View from the French Embassy in Constantinople, in Choiseul-Gouffier, Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce (Paris, 1822)
The indexing of hundreds of travelogues of the 16th to the 19th centuries in the digital platform TravelTrails is a rich source of information for various subjects. Based on recent events we searched the term (tag) ‘plagues,’ which was endemic for centuries in the Byzantine and later in the Ottoman Empire.
The following comments are based on three travelers of the 17th century who found themselves in Constantinople during the plague. The topics that they treat are not far removed from contemporary concerns: the number of people affected by the plague, the type of sanitary measures available, issues of confinement, medical care or the state of the economy, but also the belief of Muslims in the concept of fate (kismet).
The trip of the affluent Italian musician Pietro della Valle to the East was prescribed by a doctor to treat his melancholy from of a broken heart. In 1614-1615 he was in Constantinople that had been stricken by the plague. Although the disease had already caused great harm to the city, he did not feel endangered; on the contrary he felt a certain kind of intimacy with the disease, like "the locals" (gli uomini del paese) and had no intention to hide in “a small cotton box” (scatolino di bambagio). Instead of following the example of the ambassador who moved out of the city to the Black Sea, he decided to live with the disease than with the melancholy that loneliness and the absence of people would cause him. He was impressed by the conditions of care that the Catholic Christians living in Pera enjoy: “here people, when infected, last for up to forty days, while elsewhere they die in six or seven days.” Unlike other places, there is care for the patients: "there are people to offer them their services, there are clerics who take their confession and offer them the last rites; in any event one dies as one wants."
His opinion about Ottoman Constantinople is the total opposite. He notes that the continued presence of the plague in the City is partly due to the climate, but also to the disregard of the Ottomans for hygiene: there is no control of foodstuffs or traffic, the streets are filthy, there is no quarantine nor are contaminated objects burned. The clothes of the patients who die are immediately put on the market, as are their books. In fact, this saddened him gravely because he missed the opportunity to buy some of these books very cheaply. Turks have no such concerns, he notes, but this is why here there are many more victims than elsewhere; in September 1615 the death toll was up to 3,000 a day, while in total the victims amounted to 120,000 Turks, 2,000 Jews and 18,000 Christians.
At the beginning of the century (October 1607) the secretary of the French ambassador Jean de Gontaut Biron mentions in a letter that Constantinople has been hit by the plague so hard that Pera is but a desert inhabited only by those desperate people who stayed in town because they believe this is their destiny (predestination).
Still, this does not mean that everyone was equally fatalistic about the situation. In addition to fleeing, another protection measure was confinement. For example, the Sultan initially moved out of the city to avoid the plague, but later, when he returned, he spent days locked in the harem. After all, the plague had caused great harm even to European diplomats. The war terminology used by the author is characteristic of the situation: "(the plague) attacked the residence of the dragoman Olivier, where it struck a servant; one of his daughters was hit, but I think she will be cured." Of course, the plague did not discriminate between Turks and foreigners; it also affected high-level Ottoman officials: "five days ago the plague struck a Pasha (...) along with twenty-four people in his house. The Sultan will inherit more than two thousand gold pieces."
The British Sir Henry Blount arrived in the East sometime later. He mentions two incidents which, contrary to the beliefs of Western Europeans, exemplify the conviction of the Muslims that the transmission of the plague is decided by fate. A Frenchman succumbed to the plague on the ship that took the traveler to Rhodes. He was surprised to notice that none of the Turks tried to keep their distance for fear of being infected. Moreover, immediately after the removal of the sick man, they had no problem sleeping on his blanket using his clothes as a pillow: "in response to my urging not to do so, they showed me their forehead and told me that the time of their death has been prescribed there from birth." Shortly afterwards, the janissary who accompanied him on his journey to Edirne, allowed someone who had been infected with the plague to ride with them in the carriage. At the Briton's observation that he would not have put the patient in the carriage, the janissary "showed him his forehead and his own, telling him 'we can't get hurt if it's not written there, otherwise we couldn't avoid it'. At night the man died next to us; even though our trust was rewarded, we had probably been lucky rather than wise."
Blount's views on political and economic issues are of particular interest: "There is no doubt [that the lack of strict measures] works for the common good and prevents the cessation of trade; while health services in Italy are doing more harm than the plague has ever done." Blount apparently belonged to the liberal British circles who criticized the control of the movement of people and goods imposed by the state as a measure to prevent and suppress infectious diseases. In the 19th century, the liberal faction of the British state, following protests against the obstruction of free trade and the concluded capitulations, would impose international control over the first quarantine that the Sultan established in Constantinople.
The results of this search in TravelTrails confirm a well-known fact: that the systematic study of the past can offer interesting insights also on present issues and concerns.