Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Prospect of Constantinople

‘The Prospect of Constantinople, when ye behold it from the top of the Channel, at the distance of two Miles, is beyond compare, as being to my Eyes, as to all that ever saw it, the most Charming Prospect that can be seen.’ This is from the published travel memoir/diary by Jean (or John) Chardin, born all of 380 years ago today. He was an obsessive traveller, revelling in the culture and riches of the Near East, particularly Persia, and his works are considered valuable information sources about the region and period. John Evelyn, in his diary, described him thus: ‘A very handsome person, extremely affable, a modest, well-bred man, not inclined to talk wonders. He spoke Latin, and understood Greek, Arabic, and Persian, from eleven years’ travels in those parts, whither he went in search of jewels, and was become very rich.’

Chardin was born in Paris on 16 November 1643, the son of a wealthy merchant jeweller. He joined his father in business, and in 1664 he was sent overland, with another merchant from Lyon, on a trading mission to the East Indies. In Persia, he won the confidence of the Shah, Abbas II, who appointed him as a royal merchant and also commissioned jewellery of his own design. After travelling to India, he returned to Paris in 1670. The following year, he again set out for Persia, traveling through Turkey, Crimea, and the Caucasus, not reaching Isfahan for nearly two years. He remained in Persia for four years, revisited India, and returned to France (in 1677) via the Cape of Good Hope.

Fleeing French persecution of the Huguenots in 1681, Chardin settled in London, where he became court jeweler and was knighted by King Charles II. That same year, he married Esther, daughter of M. de Lardinière Peigné, councillor in the Parliament of Rouen, then also a Protestant refugee in London. Chardin was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. And in 1684, the king sent him as envoy to Holland, where he stayed some years, operating as agent to the East India Company. He died in 1713, and a funeral monument was raised to his memory in Westminster Abbey, bearing the inscription Sir John Chardin – nomen sibi fecit eundo (‘he made a name for himself by travelling’). Further information is available from Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Iranica.

Chardin kept diaries of his journey, and wrote detailed travelogues - these works are considered highly valuable first hand sources, covering the Safavid period in Persia, and specifically the coronation of the Persian sultan Suleiman III. He published a first volume in 1686, under the title, Journal du voyage du chevalier Chardin en Perse et aux Indes orientales: par la mer Noire et par la Colchide. This is freely available at Internet Archive. Chardin planned three further volumes, also to include some diaries, but these never appeared as envisaged. Thenceforward, the history of Chardin’s written works - republished, reissued and translated in many versions - is both complex and confusing - see Encyclopaedia Iranica for details. Although there is many a reference to his diaries and journals, the narratives in the published books rarely look like verbatim diary extracts.

The following extracts - which are taken from a modernised text of the original 1686 volume: The Travels Sir John Chardin into Persia, Through the Black-Sea, and the Country of Colchis - can be found at the Early English Books Online website, hosted by The University of Michigan Library

‘I Departed from Paris, with an Intention to return to the East-Indies, the Seventeenth of August 1671, just Fifteen Months after I came from thence. I undertook this tedious Journey a second time, as well to perfect my self in the Knowledge of the Languages, the Customs, the Religions, the Trades and Sciences, the Commerce and History of the Oriental People as to endeavour the Advancement of my Fortunes and Estate.

[. . .]

The 10th of November we Embark’d in a Vessel under a Holland Convoy, bound for Smyrna. This Fleet was compos’d of six Merchant Men, and two Men of War. The whole Cargo amounted to three Millions of Livers, besides what the Passengers, Mariners, and Captains themselves kept close and undiscover’d, to prevent the Payment of Freight, Custom, and the Consuls Dues. We touch’d at Messina, Zant, and several other Islands of the Archipelago. Near the Island of Micona we had a considerable Dispute with a Corsair of Legorn, about one of his Men who had made his escape aboard us, by swimming a Mile. Upon demand of him, the Corsair sent us word, He would Fight us, if we did not restore him his Seaman; and for our parts we did not think it worth our while to protect him.

[. . .]

I arriv’d at Smyrna the seventh of March 1672, after being four Months at Sea. In which tedious Voyage we endur’d much Cold, and many a boystrous Storm. We were in want of Victuals; nor could we have made this Voyage with more Danger or more Hardship.

I shall not trouble my self to make any Description of Smyrna, where I found nothing worthy Remark, or in any other part of the Archipelago, more than what is to be found in the Relations of Spon, and other Travellers, Men of Learning and Exactness, who have been there since my time. I shall therefore content my self with recounting some Particulars relating to Commerce and History, of which they have not spoken.

The English drive a great Trade at Smyrna, and over all the Levant. This Trade is driv’n by a Royal Company setled at London; which is Govern’d after a most prudent manner, and therefore cannot fail of success. It has stood almost these hundred Years, being first Confirm’d towards the middle of Queen Elizabeth’s Raign. A Raign famous for having, among other Things, giv’n Life to several Trading Companies, particularly those of Hamborough, Russia, Greenland, the East-Indies and Turkie, all which remain to this Day.’

[. . .]

After I had staid twelve days at Smyrna, I embark’d for Constantinople, where I arriv’d the Ninth of March, and Landed without any trouble, any danger, or any expence a very great Quantity of Rich Goods, which I brought along with me, being more then two Horses could carry. For M. de Nointel did me that favour as to give me leave to put his Name and the Flowre de Lices upon my Chests, and then sent for ‘em as belonging to himself. Which was done with the greatest ease in the World. For he presently sent his Interpreter to the Officer of the Custom-House, to let him know that he had two Chests aboard a Flemish Vessel that arriv’d the day before, which belong’d to him; and therefore desir’d they might be deliver’d Custom-free. Accordingly the Officer gave such Order, that the Interpreter went aboard the Dutch Vessel, unladed the two Chests, and sent ‘em to the Ambassador's House, who did me Kindnesses to send ‘em to my Lodging the next day.’


‘The 19th of July the Greek Merchant who was to Conduct me to Mingrelia, came to give me notice that the Saic lay at an Anchor near the Mouth of the Black-Sea, and only expected a fair Wind. So that I would presently have gone aboard, but my Friends did not think it convenient, till the Vessel was ready to Sail, for fear I should be discover’d for a French-Man. Thereupon I staid three days with Signor Sinibaldi Fieschi, Resident of Genoa, at a Country-House which he had upon the Bosphorus, and four days more at a fair Monastery of the Greeks, at the end of the Channel upon Europe side, over against the Harbour where the Saic lay at Anchor.

The Thracian Bosphorus is certainly one of the Loveliest parts of the World. The Greeks call Bosphori, those Streights or Arms of the Sea which an Ox may be able to swim over. This Channel is about Fifteen Miles in length, and about Two in breadth, in most parts, but in others less. The Shores consist of Rising Grounds cover’d over with Houses of Pleasure, Wood, Gardens, Parks, Delightful Prospects, Lovely Wildernesses Water’d with Thousands of Springs and Fountains.

The Prospect of Constantinople, when ye behold it from the top of the Channel, at the distance of two Miles, is beyond compare, as being to my Eyes, as to all that ever saw it, the most Charming Prospect that can be seen. The Passage through the Bosphorus is the most lovely and fullest of Divertisement that can be made by Water: And the number of Barks that Sail to and fro in fair Weather is very great. The Resident of Genoa told me, He made it his Pastime to tell the Boats that Sail’d to and fro before his House from Noon to Sun-set, in what time he told no less then Thirteen Hunderd.

There are Four Castles that stand upon the Bosphorus well Fortifi’d with great Guns: Two, Eight Miles from the Black-Sea, and Two more near the Mouth of the Channel. The Two latter were built not above Forty Years ago, to prevent the Cossacks, Muscovite and Polanders from entring into the Mouth of the Channel; who before made frequent Inroads into it with their Barks, almost within sight of Constantinople.’


‘The 14. we travell’d five leagues, through a Country full of little Hills, following the same course as the days before, that it is to the North-West, leaving that spacious Plain upon the left hand, which has been the Stage of so many Bloody Battels, fought in the last ages; and in the beginning of this between the Persians and Turks. The people of the Country shew you a great heap of Stones, & affirm it to be the Place where that Battel began, between Selim the Son of Solymon the Great, and Ismahel the Great. Our days Journey ended at Alacou. The Persians assert that this place was so call’d Alacou, by that famous Tartar Prince who conquer’d a great Part of Asia, and there founded a City, ruin’d during the Wars between the Turks and Persians.

The 15. our Journey was not so long as the day before, but the way through which we travell’d was more smooth and easie. We lodg’d at Marant; which is a good fair Town, consisting of about two thousand five hundred houses, and which has so many Gardens, that they take up as much ground as the Houses. It is seated at the bottom of a little Hill, at the end of a Plain, which is a league broad and five long: and which is one of the most lovely and fairest that may be seen; a little River call’d Zelou-lou running through the middle of it: from which the people of the Country cut several Trenches to water their Grounds and their Gardens. Marant is better peopl’d than Nacchivan, and a much fairer Town. There grows about it great plenty of Fruits, and the best in all Media. But that which is most peculiar to these Parts is this, that they gather Cocheneel in the Places adjoyning; though not in any great quantity, nor for any longer time then only eight days in the Summer, when the Sun is in Leo. Before that time the People of the Country assure us, that it does not come to Maturity; and after that time the Worm from whence they draw the Cocheneel, makes a hole in the lease upon which it grows, and is lost. The Persians call Cocheneel Quermis from Querm, which signifies a Worme, because it is extracted out of Worms.’


‘The 18. our Journey reach’d to Cashan, where we arriv’d, after we had travell’d seven Leagues, steering toward the South, over the Plain already mention’d: and at the end of two Leagues, we found the Soyl delightful and fertile, stor’d with large Villages. We pass’d through several, and about half the way left upon the left hand, at a near distance, a little City call’d Sarou, seated at the foot of a Mountain.

The City of Cashan is seated in a large Plain, near a high Mountain. It is a League in length, and a quarter of a League in breadth; extending it self in length from East to West. When you see it afar off, it resembles a half Moon, the Corners of which look toward both those Parts of the Heavens. The Draught is no true Representation, either of the Bigness or the Figure; as having been taken without a true Prospect. And the reason was the Indisposition of my Painter, who being extremely tir’d with the former days Travel, was not able to stir out of the Inn, where we lay. All that he could do was to get upon the Terrass, and take the Draught from thence.

There is no River that runs by the City, only several Canals convey’d under Ground, with many deep Springs and Cisterns as there are at Com. It is encompass'd with a double Wall, flank’d with round Towers, after the Ancient Fashion; to which there belong five Gates. One to the East, call’d the Royal Gate; as being near the Royal Palace, that stands without the Walls. Another call’d the Gate of Fieu; because it leads directly to a great Village, which bears that name. Another between the West and North, call’d the Gate of the House of Melic; as being near to a Garden of Pleasure, which was planted by a Lord of that Name. The two other Gates are opposite to the South-East, and North-East. The one call’d Com Gate, and the other Ispahan Gate; be cause they lead to those Cities. The City and the Suburbs, which are more beautiful then the City, contain six thousand five hundred Houses, as the People assure us; forty Mosques, three Colleges, and about two hundred Sepulchres of the Descendants of Aly. The Principal Mosque stands right against the great Market Place, having one Tower, that serves for a Steeple, built of Free Stone. Both the Mosque and the Tower are the Remainders of the Splendour of the first Mahumetans, who invaded Persia.


It is worth noting that although I have not been able to find any extracts from Chardin’s actual diaries, he does appear a few times in the pages of John Evelyn’s diary. Here’s Evelyn’s most substantial passage about Chardin.

30 August 1680
‘I went to visit a French gentleman, one Monsieur Chardin, who having been thrice in the East Indies, Persia, and other remote countries, came hither in our return ships from those parts, and it being reported that he was a very curious and knowing man, I was desired by the Royal Society to salute him in their name, and to invite him to honor them with his company. Sir Joseph Hoskins and Sir Christopher Wren accompanied me. We found him at his lodgings in his eastern habit, a very handsome person, extremely affable, a modest, well-bred man, not inclined to talk wonders. He spoke Latin, and understood Greek, Arabic, and Persian, from eleven years’ travels in those parts, whither he went in search of jewels, and was become very rich. He seemed about 36 years of age. After the usual civilities, we asked some account of the extraordinary things he must have seen in traveling over land to those places where few, if any, northern Europeans, used to go, as the Black and Caspian Sea, Mingrelia Bagdad, Nineveh, Persepolis, etc. He told us that the things most worthy of our sight would be, the draughts he had caused to be made of some noble ruins, etc.; for that, besides his own little talent that way, he had carried two good painters with him, to draw landscapes, measure and design the remains of the palace which Alexander burned in his frolic at Persepolis, with divers temples, columns, relievos, and statues, yet extant, which he affirmed to be sculpture far exceeding anything he had observed either at Rome, in Greece, or in any other part of the world where magnificence was in estimation. He said there was an inscription in letters not intelligible, though entire. He was sorry he could not gratify the curiosity of the Society at present, his things not being yet out of the ship; but would wait on them with them on his return from Paris, whither he was going the next day, but with intention to return suddenly, and stay longer here, the persecution in France not suffering Protestants, and he was one, to be quiet. 

He told us that Nineveh was a vast city, now all buried in her ruins, the inhabitants building on the subterranean vaults, which were, as appeared, the first stories of the old city, that there were frequently found huge vases of fine earth, columns, and other antiquities; that the straw which the Egyptians required of the Israelites, was not to bum or cover the rows of bricks as we use, but being chopped small to mingle with the clay, which being dried in the sun (for they bake not in the furnace) would else cleave asunder; that in Persia are yet a race of Ignicolac, who worship the sun and the fire as Gods; that the women of Georgia and Mingrelia were universally, and without any compare, the most beautiful creatures for shape, features, and figure, in the world, and therefore the Grand Seignor and Bashaws had had from thence most of their wives and concubines; that there had within these hundred years been Amazons among them, that is to say, a sort or race of valiant women, given to war; that Persia was extremely fertile; he spoke also of Japan and China, and of the many great errors of our late geographers, as we suggested matter for discourse. We then took our leave, failing of seeing his papers; but it was told us by others that indeed he dared not open, or show them, till he had first showed them to the French King; but of this he himself said nothing.’

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