Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Busbequius, Turkish Letter 1: How wine is both forbidden and very popular amongst the Turks.

In the early nineties of the last century I visited Turkey with a friend. At some evening we were sitting on the veranda of a pub, looking over a lake in which the moon was mirrored in water as smooth as indeed a mirror. We were drinking half litre glasses Efes beer for the equivalent of 50 eurocent. This year my friend went again and found that the pub was closed and no alcohol was available in the town, except somewhere in a hotel, in a room where Eastern European women were doing some carnal business. And the beer was more expensive than here in the Netherlands.
I came to think of this when reading the letters Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592; Latin: Augerius Gislenius Busbequius) wrote in which he told about his experiences as a diplomat at the Ottoman court. These four Latin letters were widely after they were published:  Busbequius had a keen eye for situations and a fluent stile of writing and his letters are both informative and entertaining. It is also thanks to Busbequius that we have a list of words of Crimean Gothic, a now extinct Germanic language spoken on the Crimean.
Busbequius admired the Ottoman Empire and what he especially liked, was that offices were not given to those with the best birth papers, but to those with the best capacities. He himself was an illegitimate son and though he succeeded, he had to fight harder for his position than many others.
In the following passage Busbequius just started his journey to Constantinople and was spending December 1554 in the Hungarian city of Buda, that time under Turkish occupation.

Form Letter 1, 8v (Busbequius is accompanied by some Turks during his dinner because they have then access to wine. They ask for more wine to drink for once he had left the table. He agrees and they drink till unconsciousness):

Erant Budae frequentes mecum in coena Turcae, vini dulcidine illecti, cuius,  quo minorem habent copiam, eo sunt avidiores, eoque largius se ingurgitant, ubi semel contigerit habere. In multam noctem fiebant  invitationes. Post, ibi me ludi taedebat, surgebam a mensa meque in cubiculum recipiebam; illi, quod vino nondum obruti ire etiam poterant, tristes abibant. Sed mox puer aderat, qui nomine ipsorum rogaret, ut iis vini copiam facerem scyphosque argenteos commodarem: velle, si permittam, in aliquot angulo noctem potando  extrahere. Ego vero, quantum vellem  vini itemque vasa quae petebant, iubebam praebere. Illi ante potandi finem non faciebant, quam mero sopiti humi sternerentur.

frequentes in coena (cena):  accompanying dinner
illecti: attracted
minorem copiam: the less supply / opportunity
ingurgito: to booze
ubi semel contigerit habere: once it happens that they
in multam noctem: deep in the night
se recipio: withdraw to
vino nondum obruti: not yet overwhelmed by wine
nomine ipsorum: on their behalf
scyphus: cup
commodo: to give, provide
potando: by drinking
mero sopiti humi sternerentur:  unconscious by wine they were scattered on the ground

(Drinking wine is considered a crime by the Turks, but nevertheless they like it and once started they think they have already sinned and can as well continue drinking):

Vini potus Turcis magno crimini datur, praesertim aetate provectoribus: iuniores cum maiore veniae et excusationis  spe peccare consueverunt. Cum vero non minores poenas post hanc vitam sibi paratas arbitrentur, si vinum minimum  biberint quam si plurimum, ubi semel vinum gustaverint, potare pergunt, quod veluti poena iam commissa peccent impune ebrietatemque in lucro ponant. Huiusmodi illi circa vini potum habent opiniones, et his etiam absurdiores.

magno crimini datur: is considered is a great crime
praesertim aetate provectoribus: especially for those advanced in age
si…quam si: whether…or
gusto: to taste
impune: unpunished
ebrietatemque in lucro ponant: and count drunkenness as gain

(An old man in Constantinople , about to drink wine,is shouting to his soul to creep away or leave the body, lest it may become impure by the crime committed):

Vidi senem quandem Constantinopoli, qui cum calicem sumpsisset in manum, ut biberet, magnos prius clamores edebat. Rogati a nobis amici, cur ita faceret, respondant eum his clamoribus commonitam velle animam, ut se reciperet in aliquem corporis angulum,  aut prorsus emigraret, ne rea eius fieret delicti, quod ipse erat admissurus, neu vino, quod infusurus erat, pollueretur.

calix calicis (m.): cup
sumo sumpsi sumptum:  to take
clamores edebat: shouted cries
commoneo: to warn, admonish
prorsus: completely
ne rea eius fieret delicti: in order not to become guilty of his (the old man’s) crime
quod ipse erat admissurus, which he was about to commit
vino… pollueretur: would be polluted by the wine

Rather free translation from 1881:


Late Fellmv of Jesus College, Cambridge : Vicar of Hinxton


Late Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge : Barrisier-at-Law

During my stay at Buda a good many Turks were
drawn to my table by the attractions of my wine, a
luxury in which they have not many opportunities of
indulging. The effect of this enforced abstinence is to
make them so eager for drink, that they swill them-
selves with it whenever they get the chance. I asked
them to make a night of it, but at last I got tired of
the game, left the table, and retired to my bedroom.
On this my Turkish guests made a move to go, and
great was their grief as they reflected that they were
not yet dead drunk, and could still use their legs.
Presently they sent a servant to request that I would
allow them access to my stock of wine and lend them
some silver cups. ' With my permission,' they said
 they would like to continue their drinking bout
through the night ; they were not particular where
they sat ; any odd corner would do for them ' Well I
ordered them to be furnished with as much wine as they
could drink, and also with the cups they asked for
Being thus supplied, the fellows never left off drinking
until they were one and all stretched on the floor iS
the last stage of intoxication.
To drink wine is considered a great sin among the
Turks, especially in the case of persons advanced in
life :_ when younger people indulge in it the offence is
considered more venial. Inasmuch, however, as they
think that they will have to pay the same penalty after
death whether they drink much or little, if they taste
one drop of wine they must needs indulge in a
regular debauch ; their notion being that, inasmuch as
they have already incurred the penalty, appointed .
such sin, in another world, it will be an advantage i
them to have their sin out, and get dead drunk, since it
will cost them as much in either case. These are their
ideas about drinking, and they have some other notions
which are still more ridiculous. I saw an old gentleman
at Constantinople who, before taking up his cup, shouted
as loud as he could. I asked my friends the reason,
and they told me he was shouting to warn his soul to
stow itself away in some odd corner of his body, or to
leave it altogether, lest it should be defiled by the wine
he was about to drink, and have hereafter to answer for
the offence which the worthy man meant to indulge in.

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