Sunday, October 13, 1996

Thomas Coryat

Written in 1996 for Sky magazine

The English are well known for producing the world's greatest travellers and also the world's greatest eccentrics. It should therefore come as no surprise that nearly four centuries ago, in the Elizabethan Age, those two superlatives met in one odd, self-mocking, self-hawking, perpetually talking, perpetually walking gentleman—Thomas Coryat (1577-1617). A singular character in an age that produced titans of personality, Coryat was befriended and insulted by the luminaries of his day. He also walked from London to Venice and back, and wrote a book about it; and when that didn't make him as famous as he wanted, he walked to India.

Born in Odcombe, Somersetshire, the son of a clergyman who wrote Latin verse, Coryat from an early age showed irrepressible wit and a loquaciousness buttressed by a need for attention. He also had patience, exuberance, strong legs, and a large memory. These served him well at Oxford, which he left after only three years (in those days that meant merely that he didn't take holy orders). After a few years back home and his father's death in 1607, he went to London with little but his classical education.

James I had just taken the throne, and Coryat talked his way into the court of the king's son, Prince Henry. There he managed to survive as a kind of glorified jester, a "privileged buffoon," the butt of jokes who also gave as good as he got—a living version of a type found in many plays of the era. As one diarist of the Prince's court noted, "Sweetmeats and Coryat made up the last course at all court entertainments." He was also part of the regular crowd at the Mermaid Tavern, arguably the wittiest bar-cafe of all time, alongside Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and Inigo Jones. None of this, however, meant cash or celebrity.

Then Coryat hit on the notion of gaining fame as a traveller—surely this would satisfy his deep need to be taken seriously. (He was evidently a natural target for teasing; his eagerness for attention doubtless increased others' marksmanship.) His big idea was to walk to Venice and back, via France, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. He left in May 1608 and was back in October, having covered nearly two thousand miles in one pair of shoes. These Coryat took home and proudly hung in Odcombe's church, and they would be immortalized by Shakespeare, who in Measure for Measure speaks of “brave Master Shoetie, the great traveller.”

It took him three years to publish the book of his journey, Coryats Crudities, hastily gobled up in five moneths travells ...Newly digested in the hungry aire... and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling Members of this Kingdome. An odd, overlong work, with passages cobbled and altered from others' books, it was still Coryat through and through, the "Odcombian Leg-stretcher," as he called himself. The great curiosity of the Crudities is its extensive preface, which consists of verses by much of the roster of Elizabethan literary talent, alternately praising and roasting Coryat. It is back-scratching unsurpassed, a shameless and waggish blurbdom, and much of it was unsolicited.

There are verses in English, in Greek and Latin, in French, Italian, and Spanish, in Welsh, Macaronic, even in "Antipodean" and "Utopian." Ben Jonson contributed a rhymed acrostic on the letters of Coryat's name; several verses were set to music, one was shaped like an egg. When Coryat saw how many there were, and how sardonic his "friends" could be, he got cold feet, but the Prince insisted he print all of them. Suddenly it was fashionable to make fun of this extraordinary traveller while commending his book. One poet referred to him as a "single-soled, single-souled and single-shirted Observer." Jonson called Coryat "an Engine, wholly consisting of extremes, a Head, Fingers, and Toes. For what his industrious Toes have trod, his ready Fingers have written, his subtle head dictating." He was "irrecoverably addicted" to travel, this "great and bold Carpenter of words."

And the book was a success. What this meant back then was several hundred copies printed, for the reading market was tiny. Coryat had to endure one penalty of fame: a pirated edition of the Preface to the Crudities, those verses that all London was talking about, available at a fraction of the cost, with a title page making fun of our hero's lengthy tome. Coryat was enraged, but at least everyone knew him, or of him. He was thirty-five.

He was also elated. Why not go farther? Why not walk from Constantinople all the way to India, see the Great Mogul, and ride an elephant? Let them make fun of Tom Coryat then!

He left in October 1612 by ship and reached Constantinople in April 1613. En route he visited the purported ruins of Troy and was there dubbed a knight by a fellow-passenger, much to the disappointment of several local onlookers who thought him about to be beheaded. Coryat was a master at accepting hospitality, and he stayed as the guest of the English trading agent until January, when he left Constantinople by sea for Iskenderun, now most of the way along the Turkish coast. He then started walking.

He walked to Aleppo, to Damascus, and on to Jerusalem. There he had his wrist tattooed with a Crusaders' cross—a popular souvenir among Christian pilgrims to the Holy City. He had a look at the Jordan River and walked back to Aleppo for a hot four months' wait for a caravan. Eventually he got lucky, and started east in September, via Diyabekir, where a Turkish soldier robbed him of most of his limited funds. Fortunately Coryat had adopted the habit of local dress, and kept a few emergency coins stashed in strategic folds of his robes. Remarkably undaunted, he pushed on with the caravan across Persia to Tabriz, Isfahan, and Kandahar.

Near the Indian frontier Coryat had a stroke of traveller's fortune, and ran into Sir Robert and Lady Sherley, on their way back west from the Court of the Mogul Emperor Jahangir. English being rare in these parts, they must've looked like the happiest of mirages to Coryat, and Sir Robert even had the Crudities with him, picked up in London. Sir Robert also offered to speak highly of its author to the Persian Shah so that Coryat might enjoy the ruler's hospitality on his return trek. This was guff, but Lady Sherley was sensible and kind enough to give Coryat some money.

In Multan Coryat got into an argument with a Muslim who had learned Italian as a slave and who called Coryat an infidel. This earned the hapless Mohammedan a long, florid, scurrilous reply before a large crowd who cannot have possibly understood what Coryat was saying, likewise in Italian. Coryat recounts this brave oration in one of the few letters home (mostly to his mother) which are, sadly, all that survived of his Great Walk.

He was now in the territory of "the Great Mogul" and from Lahore he walked what we call the Grand Trunk Road to Delhi and Agra, then to nearby Ajmer to meet the Emperor. This walk of 450 miles took him only twenty days, at a cost of about twopence a day (Coryat remarks on the locals' generosity). With typical gusto he called the road, with its regular shade trees, "the most incomparable shew of that kind that ever my eies survaied . . . I traversed afoot, but with divers paire of shooes, having beene such a propateticke . . . that is, a walker forward on foote, as I doubt whether you have heard the like in your life..." He had covered over 3300 miles from Jerusalem, the first European to thus reach India on foot since Alexander the Great's infantry.

At Ajmer Coryat settled in with ten fellow Englishmen, local representatives of the East India Company—that strange trading and eventually military organization which soon enough controlled most of India. In the meantime any Englishman was welcome at a Company table, and they happily put up Coryat for fourteen months while he planned further travels (Samarkand and Ethiopia) and polished his Persian, Turkish, Hindustani, and Arabic. A dedicated wordsmith, he liked linguistic brawls and, in his native garb, came to be looked on as "a half-witted English fakir" by the locals.

Coryat earned the admiration (and a donation) of the Mogul emperor one morning, at Jahangir's regular appearance before his people. His need was great: he had all but run out of money. But Coryat's Persian was eloquent. He spoke of the ruler's "glorious court" and said he had come all this way to see "Your Majesties elephants" and the Ganges, "captaine of all the river[s] of the world." He had on this journey "sustained much labour and toile, the like whereof no mortall man in this world did ever perform, to see the blessed face of Your Majesty . . . ."

The speech worked; Jahangir replied in Persian and threw him 100 silver rupees, about ten pounds sterling. Later the English Ambassador complained to Coryat that it was most unbecoming for a countryman to beg. Coryat was at home duelling with wits like Ben Jonson; he could eviscerate a mere bureaucrat. "I answered . . . in that stout and resolute manner that he was contented to cease nibling at me."

Coryat kept walking. He saw Agra again during a plague, and Hardwar and the Punjab; but the climate and his exertions proved too much. He had fainting spells and managed to make his way to the East India Company's hospitality in Surat. Their kindnesses did him in. In December 1617 he became the first Western tourist to die in India from a bad stomach, brought on by an English diet of too much local beer on top of meat in hot weather. Yet to him belongs the very real honor of being the first Westerner to visit the subcontinent with no thought of either trade or conquest.

What, in the end, does Coryat amount to? Scholars of Asia relish him as much for his humor and exaggerations as for his observant eye; he is far more entertaining than the usual traders and missionaries. One goes to him not for his facts but for his personality. He travelled not for plunder or science or God but for his own personal pleasure, and to our eyes he seems modern in this regard. He was an exceptional linguist, the first English travel-writer, and the greatest pedestrian of his era. He well understood that speed not only erases the detail but blurs the mind. He rarely complained of hardship. People made fun of him, but then again this is the protest of the stay-at-home against the incessant adventurer even today. And if Coryat didn't exactly have the last laugh, perhaps he had the best one. Here we are four centuries later, still praising his enthusiasm and his shoe leather: he would surely puff with pride. Plus he saw the world.

Saturday, June 15, 1996


Written in 1996 for Gourmet magazine

To journey in the Middle East is to tread the dust of ancient history; and in the classical world no other ruin has the reputation of Jordan’s Petra, that “rose-red city half as old as Time.” Forgotten for centuries save by a few scholars and bedouin tribes, it had been the wealthy capital of the Nabateans, who flourished around the time of Christ. On “rediscovery” in the early 19th century Petra became a metaphor: the legendary lost city of Arabia.

Having admired the Scotsman David Roberts’ lithographs from his daring 1839 visit, I’d long wanted to see Petra—hidden like a sandstone dream after a winding, narrow passage through rock. Even today, to reach it summons an ancient wonder.

I went later than I should have, in early June, when the south of Jordan is already too hot. Petra lies amid stupendous valleys reminiscent of the most dramatic American southwest: huge folded waves, hills, and gnarled fists of stone, seemingly impenetrable. To travel here is to trace Biblical events—first you cross the spring of Moses. Then past the new sand-colored town of Petra, nestled on switchback roads that descend. A few modern hotels, a ticket, a gate. You are walking a dusty road with thistly hillside rising on one side. Horses are chuffing; women pass, swathed in black.

The road winds through lunar outcroppings, many of which are tombs with gaping temple-entrances carved out. A red-headdressed bedouin on a white horse canters past; Petra has long been in bedouin hands and they still have the concessions, like providing visitors with horses, donkeys, or buggies. Then a canyon starts, and you enter the siq, the serpentine corridor of rock.

Though it goes on only about a mile, you might as well be moving back centuries. The time-travel sensation is increased by the remains of an ancient dam and diversionary tunnel the Nabateans cut to protect against flood—for the enclosed city’s perpetual enemy was onrushing water. The siq descends; rock walls tower on both sides with carved niches, missing their statues. Welcoming shade, complex outcroppings with occasional trees, bird calls, pools of light. Your footsteps crunch the sand as the shadows deepen, and a darting lizard seems disrespectful.

A paved Roman road and a water gully begin. More niches, a flowering oleander—then abruptly it rises before you, through a convenient cleft where the shadowy walls nearly meet: a fragmentary vision of civilization in a burst of light, a glimpse of elegant floral columns, a winged goddess carved on a facade. This moment will be remembered as one of the architectural epiphanies of your life.

A few steps more, you come out of the siq, and a temple known as the Treasury is revealed entire, a camel kneeling appropriately before it—that miraculous moment to which no photo can do justice, when everyone becomes an explorer discovering Petra (“the rock”) for the first time.

Like most names for Petra’s buildings, the Treasury—El Khazneh in Arabic—is misleading. Originally a cult-temple of a king, the formal perfection of its twenty columns and its high stone urn had bedouin convinced for many centuries that this was where Petra’s riches were still hidden; numerous bullet-marks on the urn are a result of potshots to remove the lid. The treasure, of course, is the building itself, to rival any in classical Greece.

The Nabateans were a desert trading people who, from the 6th century B.C. on, developed a genius for urbanism and commerce. They soon controlled the region’s spice trade, expanding until they were less middlemen than overlords; Petra made an ideal trading crossroads, protected by the siq. Natural diplomats whose language and culture were a truce of East and West, the Nabateans were known for a humane system of justice and prowess at water management. Myrrh and frankincense—resins collected from trees in southern Arabia—could reach Petra by camel caravan in a mere two weeks, and Mediterranean ports like Gaza a week later.

These long caravans paid escort taxes on entering Nabatean territory and were led swiftly across by cameleers. Each city acted as rest-stop (at Petra, caravans stayed outside the siq) and also as a clearing-house. Fresh camels and crews were provided, goods traded, local items like Dead Sea bitumen added to the merchandise.

Petrans were both merchants and bankers for the caravans, investing large sums over vast trade routes outside their territory, and this way the Nabateans could reach out to most of their known world, exchanging goods and ideas. They maintained trade representatives as far away as East Africa, Italy, and the Aegean; hence the cosmopolitanism evident in every carved rock, where Greek, Assyrian, Egyptian, and Roman architectural details jostle each other in a singularly Nabatean style.

In 106 A.D. the Nabateans fell under Roman rule, which was typically benevolent and constructive. As cities to the north rose in trading power Petra lost its importance, and in the 2nd century the Nabateans became more agricultural and moved their capital up to the Sinai to recapture commerce from the Arabian Gulf. Massive earthquakes every two centuries hurt Petra’s viability, and it was mostly abandoned in the 7th century.

For a thousand years bedouin tribes kept silent on its existence. Its name was familiar only to classical scholars until the courageous young Swiss explorer and linguist Johann Burckhardt, disguised as a Muslim student, entered in 1812. Soon all Europe learned of Petra.

Early travelers and artists often took their time seeing the site; Petra now tends to get included as a single arduous day stop on a week tour of Jordan. But to allow Petra only a day is an injustice; not to see every individual monument (there are over 800) but to let memory absorb one of the man-made wonders of the world. It’s too overwhelming to take in hurriedly, and the Petra I describe in this article can be seen in one very active day only if you’re in great shape.

The difficulty of any visit to the deep past is completing the picture. The paradox here is that most of what survives are tombs of several types: much of Petra is a carved, palatial necropolis. A motif of columns around gaping dark tomb entrances gives an obsessional unity; still, one should imagine those temple-like tombs in a bustling city of the living, those valleys and hills covered with mud houses and stone villas, pre-earthquake.

After a wider second siq, with tombs on both sides, the cliffs open to reveal the grandeur of the city valley. First the huge, commanding amphitheater, the site of plays and the struggles of gladiators and animals. The amphitheater seated about 5,000 before an earthquake collapsed the stage and the backstage columns, and it’s worth going up an interior passage to come out like a spectator on the cheap high seats. (There’d have been cold drinks for sale on the way.) In another part of Petra a smaller theater was filled with water in the rainy season, so that mock naval battles could be enacted.

The valley broadens gradually, and to the east along one cliff-face a long array of Royal Tombs has been carved in a line like a majestic honor-guard. Here the size of the site takes hold and the distinctive local bedouin souvenirs, of sand in many colors dripped carefully into little bottles to make pretty images, seem appropriate, the many hues of Petran rock writ small. They bring to mind the visit of the artist and nonsense poet Edward Lear in 1855, who wrote that “All the cliffs are . . . in stripes.” His cook, Giorgio, put it more vividly: “Oh, Signore, we have come into a world where everything is made of chocolate, ham, curry-powder and salmon.”

The Royal Tombs convey the enormous scale of the city. The Palace Tomb with four massive columned Roman doors; the Corinthian Tomb, more eaten away but with a floral urn above; and the Urn Tomb itself, tremendously high, a colonnaded courtyard on its upper level, used as a Byzantine church in the 5th century. It is difficult to parse the magic of these grand edifices that flow with a precision and silken grace from the rock. Half-eaten by time, they are no less wonderful, and in contemplating them, incongruous details emerge—like raised geometric designs, with hints of art deco.

By the theater a sloping path climbs to the High Place of Sacrifice, the most well-preserved of the ancient world. (I suggest hiring a guide for this two-hour walk; it’s easy to take a wrong path.) Heading up the gorge the view back is spectacular, past whorled and mottled continents of otherworldly rock in rust and rose and cream, striated like marble cake. Eventually a worn processional path begins, its indentations the weathered steps of priests, up and around desert cliffs with pink oleander blossoms everywhere. Near the top are twin stone obelisks, representing the fertile male and female Nabatean deities. In typical fashion they weren’t brought here; Petrans simply carved the mountain out around them.

On the summit, after a bit of a scramble, is the High Place itself, a small sunken courtyard of stone with an altar and space for, presumably, only priests and honored guests. Here, before a vista of layered mountains and valleys, animals and sometimes humans were sacrificed for nearly ten centuries.

The descent follows a different route, via steps and paths both recent and ancient, by ravines and grottos. After many staircases there was suddenly a carved lion fifteen feet long, slender and sinewy. Once water had sluiced from its missing metallic head and run in cunning tunnels all the way to the city far below.

Extremely steep stairs lead down to elegant tombs which all resembled temples hewn out of rock, the most illustrious with three Roman soldiers on its facade. Across what was once a courtyard and portico—now bare rubble—is a funerary banquet hall hollowed from the cliff, with fluted columns along the interior walls and Petra’s most gorgeous patterns.

Beyond is the elaborate Renaissance Tomb, whose arch and six urns make it arguably the most sophisticated design in Petra. The way continues down Wadi Farasa (wadi means riverbed), finishing at the valley’s head after astounding views of giant temple-tombs shaped from a cliff and visible only from here. They add to the staggering immensity, the otherworldliness of a city not built but carved out of sandstone. At the valley’s head the impressive colonnaded main street ends in Roman paving stones and an arched temple, one of the few free-standing buildings that survive; it was originally dedicated to Dushara, the principal Nabatean deity, and later to Zeus and Aphrodite.

There are two museums in Petra, one by a little restaurant and the other in a tomb on the adjacent cliff-face. Both collections give a sense of the city’s daily life: small oil lamps, gold jewelry, bronze statuettes, terracotta figurines, coins, jars, gaily decorated bowls and pots, glass bottles, and larger statues of gods—some Egyptian, some Roman (Dionysus and Venus) and their Nabatean equivalents—along with enormous sculpted heads, winged angels, griffins, and gorgeous flowering pediments. Ceramic pipes attest to the Petran skill at supplying a metropolis of 20-30,000 with plenty of water via channels, aqueducts, and cisterns.

Most startling were the heads of winged lions, which were always delicate—whether in the earlier geometric style, or the realist style that followed the Roman invasion. Around both museums, stone tablets with animal and human figures in relief added a missing element to the site’s empty niches and broken torsos.

A nearby path meanders up to the largest and most impressive monument in Petra, known as Ed-Deir or “the Monastery.” No one coming down agreed as to how far away it was; in the end it took me under an hour, with rests to admire stone medusa heads and extraordinary views.

The path up is like a mountain equivalent of the siq. After many hundreds of worn steps and a couple of mildly steep moments, at 4,000 feet a pass leads through the usual scrub trees and boulders alongside a jumbled rock massif. I ambled into a kind of open courtyard past an abutment of rock, took a few steps, turned, and nearly fell to my knees.

Much wider and taller than the Treasury far below, the Monastery seems cataclysmic, carved to a deliberately inhuman scale—its muscular columns eerily smooth, its great urn towering over a doorway already four times the height of a man. It looms like a carved palace of justice eight stories high on a desert mountaintop, its softest colors revealed by the polished light of late afternoon.

Beside the Monastery a rough-hewn staircase traces a canny path up. I saw a daring young man make his way around, over, and emerge on the roof—then somehow clamber onto the lid of the urn, up the tulip handle, and then on top of that—while far below we all gasped and placed bets on whether he would jump or try a handstand. When I left he was still relaxing on the lid, admiring the view.

On my way down, I passed a bedouin goatherd playing a metal flute and singing to his flock. At the bottom, donkeys were braying to Arab music, the camels chewing and resting in the dirt as their owners lolled beneath canvas tents, enjoying a gentle peace at the end of the day.

A last sight of the Treasury, in lustrous light, just before the siq: here Petra ends in absolute glory, the decoration so ornate, so balanced and graceful—those human and mystical figures, the leaves and flowers on the columns. I stared at the bare rock beside it and thought: They started with only this. Art is not progressive; twenty centuries have not bettered their result, produced any structure more stately or more moving. That stone could be carved to such a softness and a classical formality, and with such freedom, seemed a miraculous statement of civilization.


Wadi Rum, the vast desert valley with dramatic mesas that provides the most memorable landscape shots of David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia, lies about an hour and a half by car south of Petra.  Inhabited since prehistoric times, for centuries it’s been the terrain of a semi-nomadic tribe, the Howeitat.  T.E.Lawrence, who wrote of Wadi Rum’s marvels (“vast and echoing and God-like”), was drawn to it again and again.

A visitor today begins at the Rest House at the conclusion of the Rum Highway, beside a modest village.  A Bedouin guide with a 4-wheel drive vehicle can be hired for a tour of Wadi Rum—three hours, say, in early morning or late afternoon.  Riding in the back of an open Toyota truck, we headed into the wadi (the Arabic word for a dried-up riverbed), which is mostly soft, pale red sand tufted with sparse grasses.  All around, monumental mountains like massive sentinels rise from the desert floor:  continents and honeycombs and fists and mushrooms and ridged pillars of rock.

In a mountain defile we examined Nabatean inscriptions, touching in their simplicity—stick figures holding hands, a camel with an arcing neck, two small drawn footprints.  Miles on, we made our way up a lone outcropping to a natural rock bridge with an astonishing view, miles and miles of strange immensity.  We stopped at a Bedouin tent for tea with a goatherd and his sons.

We passed a herd of camels feeding on scrub grass, wary at our noise, and got out.  Barefoot, we slowly climbed a dune of rose-red sand sliding underfoot, past a few brittle bushes, and stood above, in the quiet majesty of giant islands of rock around us.  The desert floor lay spread below.  Lawrence was still right: a mere glimpse of this place brings on premonitions of God. 

And summoned as if by our whim, two robed men on haughty camels appeared over a dune: the Royal Wadi Mounted Police, sometimes known as the Camel Corps.  They exchanged unhurried greetings with our guide as their camels chewed air, then they ambled on.

Had our guide seen the movie? we asked.  Oh, yes, he had a video of it at home—that pass to our right had been the famous long shot.  Could he be sure?  Why, of course: his father had been on hand during the filming.

Thursday, May 16, 1996

The Lost Levantines of Istanbul

Written in 1996 for Boston magazine

Istanbul, perpetually schizophrenic, cannot make up its many minds about anything. Here, eyeing each other across the hurrying Bosphorus, Europe and Asia realize they have little in common save this inspiring city, whose skyline of minarets and floating domes can belong to none other. As the most powerful place in the world for over a thousand years, at one of the planet's crossroads, Istanbul remains energized even as its glories fade.

There are certain Boston echos. Both ex-capitals share a sense of power surrendered; both retain their stature as centers of learning, deriving energy from transient youth. Both carry a financial self-importance which slightly exaggerates the facts, but are of irreplaceable grandeur in each country's idea of itself, with all the historical vibrations of a place where Great Events occurred. Both are, despite an up-to-date veneer of stylishness, deeply old-fashioned and class-conscious. And each city suffers stresses that threaten its core identity.

Istanbul is changing radically. A milion peasants from the Anatolian heartland arrive every year looking for non-existent work, while a city designed for horse cart and trolley is force-fed more cars than it can handle. And even as a fundamentalist movement is on the rise—I saw female joggers swathed in black, head to foot—a Brahmin class, once powerful, is disappearing.

They are called Levantines. Though the term usually means anyone from the eastern Mediterranean, here it refers to a particular class of Istanbullus—Europeans who immigrated in the 19th century, in the waning Ottoman Empire. Most were Italian, French, British; some were Russians fleeing revolution.

The first Levantine I met was actually called Mr. Levante—an old Italian Jew who'd run the Orient Express office here for decades. With his fin-de-siècle gestures and a colonial, almost courtly manner, he was a gentleman through and through. Like many Levantines, while maintaining his foreign nationality he'd been a citizen of the Turkish Republic (begun by Ataturk in 1923) and before that of the Ottoman Empire. Nearly ninety, impeccably tailored and fluent in at least four languages, he still resolutely swam from Europe to Asia several times a year with his chauffeur (a mile across the Bosphorus at the narrowest point), despite the risk of being run down by Russian oil tankers and freighters headed up to the Black Sea.

I remember him waving his hand in exasperation one morning at the jam of belching cars along the Bosphorus up in Bebek, a fancy suburb—home to diplomats, successful businessmen, and the odd Levantine family who'd hung on in style. "Do you believe it?" he asked. "Not long ago the water was clean enough for me to swim here every day, without fail. When I was already an old man there were sheep grazing these hills, and perhaps two cars. Now there are no sheep, only thousands of automobiles."

We were speaking French, though his English was excellent—Mr. Levante's generation of older Levantines had always spoken French among themselves. Still, as worldly as they seemed (for there was no mistaking them for foreign tourists on Istanbul's better streets), they had a stale and provincial if colorful air too. It was as if, knowing they'd never leave, they just didn't get out much anymore. Born here, well-educated before the war either in Europe or a Europeanized Istanbul University, they'd all remained Christian or Jew, and never converted to Islam.

The Levantines were not simply arrivistes and refugees; they had actually impelled the growth of the large Belle Epoque part of the city, known as Beyoglu, where indeed few Muslims ever lived until the 1960s. Across the Golden Horn from Stamboul, the oldest part of the city (once ancient Byzantium, later home to the sultans), for centuries Beyoglu was the modern, purely European third of Constantinople. Architecturally modeled on Paris, it was the natural locale of foreign embassies and fashionable hotels, the commercial and cultural center of the city.

Here an entire society of 19th century European merchants set up shop, bringing a finished, definitive way of life that rapidly seduced the Turkish upper class. As a genteel, vigorous Turkish gentleman of eighty-seven recalled, reliving that patrician city, "In those days we all spoke French, we carried walking sticks, we dressed as elegantly as gentlemen in Paris, not the drab clothes you see today. And the beautiful Constantinople women! Well, that has not changed. But those were more decorous times."

Leap two generations: Turkey, led by the secularist Ataturk, risen for two decades from Ottoman ashes, has managed to stay neutral during WWII. These transplanted Europeans—or their children's children—remain a highly visible, respected class. Nominally Turkish, the Levantines also resolutely keep up the old nationalities of their grandparents and still find the city airy, manageable, and green. Ankara, the newly-built and landlocked capital, lags far behind Constantinople, now renamed Istanbul.

Over the next decades, though, the city changed inexorably. Some Levantines stayed wealthy, through their parents' banks or import and shipping companies. Their children mostly emigrated—either to France after the Istanbul riots against minorities in the 1950s, or else to the States, for English was now becoming the preferred language over French. Poor or affluent, all Levantines were careful the children maintained at least two passports.

And by ten years ago Levantine society was collapsing. As a veteran Turkish journalist pointed out, "Until well after the war the Levantines were happy. 'Sweet-water Europeans' we called them, because they liked the good life. Like fish who can't live in salt water, eh? Then suddenly the Anatolian peasants began to flood the city, and it was like when the Nile floods its banks. When the water recedes nothing is left and you start over. That's what happened to these Levantines. Their city, their whole world, got swept away."

Once the heart of a cosmopolitan city, now they were simply stranded, with fond memories of a more amusing place that had changed irreversibly around them. How could surviving profoundly lonely teas at the French consulate compare to bygone afternoons at the Cafe du Luxembourg or soirees at the Pera Palace ballroom? And where were the spies? Gone forever, with the walking-canes?

There are still survivors. On a sloping lane in Beyoglu, past the abandoned Spanish Embassy, past the Italian Consulate where Casanova spent the summer of 1744 without a conquest, I met a finely-made white-haired man standing in a narrow doorway. In polished French he said, "Come in, come in, sir. I am resting at the moment. I am a furniture maker, you see." His manner seemed more a diplomat's. He ushered me into a grotto of shadows and sun shafts. "Vladimir. And you . . .? I have worked here for thirty-six years."

I asked about his flawless French. "I went to a French lycée here when I was a boy. That of Saint Benoit. I speak Greek also—my wife is Greek, but from Istanbul. I speak Russian too— my parents were both Russes Blancs, they fled here back in 1917. Naturally, since I was born here I also speak Turkish. And because here my neighbors are the Italian government, I speak a practical Italian. I learned it on this street."

To move fluidly from language to language and culture to culture was in his blood.

He presented me to his six cats, pointed out the delicate workmanship of his cabinets, and offered me water for the uphill climb. He seemed much of the history of Beyoglu, in human form.

"Less than one hundred Levantine families left now," an antiquarian bookseller who specialized in liquidating their libraries told me. A few kept the Brahmin profile high: one Levantine daughter married the heir to one of Turkey's largest fortunes last year, and a son went into administrative work for the royal family of Jordan. Breeding paid—but most Levantines had died off, and their children and grandchildren were long gone. In the antique shops of Beyoglu you could buy up their abandoned furniture and bric-a-brac. "Kids here no longer look to Paris for inspiration," a Frenchwoman at the consulate remarked. "They're transfixed by America, by whatever looks newest." At least in the Grand Bazaar, the shopkeepers—shifting fluently from English to Italian to French to German to Dutch to Polish to Spanish in search of a sale—remember.