Letter of Charles S. Peirce to his mother Sarah Mills
(Constantinople, 02.09.1870)

Constantinople, 1870 Sep 2

This is a very foreign looking place. There is such a flood of complete novelty before my eyes everywhere that I have not time to get used to it at all even enough to describe it. What shall I begin with? The inhabitants are principally Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Francs. Newspapers are published in Turkish Greek French English Hebrew & Armenian. Five different alphabets. There are also many Negroes, Persians, Arabs, etc. and I have seen here people from Indies & Burmah. The costumes are accordingly very various & as many of the streets a perfectly thronged with passers as much as the sidewalks of any New York street the effect is very striking. The Russians here also have their peculiar dress & of course there are all sorts of priests with dresses different from the rest of their own several nationalities & there are many different Turkish uniforms.


The people who live here distinguish always the physiognomies of Turk, Greek, Armenian, Persian, Arab etc. but I do not with certainty. The dress of the Turkish women is very becoming & very modest in the street. The veils of ladies is always of the very thinnest & one can always see their features by a little attention. A few of the women are extremely handsome but generally I don’t think they are. Some of them also look intelligent but this surprizes one. Some of the country women cover their faces with a thick veil. The psychological condition of the women must be interesting especially as they seem to have little to do with the religion. I suspect they are pretty near to animals. The bazar is highly entertaining. It is a great place having many streets, a perfect city of small shops –the whole under one roof. When you wish to buy some thing you put all you wants to one side, after having usually looked at the entire contents of the shop & ask the price. On this being asked, you are given a seat if you have not had one before & a cup of coffee & a cigarette is brought you. You express the greatest astonishment at the price the man

names, not in an offensive way but as if alas! You find it is quite beyond your means. Upon this a long discussion of the quality of the goods & you finally offer perhaps a third of what he asked. This is of course refused & you go away. As you go he probably offers a smaller sum but you refuse it & go. After an hour or so you send back a messenger with a small advance on your original price. This is most likely also refused. Then you wait till the next day when you call again & have a long talk, perhaps a couple of hours or so. They say nothing which costs over a napoleon d’or ought to be bought in less than three days. To give an example. Yesterday I went to see the mosque of Suleimam, one of the finest. After I had got my shoes off, I asked how much Back-sheesh the man wanted. He wanted 22 piastres or $ 1.10 greenbacks. I inmediately put my shoes on & walked off & declared that it was a great surprize to me (I know many people pay that at every mosque). After a while I came round to another door & found the same attendant on the look out for me & here I suggested that I might be willing to give 11 piastres & he took it. Just half. You can


get anything for from 1/5 to 2/3 of what the people ask. People who thoroughly understand the matter give I imagine about 1/3 on the average. I found it very difficult to get a good Turkish bath. They assume that a European will know nothing of it & put him off with half of it. Today, the third trial, I did get a good one. Very delightful. The Turks are a pleasing people, honest, clean, decent & dignified; but their vices are so different from ours that we mutually despise each other as disgusting & debauched fellows. I made the acquaintance at the hotel of two Englishmen who had travelled in Syria & knew Arabic. One of them indeed also understood most things said in Turkish, knew Persian very well indeed & Hindustanee pretty. He talked Arabic as well as English & much better than anyone here & spoke English with an Arabic accent! Now as Arabic sounds like nothing human that is a singular accent. I made great friends with these gentlemen & by going about with them two days was enabled to see some things very advantageously. Of course they thoroughly understood all about mosques etc. They urged me strongly to go to England on my way back & to pay one of them a fellow at Cambridge a visit. He said “now I mean just


what I say & it is no matter of mere form when I say that my house is yours. I can give you a room & grub as long as you will stay.” This gentleman has a prospect of being Professor of Arabic in Cambridge & I had a very interesting conversation with him about Sufism and Sunworship etc. which I think I must write to Perry about. I thought him a most interesting man; & he promised to send me a book he had written & all he should write hereafter. These gentlemen had a great respect for Mohammedanism & one of them became quite heated when someone ran down the dancing dervishes. The one I have just mentioned (Mr. Palmer) always used in a mosque to turn towards Mecca & say a prayer in Arabic. When they were in Syria they travelled in native costume & being considered “infidel dogs” as Christians are in Constantinople was what they would not stand & weren’t accustomed to. I went with them to the mosque of Saint Sophia; & as we were walking in our stockings through the vestibule, the man asked to see our ¿? or pass to enter, which was another way of saying he wanted his backsheesh.


Now these gentlemen wouldn’t give a backsheesh till they came out, so they hustled us all out. Then they poured forth such a rolley of curses in Arabic as never was heard; and Arabic is a good sonorous language for that purpose. They kept this up together for about 5 minutes after which they sput on the floor & left. Wether the people were afraid that some of these curses would actually come down on their leals or not I don’t know but the result was they sent after us & told us we might go in without any backsheesh. In the mosque the tablets with Arabic writing on them excited the particular admiration of my friends & they declared that the art of Arabic chirography was on a level with painting & that such things were to be compared with the pictures of Raphael. There was one tablet which looked something like this only more regular which I should have supposed to be a mere ornament, but they read it. It was not this sort however which they admired so much but another.

Constantinople is by all odds the most beautiful


& fascinating place I have been in yet. Tomorrow I leave for Volo not Salonika & arrive at Volo the following Friday 6 days to go there. When there my difficulties begin. What I am to do or how I am to manage I cannot conceive. I have thirty miles to go to get to Larissa. I cannot talk any language which there is any possibility of my hearing, I cannot ride & it is absolutely the only way of going, the season is not yet quite healthy there so I may have a fever, & I cannot get away from Volo for a fortnight after I land there. There is no consular agent or anyone in Volo to help me. I expect that fortnight will be pretty thoroughly unpleasant. I shall have to purchase a saddle bridle & girthes & pair of Colts’ Revolvers & to take Quinine all the way. However considering how much pleasure I have had I ought to be willing to put up with a fortnight pain. The weather has been what I call cool in Constantinople though I believe it hasn’t been considered so & some days too cool for open windows. I have caught a cold in my head here. It is just possible that at Volo I may hear such reports of Larissa


or the journey that I shall give it up. But that I think extremely unlikely. The boat will stop at Volo for eight hours so that I shall have time for some reconnaisance. I regret inmensely not knowing French which I can find people there who speak. Here at the hotel are some Burmese gentlemen whose acquaintance I have made. They are Buddhists & I had a talk with one of them last night about that religion & about the Nirvana, etc. Constantinople is a dreadful hole of sharpers.

The French are in a state of decay I should judge & will sink into insignificance & Paris will in 50 years pass out of their hands.

I haven’t time to finish this. Tell Aunt Lizzie I have been meaning to write to her but that I am in such a whirl all the time that I cannot put my thoughts in order at all. Give my love particularly to Grandmother Mills & generally to all.


Traducción de Sara Barrena (2008)
Una de las ventajas de los textos en formato electrónico respecto de los textos impresos es que pueden corregirse con gran facilidad mediante la colaboración activa de los lectores que adviertan erratas, errores o simplemente mejores traducciones. En este sentido agradeceríamos que se enviaran todas las sugerencias y correcciones a sbarrena@unav.es
Proyecto de investigación "La correspondencia europea de C. S. Peirce: creatividad y cooperación científica (Universidad de Navarra 2007-09)

Fecha del documento: 27 de mayo 2008
Última actualización: 27 de mayo 2008
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