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Innocents Abroad: Following Mark Twain's Footsteps Through Istanbul
February 26, 2000

Most of you have read something by the American author, Mark Twain, such as Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Today I am going to tell you about another of his works, Innocents Abroad. It was written around 1869 as a series of letters to a California newspaper which sponsored his journey by steam ship to Europe and the Holy Lands. The letters were later collected into a volume, which became his best selling book during his lifetime. A few chapters deal with Turkey, and we will look at bits from those.

Before we begin our journey, a word is in order about the style of Mark Twain. He was often a cynical satirist who made fun of everything and everyone (as do I, with less acclaim). By our standards today, he could easily be seen as ethnocentric and culturally insensitive. Please bear in mind that his work was written 131 years ago and not during the current fashion of political correctness. Remembering that, his wit is unsurpassed and his descriptions of places and people are often remarkably similar to what one sees today. Also, don't be confused when he refers to Istanbul as Constantinople, the former name of the largest city in Turkey. So let's begin.

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Kavitha and Andrew with the Bosphorus in the background.
Upon his initial arrival to Istanbul along the Bosphorus, Twain wrote, "This great city contains a million inhabitants, but so narrow are its streets, and so crowded together are its houses... it is by far the handsomest city we have seen. Its dense array of houses swells upward from the water's edge, and spreads over the domes of many hills; and the gardens that peep out here and there, the great globes of the mosques, and the countless minarets that meet the eye every where, invest the metropolis with the quaint Oriental aspect one dreams of when he reads books of eastern travel. Constantinople makes a noble picture..."

And so begins the impressions that Twain had of this eclectic city. His descriptions of the minarets and the many domes of the mosques could have been written today instead of 131 years ago, though today there are around 14 million people in the city. Twain's description is harmless enough in its humble start, but his gift for sarcasm comes on full force in his next paragraph.

"...Its attractiveness begins and ends with its picturesqueness... Ashore, it was-well, it was an eternal circus. People were thicker than bees, in those narrow streets, and the men were dressed in all the outrageous, outlandish, idolatrous, extravagant, thunder-and-lightning costumes that ever a tailor with the delirium tremens and seven devils could conceive of. There was no freak in dress too crazy to be indulged in; no absurdity too absurd to be tolerated; no frenzy in ragged diabolism too fantastic to be attempted. No two men were dressed alike. It was a wild masquerade of all imaginable costumes... Some patriarchs wore awful turbans, but the grand mass of the infidel horde wore the fiery red skull-cap they call a fez. All the remainder of the raiment they indulged in was utterly indescribable..."

So Twain viewed the clothing of the Turks as being less conventional than the style of dress to which he was accustomed. It is true that one may bear witness to styles of dress not normally found in one's homeland when one travels, and this was much more so in 1869 than it is today. But today, young Turks wear as stylish and fashionable clothing as one could hope to find in Paris, New York, Buenos Aires or Sydney. People around the world used to dress in manners that often bore no relation to the manner of dress in other places, but now, since the world has grown as 'small' as it has, hip fashion varies surprisingly little from city to city worldwide. I have not found people dressed as outlandishly as did Twain (though it would have been fun to see Istanbul in his day), but I have found that people in Istanbul dress more colorfully than do people in North America. Lastly, people no longer wear the fez in Turkey because Ataturk outlawed it in the 1920's.

"The shops here are mere coops, mere boxes, bath-rooms, closets-any thing you please to call them-on the first floor. The Turks sit cross-legged in them, and work and trade and smoke long pipes... (there are) vagabonds driving laden asses; porters carrying dry-goods boxes as large as cottages on their backs; peddlers of grapes, hot corn, pumpkin seeds, and a hundred other things, yelling like fiends..."

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This happy fellow offerred to shine my sneakers at a reasonable rate.
It is still true that the congested areas of the markets are filled with one-story, cramped shops. One may walk down a narrow alley brimming with explosive colors, exotic smells, and a barrage of sounds that can only be found in such a marketplace. People still carry a great many goods on their backs as they wind their way through the narrow streets.

"The place is crowded with people all the time, and as the gay-colored Eastern fabrics are lavishly displayed.. It is full of life, and stir, and business, dirt, beggars, asses, yelling peddlers, porters, dervishes, high-born Turkish female shoppers, Greeks, and weird-looking and weirdly dressed Mohammedans from the mountains and the far provinces-and the only solitary thing one does not smell when he is in the Great Bazaar, is something which smells good.", Twain said it all there.

"... drifting noiselessly about are squads of Turkish women, draped from chin to feet in flowing robes, and with snowy veils bound about their heads, that disclose only the eyes and a vague, shadowy notion of their features. Seen moving about, far away in the dim, arched aisles of the Great Bazaar, they look as the shrouded dead must have looked when they walked forth from their graves amid storms and thunders and earthquakes... A street in Constantinople is a picture which one ought to see once-not oftener."

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Rats with wings swarm the plaza.
It is true that many women still walk the streets of Istanbul veiled and shrouded, but more walk the streets without such encumbrances. A great many wear only a head scarf which hides their hair, a precept of Islam (Turkey is 99% Muslim) but just as many or more women are indistinguishable in dress from their Western European or North American counterparts. I disagree with Twain on the last point he made in that paragraph- I believe that this is a place worth seeing over and over.

Twain speaks of the street dogs of Istanbul: "...and sleeping happily, comfortably, serenely, among the hurrying feet, are the famed dogs of Constantinople... I am half willing to believe that the celebrated dogs of Constantinople have been misrepresented-slandered... I find them every where, but not in strong force... I never saw such utterly wretched, starving, sad-visaged, broken-hearted looking curs in my life... They hardly seemed to have strength enough or ambition enough to walk across the street-I do not know that I have seen one walk that far yet. They are mangy and bruised and mutilated. They would not move, though the Sultan himself passed by... I thought I was lazy, but I am a steam-engine compared to a Constantinople dog."

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See even the dogs shake hands in Turkey!
Here again I agree with Twain and find his observations timeless. However, I can tell you first hand that, when Monica and I walked the streets of Istanbul on our first evening in the city, we were terrified by two slobbering, scowling hounds. We fled into the nearby Four Seasons Hotel and sought refuge from the canines, though later experience showed that most of the street dogs are all bark and no bite (like Monica herself.) Then again I am a bit of a sissy when it comes to big barking dogs.

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Robust grandmother saunters near the Aya Sofia.
Sauntering over to the Mosque of St. Sophia, Twain muses: "The Mosque of St. Sophia is the chief lion of Constantinople. I do not think much of the Mosque of St. Sophia. I suppose I lack appreciation. We will let it go at that. It is the rustiest old barn in heathendom. I believe all the interest that attaches to it comes from the fact that it was built for a Christian church and then turned into a mosque, without much alteration, by the Mohammedan conquerors of the land. They made me take off my boots and walk into the place in my stocking-feet. I caught cold..."

It is well known that this mosque was built originally as a Byzantine church, and has since been turned into one of the finest mosques in Istanbul. It is also true that one must remove one's shoes when entering the mosque, or a Turkish home. Twain had a ruthless sense of humor when it came to tolerating different religions and their practices.

"... Squatting and sitting in groups, here and there and far and near, were ragged Turks... hearing sermons... and in fifty places were more of the same sort bowing and straightening up, bowing again and getting down to kiss the earth, muttering prayers the while, and keeping up their gymnastics till they ought to have been tired, if they were not."

Here Twain misunderstands the ritualistic prayer that a good Muslim engages in five times a day. The supplication and ritual is the way in which they pray in the mosque. Or maybe he was just trying to be funny. More of Twain's impressions on the Muslim religion: "Mosques are plenty, churches are plenty, graveyards are plenty, but ... whiskey is scarce. The Koran does not permit Mohammedans to drink... They say the Sultan has eight hundred wives. This almost amounts to bigamy. It makes our cheeks burn with shame to see such a thing permitted here in Turkey. We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake, however"

Here Twain refers to something interesting- it is a well known fact that the laws of Islam permit a man to have four wives. Few, however, engage in this practice, and yet it is a common stereotype about Muslims. The practice is not common and though it is done, it is done by exceedingly few people. The irony that Twain points out when he writes, "We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake..." is that, in the state of Utah, a state founded by Mormons, it was legal at that time for Mormons to practice polygamy. Even though occasionally a Mormon today will have more than one wife, in fairness, it should be pointed out that it may be as rare among Mormons as it is among Muslims to actually have such a lifestyle. Twain was, in his bizarre manner, defending the Turks here. Like I described to you about my own harrowing experience at the hamam, Twain had his own taste of it just around the time that my great great grandfather was busy being born... "For years and years I have dreamed of the wonders of the Turkish bath; for years and years I have promised myself that I would yet enjoy one... while I drowsed and dreamed, or contentedly gazed at the rich hangings of the apartment, the soft carpets, the sumptuous furniture, the pictures, and drank delicious tranquil repose, lulled by sensuous odors from unseen censers... the music of fountains that counterfeited the pattering of summer rain. That was the picture, just as I got it from incendiary books of travel. It was a poor, miserable imposture."

Like me, Twain was starry eyed and hopeful when he first entered the hamam. Read how his experience and reactions were very similar to my own. "They received me in a great court, paved with marble slabs... I went into one of the racks and undressed. I was then conducted down stairs into the wet, slippery court... There was nothing whatever in this dim marble prison... it was a very solemn place... This prison was filled with hot air. (They) laid me out on a raised platform in the center. It was very warm. Presently my man sat me down by a tank of hot water, drenched me well, gloved his hand with a coarse mitten, and began to polish me all over with it. I began to smell disagreeably. The more he polished the worse I smelt. It was alarming... He went on scrubbing, and paid no attention. I soon saw that he was reducing my size...After a while he brought a basin, some soap, and something that seemed to be the tail of a horse. He made up a prodigious quantity of soap-suds, deluged me with them from head to foot, without warning me to shut my eyes, and then swabbed me viciously with the horse-tail..."

Like your happy-go-lucky Trekker friend, Twain finished up his experience in the hamam with a drink. I had freshly squeezed orange juice. In case you need coffee to stay awake and finish this, let's wrap up with Twain's ideas about the Turkish version of the beverage: "... the world-renowned Turkish coffee that poets have sung so rapturously for many generations, and I seized upon it as the last hope that was left of my old dreams of Eastern luxury. It was another fraud. Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst. The cup is small, it is smeared with grounds; the coffee is black, thick, unsavory of smell, and execrable in taste. The bottom of the cup has a muddy sediment in it half an inch deep. This goes down your throat, and portions of it lodge by the way, and produce a tickling aggravation that keeps you barking and coughing for an hour. Here endeth ... my dream"

So you see that things do not always change as much as they seem. The coffee in Turkey has not changed a bit since Twain choked down his cup in 1869. More importantly, this is still a magical and exciting place, and one can still see almost everything that Twain saw way back in 1869. However much Twain ridiculed people and places when he wrote, I suspect that he enjoyed his time in Turkey, even though he has a brisk way of expressing it. I know we on the Team are having a great time here. See you next time.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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