Rachel Finnegan
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By the time Richard Pococke travelled in the Eastern Mediterranean, Westerners were no longer an uncommon sight for many Ottomans. Initially he wore Oriental clothes over his European clothing, but soon after he had arrived in Egypt he switched to Egyptian garb altogether. Even then Pococke will have remained recognizable as a foreigner, but that was not necessarily problematic. Travellers from Europe seldom went out alone, being accompanied either by a longer-term Western resident (often his or her host or someone from his household) or by one of the Janissaries (Ottoman infantrymen) who invariably guarded the ‘consular house’. It should also be remembered that Pococke travelled with “an excellent servant turned of 50, very faithfull & diligent, he lived 12 years in Constantinople, with the Emperors Ambassadors as a steward, talks Turkish, Italian, German, French, Latin”. It is typical of the period that Pococke informed his mother that the man was from Friuli, but does not tell her his name. The correspondence shows that the two men often went on trips together. He was evidently a good shot, because in Samos he “killed 3 larks for my supper” (many Westerners hunted for sport in the Ottoman Empire), and when they were in quarantine in Messina together, it was this man who would prepare Pococke’s food. More importantly, which routes Pococke took to the sites he visited and, when it came to encounters with Ottomans, what he understood of what was said, will largely have depended on this anonymous intermediary. His importance for the Letters should therefore not be underestimated.

Pococke’s servant from Friuli will also have been an indispensable guide to the diplomatic infrastructure in ‘the Levant’ as the Eastern Mediterranean was often called in the West in the premodern period. Because a network of Western consuls and vice-consuls had already existed in the region for several centuries. By Pococke’s time British ‘diplomatic representatives’ were found across the Ottoman Empire, and his correspondence shows that he invariably visited them first whenever arriving in a new location. This was exactly what was expected of new arrivals; visitors were often few and far between, so everyone wanted to hear the ‘latest’ news from home – or at least Christendom. In return the traveller would invariably be invited to lodge with the consul in the consular house. Most consulates were only institutionalized in the nineteenth century, so in Pococke’s time the consulate was wherever the consul chose to live. In many cases it was only practical to take over one’s predecessor’s home, so in practice there was usually some degree of continuity, even if it was not the result of any kind of formal policy. Travellers staying with ‘the consul’ also tended to eat at his table – the were no female consuls yet in this period – and enjoy other benefits of being part of his household, like borrowing a Janissary guard when going on trips.

Pococke’s letters show that this system worked very well in the 1730s. Although a great deal of research has been done on these consular networks in the pre-modern period, Pococke also provides new information about who was acting as consul where. This is particularly true for Egypt, which was not very popular among European merchants because the relative independence of the local rulers from the sultan in Istanbul often meant that the commercial privileges Western traders enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire – known as adhnames in Turkish and ‘capitulations’ in the West – were not honoured as consistently in Egypt as elsewhere in the Levant.

There was a second mechanism that also ensured that few European travellers arrived in any Ottoman centre of trade without an introduction: the delivery of mail. Wherever a traveller would arrive and tell people about his intended itinerary he would be entrusted with letters to be handed over personally to family members, friends, or business contacts. So delivering letters was as much a part of everyday life for a Western traveller in the Ottoman Empire as writing them. In Akhmin, in Upper Egypt, Pococke even delivered a letter from a high-ranking Ottoman official – not actually the Governor-General of Egypt, that was Abu Bekir Paşa in 1737, but evidently someone very powerful behind the scenes – to the Amir of the Bedouin in the area, explaining to his mother how the mechanism of delivering post worked:

I went this evening to wait on the Emir or Prince of Akmim. […] I delivered my letter to him, from Osman Bey, who is in reality the Governor of all Egypt: – He received me with great civility, said he had a regard for the Franks, told me without the letter, he would have done anything for me, in his power, much more with it; told me he would send his own people with me whenever I pleased, & bid me be afraid of nothing, he would do me what service he could, both now & on my return, & offered me a letter to another person, & received very kindly the little present I made of Venice glass & 2 or 3 boxes of sweetmeats.

The Prince’s assurances of safety were not hollow phrases. In the early-modern period travelling was hazardous by definition. Contrary to today, it was unusual for individuals to move around without a clear purpose, so travellers raised suspicions. This was the case in Europe as much as in the Ottoman Empire, where a travel permit from the central Ottoman authorities in Istanbul was needed. Pococke had applied to the British embassy in Istanbul to arrange this travel permit (T. yol emri) for him and send it to Venice, where it was indeed waiting for him when he arrived there.

This ‘passport’ was a personal document that was valid for Pococke and his retinue (in his case, just one servant) for a specific number of places. The exact route was not mentioned in the Ottoman document, which allowed the traveller to wander about unhindered by the local authorities. The travel permit also meant that Pococke could make use of the Ottoman roads and the caravanserais along them, where lodgings and refreshments were provided free of charge. He only seems to have used them once or twice (e.g. en route from Alexandria to Cairo), however, usually finding shelter elsewhere.

The travel permit guaranteed that Pococke would not be bothered by the local representatives of the Ottoman government, but in many locations this was not enough. In Akhmim, as we have seen, Bedouins effectively controlled the area and their protection good not be taken for granted simply because Pococke was allowed to travel. The Bedouins had interests of their own, which did not always coincide with those of the central authorities. If any local power faction – be it the Bedouins in Egypt, or the Kurds in the vicinity of Iskenderun (Alexandretta) – decided to rob an individual European merchant or traveller, then obtaining satisfaction was practically impossible. Pococke not only made himself useful to local notables like the Emir of Akhmim, he was also wise enough to have small presents for them, which also tended to work well. Later Pococke also delivered letters for other Ottoman and Egyptian dignitaries, while doing the same for the many Catholic missionaries he met on his journey. The missionaries formed an additional network in the Levant that a traveller like Pococke relied upon; they tended to have convents and houses of their own, where guests were welcomed irrespective of their religious background.

The traveller bringing letters was also often offered coffee (mentioned no less than 190 times in the Letters from the East), and sometimes he would be invited for a meal. Pococke is exceptionally informative about such occasions. Where other travellers tended to focus on the sites – which in many cases had already been described extensively by previous visitors from the West – Pococke also includes copious notes about what he ate and drank. For example, in Cairo,

I drank Caffelet at Mr Congreves, made in this manner; – first you make Coffee of what strength most agreeable, you may try, let it settle & pour it off, & then with that Coffee, make Chocolate, about half the quantity you would boyl in so much water, well sweetened; – it is esteemed more wholesome than either Coffee or Chocolate.<sup>1</sup>

This almost reads like a recipe. Did Pococke imagine his mother making the drink for herself at home, or having it made for her in accordance with his instructions? In any case, Pococke tended to have three meals a day; breakfast, dinner – the principal hot meal around what we now call lunch time – and supper in the evening. From Alexandria he informed his mother that:

this country is very plentifull & a table well served & well dressed – fish in abundance, good shrimps & oysters, small but sweet. Egyptian onions, with the inside scooped out & filled with forced meat, an excellent dish, & cucumbers in the same manner: – at supper an Egyptian custard, which is milk turned so as to be like sowre milk, ‘tis turned with a [...], made of a seed they feed birds with, & is a litle sowr but not disagreeable; – as to the rest after the French, & English way. A water melon, Pomegranates after every meal, & sometimes those rich figs growing about Rosetto [Rosetta], cultivated from the more Eastern parts of the leaves of which they say, our first parents made their aprons, in shape like a date, four inches long, an inch diameter being eat alone, ‘tis in the mouth like Almond flummery [pudding], & tastes most like the richest pears, & eat with white wine & sugar, something like that flummery: we have also Dates, rough & not agreeable to me, the fruit of the Date or Palm tree but different from the Palm of the West Indies, of which they make the wine. The Tree here is most useful, of the branches they make strong baskets of the leaves slight ones, of the bark ropes, which & the wood are not susceptible of the plague: the wood is good, the Dates men eat, the kernel they grind & give to camels & in some places make bread of it, & also a paste which is made into balls being well dried.

Pococke’s Letters constitute a surprisingly human mix of perceptive observations of mundane elements of life in the Levant like these –on foodstuffs in Egypt, and the local use of fig leaves to make baskets – and reassurances from a far-away son to his mother at home that he is taking good care of himself. For that reason this edition of Pococke’s correspondence by Rachel Finnegan is of great value for the modern reader who is interested not only in reports about the exact measurements of the pyramids, the state of certain pharaonic temples, and the availability of ancient coins and seals from local antiquities’ salesmen, but also in the every-day lives of Europeans in foreign parts in the early modern period.

Maurits van den Boogert


1 Francis Congreves, presumably a merchant, was a recent arrival in Egypt himself, having settled there earlier in 1739 and staying on until 1741 The family archives of the Congreves are kept in the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service: Staffordshire County Record Office.

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