British Muslim Heritage
The Glories of Constantinople
R. A. Semple (The Crescent, March 27, 1907)

IN the large lecture hall attached to the Liverpool Mosque and Muslim Institute, on Sunday night, the 2nd Saphar, 1325 (March 17th, 1907), the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles (His Excellency Abdullah Quilliam Bey Effendi, B.A., LL.D), gave one of a series of limelight lectures, his special subject being “Constantinople.” The lecture proved extraordinarily successful; the hall was crowded to the doors, many non-Mussulmans also being present. It was illustrated by some 64 magic lantern slides, giving views of Constantinople, its palaces, bridges, and mosques, and portraits of Turkish notabilities; but not the less picturesque than the views were the Sheikh’s remarks, pointed with many graphic, life-like touches, and illustrated with a fund of anecdotes, novel, surprising, and amusing as well as instructive. The lecture was not, as such lectures are apt to be, the hasty impressions of a passing traveller, ignorant of the language, manners, and customs of the people, and with no special sources of information. The Sheikh has lived in Constantinople, he knows it probably as well as he knows Liverpool, and a great deal better than many Turks know their own capital; for the Sheikh, as the Sultan’s “faithful Englishman,” has been admitted behind the scenes, and he was able to dispel many absurd ideas about the Turks, and at the same time to lift the veil somewhat and give the public a peep behind the drop curtain. Though the lecture lasted considerably over two hours, the audience showed not the least weariness, while whether the Sheikh himself was tired or not with his self-sacrificing efforts to please others, it was evident that he felt he could go on for several more hours, and had just touched the fringe of his subject. Other limelight lectures are to follow, the next being on Morocco, which should prove of even greater personal interest, for it was in Morocco that the Sheikh first underwent that spiritual change by which he became a convert from Christianity to Islam.

Brother Hassan-el-Arculi presided, and conducted a brief religious service; and Bro. Nur-ud-deen Stephen manipulated the limelight apparatus, a difficult task discharged with no little ability.

The Sheikh began with a description of the foundation of Constantinople, or Byzantium, as it was first called, 658 B.C., by Byzas, inspired by the Oracle of Delphi to the effect that the site of the new city was to be the junction of two rivers, and to be opposite the “City of the Blind”.

While he and his followers were in search of the site thus vaguely indicated, and had sat down to meat in the open, a swarm of blackbirds swooped down on them, and one carried away a piece of meat, but dropped it at the place now called Seraglio Point. The incident was looked upon as a fortunate augury, and so it proved to be, for at that point the rivers Cydaris and Bubassis joined to form the Golden Horn, and Scutari, opposite, corresponded to the “City of the Blind”, for as Byzas said, the inhabitants of its few poor huts must have been blind indeed not to see the superiority of the site of Constantinople for a great city. Thus was the Oracle of Delphi vindicated.

Next came a charming description by the Sheikh of Constantinople as approached by the sea, with numerous illustrations of the Bosphorus, and of an arm of the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, on which Constantinople partly stands, and enriched by stories of classical traditions. Leander’s Tower was pointed out, on an island midway in the Bosphorus, which is here three miles wide, the island being used by the Greek hero to rest himself when he swam nightly to meet his sweetheart, Hero, on the Asiatic side. Another legend associated with Leander’s Tower, in Christian times, told of the precautions taken by a successor of Constantine to prevent the realisation of a prophecy that his daughter would be stung to death by a snake. Her Royal father accordingly ordered her to be imprisoned in the tower, and guarded by soldiers, who had strict injunctions that no boat was to be allowed to approach the island without being searched for snakes; but “love laughs at bolts and bars”, and by-and-by the young lady, now “sweet seventeen and never been kissed,” made the acquaintance of a handsome young waterman, their eyes met, each spoke to each other the language of love, she dropped a tender note into his boat, and the enraptured youth passed her up a bouquet of flowers, which she had just put to her nose to enjoy the perfume, when lo! an asp sprang out, and the prophecy was fulfilled – she was stung to death. “You can’t escape your fate,” moralised the Sheikh, and subsequently he reinforced the moral by another snake story of St. Sophia. A princess, it had been predicted, would be eaten by snakes, after her death. To prevent such a dreadful thing the King, her father, after her death, had her body coffined  in an inaccessible part of the church of St. Sophia, while priests were engaged to sprinkle holy water to frighten the snakes away, and a squad of soldiers were stationed opposite the place of sepulchre, armed with a battery of artillery to mow down the snakes, if they dared to defy the holy water; but after these precautions had been taken for years, and no snakes had appeared, the vigilance of the spiritual and fleshly guardians of the coffin relaxed, and one day, while priests and soldiers were supposed to have fallen asleep, the snakes did, in fact, appear, crawled up to the coffin, bored a couple of holes in it, and ate the carcase, so that when the guardians awoke from their slumbers, the princess was gone – and so were the snakes! “You may take the snake story, like good Mussulmans,” said the Sheikh, “with a pinch of salt.”

“I saw the two holes said to have been made by the snakes, in the coffin, and thought they looked like rivet holes; but it does not do to scoff at these old legends, or you may get your knuckles rapped.”

A long description followed of the various topographical features of Constantinople. Extending for several miles inland, the city is bounded on the southern side by the sea of Marmora, on the northern side by the Golden Horn, and on the north-western side by old walls erected in the time of Constantine the Great. When he decided to leave Rome, and remove the capital of the Latin world to the Near East, the Emperor was said to have been guided by an angel in fixing its boundaries, and wherever he allowed his spear to drag along the ground the walls were built as the boundaries of what was called “New Rome”. At first Constantinople, as it afterwards came to be called, the “City of Constantine”, was built on five hills; two centuries later two more hills were enclosed, so that New Rome, like Old Rome, stood upon seven hills. Subsequently the city fell into the hands of the Mussulmans, whose attack by land being defeated, they approached the city by sea, and drawing their war-vessels overland with infinite labour, at last by a combined assault on land and sea, captured the city, and have held it ever since.  

The origin of the names “Stamboul” and “Galata” was explained by the Sheikh, who passed on to speak of the spacious quays which have been erected on the European side of the Golden Horn by a French company, and of concessions to the Germans, among them the right to construct the Anatolian railway to Damascus; his Excellency remarking that whereas British interests were once paramount in Turkey, they had now been replaced by the Germans, thanks to the Turcophobe policy begun by Mr. Gladstone, when he threatened to turn Turkey, “bag and baggage,” out of Europe, and continued in Egypt, to the detriment of the Sultan’s interests there as the Suzerain of the Khedive. The Germans had proved themselves more friendly to the Turks, and as a consequence had favours in return bestowed on them; their commercial relations with Turkey were exceeding the British in importance, and Germany’s growing dignity was maintained at Constantinople by a Grand Embassy, far exceeding the British in splendour, though the British Embassy was once reckoned the finest marble structure of the kind in Constantinople. The Germans had recently obtained a concession from the Sultan to build a second bridge, higher up the Golden Horn. The suitability of that waterway for shipping was shown by the fact that its entire rise or fall does not exceed three feet, and that it is at all times deep enough for the largest vessels afloat. A reference to the Turkish fleet followed, the Sheikh ridiculing the popular idea that it is worm-eaten and useless. He pointed out that in 1829 the combined war vessels of England, Russia and France, by the cowardly unprovoked attack called the Battle of Navarino, annihilated Turkey’s Navy, and that as a result of the Russo-Turkish war, four of the finest Turkish warships had to be surrendered to Russia as an indemnity; but he asserted that at least two of the so-called worm-eaten ironclads of Turkey were modern, up-to-date vessels, built in America and England, and while admitting that the Turkish fleet was inferior to the British, claimed that Turkey, as a naval Power, stood seventh or eighth in the world, and led all the other Powers in the first use of submarines.

Social life in Constantinople was next alluded to, and the manners and customs of the people described. The cosmopolitanism of Constantinople, the Sheikh said, appeared most strikingly among the variegated crowd that daily thronged Galata Bridge, across the Golden Horn. Here all nations were represented, all tongues were spoken, and all costumes under the sun were worn; but it was not difficult to distinguish the different nationalities by the rosaries which they often carried in their hands, the Moslem rosary consisting of 99 beads to represent the attributes of the Deity, made up by the hundredth, “God is Almighty,” while the Jewish rosary was different, and the Christian rosary, of course, always had a cross at the end of it. Another social custom was the wearing of the yashmak by the women, the origin of which the Sheikh traced back to the time of the Prophet, when its use was ordered in consequence of outrages on Muslim women by infidels. To a good Mussulman, he said, nothing was more shocking than the exposed faces of Christian women, and especially their decolleté appearance in drawing and ballroom scenes, so much so, that the Shahzadah, after a tour of the sights of London, one night, expressed his horror of English customs to the Sheikh in the words, “And these are the people who want to send missionaries to Afghanistan!” The lighter side of Turkish life appeared in views of boating in caïques on the Sweet Waters of Europe. There are three Sundays every week in Constantinople – the Moslem Sunday, which is on Friday; the Jewish Sunday, which falls on Saturday; and the Christian Sunday, when each nationality takes its pleasures on the Sweet Waters, driving thither on bullock carts, and spending a pleasant time.

The dogs of Constantinople came in for a special description by the Sheikh, who styled them as practically “freemen of the city.” It appeared that once when Constantinople was in a state of siege, the enemy attempted to take it by subterranean sapping, while the citizens, secure in the strength of their fortresses, were carousing; they were at last roused to their danger by the dogs of the city, which, hearing the strange noises caused by the enemy’s operations underground, started to bark, and so put the defenders on the qui vive. In return the dogs were made free of the city, and have enjoyed it ever since. These dogs have their own special quarters, to which they religiously stick; but should any of them invade the territory of the rest, he is immediately set on by the rest as an intruder, and when pitched battles take place between the dogs, they are conducted with military precision, under recognised leaders, until victory pronounces for one side or the other. The dogs are, in fact, more like wolves, but the Sheikh laughed at the idea that they are the sole scavengers of Constantinople, which, he said, had a scavenging department the same as Liverpool, and a splendid water supply, supplemented by numerous gifts of fountains by the Sultan himself, all over the city.

The richness of Constantinople in places of public worship was illustrated by a whole series of views of magnificent mosques, the largest of which, Agia Sophia, or the “Holy Wisdom,” he remarked, was the only Christian Church in Constantinople that had been converted into a mosque, all the others having been specially built for the purpose. It will accommodate 20,000 worshippers, and the dome is within a few feet as high as that of St. Paul’s, London. Porphyry, Syenite, and marble abound in its construction, and the ornamentation is of the most elaborate description, except that, in accordance with Muslim law, it includes no figures of men or animals, lest these should become objects of idolatry. The galleries for the women were pointed out, and the Sheikh denied that the separation of the sexes, in such cases, meant the degradation of women. On the contrary, women had greater privileges in Turkey than in this country; for instance, Turkish women had long been allowed to have a separate estate of their own, a concession to women of quite recent date in this country; while the statement that women are not considered to have souls, in Mussulman countries, the Sheikh stigmatised as all nonsense, one of the many misconceptions that prevailed among Christians as to the religion of the Prophet. In some of the other mosques, illustrated by limelight, the Sultan’s gallery was pointed out, and the fact that it was screened off so as not to distract the attention of the worshippers from God to the Sultan; further, the Sheikh said, two poor men were stationed on each side of the Sultan during service to remind him that he was but mortal, after all, like themselves, while when he went to Jumma prayers on the Friday a couple of dwarfs were accustomed to meet the Sultan, and salute him with cries of reminder that God was no respecter of persons, and that in His eyes dwarfs might be as high as the Sultan. The custom of taking off the shoes, on entering a mosque, was also vindicated by the Sheikh, on Scriptural and sanitary grounds. He compared it to the action of Moses, when approaching the burning bush in the wilderness, from which the voice issued: “Take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thy standest is holy ground,” and said a mosque was holy ground to a devout Moslem. Then, again, as there were no pews or chairs in a mosque, and the floor was carpeted, it was a wise precaution to take off the shoes on entry, otherwise the carpet would become muddy. And while there were no pews in a mosque, there were also no pew rents; rich and poor alike met on a common level in the Mosque, on Mother Earth, and there was at least equality of all ranks during public worship in Turkey, which could not be said of Christian countries. Attached to every large mosque was a school of theological training, for everybody in Turkey had to learn some profession or trade, and the Sultan himself was an expert cabinet-maker, and a very clever locksmith. The mosques of Sulieman the Magnificent, Mohammed the Conqueror, the Senan Pasha Mosque, the Tophané Mosque, at the gate of the Arsenal, together with the Mosque of the Sultan Ahmed, and the adjacent obelisk, next in size to the great column in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, were described; also the tombs of the Sultans, and the arrangement of Turkish cemeteries in general. In some of the mosques, the Sheikh explained, thirty or forty preachers can hold forth at the same time, each to his own little congregation. There is no paid ministry in Islam; all religion is free. Incidentally, the Sheikh refuted the allegation that the Turks are a destructive rather than a constructive race by pointing to the many magnificent public works of Constantinople, such as the Hall of a Thousand and One Columns, and to mosques, in the construction of which not one Christian has been allowed to have a single finger, as also to the baths, which we have paid the sincerest form of flattery by imitating, and calling Turkish baths. Cleanliness, he said, was not next to Godliness in Turkey, but cleanliness was an essential thing with Mussulmans, who had to wash five times a day, and take a complete bath at least once a week, so that their public baths had to be on a magnificent scale.

A view of the Imperial Palace of Dolmabatsche led the Sheikh to recall a recent earthquake, at a grand reception, when the whole building, with a frontage of three-quarters of a mile, seemed about to collapse; but while the ambassadors of the Christian Powers, and their ladies, shouted, fled, screamed and fainted, the Sultan remained calm, ordered a prayer to be said, and then concluded the ceremony. The Sultan, on a still more recent occasion, when at Jumma prayers, in Constantinople, was the object of a bomb outrage, and yet the calmest man present. Such was the man who was said by those who did not know him, to be an arrant coward. Those who knew him, knew better; and they knew not only how brave he was, but how liberal-minded and how humane. One of his last acts had been to erect the Hamidieh Hospital out of his own privy purse, at a cost of £20,000, since increased by £12,000 for extensions, and by £10,000 for a sanatorium. It was in one of the wards of the Hamidieh Hospital that the Sheikh himself was treated when a victim of “La Grippe,” or Russian influenza, and he gave a limelight view of the ward, with its beautiful outlook on the Bosphorus,  and paid a warm tribute to the kindness of His Imperial Master, who sent his own physician, Ibrahim Pasha, to attend him, and to the attentions of the hospital staff, thanks to whom, as he said, he was snatched back from death’s door.

The lecture concluded with a series of photos of Ghazi Osman Pasha, the hero of Plevna, Tahsin Bey, Secretary to the Sultan, Marshal Fuad Pasha, a distinguished commander in the Russo-Turkish war, Edhem Pasha, the conqueror of the Greeks in the last Greco-Turkish war; Woods Pasha, for thirty years in the service of the Sultan, of the Sheikh himself, taken a few years ago, and of his son, Ahmed Quilliam Bey, also a few years ago, in the uniform of a page-boy to the Sultan. Some of the celebrities named have since died, but their photographs were personal gifts, accompanied by reminiscences and good wishes, and these, the Sheikh said, he should ever hold in grateful memory of happy days spent in Constantinople in the service of the Sultan of Turkey.

The frequent applause which interrupted the lecture was brought to a point by a most cordial vote of thanks, for what one and all pronounced a delightful dissertation on a subject of profound interest to all Mussulmans. | British Muslim Heritage