An Englishman in Constantinople
In the summer of 1595, Thomas Dallam was bound for Constantinople. He reached Venice aboard the ship Hector that was transporting Queen Elizabeth’s gift to the new Sultan, Muhammad III: the “clock-organ” Dallam had invented: a complex apparatus with a number of moving parts that could either be played manually or set to run through a repertoire of mechanized performances at a specific hour.
Dallam arrived in Venice after dark. A limping dwarf appeared, a lantern swinging from one hand, and conducted him to a gondolier who, Dallam was told, would carry him to an inn.
The wide, dark Grand Canal mirrored a million stars. Only the slap of the boatman’s oar in the black water broke the silence. Dallam looked to the palaces in the distance, silhouetted by starlight, for reassurance that he was still on Earth and not being conveyed to Hades by Charon.
The gondola exited the Grand Canal into narrower channels winding between buildings under short, arched bridges. Venice was notorious for skullduggery, and Dallam had no idea where he was being taken. Did the gondolier assume his leather valise held valuables? Many of the buildings they passed appeared to be residences, but their windows were dark. If he were to cry out for help, who would hear? He prayed silently, pledging improved future behavior in exchange for present salvation.
The gondola went around yet another bend, under another short bridge, and then bumped gently against the foot of a stairway leading up to a door illuminated by a small, flickering gas lamp. The boatman indicated that Dallam should follow him.
The boatman shrugged, climbed the stairs himself, and pounded the metal knocker on the door. A man in a nightshirt appeared, candlestick in hand. The boatman pointed to Dallam. There was a mumbled conversation, an exchange of laughter, then the man in the nightshirt called down to Dallam, “Osteria! Osteria!”—inn—gesturing for him to ascend the stairs.
Dallam needed a place to stay the night and would have to trust someone, so he rose the steps reluctantly.
Upon rising the next morning, he discovered that repairs were necessary to the Hector. There would be a delay in its departure to Constantinople. This was not entirely unwelcome since he had already been at sea a month. He became a tourist impromptu.
He had supposed transportation in watery Venice was solely by the canals but discovered one could be a pedestrian there. He made long rambles along narrow streets and alleys and over small bridges linking neighborhoods organized around small central squares and fountains. Great wealth and grinding poverty were curiously juxtaposed, but class distinctions seemed as fluid as the environment: cobblers’ and tailors’ wives wore silk gowns with silver buttons and might have attendants carrying the luxurious long trains of their dresses. Noble women and merchants’ wives wore chopines: platform shoes that might elevate a woman a foot off the ground. The transparent black veils women wore, which extended from the top of the head nearly to the feet, did not obscure their being bare-breasted, and Dallam started at the sight of a shapely, smiling woman striding toward him smiling who, beneath her veil, was clearly completely naked.
In England, he had acquired the impression Jews were a dirty, rapacious people but found those attending the Saturday service in a ghetto synagogue clean and dignified. The congregation sat in a circle while the rabbi read from and commented upon the five books of Moses. They sang Psalms as the English did in church, and Dallam appreciated the absence of Popish images about the synagogue. As far as he could see, the only error of the Jews was their failure to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.
In the yard of an old monastery chapel, he observed what he took at first to be a pile of stone rubble before realizing the contents were, in fact, shattered human skulls and bones. A nun from the convent adjacent to the chapel explained that the bones were those of friars buried centuries ago in a field nearby. The bones had been unearthed during excavations preparatory to constructing a home for sick and indigent women.
That the friars, whose corruption had been legendary, should end up so seemed entirely just.
The Church of the Apostles was an abhorrent reminder of the Romish religion. Freestanding statues of eight apostles roosted atop the Church. Four more—James, Peter, Paul, and Matthew—occupied niches in the façade. The church interior was all shadows and mystery, with small oil lamps illuminating the shrines of saints, the scent of candlewax and incense, and the droning and mumming of priests. Poor, deluded Venetians knelt before a doll of Mary and kissed it.
Dallam was on his way to Constantinople when his ship met with strong winds, booming thunder, and lightning in the Sea of Crete. A friar who was on board asserted that such violence in the heavens could only be an expression of Divine Wrath. He urged prayers to Our Lady and St. Mark and a group singing of “Salve Regina” and “Ave Maria,” and he circulated among the passengers and crew an image of Mary to be kissed.
Dallam refused participation in these superstitions and informed the crew and passengers that one who prays to any person other than God the Father, or his only begotten Son, deprives them of the honor due them.
The storms had continued for three days when suspicion grew among the passengers and crew that the heretical Englishman was the source of Divine displeasure. There was talk of heaving him overboard.
“I am a Christian, as you profess to be,” Dallam protested. “That I am a sinner, I freely acknowledge, but before you ascribe our difficulties to me, should you not ponder your own worthiness?”
The friar concurred. “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”
When Dallam reached Constantinople, rather than proceeding directly to the Sultan’s palace, he ordered the crates containing the unassembled parts of the clock-organ delivered to the residence of English ambassador Lollo, where he was to stay.
He was glad that he had done so because he discovered when he opened the crates containing the components of the clock-organ that intense heat in the ship’s hold had melted glues in cabinet joints which would have to be rejoined.
Dallam, a slender fellow in his late twenties, haggard after months at sea, looked with the eyes of a lover upon the beef, deer, and veal Lollo’s servants placed before him.
“I should warn you about the reception you may expect from Mehmet,” Lollo said. “If he were a Christian ruler, you could anticipate expressions of gratitude for the Queen’s gift, but he will regard it as a suitable expression of obeisance.”
“Well, a turd in his teeth!”
Lollo smiled. “The emotion you express, I have experienced often enough here. I will give you an example. Dwarfs armed with scimitars guard the royal palace. I’ve been through the palace gate often enough to be thoroughly familiar to those fellows—I know their names. I am nonetheless searched for weapons and poisons every time I arrive. And before I speak with Sultan, I must first kiss his knee or sleeve. Oh, and by the way, when one leaves his presence, one never shows to His Majesty one’s backside.”
“Well, how does one leave?”
“One backs away from him.”
Dallam was laughing.
“Yes, it’s all quite silly, but your life may depend on honoring these formalities. Human life here is more disposable than we are accustomed to regarding it in England.”
“Mehmet, for his amusement, will sometimes have mentally deficient persons thrown down wells. He enjoys hearing their echoing screams. After he became Emperor recently, he executed nineteen of his brothers.”
“The heathen whoreson! Why?”
“He wished to eliminate any possible competition.”
“Elizabeth curries favor with this ditch dog?”
“It’s just politics. The Turks are as hostile to Spain and the Pope as we are. Mehmet once asked me whether Elizabeth could be induced to join forces with him, conquer Spain, and divide the country between them. I mentioned it to Elizabeth.”
“What’d she say?”
Lollo’s servant placed before the two men small bowls of something yellow topped with almonds.
“What is it?” Dallam asked.
“Zerde. Rice boiled in honey water.”
Dallam had a taste. Not bad, although he preferred cake.
Dallam’s order from the palace was to install the clock-organ in a spacious domed hall on an elevated platform. Dallam did this, tested his invention, and announced its readiness for the Sultan’s inspection.
He was informed that he was not to be on the platform when the Sultan appeared but in a small adjacent closet. Dallam nearly asked why before remembering Lollo’s admonition that he must never ever do this. He set the timer on the organ so it would start running through its scheduled performances shortly after the Sultan entered the hall.
Seated on a stool in the dark closet, Dallam heard the trumpets’ fanfare, the birds’ twittering, the contrapuntal melodiessixteen bells, he knew, without having to see, that the miniature blackbirds and thrushes in the holly bush atop the organ were flapping their wings and that the Queen Elizabeth doll had raised her scepter magisterially.
A guard opened the door. Dallam blinked at the rush of bright light from the hall.
“The Sultan had enjoyed very much the performance and wishes to know when it will be repeated.”
“It will be repeated automatically in an hour,” Dallam explained. “However, one can start it at any time by depressing the small lever to the left of the keyboard.”
The guard shut the door but reappeared again shortly. “The Sultan cannot find the lever you mentioned. He would like you to show it to him and perform on the organ.”
Dallam stepped out into the light. The Sultan sat on the platform some five yards distant, looking over his shoulder at Dallam, bushy eyebrows arched in what seemed an expression of disdain. He had a goatee and winged mustachios and wore an immense turban with a golden crown perched on top.
A crowd of uniformed men filled the hall below the platform. There were perhaps a hundred yellow-gowned pages with identical shaved heads and locks of hair hanging down behind their ears like squirrel’s tails. Another company of men had hawks perched on gloved wrists, and there was a phalanx of dwarfs, each with his long scimitar buckler.
“The Sultan orders you to approach and play upon the organ,” the guard said.
Dallam hesitated. “If I did that, I would have to turn my back on the Sultan.”
The guard conferred with the Sultan and returned with word that Dallam would enjoy a special dispensation to turn his back on the Emperor while performing.
Dallam approached the Sultan and bowed. The Sultan nodded slightly in response.
Seated at the organ, Dallam played “Greensleeves” as best he could with trembling hands. The Sultan, seeking a better view of what the performer’s hands were doing, rose from his seat and bumped the back of Dallam’s head lightly, inspiring the organist to wonder if, owing to some unknown violation of protocol, his neck was about to be separated from his body.
Dallam pressed the lever that set the mechanism going again. The Sultan appeared happy as a child with a new toy, and when the automated performance had concluded, he handed Dallam a leather pouch containing forty-five pieces of gold.
A counselor to Mehmet appeared at the ambassador’s house to express the Emperor’s great satisfaction with the clock-organ and to order Dallam to remain in the city and fashion other equally clever devices.
“I must soon return to my family in England,” said Dallam, who was not married.
“That will not be possible,” the counselor said. “Come with me.”
He led Dallam to the palace, through adjoining courtyards, and onto the parapet overlooking sunken baths filled with naked young women.
“The women are all white,” Dallam observed.
“Slave women from the Caucasus,” the counselor explained. “You may have any three you like and an apartment at the palace in which to enjoy them.”
Dallam, pretending acceptance of Sultan’s command, was given leave to return to the English ambassador’s home and gather his personal possessions.
With Lollo’s assistance, Dallam contacted an English merchant from Lancashire, an exporter with offices in Constantinople, whose servant led Dallam after dark to a point along the Greek border from which escape from the Ottoman Empire was possible, and from there, Dallam was able to make his way back to London, which he vowed never to leave again.