Chapter XXVIII. The Mosques of Constantinople.
Sojourn at Constantinople - Semi-European Character of the City - The
Mosque - Procuring a Firman - The Seraglio - The Library - The Ancient
Throne-Room - Admittance to St. Sophia - Magnificence of the Interior - The
Marvellous Dome - The Mosque of Sultan Achmed - The Sulemanye - Great
Conflagrations - Political Meaning of the Fires - Turkish Progress - Decay
of the Ottoman Power.
"Is that indeed Sophia's far-famed dome,
Where first the Faith was led in triumph home,
Like some high bride, with banner and bright sign,
And melody, and flowers?" Audrey de Vere.
Constantinople, Tuesday, August 8, 1852.
The length of my stay in Constantinople has enabled me to visit many interesting spots in its vicinity, as well as to familiarize myself with the peculiar features of the great capital. I have seen the beautiful Bosphorus from steamers and caiques; ridden up the valley of Buyukdere, and through the chestnut woods of Belgrade; bathed in the Black Sea, under the lee of the Symplegades, where the marble altar to Apollo still invites an oblation from passing mariners; walked over the flowery meadows beside the "Heavenly Waters of Asia;" galloped around the ivy-grown walls where Dandolo and Mahomet II. conquered, and the last of the Palaeologi fell; and dreamed away many an afternoon-hour under the funereal cypresses of Pera, and beside the Delphian tripod in the Hippodrome. The historic interest of these spots is familiar to all, nor; with one exception, have their natural beauties been exaggerated by travellers. This exception is the village of Belgrade, over which Mary Montague went into raptures, and set the fashion for tourists ever since. I must confess to having been wofully disappointed. The village is a miserable cluster of rickety houses, on an open piece of barren land, surrounded by the forests, or rather thickets, which keep alive the springs that supply Constantinople with water. We reached there with appetites sharpened by our morning's ride, expecting to find at least a vender of kibabs (bits of fried meat) in so renowned a place; but the only things to be had were raw salt mackerel, and bread which belonged to the primitive geological formation.
The general features of Constantinople and the Bosphorus are so well known, that I am spared the dangerous task of painting scenes which have been colored by abler pencils. Von Hammer, Lamartine, Willis, Miss Pardoe, Albert Smith, and thou, most inimitable Thackeray! have made Pera and Scutari, the Bazaars and Baths, the Seraglio and the Golden Horn, as familiar to our ears as Cornhill and Wall street. Besides, Constantinople is not the true Orient, which is to be found rather in Cairo, in Aleppo, and brightest and most vital, in Damascus. Here, we tread European soil; the Franks are fast crowding out the followers of the Prophet, and Stamboul itself, were its mosques and Seraglio removed, would differ little in outward appearance from a third-rate Italian town. The Sultan lives in a palace with a Grecian portico; the pointed Saracenic arch, the arabesque sculptures, the latticed balconies, give place to clumsy imitations of Palladio, and every fire that sweeps away a recollection of the palmy times of Ottoman rule, sweeps it away forever.
But the Mosque - that blossom of Oriental architecture, with its crowning domes, like the inverted bells of the lotus, and its reed-like minarets, its fountains and marble courts - can only perish with the faith it typifies. I, for one, rejoice that, so long as the religion of Islam exists (and yet, may its time be short!), no Christian model can shape its houses of worship. The minaret must still lift its airy tower for the muezzin; the dome must rise like a gilded heaven above the prayers of the Faithful, with its starry lamps and emblazoned phrases; the fountain must continue to pour its waters of purification. A reformation of the Moslem faith is impossible. When it begins to give way, the whole fabric must fall. Its ceremonies, as well as its creed, rest entirely on the recognition of Mahomet as the Prophet of God. However the Turks may change in other respects, in all that concerns their religion they must continue the same.
Until within a few years, a visit to the mosques, especially the more sacred ones of St. Sophia and Sultan Achmed, was attended with much difficulty. Miss Pardoe, according to her own account, risked her life in order to see the interior of St. Sophia, which she effected in the disguise of a Turkish Effendi. I accomplished the same thing, a few days since, but without recourse to any such romantic expedient. Mr. Brown, the interpreter of the Legation, procured a firman from the Grand Vizier, on behalf of the officers of the San Jacinto, and kindly invited me, with several other American and English travellers, to join the party. During the month of Ramazan, no firmans are given, and as at this time there are few travellers in Constantinople, we should otherwise have been subjected to a heavy expense. The cost of a firman, including backsheesh to the priests and doorkeepers, is 700 piastres (about $33).