Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Clara Erskine Clement

Turkish guys hanging out on Istanbul's sidewalks in 1895.
On Christmas morning of 1895, Mrs. E. E. Horrell received as a
present a book titled "Constantinople, The City of The Sultans." The
handwritten dedication is still visible on the book's first page.

The author's name is Clara Erskine Clement. The book gives no
information about her, except to say that she also wrote several
other books, including one about Naples and one about Venice. So
we could say that she was a travel writer. At that time, of course,
travel writing was not about hotel and restaurant reviews, but
rather a description of the local customs, traditions, and architecture.
Mrs. Erskine Clement really exceeded at her job. All 302 pages of
this work are a total delight to read. I think it is even more enjoyable
now than when it was originally published because we now can see
the changes that have taken place in that marvelous city, which she
calls Constantinople, but we call Istanbul in our times.
She talks about the Berleybeyi Palace, the marvelous summer
home of the sultans on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, and how it
came about simply on the chance conversation overheard
through the grapevine. Yes! She has woven the marvelous tale
of a chance encounter between the Sultan and a beautiful slave
girl. The Sultan fell for her and loved her so much that he made
for her the marvelous summer palace of Berlerbeyi all this while
the empire was going bankrupt.

Other passages in the book remind us that we are living in very
different times now. It describes the seize of Constantinople at
the hand of the Sultan's army in very graphic detail, including
images of Orthodox nuns being dragged naked to join the Sultan's
harem. We also encounter a moving passage describing how some
of the city Muslims who have sick children are willing to seek help
from the Christian saints with a reputation for miracle healings.

The book is made even better by the great selection of photos
from the 1890's. I am thankful that this book has been preserved
for 115 years now.


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