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How They Keep A Hotel in Turkey by Edwin De Leon


The charity of Islam is an article of practice as well as of faith, and manifests itself in ways astonishing to visitors from Christian lands. Thus, the impunity—nay, the protection and sympathy—afforded to the street-beggar, and the way in which the very poor divide their crust with those still more poverty-stricken than themselves, surprise the stranger who observes the scene in the open streets. Then, too, the public fountains, which are charitable offerings from pious persons, are more numerous in Constantinople than in any other city in the world. Nor does the law of kindness restrict itself to man. Islam has anticipated Mr. Bergh, and "The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals" had as its founder in the Orient no less a personage than Mohammed, whom "the faithful" revere as the Messenger (Résoul) of God, and whom we improperly term Prophet. The Koran specially inculcates kindness to the brute creation, and so thoroughly does the Mussulman obey the mandate that the streets are filled with homeless, masterless dogs, whose melancholy lives Moslem piety will not abridge by water-cure, as in Western lands. This is the more curious because the dog is an unclean animal, whose touch defiles the true believer. Therefore no one keeps a dog, or harbors him, or does more than throw him a bone or scraps of food.

Should a camel fall sick in the desert, or break a limb, his master does not mercifully put him out of his pain, but leaves him there to die "when it pleases Allah." The same sentiment runs through the whole of Eastern life, and it is notably manifested in religious foundations, which also serve as schools, and in khans or caravansaries, which are the Eastern substitutes for hotels. The khans had their origin in charity in the good old times of primitive Mohammedanism, before its simplicity was lost by contact with other creeds. They were wayside buildings intended for the use of commercial travelers or pilgrims, affording shelter from storms and protection from wild beasts, but no further accommodation. The hospitable doors were ever open, but the apparition of "mine host," ready to offer you board and lodging for a reasonable compensation, was undreamt of in the early Turkish philosophy. Every traveler literally "took up his bed and walked "—or rode—away in the morning, leaving the room he had tenanted as bare as he found it. Everybody had to bring his own cooking utensils, provender and materials for making a fire.

What in other countries is left for commercial enterprise to effect for the sake of profit is accomplished here by pious people, who leave legacies for the purpose, and never figure in newspapers, before or after death, as the reward of their munificence or charity. Many a wayworn traveler has blessed the memory of those truly religious men or women on reaching the rugged walls of a khan after a long day's ride under a Syrian sun or the pitiless down-pours of rain characteristic of the same region.

Some of these khans on the road to Damascus or other large Eastern cities are spacious buildings, and the scene presented within them when some caravan stops overnight, or several parties of travelers meet there, is picturesque in the extreme. Everybody wears bright-colored garments and everybody is armed, and the grunt of the camel and bray of the donkey make night, if not musical, certainly most melancholy to the untrained ear.

But innovation has crept in, and the city khan is now a kind of bastard hotel, with a rude host, who makes you pay for your own lodging and the provender of your animal; and as part and parcel of the establishment you also find a coffee-shop, coffee being the primal necessity of Oriental well—being, taking precedence even of tobacco, which, however, always accompanies it. There is always a bazaar close by, at which you can purchase savory kibabs of mutton and other cooked food. Men are no more ashamed to eat in the street than they are to pray there; so you may see multitudes taking their meals al fresco at the hours of morning, midday or sunset, after prayers.

Neither does the Mussulman need elaborate bed and bedding for his repose. He does not undress as we do, but only loosens his garments, without taking them off, and stretches himself on top of his bed or rug, as the case may be. When the weather is cold, he takes off his shoes, but wraps his head and the upper part of his person tightly in his blanket or shawl, at apparent risk of suffocation. Keeping the feet warm and the head cool, which is our great sanitary law, is reversed by the Turk, for he keeps his head covered and his feet uncovered as much as he possibly can. In the morning he gets up, shakes himself, tightens his garments, performs his matutinal ablutions, and his toilet is made for the day. Under these circumstances it will be seen that many things which we should regard as essential necessaries in our hostelry, would be pure superfluities to our Turkish or Arab brother.

Of course, in these places you meet a great mixture of nationalities and all classes and conditions, for the rich, in the absence of other hotel accommodations, must use them as well as the poor; only, as every man brings his own things with him, you find more luxury and comfort in some of the arrangements than in others. You may see rich merchants from Bagdad or Damascus sitting on piles of costly cushions, attended by obsequious slaves, and smoking perfumed Shiraz out of silver narghiles, whose long, snake-like tubes are tipped with precious amber and encircled by rows of precious stones worth a prince's ransom. Huddled together, in striking contrast to this picture, you may see, crouched on their old rugs and smoking the common clay chibouque, a bevy of street-beggars, also enjoying themselves after their fashion.

These khans serve also as shops or bazaars for the traveling merchant, Persian or Turk, who is ever ready to show you his wares, without seeming to care much whether you buy or not.

The city khans are very simply built in a quadrangle, with small rooms, like convent cells, running all round it. These are used both as sleeping-rooms and shops. The stables for the animals and the store-rooms are in a covered corridor beneath. As there are permanent residents here, and valuable merchandise and other articles stored away, there is a gate strongly bolted and barred, and often sheathed in iron, and a gate-keeper, generally to be seen sleeping or smoking, whose sole business is to prevent the entrance of improper or suspicious persons.

The evenings at the khan used to be, and sometimes still are, enlivened by the presence of the almés or dancing-girls, whose ancestors may have danced the same wild and wanton dances before Cleopatra. The singing-girls, monotonously chanting the same dolorous and drowsy tunes, with imitation guitar accompaniment on the sââb were also wont to wound the drowsy ear of night for the diversion of the guests. Drowsier and more sleep-compelling still were the interminable tales spun out by the professional story-teller, giving ragged versions of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments for the delectation of the tireless native listeners.

In those old days, too, the khans used to be the resort of the slave-merchants, who kept stowed safely away, for inspection and purchase, Circassian, Georgian or more dingy beauties, to suit all tastes. But civilization, in its encroachments on Turkey, has compelled the cessation of open sales of either white or black slaves in public places, though so long as the social and domestic system of the East remains unchanged, the sale of women for the house or harem will continue. It is conducted, however, with more privacy, and Christians are not permitted the privilege of viewing the proceedings. This restriction has taken away from the khans one of their former great attractions.

To European or American travelers accustomed to the ease, luxury and profusion of our modern hotels, where the guests enjoy more comforts than most of them get at home, this kind of entertainment for man and beast certainly does not seem attractive. Yet there is enjoyment in it when the khan is tolerably free from fleas and "such small deer," and one is accustomed "to roughing it," and blessed with a good appetite and digestion.

Yet, truth to tell, it is more picturesque than pleasant at the best—more gratifying to the eye than to the other senses, especially to those of smell and hearing. For the odors arising from Turkish or Arab cooking are not those of Araby the Blest; and the close contiguity of the beasts of burden assails both the senses named more pungently than pleasantly. Besides, the Oriental, generally making it a rule to wrap up his head carefully in the covering, snores stertorously throughout the night; so that silence, which we regard as necessary for repose, does not rule over the khan; and when daybreak comes, the startled traveler may imagine Babel has broken loose again, since both men and animals rise with the dawn, and make most diabolical noises to indicate that they have risen.

Enterprising Europeans have set up many hotels in Eastern cities, but they are almost exclusively resorted to by strangers or Europeans resident in the country. Even the high Turks, lapped in luxury and sybaritic in their habits of personal ease, prefer their own hotel system to ours, carrying all their comforts along with them, and a retinue of servants to take charge of them. You will very rarely see a Turkish gentleman, even if educated in Europe, stopping at Messeir's or any of the great Eastern hotels on the European plan.

At Messeir's in Constantinople, or at Shepheard's hotel in Cairo—places of historic interest almost, through the vivid descriptions of travelers like the authors of Eothen and The Crescent and the Cross—a most motley medley of Western nationalities may be encountered, the adventurers, tourists and wanderers of the world congregated there during the winter months, and presenting a panoramic view of all the peculiar phases and contrasts of European civilization, more antagonistic there than elsewhere. There you see the German savant with his round spectacles, round face and round figure; the lean and restless Frenchman; the imperturbable Englishman, drinking his bottled beer under the shadow of the Pyramids; and the angular American, more curious, but more cosmopolite, than any of them. The returning Englishman or Englishwoman who has spent twenty years in India also presents an anomalous type, proving how climate and mode of life may alter the original; for it is curious to contrast the round, rosy faces of the fresh English girls outward bound with the sharp, sallow faces and flashing, restless eyes which characterize those who are returning. The babel of tongues at these tables-d'hôte, where conversations are being carried on in every European language, is most perplexing at first, though French and English predominate. Altogether, for the student of character there is no better field than one of these European hotels in the East—none where the lines of difference can be found more sharply defined; for travel and contact with strangers appear only to bring out the contrasts more clearly, and produce a more direct antagonism, instead of softening down or assimilating them, as one might expect.

Very few travelers see the city khans—fewer still ever venture to pass a night within their walls. Even on the routes of desert-travel the pilgrims for pleasure avoid them, substituting their own tents for the stone walls, and confiding in the arrangements made by their dragomen or guides, who contract to make the necessary provision for all their wants for a stipulated sum—one-half usually in advance, the balance payable at the expiration of the trip. To do these men justice, as a rule they provide liberally and well in all respects, their reputation and recommendations being their capital and stock in trade for securing subsequent tourists. Yet it cannot be doubted that this system has robbed the Eastern tour of some of its most salient and striking peculiarities, and has deprived the traveler of much opportunity for insight into the real life of the Oriental, only to be seen while he is journeying from place to place, since his own house is generally closed against the stranger, and it is only in the khan that a glimpse of his mode of life can be obtained.

The khan, like the harem, is one of the peculiar institutions of the East, and will probably so continue, in spite of the advancing tide of European civilization; which, however it may affect the outer aspects of that life, has as yet made little impression on its more essential features. The men may wear the Frank dress (all but the hat, which they will not accept), may smoke cigars instead of chibouques, and drink "gaseous lemonade" (champagne), in defiance of the Prophet's prohibition; the women may send from the high harems for French fashions, and "fearfully and wonderfully" array themselves therein; but in other respects the people will stubbornly adhere to their own social system and habits of life.

It follows that the traveler who goes to the East to study the manners and customs of its people will get only an imperfect and outside view if he makes himself comfortable in one of the hybrid European hotels we have described, instead of braving the picturesque discomforts of the Oriental hotel or khan, which he will find endurable by taking a few preliminary precautions easily suggested to him on the spot.