“Another view” is an occasional series of posts presenting the sites and areas we see on our travels through the eyes of writers. From the great ancient sources via travellers of recent centuries to contemporary literature, it aims to reveal different perspectives across space and time.

Four decades before Wrag's visit: detail from the

Four decades before Wrag’s visit: detail from the “Prospect of Constantinople” by German/Danish artist Melchior Lorck (1559).

Sir, considering the goodnesse of your Nature which is wont kindely to accept from a friend, even of meane things being given with a good heart, I have presumed to trouble you with the reading of this rude discourse of my travels into Turkey…

Written on the 16th of March of 1597, these are the opening lines of Richard Wrag’s Description of a Voyage to Constantinople and Syria, begun the 21. of March 1593. and ended the 9. of August, 1595.

Title page of the first edition of Haklyt's

Title page of the first edition of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations.

We know next to nothing about Richard Wrag, but it seems clear that he undertook his voyage to accompany Sir Edward Barton, ambassador for Queen Elizabeth I at the court of Sultan Mehmet III, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Wrag’s report, probably addressed to a friend or relative, survives because it was included in a collection entitled The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years (that’s not even the whole title!), published by Richard Hakluyt in 1598.

Wrag’s text is interesting, as it shows a late 16th century Englishman’s view of what was then a very different and very distant world. His account mixes descriptions of topography and architecture with observations of court ceremony, clothing, food and many other matters – at times, Wrag really appears like an early example of the now well-known character that is the English tourist…

Sailing on an English vessel called “The Ascension”, Wrag reached the Dardanelles after a 5-month-long voyage via Crete and many islands of the Aegean Sea.

Within the Yedikule Fortress at Istanbul.

Within the Yedikule Fortress at Istanbul.

The first of September we arrived at the famous port of the Grand Signior [the Sultan], where we were not a little welcome to M. Edward Barton, until then her Majesty’s Agent, who (…) had for many dayes expected the present. Five or sixe dayes after the shippe arrived neere the Seven towers, which is a very strong hold, and so called of so many turrets, which it hath, standing neere the sea side, being the first part of the city that we came unto.

That first landmark Wrag refers to in the city he calls Constantinople is still a major sight in modern Istanbul: the Yedikule, or Seven Towers, a fortification that is part of the city’s great walls.

Especially important is his account of his (first) visit to the “Seraglio”, the Sultan’s palace, now better known as Topkapı.

A view that would not have looked all that different in Wrag's day: the skyline of Topkapı and the Hagia Sophia across the Golden Horn (with seagulls crying for ambient).

A view that would not have looked all that different in Wrag’s day: the skyline of Topkapi and the Hagia Sophia across the Golden Horn (with seagulls crying for ambient sound).

The Ascension with her flags and streamers (…) repaired nigh unto the place where the ambassador should land to go up to the Seraglio: for you must understand that all Christian ambassadors have their dwelling in Pera where most Christians abide, from which place, except you would go 4 or 5 miles about, you cannot go by land to Constantinople, whereas by Sea it is little broader then the Thames.

His habit of comparing the sights and monuments of Istanbul with English ones that would be familiar to his reader foreshadows the habits of much later travel writers:

A splendid portico in Topkapi Palace.

A splendid portico in Topkapi Palace.

(…) First he passed a great gate into a large court (much like the space before Whitehall gate) where he with his gentlemen alighted and left their horses. From hence they passed into an other stately court, being about 6 score in breadth, and some 10 score yards long, with many trees in it: where all the court was with great pomp set in order to entertaine our ambassador. Upon the right hand all the length of the court was a gallerie arched over, and borne up with stone pillars, much like the Royal Exchange(…)

Wrag’s account includes a lively description of a banquet held in honour of the British ambassador:

Depiction of an banquet in a 16th century Ottoman chronicle.

Depiction of an banquet in a 16th century Ottoman chronicle.

Dinner being prepared was by many of the courtiers brought into another inner roome next adjoining, which consisted of an hundred dishes or thereabouts, most boiled and rosted (…); their drinke was water mingled with rose water and sugar brought in a Luthro (that is a goates skinne) which a man carieth at his backe, and under his arme letteth it run out at a spout into cups as men will call for it. (…) The dinner thus with good order brought in, and for halfe an hour with great sobriety and silence performed, was not so orderly taken up; for certaine officers of the kitchen (…) came in disordered manner and took away the dishes, and he whose hungry eye one dish could not satisfy, turned two or three one into the other, and thus of a sudden was a clean riddance made of all.

Beyond describing such specific occasions, Wrag also attempts to give a more general impression of the city and of what he considered her main monuments. His approach to topography is quite systematic:

For the city of Constantinople you shall understand that it is matchable with any city in Europe, as well in bignesse as for the pleasant situation thereof, and commodious traffike and bringing of all manner of necessary provision of victuals, and whatsoever else man’s life for the sustentation thereof shall require, being seated vpon a promontory, looking toward Pontus Euxinus [the Black Sea] upon the Northeast, and to Propontis on the Southwest (…).
Created just about when Wrag wrote his report: a map of Constantinople by Venetian cartographer Giacomo Franco, 1597.

Created just about when Wrag wrote his report: a map of Constantinople by Venetian cartographer Giacomo Franco, 1597.

The city it selfe in forme representeth a triangular figure, the sea washing the walles upon two sides thereof, the other side faceth the continent of Thracia; the grand Signior’s seraglio standeth upon that point which looketh into the sea, being cut off from the city by a wall; so that the wall of his palace conteineth in circuit about two English miles: the seven towers spoken of before stand at another corner, and Constantine’s olde palace to the North at the third corner.

Wrag’s observations include the walls and other ancient structures that we still show our guests today, on our Exploring Istanbul tour or on Following the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. Further, he attempts to contextualise them, referring to his own historical knowledge, which appears substantial but imperfect.

Especiallz admired bz Wrag, and only a few decades old when he saw it: the mid-15th century Süleymaniye Mosque.

Especially admired by Wrag, and only a few decades old when he saw it: the mid-16th century Süleymaniye Mosque.

The city hath a threefolde wall about it; the innermost very high, the next lower then that, and the third a countermure and is in circuit about ten English miles: it hath four and twenty gates: and when the empire was removed out of the West into the East, it was enriched with many spoils of olde Rome by Vespasian and other emperors, having many monuments and pillars in it worthy the observation (…); it is likewise adorned with diverse goodly buildings and stately Mesquitas, whereof the biggest is Sultan Soliman’s, a great warrior, which lived in the time of Charles the Fifth…

The mention of Vespasian is in error. That emperor ruled from AD 69 to 79, whereas the refoundation of Byzantion as Constantinople took place as late as AD 323. But next, Wrag engages in some classic sightseeing, giving a detailed account of a building that remains among the top highlights of Istanbul:

Still splendid nearly 1,500 years after its construction in AD 537, and over 400 since Wrag's visit: interior of the Hagia Sophia.

Still splendid nearly 1,500 years after its construction in AD 537, and over 400 since Wrag’s visit: interior of the Hagia Sophia.

…but the fairest is Santa Sophia, which in the time of the Christian emperors was the chief cathedral church (…): it is built round like other Greekish churches, the pavements and walls be all of marble, it hath beneath 44 pillars of divers coloured marble of admirable height and bigness, which stand upon great round feet of brass, much greater then the pillars, and of a great height, some ten yards distant from the wall: from which unto these pillars is a great gallery built, which goeth round about the church; and upon the outside of the gallery stand 66 marble pillars which beare up the round roofe being the top of the church: it hath three pulpits or preaching places, and about 2000 lamps brought in by the Turke. Likewise upon one side in the top is the picture of Christ with the 12 Apostles, but their faces are defaced…
The scenery might have changed a little, but the Bosphorus cruise is still a classic activity for visitors to Istanbul.

The scenery might have changed a little, but the Bosphorus cruise is still a classic activity for visitors to Istanbul.

Wrag also took a Bosphorus cruise, still a popular excursion among visitors to Istanbul some 420 years later, e.g. on our own Exploring Istanbul tour.

The 16 of July, accompanied with some other of our nation we went by water to the Blacke sea, being 16 miles distant from Constantinople, the sea all the way thither being little broader then the Thames; both sides of the shore are beautified with faire and goodly buildings.

But all good things come to an end. Wrag sailed out of Constantinople the following year, using the opportunity to once again demonstrate his Classical knowledge by imagining himself in Alexander the Great‘s Footsteps much as we do, and by identifying various ancient cities and Homer’s Troy herself along the way, and continuing his travels in Syria. On concluding that part of his voyages, Wrag simultaneously sailed out of history: we know nothing of his further life, except that he must have returned to England safely, so as to be able to write his account – making him one of the earliest known English tourists in Turkey.

Detaile of the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women from Sidon (modern Lebanon), mid- or late 4th century BC

Wrag’s next destination was Sidon. By a strange coincidence, that site (now in Lebanon) is the origin of one of the finest works of ancient art on display in Istanbul: the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women.

The 30 of July I tooke passage in a Turkish (…) shippe bound for Sidon; and passing through Propontis, (…), we came to Gallipoly, and so by Hellespont, between the two castles before named called Sestos and Abydos, famous for the passages made there both by Xerxes and great Alexander, the one into Thracia, the other into Asia, and so by the Sigean Promontory, now called Cape Ianitzary, at the mouth of Hellespont upon Asia side, where Troy stood, where are yet ruins of olde walls to be seen, with two hills rising in a pyramidal forme, not unlikely to be the tombs of Achilles and Ajax.

Wrag did his best to explore and to experience the splendours of Istanbul. A few centuries later, maybe you’d like to do the same? If so, join us on Exploring Istanbul tour!

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