Letters from Turkey, generally considered the best Hungarian prose work of the eighteenth century, was written by Kelemen Mikes, a Transylvanian nobleman who went into exile with Ferenc Rákóczi II, last prince of independent Transylvania. After the unsuccessful War of Independence (1703–11), in which he had endeavoured to liberate Hungary and Transylvania from the Habsburgs, the prince and his entourage spent some five years in France before going to Turkey in 1717 at the invitation of Sultan Ahmed III. Some of the party eventually left, but Mikes, like Rákóczi, spent the rest of his life in Turkey.
The 207 Letters, the combination of memoir and epistolary form, were addressed over a period of forty years (1717–1758) to an imaginary aunt in Constantinople. In them Mikes speaks of the Hungarians’ daily life, their hopes and disappointments, and of current events in Turkey and beyond; he describes the death of some of the party, including the Prince himself. The last Letter, dated three years before his death in 1761, sees him, as last survivor of the original party, become head of the Hungarian community in Turkey. The manuscript was found among Mikes’s effects and the Letters were first published in Hungary in 1794.
Rodostó, 28 Maji 1720
Here we are now well-set-up men of hearth and home, and I already like Rodostó so much that I cannot forget Zágon. But jesting aside, dear Aunt, we are in a very pleasant, picturesque spot. The town is quite large and handsome, and lies on a wide and attractive strip of coastline. We are in fact on the very edge of Europe. From here to Constantinople is an easy journey of two days on horseback or one day by water. Certainly, nowhere could our Prince have been given a better living-place. Whichever way one goes, everywhere are fine meadows, but not uncultivated meadows; for here the soil is everywhere put to good use, and the land of this town is cultivated like a well kept garden – at the present season in particular one looks with delight at the plough lands and vineyards and the many vegetable plots. There are as many vine-hills in these parts as elsewhere would suffice for a county – and they are very well tended – and from the numerous fruit trees in them they look like orchards. Here, however, they do not stake the vines as we do, but all the branches are bent downwards and the leaves both protect the bunches and shade the soil; this is necessary in this warm region, where there is very little rain in summer – thus the ground remains moist and the grapes do not dry up.
Here, indeed, there are many vegetable plots, and they are cultivated according to local practice, which cannot be compared with ours. Nowhere is so much cotton grown as here, and the trade in cotton is very great. I think it would grow in Torda County, but on our hilly terrain there would be insufficient warmth. Here it is the year-round task of the women to plant the cotton, harvest it, and sell or spin it. It is sown in May and harvested in October. True, there is a great deal of awkward work to be done with cotton, but as the women here have no other outdoor task they have time for it.
Concerning the town, I may say that for these parts it can be called a fine town, not as broad as it is long. But whatever fine houses there may be here, they cannot seem beautiful, since they have no windows on the street side, especially the Turkish houses, so that their wives shall be unable to look out – what a marvellous thing jealousy is! The market-place of the town is very well supplied – all manner of fowl, fruit, and garden vegetables are cheap here – and before we arrived were all cheaper still. But if we have caused a little increase in prices, we have also brought peace; for the inhabitants themselves say that before we came to where we now live women and girls walked the streets in fear even in the daytime, and any that were discovered out in the evening were snatched away, and can you imagine in what condition they were released? There even used to be murders, committed by janissaries, Greeks and Armenians, but now there is not the slightest mention of them. Whoever goes out of an evening has nothing to fear. True, there are a goodly number of us, but if the least incident occurred the thirty janissaries at our doors would give a lesson to anyone that meant to indulge in evil-doing.
There could not be a quieter spot than where we live – in the evening we do not see a strange janissary or Greek, although in fine weather we are out of doors until eleven o’clock. What a benefit we have been to the town, even in so short a time, and more is to follow. The only thing that I regret is that Lord Bercsényi is not near us; he does not regret it, because we shall go there less often and the expense will be so much the less. But what can we do, distant though he is there is nowhere else to go – how are we to pass the time? The ladies do not like it either, but what can any of us do about it? In fact it is less convenient not for them but for us, because we have to go and call on them as a matter of duty.
Now I have said enough about the town and its lands; I must speak of the ways of our house and how time is spent. Truly, there is no stricter regulation in a monastery than in the Prince’s house. The routine is as follows: at half past five in the morning the drum is beaten, then the servants must rise and make ready for six o’clock. There is a drum-call at six, and the Prince dresses – then he goes to the chapel and hears mass. After mass he goes to the dining hall, where we drink coffee and smoke. When it is a quarter to eight the first drum is beaten for mass and at eight o’clock the second, and the third a little later – then the Prince attends mass, and after mass he goes to his own room and everyone may go where they please. At half past eleven the drum beats for luncheon and at twelve we sit down and execute justice upon the chickens. At half past two the Prince goes alone to the chapel and remains there until three. When the clock strikes a quarter to five the first drum sounds for vespers, at five o’clock the second and the third a little later; then the Prince goes to the chapel and afterwards everyone goes their way. The drum for dinner is beaten at half past six. Dinner does not last long, and at eight o’clock the Prince undresses, but most often does not go to bed at that hour, and even if he dresses at six in the morning he rises at two in the night. But do not think that there is the slightest variation in all this. Even if the Prince were ill, then too the order is maintained. It is no light matter to rise at half past five, but I do not fail in order to please him – and my duties include the supervision of the servants.
Such, then, is our monastic rule. As for entertainment and pastimes, there are many, and each follows his own inclination. The Prince rides twice every week, and we go hunting until evening: for here there are many partridge and hares – more red partridge than grey. But when the Prince does not go hunting he spends the time with much writing.1 We too would spend it better if we could, for one cannot be for ever out walking, wandering in the meadows at all hours; but there is no keeping company with the people here. Here the stranger cannot call on anyone. The Armenians in particular are even more fearful for their wives than the Turks. I have not yet had the opportunity of seeing the woman next door. I have to pass her door ten times a day, and if she chances to be at the door she runs from me as from the devil and shuts the door. I do not care; for generally the Armenian women are as white as Gypsies. From that you will deduce that no acquaintance with the local people is possible, and we have not lost thereby; for here they are all tailors or furriers. Here there are no persons of rank on whom we might call. There are Turkish gentry, but visiting Turks is a dull business: firstly, I speak no Turkish; secondly, if one does call on them the first thing is – do sit down; then they offer one a pipe of tobacco, a cup of coffee, say six or seven words to one, then remain silent until ten o’clock if one were to stay so long. They have simply no notion of conversation or affability. And so all our entertainment consists of calling on Lord Bercsényi for luncheon or dinner – at least there we can laugh with little Zsuzsi; because with his wife one has to remain aloof and conduct oneself in a most formal manner. Nowadays she likes to speak only of things of the past, of what she enjoyed when she was a girl. As you are aware, I have no inclination for that – my temperament is such that I can listen to someone for three hours without saying a word, but ask me what they have said and I would not be able to repeat one word of it. That is how I am with the good lady. For two hours I do not say a word. If she laughs, I laugh too, but I often do not know at what – she thinks that I am listening to it all with rapt attention. Actually, if I wish to pass the time with things of the past I read the history of Alexander the Great; that is old enough.
From all of which you can see in what sort of a town we have been settled; what sort of inhabitants it has, what surroundings; what our way of life is here. But I have not yet told you what my own custom is. It consists of retiring at ten, closing my eyes, and not usually opening them until half past five next morning. This my honourable practice I maintain winter and summer alike. This letter is so long because it is now ten o’clock, so let us go to sleep, dear Aunt. You must take care of your health if you wish me to write often. More another time, or less. Oh! I forgot to mention that the accursed gout has returned to plague our lord.
Rodostó, 25 Martii 1735
Dear Aunt, if I wrote my previous letter with an unquiet mind, this one I write in sorrow, for I see our lord in a bad way. Disease has now made itself evident. The day before yesterday, at eight in the evening, he went to undress as usual, and the cold made him shiver. I was present and he asked me whether I was not cold? I replied that the weather was quite mild, I was not cold – to that he answered that he was very cold. At that I was at once worried; but then I thought that the approach of spring was causing a change in health. Our lord undressed and went to bed, and I went to my lodging. A little while later they came to me and told me that he had vomited. I said that perhaps he had eaten something that his stomach could not bear. Next day at six, when he is accustomed to rise, I went to his room: but what was not my alarm when I saw how he looked. He that has always been ruddy by nature had become so yellow that he might have been rubbed with saffron. Now for two days he has felt so weak – he has constant fits of ague – and his whole body is so yellow that it seems that all his blood has turned to mud. Today is a feast-day,2 he has dressed and heard High Mass. But it is not to be wondered at that he has eaten very little. He feels no pain at all, but great listlessness.
Dear Aunt, let us pray God to preserve this great man, whose very enemies consider him great.
Rodostó, 8 April 1735
What we feared is now come upon us. God has made us orphans, and this morning, after three o’clock, took from our midst our beloved lord and father. It is Good Friday, and we must bewail the deaths of our fathers heavenly and earthly alike. God has delayed our lord’s death in order to sanctify the sacrifice thereof through the merit of Him that died for us on this day. Such was the life that he lived and such the death he died, that I believe it was said to him “This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise”. Let us pour forth our tears abundantly, for the cloud of grief has indeed fallen upon us. But let us not grieve for our worthy father, for after all his sufferings God has taken him to his heavenly home, where He will give him to drink of the wine of joy and gladness, but let us grieve for ourselves, who enter upon great bereavement. It is impossible to tell what great weeping and sorrow there are in our midst, even among the lowliest. Judge, if you can, in what condition I write this letter. But since I know that you will be eager to learn in what manner the poor man’s death occurred I will describe it with ink and tears alike, although in so doing I shall increase my grief.
It appears that I wrote my last letter on the 25th of last month. Then the poor man was feeling a great lassitude at all times. He did very little, but otherwise everything in accordance with custom. He worked at the lathe, despite his weakness, until the first of April. That day, however, he felt the cold acutely, and it weakened him all the more. Next day he was a little better. On Palm Sunday he could not attend church because of his weakness, but heard mass from a neighbouring room. After mass he knelt to receive the consecrated palm from the priest who brought it to him, and said that perhaps he would never receive another. On the Monday he was a little better, the same on Tuesday, and he even asked for tobacco and smoked. But all of us were amazed that until the hour of his death he omitted nothing from the order of the house, nor permitted anything to be omitted on his account. Every day he rose, dressed, dined and retired at the customary hours. Although scarcely able, none the less he observed the order as in the time of his health. On Wednesday afternoon he lapsed into great weakness and slept frequently. On a number of occasions I asked him how he was. His only reply was “I am well, I have no pain”. On Thursday he was very near his end, becoming very weak, but received the Sacrament with great fervour. In the evening, when it was time for bed, his arms were held on both sides: but he went into his bedroom by himself. It was by this time very hard to understand his words. As midnight drew on we were all at his side. The priest asked him if he would receive extreme unction. The poor man showed by a sign that he would. That being done, the priest spoke to him with fine exhortations and words of consolation, but he could not reply; yet we could tell that he was conscious – we saw tears come from his eyes at the exhortations. Finally, after three o’clock in the morning the poor man gave up his spirit and fell asleep – for he died like a child. We had been looking at him ceaselessly: but we only noticed his passing when his eyes opened. He, poor man, has left us orphans in this strange land. Here there is much and fearful weeping and wailing among us. May God grant us consolation.
Rodostó, 16 Apr. 1735
Here, dear Aunt, we eat our bread with weeping, and are such as the flock without a shepherd. The other day we opened the poor man’s will3 and had it read out. He left everything to his servants. To me, five thousand German florins.4 And to Sibrik the same. But all of us would have to collect that sum in France – when we shall do that, God alone knows. We also dispatched his letter to the Vizier, in which the poor man requests that he should not forget us. We opened his body the other day, placed his organs in a casket and buried them in the Greek church. His body, however, the barbers stuffed with herbs; for we do not yet know when we shall be able to take it to Constantinople. According to the barbers, his death was no wonder; for his stomach and blood were full of slime. Slime had permeated his whole body. His brain matter was healthy, and was as much in quantity as is usual for two – and his mind was as great as twelve men’s. He left his heart for us to send to France.5 After Easter we laid out his body in a big room, where services were held for three days. Anyone was allowed to view the body. Thirty Turks who had known the poor man well came together and viewed it, but none the less they do not believe that he is dead and are spreading a rumour that he has secretly gone away, and that we had dressed someone up in his stead. If only they were telling the truth! Yesterday after the service we laid the body in a coffin and placed it in a little room, where it will remain until we receive permission to take it to Constantinople.
Rodostó, 18 Julii 1735
The Porte having given permission for us covertly to take the body of our poor lord to Constantinople, I had a large crate made, put the coffin in it, had it put on board ship, and on the 4th set off with a number of companions for Constantinople, where we arrived on the 6th and sent the crate with the coffin inside to the Jesuits.6 They removed the coffin and opened it to see the body. And they dug a grave on the spot where our lord’s mother had been buried. Only her skull was found, and that was placed in her son’s coffin and they were buried together.
How wondrous are the dispensations of God! While I was in the great city the Vizier was deposed.7 And I left there and returned hither to the place of sorrow, where indeed everything inclines one to sorrow. Whichever way I turn, everywhere I see places where our lord lived, walked and talked with us; but now I see those places deserted, and those deserted places fill our hearts with grief. We have been abandoned by our good father, and we cheer our orphaned state by the shedding of tears. As if this sorrow were not sufficient for me, I fear that responsibility for the whole house8 may come to me; for Sibrik’s sickness increases by the day. And when I consider that he may die, what trouble shall I have until the young Prince arrives: this fills my time with gloom.
I shall end this letter, because in upsetting myself I shall upset you too. Letters written in sorrow are better if they are as brief as may be.
Rodostó, 20 Maji 1752
Dear Aunt, it is five years since I received a letter from you. To tell the truth, it has been five months, but is that not a long time? Previously we used to write to one another more frequently, what is wrong? Is it perhaps that we are becoming older? But even without your letter I shall fulfil your desire and finish writing about Turkish customs. In my last letter I ended on the subject of the Dervishes, and I shall write about them once more. The Dervishes’ chief outward occupation is dancing on Tuesdays and Fridays. But before they begin this pious performance their Superior preaches a sermon. They insist that the adherents of any faith may listen to this. The members of the order kneel in a circle. When the sermon is ended a band of singers and flute-players strike up the singing, which continues for a long time. When a certain verse is sung the Superior claps his hands, and at that sign the members of the order rise, extend their arms, and begin to whirl round, and so quickly that the watcher begins to feel dizzy. They wear a sort of skirt in thick broadcloth. Sometimes they whirl round as fast as the wheel of a cart, but they do not touch one another. When the Superior gives a sign they desist from dancing at once, and each squats down in his place. As they are made familiar with this in youth they do not suffer the least dizziness. My head, however, was giddy with just watching them. They do this whirling four or five times. They are permitted to marry, but have to leave the order.
I cannot end my account of the Turkish religion better than with a reference to their respect for Christ. It is untrue that they curse Him, as many maintain: for in this, one must have regard not to the common people but to the scribes. But if they are so unfortunate as not to believe in the divinity of Christ, they do at least revere Him as the Breath of God, as a great intercessor with the Lord. They agree that God sent Him forth to bring a law that is full of grace. But when they call us infidels it is not because we believe in Christ, but because we do not believe that Mahumet was sent from God. We are right in so doing.
(Excerpts selected by Hungarian Review from the 2016 revised edition translated and introduced by Bernard Adams (Kelemen Mikes, Letters from Turkey. Budapest: Corvina Books, 2016). The Letters were first published in English in 2000 by Kegan Paul International, London. Bernard Adams’s translation is based on the text of the Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó Magyar Klasszikusok edition of 1958.)
1 Rákóczi had finished Confessio peccatoris while still in Yeniköy, but continued to write on philosophical and theological subjects until 1723.
2 The Annunciation of the BVM.
3 Dated 27 October 1732.
4 Commonly called Rhenish forints, worth 20% more than Hungarian forints at the time. The document is in French, and describes Mikes as “premier Gentilhomme de la Chambre, le Sr. Mikes de Zagony”. His bequest is expressed as 10,000 livres.
5 To the Camaldulian house at Grosbois, near Paris (now in Yerres, Essonne), where he had lived. There is no provision for this in the will, and so the wish must have been verbally communicated. There is, however, a bequest to the monastery of 5,000 livres.
6 St Benoît’s in Beyoglu is the oldest Catholic church in Istanbul.
7 Hekimoglu Ali Pasha was replaced by Gürcii Ismail Pasha.
8 The Hungarians in fact occupied nine houses, so clearly Mikes does not anticipate being responsible for them all. As he uses ház to mean “house” and “room” his meaning is not always unambiguous.