Mark Twain in Turkey
Born in 1835, his true name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his famous novels featured the colourful characters of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Although his cultural stories of old-time America sold in bulk, in 1869, he released one of the first travel books ever produced.
He wrote about his long journey throughout Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American friends, and the book called “The Innocents Abroad” became his best-selling work ever.
The group explored many countries and their adventures are a great reflection of travel during the 19th century, but avid fans of Turkey, may be surprised at Mark Twain’s first impressions of when he landed in the country.
In 2014, Turkey was the 6th most visited country in the world, having embarked on a strategic tourism strategy some years before. The country has proved popular with nationalities like the Brits, yet apart from when he visited Ephesus, Mark Twain detested the country but more specifically Constantinople.
Mark Twain and the Innocents Abroad in TurkeyThroughout the book, Mark Twain describes people and events with intense detail. We first read about his experiences with Turkey, when he meets the Ottoman sultan Abdul Aziz, in Chapter 13. His lasting impression is not a good one having called him “Sultan of Turkey, Lord of the Ottoman Empire! Born to a throne; weak, stupid, ignorant, almost, as his meanest slave; chief of a vast royalty, yet the puppet of his Premier and the obedient child of a tyrannical mother”
In chapter 33, Mark Twain lands in Constantinople, and instantly express disgust, maybe remembering his encounter with the Sultan that clouded his judgement. Many current travel books recommend the Hagia Sophia as the first place to see in Istanbul. The former church and mosque reflects Byzantine and Ottoman architecture so majestically, and is now, the top visited museum in the country yet Mark Twain describes it as the “rustiest old barn in heathendom”
He goes on to describe the Grand Bazaar “a monstrous hive of little shops” and complains about the Ottoman tradition, of grouping shops together depending on what they sell, a tradition still used now.
He hated the goose herder, the beggars, the street dogs who howl continuously, and the hygiene of the cook in a small restaurant that served a traditional Ottoman dish for them to sample but the worst was to come because Mark Twain wanted a Turkish bath.
This ancient tradition is often peddled as one of the top activities to do. Sold throughout the country and marketed as the perfect way to relax and de-stress, visitors first undress, although these days they can keep their swimming costumes on. Starting with hot sauna, then a showering of soapsuds, a masseur gets to work by scrubbing down your whole body with a loafer. Plenty of dead skin comes off most bodies, especially those with suntans proving it is not a tourist gimmick, but a bona-fide way to get more cleaner than by using a conventional shower.
Mark Twain did not enjoy it though, having fallen when he entered the sauna room. “It is a malignant swindle.” He said “The man who enjoys it is qualified to enjoy anything that is repulsive to sight or sense, and he that can invest it with a charm of poetry is able to do the same with anything else in the world that is tedious, and wretched, and dismal, and nasty.”
Mark Twain Arrives in IzmirFor a brief period, the group sail up the Black Seacoast on their way to Russia, then return to Turkey and sail down the Dardanelles to arrive in Smyrna, now called Izmir.
These days, it is a cosmopolitan city and a centre of trade, business and tourism, yet Mark Twain’s description is of the perfect picture of the orient, and he seems more enamoured of it than Istanbul.
“To see a camel train laden with the spices of Arabia and the rare fabrics of Persia come marching through the narrow alleys of the bazaar, among porters with their burdens, money-changers, lamp-merchants, Al-naschars in the glassware business, portly cross-legged Turks smoking the famous narghili; and the crowds drifting to and fro in the fanciful costumes of the East, is a genuine revelation of the Orient.”
Travelling by train and donkey, they made their way along the coastline to visit the ancient city and ruins of Ephesus. Mark Twain would only have seen a glimmer of the extensive ruins that we see today, yet he was enthusiastic about being there, possibly because of its Christian connection as a church of revelation, which he discusses in-depth.
The group then leaves Turkey and continues their journey through Syria, Israel and even to the great Pyramids of Egypt. Upon his return to the USA, Mark Twain penned an article for the New York Herald, titled…
“RETURN OF THE HOLY LAND EXCURSIONISTS—THE STORY OF THE CRUISE”
Without doubt, the group travelled extensively, and saw some marvellous sites of the world. Reading the book these days though, one can’t help but wonder what Mark Twain would make of Turkey now. Constantinople is no longer the poor man of Europe that it was when he visited. Now it is a top city break destination and a world trade hub for business and commerce.
Smyrna, (current day Izmir) endured a terrible fire in 1922 that burned down most of the city. However it bounded back to become the third-biggest city in Turkey and likewise a centre of business and tourism.
Then there is Ephesus, and since his visit, excavation work has progressed immensely including the spectacular discovery of the Celsus library and the pain-staking work that went into the Roman Terrace houses. It now hosts more than 3 million visitors a year and in July 2015 was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Times have changed and I get the feeling that if Mark Twain could visit Turkey now, he would enjoy the country so much more.