Turkish Letters

Ogier de Busbecq


Turkish Letters

Ogier de Busbecq


Intelligent but unpretentious, gossipy yet honest, inquiring and unprejudiced – Busbecq is the sort of man we would all like to meet on our travels.

As Habsburg ambassador to the sixteenth-century court of Suleyman the Magnificent he missed nothing: the intrigue of Roxelana at court, the unloading of Spanish prisoners of war, the healthy yoghurt and fruit diet of country Turks, the brutal realities of super-power politics or the charming, but expensive, habit of being welcomed with flowers by the Janissary guards. Busbecq describes Constantinople as ‘created by nature to be the capital of the world’, and brings the city at the heyday of Ottoman power bursting back to life. Turkish Letters is eyewitness history at its best. 

‘... a classic of travel literature and a boon to historians.’  - TLS
‘Fresh, appreciative and funny.’  - Jason Goodwin
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Turkish Letters
Introduction by: Philip Mansel
ISBN: 978-090787169-9
Format: 172pp demi pb
Place: Turkey

Author Biography

Ogier de Busbecq was born in Comines in 1522, the illegitimate son of George Ghislain II, Seigneur de Busbecq. He was educated at Louvain, Padua and Vienna and entered the service of Charles V’s brother Ferdinand, King of the Romans - ruler of Hungary, Bohemia and what is now known as Austria. In 1554 de Busbecq was a witness to the wedding of Philip II of Spain and Mary of England at Winchester and later that year was made Habsburg Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

De Busbecq headed the Embassy in Constantinople from 1555-1562, a turbulent period of Franco-Turkish cooperation that often led to the temporary house arrest of the Habsburg representative and once to his retiring to Vienna for a time. But de Busbecq was a scholar as well as a diplomat. He spoke seven languages, was a keen horticulturalist and sent many valuable texts to the Habsburg libraries. His letters were a conscious literary creation commending his embassy for posterity.

On his return, de Busbecq became a member of the Emperor’s Privy Council and supervised the imperial library. He went on to live in France, dying there in 1591, a victim of the French Wars of Religion.


Extract from 'The First Letter'

I promised, when I parted from you, that you should have a full account of my journey to Constantinople. I am now preparing to fulfil this promise; nay more, if I mistake not, I shall discharge the debt with interest, for to the story of my journey to Constantinople I intend to add that of my expedition to Amasia [modern Amasya], a much less hackneyed and ordinary undertaking. If you find that I have met with delightful adventures, you will partake of my enjoyment; we are such old friends that we share in each other’s pleasures. If, on the other hand, as must necessarily happen in a journey of such length and difficulty, any disagreeable incidents occurred, you must not take them to heart; they are past and over, and the greater the annoyance they caused me at the time the greater is the pleasure which I take in relating them.

You will remember my return home from attending the marriage of King Philip and Queen Mary in England (where I was in attendance upon Don Pedro Lasso, whom my most gracious master Ferdinand, King of the Romans, sent to do honour to the royal pair), and the summons which I received from Ferdinand to undertake this journey. I was at Lille when his letter reached me on 3 November, and I only delayed my journey to turn aside to Busbecq and bid farewell to my father and my friends, and then hurried through Tournai to Brussels. There I met Don Pedro himself, and he, as they say, spurred on the willing horse by showing me a letter from the King, in which he commanded him to secure my immediate departure. I therefore hastily took post-horses and hurried to Vienna with all possible speed. It was a trying journey; for I was unaccustomed to this uncomfortable mode of transport, and the season of the year, with its badweather, muddy roads, and short days, was anything but favourable to travelling. I was obliged to journey far into the night and to hurry in a dangerous manner through the densest darkness over roads which were almost impassable.

On my arrival in Vienna I was introduced by John Van der Aa, one of the Privy Counsellors, into the presence of Ferdinand, who welcomed me with those marks of goodwill which His Majesty always shows towards those of whose loyalty and honesty he has conceived a favourable opinion. He was eloquent of the hopes which he entertained of my mission and of the importance which he attached to my acceptance of the embassy and my immediate departure. He had given an undertaking to the Pasha of Buda that his representative should reach Buda without fail by the beginning of December, and he was anxious not to give the Turks any excuse, by unpunctuality on his part, for not performing the engagements which they had made in reliance on his promise.

Barely twelve days remained—a brief period to prepare for a short journey, all too brief when so long a journey lay before me. Even from this short space several days had to be subtracted that I might pay a visit, by the King’s wish and command, to John Maria Malvezzi at Komorn. His Majesty deemed it most important that, since I had no knowledge or experience of Turkish affairs, I should meet Malvezzi and obtain from his lips some information about their customs and character and advice about their previous policy. Malvezzi had been for some years Ferdinand’s representative at the court of Soleiman, in fact ever since the Emperor Charles had, for very good reason, made the truce with the Turks which was negotiated by Gerard Velduvic; for on that occasion he had made an eight years’ truce in the name of King Ferdinand as well. Malvezzi had been attached to Velduvic’s mission, and on his return Ferdinand had sent him back to Constantinople as his representative.

[Busbecq then tells how Malvezzi had been thrown into prison by the Turks, when Ferdinand annexed Transylvania, and barbarously ill treated, and had eventually been released and had returned to Vienna. He was setting out again for Constantinople when he was taken ill at Komorn.]

The illness caused by Malvezzi’s imprisonment broke out again with such violence that, feeling his life to be in danger, he halted and sent a letter to Ferdinand begging him to appoint some one else to his post as ambassador. Ferdinand neither entirely believed nor altogether discredited what Malvezzi said; but he was inclined to suspect that his desire to withdraw from his post as ambassador was due rather to his recollection of the past and his dread of future hardships than to any serious illness; yet he thought that it would be hardly seemly to compel one who had done good service to himself and the State to continue a mission which he wished to avoid. The death of Malvezzi a few months later made it quite clear that his illness was neither a pretence nor assumed to suit his own convenience. Thus I was appointed in his place; but since I was without experience of Turkish politics or manners, the King was of opinion, as I have already said, that it would be well if I visited Malvezzi and were put on my guard by his instruction and advice against Turkish duplicity. So I spent two days with him and learnt, as far as I could in so short a time, the attitude which I ought to adopt and the precautions which I ought to take in my daily intercourse with the Turk.

I then hurriedly returned to Vienna and set myself with all diligence to make the necessary preparations for my journey. But so much was there to do, and so short was the time, that the day appointed for my departure arrived and found me still unready, though the King continued to urge my departure. I spent the whole day from the early hours of the morning arranging my affairs and my baggage, but it was nightfall before my loins were girt up for departure. The gates of Vienna, which are always locked at that hour, were unbarred, and I set out. The Emperor, on his departure that morning for the chase, said that he was sure that before his return in the evening I should be already on my way; and so I was, though there was only a brief interval between my departure and his return. At 11 p.m. we reached the Hungarian town of Fischament, some ten miles from Vienna; here we had our supper, for in our hurry we had started without it. Thence we journeyed to Komorn. [Here, to his great annoyance, Busbecq waited in vain for two days for Paul Palinai, who was to accompany him to Buda.] The next day I crossed the Waag and continued my journey towards Gran, the first fortress within the Turkish dominions.

John Pax, the governor of Komorn, had given me an escort of sixteen of those horsemen whom the Hungarians call hussars, and had ordered them not to quit me until the Turkish outposts came in sight. The Governor of Gran had intimated that his men would meet me half-way. When I had journeyed for three hours, more or less, over a vast plain, four Turkish horsemen appeared in the distance. My Hungarians continued to accompany me, until I ordered them to retire; for I was afraid that, if they came too near, some embarrassing quarrel might arise. When the Turks saw me approaching, they rode up and halted by my carriage and saluted me. We then proceeded for some distance conversing together; for I had a lad with me who could act as interpreter. I was expecting no further escort, when, on descending to rather lower ground, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a troop of some 150 horsemen. They formed a charming spectacle to my unaccustomed eyes, with their brightly painted shields and spears, their jewelled scimitars, their many-coloured plumes, their turbans of the purest white, their garments mostly of purple or bluish green, their splendid horses and fine trappings. Their officers rode up and welcomed me with courtesy and congratulated me on my safe arrival, and asked me if I had had a pleasant journey; to which question I made a suitable reply. I was thus escorted to Gran, which is the name given to a fortress situated on a hill, below which flows the Danube, and to the neighbouring town lying in the plain, where I put up for the night. The archbishop of this place, in virtue of his position of authority and vast wealth, ranks high among the Hungarian magnates. My accommodation had all the severity of a camp; instead of beds, shaggy rugs of rather a rough kind were spread over planks, and there were no mattresses or linen. Thus my followers had their first experience of Turkish luxury; I had my own bed, which I always carried with me.

Next day the Sanjak-Bey of the place did not cease to urge that I should visit him. This is the title which the Turks give to the commanding officer, whose sanjak, that is a gilded bronze ball, is carried as a standard fixed on the point of a spear at the head of a squadron of cavalry. Although I had no letter or recommendation to him, he was so persistent that I had to go and see him. He really only wished to have a look at me, to offer me his courteous salutations, to ask me what my purpose was, to exhort me to promote peace, and to wish me a prosperous journey. On my way to visit him I was surprised by the croaking of frogs in the month of December and in such cold weather; it was due to the existence of hot sulphur springs which form pools in these regions.

I left Gran for Buda after a breakfast which was destined to serve as my dinner, as there was no halting place until I reached Buda. I set out escorted by the Sanjak-Bey with all his household and the cavalry which he commanded, though I did my best to dissuade him from paying me this honour. The cavalry, when they had passed through the gates, galloped hither and thither and amused themselves by throwing a ball to the ground and then, after urging their horses to full speed, catching it on the point of their spears, and indulging in other similar sports. Among them was a Tartar with long thick hair, who was said to go bare headed in all weathers and in battle, his hair forming sufficient protection against storms or weapons. The Sanjak-Bey, when he deemed fit, exchanged farewells with us and returned home, leaving with me guides for my journey.

As I approached Buda, a few of those whom the Turks call chiauses (cavasses) came to meet me. They perform the office of attendants and servants, and carry almost all the orders of the Sultan and the Pashas. Their profession is considered highly honourable among their fellow countrymen. I was taken to lodge at the house of an Hungarian, where more attention was paid to my baggage and carriages and horses than to myself. The first concern of the Turks is to secure the safety of the horses, carriages, and luggage; for human beings they think they have taken enough trouble if they protect them from the severity of the weather.

The Pasha sent a man to visit and salute me. His name was Tuigon, a name which the Turkish language also gives to the stork. He begged me to excuse him if he could not give me an audience for some few days, as he was confined to his bed by severe illness; he promised to attend to me as soon as he recovered. This circumstance prevented any inconvenience from the delay of Palinai, and saved the latter from a serious charge; for he used all diligence to arrive in time, and soon made his appearance. The Pasha’s illness kept me a long time at Buda; it was believed to have been due to his annoyance at the theft of a large sum of money which he had secreted somewhere, for he was commonly reported to be something of a miser. Meanwhile, when he heard that I had with me William Quacquelben, a man of wide learning and a skilled physician, he began to try and induce me to send him to prescribe for him. I willingly agreed, but I came very near to repenting bitterly my readiness to oblige him; for when the Pasha’s illness grew daily more serious, I felt no little fear that, if he went to join Mahomet in another world, the Turks would allege that he had been killed by my physician. This would have involved my worthy friend in danger, while I myself would have incurred great disgrace as his accomplice. However, Providence put an end to my anxiety by restoring the Pasha to health.


At Buda I first came across the Janissaries, which is the name they give to their footguards. When they are at their full strength, the Sultan possesses 12,000 of them, scattered throughout his empire, either to garrison the fortresses against the enemy or to protect the Christians and Jews from the violence of the populace. There is no village, town, or city of any size in which there are not some Janissaries to guard the Christians, Jews, and other helpless folk from the attacks of malefactors. In the fortress of Buda there is a perpetual garrison of Janissaries. They wear robes reaching to their ankles, and on their heads a covering consisting of the sleeve of a cloak (for this is the account which they give of its origin), part of which contains the head, while the rest hangs down behind and flaps against the neck. On their foreheads rises an oblong silver cone, gild- ed and studded with stones of no great value. These Janissaries generally visited me in pairs, and, on being admitted to my dining-room, saluted me with an obeisance and then hastened, almost at a run, towards me and took hold of my garment or hand as though they would kiss it, and offered me a bunch of hyacinths or narcissi. They would then rush back again to the door at almost the same speed, taking care not to turn their backs upon me; for this, according to their ideas, is unbecoming. At the door they would take up their stand silent and respectful, their hands crossed on their breast and their eyes fixed upon the ground; you would think they were monks rather than soldiers. However, on receiving a few little coins, which was all they wanted, they would again make obeisance and utter their thanks in loud tones and depart with every kind of good wish and blessing. Really, if I had not been told that they were Janissaries, I could well have believed that they were a kind of Turkish monk or the members of some kind of sacred association; yet these were the famous Janissaries who carry such terror wherever they go.

At Buda many Turks were attracted to my table by the lure of my wine, a luxury which they appreciate all the more because they have little opportunity of enjoying it, and which therefore they consume with all the greater avidity whenever they have the chance. I invited them to stay late, but, when I grew tired and rose from the table and retired to my bedroom, they departed, sad at the thought that they were not yet entirely overcome by the wine and could still walk. Presently a slave arrived, who asked on their behalf that I would give them a supply of wine and some silver cups; they would, they said, spend the night drinking in any odd corner. I gave orders that they should be provided with all the wine that they required and the vessels for which they asked, and they then went on drinking until they all lay stupified on the ground.

The drinking of wine is regarded by the Turks as a serious crime, especially among the older men; the younger men can commit the sin with greater hope of pardon and excuse. They think, however, that the punishment which they will suffer in a future life will be just as heavy whether they drink much or little, and so, if they taste wine, they drink deep; the punishment being already deserved, they incur no additional penalty, and they count their drunkenness as all to the good. Such are their ideas about drinking and others which are still more absurd. I once saw an old fellow at Constantinople, who, when he had taken the cup into his hand, began to utter loud cries. When we asked our friends the reason of this, they declared that he wished by these cries to warn his soul to betake itself to some distant corner of his body or else quit it altogether, so that it might not participate in the crime which he was about to commit and might escape pollution by the wine which he was about to swallow.

It would be a long task to describe the city of Buda in detail. It would require a whole book, and a few remarks suitable to a letter must suffice. It lies in a pleasant situation in a very fertile district on sloping ground bordered on one side by vine-clad hills; on the other side flows the Danube, with Pesth and a view of wide plains beyond. It seems to have been purposely designed to be the capital of Hungary. The city was formerly adorned with the splendid palaces of the Hungarian nobles; these have now fallen in ruins, or are only prevented from doing so by the liberal use of props. They are inhabited by Turkish soldiers, whose pay only suffices for their daily needs, and does not allow them to mend the roofs or repair the walls of these vast buildings. They care little if the rain comes through or the walls are cracked, as long as they can find a dry place to stable their horses and make their own bed. The upper storeys they regard as no concern of theirs, and leave them to be overrun by rats and mice. Moreover, it is characteristic of the Turks to avoid any magnificence in their buildings; to care for such things is in their opinion a sign of pride, vanity, and self-conceit, as though a man expected immortality and a permanent abode upon this earth. They regard their houses as a traveller regards an inn; if they are safe from thieves and protected from heat and cold and rain, they require no further luxuries. This is why in the whole of Turkey you would have difficulty in finding even a rich man in possession of a house of any elegance. The common people live in huts and cottages; but the rich are fond of gardens and baths, and have roomy houses to accommodate their huge establishments, but no well-lighted porticoes or halls worth looking at or anything else magnificent or attractive. The same is practically true of Hungary. Except at Buda, and possibly in Pressburg, you could scarcely find a single city with any at all splendid buildings. This is due in my opinion to the mode of life which the Hungarians have followed through the ages; devoting themselves to warfare and camp-life and distant campaigns, they have always neglected to put up buildings, and they dwell in cities as though they may shortly have to quit them.

An interesting phenomenon which I observed at Buda is a spring outside the gate on the Constantinople road, the water of which is boiling on the surface, while below you can see fish swimming about, so that you would imagine that they could not be taken out except ready cooked.

At last, on 7 December, we were introduced into the presence of the Pasha, who had recovered from his illness. We tried to mollify him with presents, and then complained of the insolence and misdeeds of the Turkish soldiers and demanded back the places which had been taken from us in violation of the truce and which he had promised in his letter to my sovereign to restore on condition that he sent a representative. [Busbecq describes his unsatisfactory interview with the Pasha.] I effected nothing except the conclusion of a truce pending the arrival of an answer from Soleiman.

Our business at Buda having been thus, as far as was possible, concluded, my companion returned to the King, and I boarded the vessels which were awaiting us on the Danube; and, when my horses and carriages and attendants had been embarked, we started downstream for Belgrade. This method of travelling was safer and quicker; for the journey by land to Belgrade would have taken at least twelve days, especially with so much baggage; and, besides, there would have been danger from the depredations of the Heydons. This is the name given by the Hungarians to those who, from being herdsmen, have become soldiers, or rather brigands. There was no danger from them on the river, and the voyage only occupied five days.

The vessel on which I travelled was towed by a rowing-boat with twenty-four oarsmen; the other boats were propelled each by a pair of longer oars. We never halted by day or night, except for a few hours when the unhappy rowers and sailors refreshed themselves from their incessant toil with food and rest.