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Turkey - Expo Paris 1867

Turkey at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

The three Turkish buildings whose interior is shown here are, as is well known, a mosque, a faithful reduction of the Yechil Djami (the Green Mosque) of Brousse, founded in 1412 A.D. by Sultan Mohammed I, a kiosk, i.e., a small pleasure pavilion, such as still exists today in several of the yali (summer residences) situated on the banks of the Bosphorus, in the vicinity of Constantinople, and the courtyard of the Tunisian palace.

What these buildings mainly lack, in order to be appreciated as they deserve, and to give visitors an idea of the intimate habits of Orientals, is the site. Indeed, the Champ de Mars, however transformed and well arranged it may be, by the care of the French Imperial Commission and foreign Commissions, cannot compare with the enchanted shores of the Bosphorus, where Europe and Asia mingle their beauties: Austere landscape on the one hand, with simple and grandiose lines, that is Europe; sinuous and soft valleys, hills with rounded crests, forests of plane trees and cypresses, on the other side of the strait, that is Asia; and over all this a sky that is always pure, flooding with light the fresh lawns and the blue sea.

Let us imagine the charming kiosk built by M. Léon Parvillée in its true place, in an environment similar to that of which we speak; in Scutari of Constantinople, for example, at the bottom of the yali of a high Ottoman official. Getting out of the light caik, a fast boat which advantageously replaces the Parisian car in Constantinople, one crosses an enchanted garden, not flat and all of a piece like those of Europe, or simply adorned with some terrace, but with a thousand levels, from which the view wanders far away, gliding over both the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Halfway up, you can see the entire city of Istanbul (Constantinople) with its countless minarets, whose sharp peaks seem to soar into the sky, and the only limit on the horizon is the straight line where the sky and the sea meet.

When you enter this kiosk, the master of the house, lifting himself halfway up on the cushions of the wide sofa that you see, will show you the place of honour, on his left, and will have the yellow copper sofra carried before you on which you will take the rahat lokoum, a kind of soft, sweet and starchy paste, which invites you to drink the pink Cherbet, its usual complement. You will then be offered, on a second sofra covered with a blue silk cloth, largely embroidered with gold and silver foliage, the purest mocha, served hot in small cups of an elegant model, supported by filigree zarfs that many people, at the Exhibition, mistakenly take for egg cups, let us say in passing.

The indispensable accompaniment to coffee will not be lacking either, and you will soon be brought the tchibouk all garnished with a fine blond tobacco, or better still, the narghileh with its leather pipe curved in long spirals, with its wide-bellied carafe, half-filled with limpid water, where, for the pleasure of the eyes, small red cherries or blown glass fish dance with each inhalation from the smoker. In the basin, in the middle of the salon, Chinese cyprins, with their backs spotted with various colours, disturbed for a moment in their usual quietude by the gurgling of the narghileh, will come and look at you curiously, advancing towards you their half-open mouths, on which the thin sprays of water will gush out in pearls.

If you desire less quiet distractions, Karagueuz (black eye), the Oriental Polichinelle, will come to entertain you with his ingenious gravelings, if you do not prefer that living characters, real actors, represent in front of you the games of the square (Meïdan Oyounou), a sort of popular playlet, comparable to the hilarious and naive plays of our old fairground theatre, where it is well known that Molière, more than once, did not disdain to take his property.

In this play, an often acerbic but always wildly cheerful criticism of Asian mores, you will see the very charge of authority - these people respect nothing - appear in the guise of a police officer adorned with a majestic belly which shows his hierarchical superiority to all eyes. The second character in the play, one of his constituents, a Bohemian flower, never fails to clearly refuse him any obedience, accompanied by the obligatory Nazarene. The armed force is required; it slowly rushes to the scene. The armed force is insulted and insolently defied. From one side of the stage to the other, a fiery polemic begins, full of such puns that a European imagination could not dream of anything similar.

The audience laughed with an Olympian laugh, falling back on the cushions of the Sofa. Finally the armed force, pushed to the limit, gets seriously angry, and the Zeïbek who personifies it lowers the two and a half meters of the barrel of his rifle encrusted with silver and coral, draws from his pocket a wick, gravely sets fire to it and prepares to put the disrupter of public order to the sword, when the latter exclaims: Bana baq! (look at me) you have a gun that will miss! - and, indeed, the rifle misses - but I have large-calibre artillery; get that bomb! Immediately the bomb, thrown vigorously, falls, bursts, and covers the authority and his agent with its fresh pink flesh. This bomb is a watermelon. New laughter from the audience. One does not know how all this would end, for the guns of the zeibeks do not always miss, if a kindly Bohemian Tchingane, whose role is filled with great grace by a young Greek, wearing a woman's costume with all the elegance of the Attic, did not come to restore the peace by executing, on his own, the de rigueur ballet which ends the show to the general satisfaction.

As can be seen, the plot of these playlets is not very complicated; but one cares little for the plot in such cases, and the pleasure one finds in such performances is mainly caused by the frank and naive gaiety which animates them. The magnificent natural setting in which they take place is not without its great charm. In the East, the smallest things, which perhaps elsewhere would not be noticed at all, borrow from the sun which bathes them with its rays a very particular attraction, a local colour which makes them, there at least, worthy of interest.

Thus, for example, the mosque of the Champ de Mars, deprived of the wide landscape, of the always blue sky, of the great sun, of the calm sea, of all those poetic things which would make it, in the East, such a beautiful setting, loses the best part of the prestige which it would have, over there, in Brousse, surrounded by shady gardens, by pretty houses in coloured wood, with windows embellished with chahnichirs (covered balconies), and frequented by a crowd in colourful clothes.

It should be seen on the evening of a festival, when the interior is all lit up with innumerable small candles, placed on the star-shaped chandeliers that hang from the vault. In the great gilded copper candlesticks on either side of the mihrab, huge candles burn, their light making the enamelled arabesques glow. Pious imams, faithful Muslims, barefoot as a sign of deep respect, keep a recollected silence, and prostrate themselves by striking their foreheads against the ground, to adore God. The muezzin, from the top of the minaret, launches with a clear and piercing voice to the four winds of the sky the profession of Muslim faith, the formula of the Credo: La illah el Allah! Mohammed recul Allah! There is only one God! Mohammed is the prophet of God! No noise is heard in the city; only, in the distance, in the plain, the tinkling of the bells of the rams driving the flocks, leaving the pastures, to return to their sheepfolds.

Then, when the hour of prayer is over, each Muslim takes up his red or yellow slippers in the vestibule where he left them; in the light of a multitude of paper lanterns, the walks begin, to the sound of the instruments: Bulgari, Santour, and other singular creations, with shapes as bizarre as they are coquettish, of the art of the Ottoman instrument maker. The walks are continued throughout the night, and throughout the night too the crowd never ceases to flock to the mosque, where everyone wants to light his little candle and leave it as an ex-voto. All this, both outside and inside, makes for a truly enchanting sight. To enjoy the beauties of the East, you have to go to the East, only there can you understand them; everywhere else, and however well they are rendered, they always lack the main thing, the light.

However, one could have doubted this truth only a few days ago, at the inauguration of the new Bardo, which Mr Alfred Chapon has just built on the Champ de Mars for His Highness the Bey of Tunis, and which Mr Jules de Lesseps so courteously honoured. An elite crowd, gathered from all parts of the world, seemed to be preparing for this great festival of brotherhood, which would be so beautiful if it were held.

All the races were represented there; and there at least, it was not very difficult to establish a perfect union between them. The glimpse offered for a whole day by the Chinese, the Indians and the English; the Persians, the Ottomans and the Russians, cheerfully toasting their mutual prosperity with the Champagne wine poured for them by the hand of France, was certainly of a more beautiful effect than all the festivals of the East together; but it was a purely moral effect. The Tuaregs, wrapped in their white burnous, might have pranced out of the door on their bearded horses, and growled like annoyed dogs at their recalcitrant dromedaries, but there was no illusion of picturesqueness.

Yet Mr. Alfred Chapon's Bardo is of a ravishing and truly Moorish style. Nothing in it smacks of the heavy, anti-artistic hand of the architect brought up in that so-called Greek school, which transforms the Parthenons into Bourses. The details executed, under his skilful direction, with the materials and by the workmen of the country, could not be of a truer rendering, since they are the truth itself. The coloured stained glass windows; the flowery silk hangings; the sofas covered with rich fabrics; the furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ebony; the bright carpets and the fine spareries that cover the floor; the fountains with their murmuring jets of water that incessantly refresh the inner courtyard; everything, in a word, is authentic.

Let His Highness the Bey of Tunis come to live in this palace with his retinue; without needing any information to know who he is, each one will walk straight ahead and take the room that is his due. The prince, seated on the main sofa, in the Divan, his chest studded with Nichans, an amber rosary in his hand, will be ready to render justice. His officers will stand respectfully around him, erect and attentive, to obey his first command. In the Selamlik, the receptions will begin immediately, and the visitors will be offered the traditional pipe, coffee and cherbets.

In the inner courtyard, musicians lined up in a circle in front of the fountain will perform those naïve concerts, whose plaintive and gentle notes sometimes seem to be only an accompaniment, modulated on the sizzling of the water in the marble basins. On the other side of the building, in the haremlik, the Moorish women, as white as milk, will look curiously through the grilles of their elegant cages, into the covered balconies that hang from the façade. They will sing some Arabic song, some poem composed by them, for the still unknown lover they will love one day.

But soon, the nostalgia of the grey sands of the shore, of the pure mirror of the Carthaginian sea, of the ever-blue sky, will squeeze all the hearts. Princes, officers, women and musicians, saturated with European civilisation, will sigh with anguish for a ray of African sunshine, as the Parisian lost in the East desires with an irresistible longing the tarmac of the boulevard; and all this brilliant and exotic world will leave with the swallow, when the doors of the Exhibition close.

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée