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The Sweet Waters by Edwin De Leon

The denizens of great cities, whose weary eyes are doomed to rest eternally on long rows of buildings, unrelieved by anything softer or fresher than brownstone or marble fronts, thirst for an occasional glimpse of Nature, so healing to jaded mind and wearied body. So universal is this sentiment that provision for gratifying it is not confined to the cities which our modern civilization has reared, nor do the capitals of Christendom alone boast of their parks and similar places of resort. In effete and uncivilized Turkey the "institution" has long been established, and still flourishes; and the "Sweet Waters of Constantinople" draw quite as well, as regards both male and female visitors, as either Fairmount, Central or Hyde Park, or even the Bois de Boulogne, to which far-famed resort of all that is wise, wicked or witty in Paris these Turkish parks most nearly assimilate.

One of the two "Valleys of the Sweet Waters" is on the European, the other on the Asiatic, side of the Bosphorus. The former is more frequented by the Greek and other Christian populations, while the latter is chiefly resorted to by the higher classes among the Turks and the veiled ladies of their hareems, and is often visited by the sultan himself.

To the Asiatic Sweet Waters you must go by boat, or rather by caique, a peculiar little frail cockle-shell of a conveyance, rowed by the most truculent-looking and unmitigated ruffians, Turkish or Grecian, to be found on any waters or in any land, Christian or heathen. Picturesque in costume and exceedingly ragged and dirty, with the most cut-throat expression of face possible to conceive of, when you entrust your person and purse to their tender mercies you involuntarily remember with satisfaction that you insured your life for a good round sum before leaving your native country, and that this is one of the risks it covers.

To the European Sweet Waters you may go by carriage, but if wise will go there also by caique; for even the corduroy roads of our Southern country, so famous for their dislocating qualities, can be paralleled by the so-called road over which once (and once only), for our sins, we suffered ourselves to be shaken, not driven. It is the fashion at Constantinople to visit the Asiatic Sweet Waters only on Friday (the Mussulman Sabbath), and the European Sweet Waters on Sunday; and on those days all that may be seen of Turkish ladies is on full exhibition.

If you select the Asiatic Sweet Waters for your visit, you go down to the wharf at Tophane, where the rival boatmen (caiquejees) raise as loud a din and make as fierce a fight for your person and piastres as you ever encountered on your arrival at New York in a European steamer from rival hack-drivers or hotel "touters." Pulled, pushed and shoved about in all directions as fiercely as ever was the body of Patroclus in the Iliad, when Greek and Trojan contended for possession of it, you are at last hustled into a caique, and deposited in the bottom on soft cushions, your back supported by the end of the boat, your face to the two boatmen. The caique is gayly ornamented and pretty to look at, but it is the crankiest and tickliest of all nautical inventions—more resembling a Canadian birch-bark canoe than any other craft you are acquainted with. Admiring the view, you partially rise up and lean your elbow on the side of the boat. A warning cry from your boatmen and a sudden dip of your frail bark, which almost upsets you head-foremost to feed the fishes of the Bosphorus, admonish you to sit quietly, and you can scarcely venture to stir again during the long row. The caique is long and very narrow, and sharp at both ends—pointed, in fact. It is boarded over at these ends to prevent shipping seas. These planks are prettily varnished, with gilded rails, which give the boat a gay look.

The men row vigorously, and the frail skiff skims along the water at a rate of speed equal to an express-train. But the rushing of the rippling waters past the boat is the chief indication of the rapidity of our progress, so smoothly do we glide along. One peculiarity of the caique is that there are no rowlocks for the oars, which are held by a loop of leather fastened on the boat.

All the senses are soothed and steeped in Elysium during this rapid transit. The eye lazily runs over the squat-looking red houses with flat roofs which line the shore, to rest on the dark cypress trees which fill the intervening spaces, with the gilded balconies of some pleasure-palace of sultan or high Turk catching the sight occasionally. Caiques similar to your own are darting about in all directions, following, passing or meeting you, until at length you reach your destination, indicated by the crowd of caiques tied up there, like cabs on a grand-opera night waiting for their customers. Those of high Turkish functionaries or foreign ambassadors are very different from yours—as different as a coach-and-four from a common cab. Many of these have twelve rowers, all in fancy uniforms—red fezzes and jackets embroidered with gold—while the larger caiques are profusely and expensively ornamented.

Stepping ashore, you see a long line of carriages drawn up in several rows, and of every conceivable variety—from the Turkish araba to the most coquettish-looking Parisian coupé—gilded and adorned in a style to make a French lorette stare with amazement at a lavishness of expenditure exceeding her own.

The fair ones to whom these carriages belong may be seen in the distance squatting down on rugs spread out beneath the trees, and sipping coffee or sherbert while listening to musicians or story-tellers. You stroll toward them as near as their attendant guardians—grim-looking black eunuchs armed to the teeth, and quite ready to use those arms with very little provocation on the persons of any "dogs of infidels" who may interfere or seem to interfere with their fair charges—will permit. You see bundles of the gayest colored silks worn by women whose veils are thin as gossamer, and generally permit a very fair view of their charms, not only of face, but of bust as well. The bold black eyes of the caged birds flash out unshrinkingly on the strangers, who inspire curiosity, and not always aversion, if the language of those eyes be interpreted according to the Western code. In fact, the women seem to take a malicious pleasure in annoying their guards by encouraging such advances as can be made by the mute language of looks and signs.

Every Friday in the year the same pantomime is performed. The women go to the Sweet Waters to sit and stare at men whom they do not and never will know or speak to, and the men go to walk or waddle about and stare back at the women in the same way. This monotonous and melancholy pastime is varied by much stuffing of sweetmeats and cakes and sipping of colored beverages by the fair ones, and endless smoking by the men. There are strolling jugglers and musicians plying their trades for the amusement and paras of the public, and they are liberally patronized in the dreary dearth of amusement on these pleasure-grounds.

To the foreigner, after the sight has been seen a few times and divested of its novelty, the whole thing becomes tedious in the extreme; but we must remember that in his tastes the Turk is the very opposite of the Western man, and what would be death to us is fun to him. His idea of true enjoyment is that it should be passive, not active: his highest happiness is in "keff," a perfect repose of mind and body—an exaggeration of the Italian dolce far niente. This keff he enjoys at these weekly meetings, and the women in their way enjoy it too as the only public exposition of themselves they are permitted to make, and as a break in the monotony of their dreary and secluded lives.

But there is another mode of killing time there, evidently borrowed, as are the carriages, from Europe. The conveyances at intervals are driven round a circular road in two long files, going and coming, to permit people to stare at each other, just as in London, Paris or New York, minus the salutations to friends or conversation. As the poet says of the stars—

In silence all

Move round this dark terrestrial ball,

though the women, while sitting under the trees, chatter like magpies to one another. The etiquette is to recline languidly back in the carriage and speak through the eyes alone to the mounted cavaliers, who prance as near the carriages containing veiled inmates as the sable guards will permit, to the infinite amusement of Fatima and Zuleika, and boundless wrath and disgust of Hassan or Mustapha, "with his long sword, saddle, bridle, etc."

Two of these carriages are so peculiar to the place and people as to merit description. One of these, the "araba," is an heirloom from their old Tartar ancestry, and is only an exaggerated ox-cart with seats, and a scaffolding of poles around it. Over these poles there hangs a canopy of red to keep off the sun, and the seats are well-stuffed cushions, making a kind of bed of the bottom of the wagon. Into this curious conveyance are piled promiscuously the mother, children and slaves of the establishment—packed in as tightly as possible; and the contrast of costumes, faces, colors and ages between its occupants may be imagined, but cannot be described. For a genuine old-fashioned family carriage commend us to the araba.

This curious conveyance is drawn not by horses, but by white oxen, whose broad fronts are pleasingly painted between the eyes bright red with henna, the dye with which the Turkish ladies tinge their own fair hands and the soles of their feet. The oxen bear high wooden yokes covered with fringes and tassels, and their tails are often looped up with bright cords. Their pace, bearing their heavy burden of wood and flesh, is slow and stately, and the jolting of the springless wagon over the rough roads seemingly very severe. But the inmates seem used to their discomforts, and sit placidly and contentedly on their uneasy seats, apparently proud of their turn-out and the effect they are producing. These cumbrous vehicles are much affected by the elder ladies of the sultan's court, who constitute the Faubourg-Saint-Germain portion of society. True old-school Turks these, who look down with scorn on the new fashions, both in costume and carriage, stolen or adopted from the despised Franks.

Chief and most conspicuous of these latter is the small imitation brougham or coupé, termed a "teleki," and generally built at Paris regardless of cost, and resembling a Christian carriage about as nearly as the Turk resembles a European when he puts on a similar dress. The teleki is pumpkin-shaped, almost round, painted and gilded in the gayest colors, with large bunches of the brightest flowers painted on panels and on the glasses which shut it in all round. It is the most dazzling carriage the imagination of carriage-makers ever devised, and well adapted to the taste of the grown-up children it is intended for, who, clad in raiments of rose-color, pink, bright blue or scarlet, seem a fit lining for the gorgeous exterior. Unlike the French carriage, the teleki has no springs; so the exercise these fair ladies get is about equal to that of a ride on a hard-trotting horse.

Another peculiarity consists in the driver's dismounting from his box and walking gravely alongside the carriage, holding in his hands the colored silken reins to guide the well-bred horses.

On horseback alongside prance the ill-favored eunuchs, ready to swear at or smite the insolent Frank venturing too near the moon-eyed beauties in the teleki.

At these Sweet Waters the sultan has his own kiosk, a gilded monstrosity of architecture, and at its window, worn, pallid, haggard, gazing out with lacklustre and indifferent eye upon the scene below, this shadow of the Prophet might frequently be seen a few years since. It was etiquette for him to come sometimes, so he did it as a duty, not a pleasure; for the poor man had no pleasures, being the most utterly blasé man in this wide world. The drawback on all his pomp and power is the condition annexed to it, that no one is worthy of his society, and he must be ever alone, in public as in private. A representative of the faith as well as of the loyalty of his people, no one can be supposed to meet or associate with him on terms approaching equality, and hence his isolation from human sympathy or society.25

The fountain is covered by a square roof, and all around it are marble slabs with Turkish inscriptions in gilt letters praising the virtues of the water. In that scriptural phraseology so common in the East you are notified that "These waters are as sweet as those of the well of Zemzem, of which Abraham drank, and like unto those of the rivers of Paradise to the hot and thirsty who come here to taste them." The water was really very good water, but its praises struck us as rather hyperbolical, possibly because the Frank at Constantinople generally drinks and prefers other and more potent beverages.

But drinking the water is the least part of the performance here, and, unlike Saratoga, "flirtation around the spring" is a thing undreamed of where the sexes, at peril of life and limb, dare not even approximate, much less exchange courtesies over the draught.

There is a narrow road which leads you away from this busy spot to the sources of the fountains of these Sweet Waters. But road-making is not one of the triumphs of Turkish skill, and this is a very dirty and dusty road, full of holes which would smash the springs of any conveyances less primitive and strong than those in use. It is hedged in by fig trees growing to a size which would astonish those who have only seen the dwarf trees of the species which we possess. Passing along this road, we reach the inner valley. Here we find fewer people, but the same astonishing variety of race and costume which makes the other so curious and characteristic. The richness of the silk and satin dresses, all of the brightest colors, which adorn the women, and the gayly-embroidered jackets of the men, make the eyes ache which gaze upon them. Almost every specimen of the Eastern races may be seen here—all taking their pleasure in the same indolent way which distinguishes Eastern enjoyment. The Circassian and Georgian women are certainly very beautiful, as far as regularity of features, bold flashing eyes and great symmetry of form can make them; but they lack expression, the highest feminine charm, and softness is alien to those bold beauties. They remind you of Jezebel, and like her they "paint their faces" before going into public. Not only do they smear their faces freely with white and red, but they also join together their eyebrows by a thick black band of kohl, and with the same pigment blacken the lower lids of the eyes, giving a wicked and peculiar expression to the eyes. The tips of the fingers are stained red with henna; and without these appliances no Eastern woman deems her toilette complete. Many of them would doubtless be exceedingly lovely were they to let themselves alone, but Turkish taste requires these appliances, and an unpainted woman is a rarity.

It is an Eastern saying that a woman should be a load for a camel, and in deference to this taste they fatten themselves up until they become mountains of flesh. Where obesity is considered a charm, delicacy of outline ceases to be regarded, and a woman who has not rotundity is regarded as an unfortunate being. They are decidedly the greatest collection of well-fed females to be seen in the world.

The task of the black guards who accompany these houris is anything but a sinecure, and "nods and becks and wreathed smiles" are freely bestowed on the male passers-by in spite of etiquette and eunuchs. If the scandalous chronicles of the coffee-shops and bazaars are to be relied upon, "Love laughs at locksmiths" here as well as in more civilized lands, and Danger and Opportunity wink at each other. There is far less decorum and outward reserve of manner here than in our parks, but this freedom is all confined to looks and gestures, access and converse being both forbidden.

Frequently, however, the bad-tempered guardians of the hareem commit outrages on the persons of real or supposed aggressors in this way, and from these even members of the foreign embassies have not always been exempt. The difficulty of identifying the offender in such cases enhances the impunity of these wretches, for to arrest one on the spot would be impossible in the midst of a crowd which sympathizes with the offender, instead of the sufferer, and looks upon it as a proper punishment for the insolent Giaour. A private person unconnected with an embassy has still less chance for satisfaction, but must pocket the affront, even if smitten by whip or flat of sabre, considering himself fortunate to have escaped maiming or mutilation should he incautiously give a pretext for Ethiopian or Nubian intervention.

Few persons of foreign birth and training would go more than twice to visit the Sweet Waters of Asia, whose peculiarities and amusements have been thus briefly sketched. The spectacle at the European Sweet Waters differs somewhat from the routine already described. There, although you also meet the Turks, the greater proportion of the visitors are either Greeks or native Christians of different races. You see fewer arabas and telekis, and more carriages, or rather hacks, and men galloping along on raw-boned horses in a kind of imitation "Rotten-Row" style. The men wear the European dress, often surmounted by the red fez: the women dress in an insane imitation of French fashions, and glitter with jewelry—a passion with Eastern women of all races and creeds. Frequently a woman carries her whole fortune and her husband's in these ornaments, which, in a country where the difference between meum and tuum is so little observed by persons in authority, is regarded as the safest mode of investment.

The European Sweet Waters are rather more dull and less interesting than the Asiatic, owing to the causes already described, nor is compensation to be found in the superior beauty of the women; for, as a general rule, the Greek men are better looking than the women; and the intercourse between the sexes is regulated on the Eastern plan to a very great extent, though there is not the same absolute prohibition, nor the same peril attendant on the attempt to open an acquaintance. In all Eastern countries, however, the position and treatment of woman are modified by the prevailing prejudice, which places her on a much lower level than the man, and deprives her of most of the cherished privileges of her more favored Western sisters. If the Turk has failed in forcing his religious faith on his Christian vassals, he has succeeded in fixing the social status of their women on much the same basis as his own.

The day selected for visiting the European Sweet Waters by the native or Greek population is either Sunday or on the festival of some one of the many saints whose names are legion in the Greek calendar. Never was there a people so fond of holidays, or who take them oftener under religious pretexts. Yet they celebrate them in anything but a pious manner. Their fasts are much fewer and not so punctiliously observed.

As the restriction on intoxicating beverages is not such a cardinal article of faith at the European as at the Asiatic Sweet Waters, that element enters into the diversions at the former place, to the frequent scandal of the decorous and abstemious Turks. The fiery wines of Sicily and the Greek islands are freely indulged in, and tipsy cavaliers, caracoling on the hacks of Pera and Galata, are not infrequent accessories, aggravating the danger and discomfort to the stranger of the return in carriage or on horseback. The roughness of the road, its heat and dust, are bad enough; but to aggravate these discomforts you have a crowd of hacks and a swarm of cavaliers pursuing the same route, with all the collisions inevitable from unskillful coachmen and tipsy riders. It is a long, dreary drive too, with no scenery worth looking at on the route, even could you discern it through the dense clouds of dust which envelop you from its commencement to its close. When you reach your hotel you take a bath to refresh yourself, and go down to supper, exclaiming with a sigh of relief, "Well, thank Heaven! I have seen the Sweet Waters!"

Footnote 25: (return)

This rule was observed by Abdul Medjid, the late sultan, of whom I speak. It is said that his successor has broken through this restriction to a considerable extent, and is a social being.