and there a traveller' instead of the crowds we passed through in coming in; for the Turks keep early hours.

"When we reached the boat landing we had to wait awhile for our boatman to return from the opposite shore. We noticed that the village beyond us was quiet, except for the barking of various dogs. Some of the palaces were still illuminated, but the lights seemed fast dying out in most of them. The water, which had been quite crowded near shore with caiques and larger craft, was comparatively deserted. Nobody shouted as our 'caiquegees' rowed close in shore. We stepped in, with our slippered feet, without having a drop splashed on us.

"We reached home by one o'clock... All the people on our side seemed to have 'turned in' and gone to sleep.

"So ended this gay and brilliant fete. It was given for the Sultan but enjoyed by the people."

Malcolm and Marcia Stevens once lived in Istanbul and are writing a biography of Cyrus Hamlin, founder of Istanbul's Robert College.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the March/April 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1985 images.