Maureen Freely is a writer with seven novels to her name. Well known as a translator of the Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, she has also brought into English several classics and works by Turkey's rising stars. For many years she worked as a journalist in London, writing about literature, social justice, and human rights. As chair of the Translator's Association and more recently as President and Chair of English PEN, she has campaigned for writers and freedom of expression internationally. She teaches at the University of Warwick.
Take me with you, Mrs Liston. I promise not to speak until we're there. I shall cast off the centuries between us, to let myself be guided by your words alone. It is for you to set the pace. If we are again delayed by 12 months in London, I shall not let the spirit of procrastination overtake me. You may count on me to be packed and ready when the coach for Portsmouth finally appears.
This time I shall be the first to spot the 'Argo', bobbing in the harbour. No-one will see me board the barge that takes us out, and no-one will see me hop on board. But I shall be at your side, Mrs Liston, when the winds turn from contrary to favourable. When the great swells of the horrid Bay of Biscay again return you to your cabin, I shall guard your door, until at last the climate softens, and a fair wind restores us all to health and high spirits.
Sailing along the coast of Portugal, I too shall be impatient to hear news. When a war ship, heading northwards, brings us news of Badajoz, I shall celebrate our victory in the shadows, while you do the same in the sun. But look, that must be Cape St Vincent. And here now is Cadiz, still under siege, but so very charming, with its array of flat roofs, turrets, verandas, and latticed windows, and the general whiteness of its stones. Just as well if the wind they call the Levanter detains us here for six days. The ramparts are broad and well paved, the houses large and airy. And Mr Duff is a most generous host.
But now, the winds have changed again, and we are fairly flying between the Pillars of Hercules. Europe to our left and Africa to our right as we rise and fall with the waves that send us into the Strait of Gibraltar. Only to have the winds fail us yet again, midway to the Rock! Never mind, we shall get there eventually. Our stay will be most pleasant, though not as pleasant as the fair wind that takes us as far as Sardinia in three days.
Palermo! Are you not glad to admire these beautifully indented hills once again? To be met by Lord Bentinck's carriage and delivered to your lodgings in the city's best hotel? Last time you and Mr Liston found the time to bend your steps to the marina before supper. Let us not miss the chance to retrace them. And let us hope that contrary winds will again detain us long enough to visit the palace of Prince Butera, where every article, glass excepted, is made by artists within his domains.
And so to Malta, emporium to the Mediterranean. From the sea, it offers to the eye one of the most noble and singular collections we have seen. But now, to the north, our first sight of Greece. The shores of the Morea. The mountains of Arcadia, still capped with snow. And there, to the south, the mountains of Candia, their white summits even higher.
Ahead of us sits Milo, home to the Lacedaemonians, or so they say. The vineyards are just as enchanting as you last found them. In the folds of these steep and barren hills, there are hot salt springs, and catacombs. Almond and fig trees. Oleander growing wild.
More fair winds now, to take us east, then north. Soon the islands of the archipelago will become so numerous that not all can be named. We are almost there now. How fortunate we are, to have the winds with us once more. You have said that nothing can equal the charms of this climate — the beauty of the sky, without heat to oppress — and you are right. The passage of the archipelago and the Aegean Sea, sailing betwixt the continents of Greece and Asia with one or more islands always in view, is indeed a fairy scene.
To the north, we see Tenedos, remarkable for its wine. Just a breath or two of wind is all we need now, to reach the Dardanelles. At Abydos, we must disembark, to wait for the 'Mihmandar'. What we know about this man can be summarised in three sentences: He is a figure of considerable consequence at the Porte. When the Sultan gives the word, he will escort us to Constantinople. Until that moment arrives, he will be our minder. But never mind. There is much to keep the spirit of procrastination at bay. We have Troy to visit. Or rather, Troy to imagine. So little left to see. The road to Alexandria Troas, which takes us through a waving country, beautifully wooded with Valonia oaks, seems to promise more. But here again, destroyer time has left just a few of the ancient stones standing.
By now the 'Mihmandar' has joined us. On the appointed day, we cross the straits with his entourage and ours, to be carried past the bishops and governors and judges of Gallipoli in gilded and carpeted carriages, stopping every so often for banquets at which we have at least as many attendants as dishes, and delivering us in due course to the flotilla that guides us to the most beautiful point from which to enjoy the moonlit evening.
At last, we have our summons. Into the Sea of Marmara we sail, stopping off at Rodosto and Silivria to be greeted by more crowds of Greeks and Turks and priests waving incense.
By now we are within two hours' rowing of the Porte and the day is very fine. We set out in great spirits, and soon we can make out the contours of the fabled Seven Towers of Constantinople, of which only four still stand. Soon the city itself is opening up to us, regularly ascending, and there, on its range of high hills, we can see a number of mosques, and elegant minarets overtopping the tall cypresses with which they are delightfully mixed. There, just ahead, is the Seraglio. Above it, Santa Sophia with its four minarets. We round the point, to see the Golden Horn, the Tower of Galata, and the Bosphorus sweeping up to the Black Sea. To the eye of the stranger, as you have said, the whole presents a very singular combination of land and water and foliage.
At Tophane, we disembark. Oh, the commotion, and oh, the stink. Steaming horses for the gentlemen. Sedans for the ladies. Up the steep and narrow streets we go, until we are safe inside the walls of the British Palace, from which we dare not stray. For the plague has returned to this city. It surrounds us on all sides.
We are prisoners within our garden walls, in all the horrors of apprehension. Our back gate opens into a burying ground where the graves are so numerous and so fresh that it resembles a newly ploughed field.
But never mind. Best to look forward to the day when the serious evils of plague have been dispelled. For these burying grounds offer much to please the eye in times of health. On each grave of distinction, there is a stone crowned with a turban. At the back of each stone there is a cypress, of a magnificence to astonish. Every empty space in every town and neighbourhood is taken up by these burying grounds, you tell me. Walks, roads — all pass through them. And oh, Mrs Liston, how I wish we could pass through them together, arm in arm.
It's not fear of the plague keeping us inside now. It's the centuries between us. I have been holding them at bay all these months. But they are losing patience, billowing over us now like clouds about to burst. Soon they'll be unleashing their fury to uproot these turbaned stones and the cypresses that once gave them shade. One by one, these burying grounds will themselves be buried, to give way to more houses and more winding streets. Soon the city will cover every hill, as far as the eye can see.
The rich will stake their claim on every inch of our own hill, building right up to the walls of every embassy and church. Then will come the refugees from a dozen wars, wave after wave of them. There will be riots here, and bloody massacres. Our own army will occupy these streets. Patriots will retake them. Our front gate will be lost to a monstrous bomb. Our Consul-General will die in the blast.
All this is to come. So let us leave the British Palace through the front gate while we still can. Along the Bosphorus, the breezes are as soothing in midsummer as you remember them. Though I have to warn you. Much has changed along its shores between your time and mine. Two bridges now join Europe to Asia. A third is underway. The hills on both shores are thick with high rises and gaudy lights. The roads are choked with traffic. Let us hope, at least, that our ferry is one of the old ones. Made in Glasgow, before the Great War. Still agile, after all these years. Agile it must be, to weave its way between the tankers and cruisers, the passenger ships and the powerboats and the little fishing boats that still dare to wander amongst them.
But even so. I hope you will still find that all has not been lost to destroyer time. You just have to know where to look. Here, beneath these skyscrapers, is a sultan's palace. There, between those two ugly apartment buildings, is a pasha’s mansion. And over here, a garden of the kind you so admired, with arbours formed by the spreading branches of magnificent trees. Rising above them, a wooded hill that has somehow resisted the urban sprawl. As we continue northwards, swirling with the currents around the promontories, and hurtling into the bays, there will be moments when we can again enjoy the illusion of travelling along a succession of fine lakes.
There could not be another tract of water in this world presenting a scene so gay, beautiful, and interesting as this channel. Or so you once said. Does it call to you still, I wonder? Can you still find the dead dwelling in beauty amongst the living, or has all trace of them gone under the plough? I like to think that there is something about the Bosphorus — its currents and high hills, at least — that destroyer time will never touch. Am I right, or am I deluded? Please, Mrs Liston, tell me what you see.
Readers wishing to trace the origins of the borrowed words that fill the sails of my imagined journey can find them listed below. All can be found in 'Henrietta Liston's Travels: The Turkish Journals, 1812-1820', edited by Patrick Hart, Valerie Kennedy, and Dora Petherbridge, Edinburgh University Press, 2020 and in Liston's digitised manuscripts (MS.5709 and MS.5640 ff.55-58) on this site.
'… spirit of procrastination', National Library reference: MS'5709 f.3r.
'… contrary winds', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.3v.
'… favourable (winds)', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.3v.
'… horrid Bay of Biscay', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.3v.
'… the climate softened', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.4r.
'… a fair wind', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.4r.
'… health and high spirits', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.4r.
'… impatience to hear news', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.4r.
'The ramparts … are broad and well paved', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.4v.
'… magnificent buildings, the number and variety of its turrets — the general whiteness of their stones, the verandas, and latticed windows', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.4v.
'The houses … large and airy…', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.4v.
'The wind failing us … ,' National Library reference: MS.5709 f.7v.
'… beautifully indented hills', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.9v.
'… bent our steps to the marina', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.10r.
'… contrary winds', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.10v.
'… every article, glass excepted …is made by artists within his domains', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.11r.
'… it offers to the eye one of the most noble and singular collections we have ever seen', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.15v.
'… emporium of the Mediterranean', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.17v.
'The islands in the archipelago now become so numerous that it is only those in some way remarkable that can be named.', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.18v.
'… nothing can equal the charms of this climate, the beauty of the sky, without heat to oppress.', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.21v.
'The passage of the archipelago and the Aegean Sea, sailing betwixt the continents of Greece and Asia with one or more islands always in view, is indeed a fairy scene.', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.21v.
'… Tenedos, remarkable for its wine,' National Library reference: MS.5709 f.21v.
'… waving country beautifully wooded … Valonia oaks', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.26r.
'… we came to the few remains which that destroyer time has left of the ancient buildings', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.26r.
'… the body of a small coach, gilded on all sides, without glass or seats, but with carpets and flat cushions at the bottom', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.29r.
'… at least as many attendants as dishes', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.30r.
'… within two hours’ rowing of the Porte and the day very fine, we set out in great spirits', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.34r.
'Constantinople itself opened up to use, regularly ascending a range of high grounds, or hills, with a number of mosques, and elegant minarets overtopping the tall cypresses with which they are delightfully mixed', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.34r.
'… Santa Sophia with its four minarets', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.34r.
'… the whole presenting to the eye of a stranger a very singular and beautiful combination of land and water and foliage', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.35r.
'… a sedan chair for me', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.35r.
'… prisoners within our garden walls, in all the horrors of apprehension', National Library reference: MS5640 f.55r.
'Our back gate opened into a burying ground where the graves were so numerous and so fresh that it resembled a newly ploughed field.', National Library reference: MS.5640 f.55r.
'… in time of health', National Library reference: MS.5640 f.55r.
'… become serious evils during plague', National Library reference: MS.5640 f.55r.
'Every empty space in the towns and their neighbourhoods', National Library reference: MS.5640 f.55r.
'At each grave of distinction, a stone is placed — on end — crowned with a turban which, from its form, denotes the rank of the deceased. The remainder is filled with inscriptions, generally passages from the Koran, and all is painted and gilded in the gayest manner. At the back of each stone there is a cypress, of a magnificence to astonish', National Library reference: MS.5640 f.55r.
'Walks, roads — all pass through Turkish ones …', National Library reference: MS.5640 f.55r.
'… arbours, formed by the spreading branches of magnificent trees', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.36r.
'… a succession of fine lakes', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.36r.
'Perhaps there is not in this world such a tract of water, presenting a scene so gay, beautiful, and interesting as this channel', National Library reference: MS.5709 f.36r.