Poor, great and stately Stambul! It was withering like, in fact, the whole of Islam under the breath of the West, reeking of coal smoke. We must admit that the Turks, the younger ones brought upon boulevards, evinced a childish contempt for it. Like moths attracted by the glare of a light, these Moslems of the younger generation, dazzled by all the sham of our subversive ideas and of our cheap luxury, preferred to build for themselves, on the opposite shore, of the Golden Horn, houses aping our own. More and more then, the neighbourhood of the great holy mosques was being deserted by the wealthy and Westernised families. Only the humble and worthy Moslems remained, those who still pursued the same train of thought as their ancestors, and still wound the turban around their sedated brows. To crown everything, during the last two years, the Turkish municipality seemed to have attacked relentlessly everything Eastern. They have lost there, as we have, the sense of beauty and the respect for things which their ancestors venerated; mosques and tombs are no longer sacred.

Turkey in Agony is a sentimental account of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire written in 1911 by the French novelist, Turcophile, and eccentric, Pierre Loti. Loti waived his rights over the translation and publication of the book, and it was translated by George Raffalovich (pseud. Bedwin Sands), a member of the Ottoman Committee, and published by the African Times and Orient Review Ltd in London in 1913.

It was not for sentimental reasons that the Ottoman Committee came into existence in September 1913 under the presidency of British aristocracy; their primary motivation was the protection of British economic interests. The committee hoped that Loti’s work would “emphasise the strategical and commercial importance of encroachments upon the integrity of the Ottoman Empire” to the British Empire. Quarrels and divisions over membership marked much of the committee’s brief existence, and the institution was dissolved in December 1913; the publication of of Loti’s work being its only real achievement. “It has been considered advantageous” Raffalovich writes in the book’s preface, “that only Englishmen and British subjects residing in the United Kingdom should serve on the Committee”.

A membership form for The Ottoman Committee found in the book Turkey in Agony.

Dusé Mohamed Ali, the Egyptian born journalist, actor, and founder of the Fleet Street publishers who published the English translation without a fee, was also the only non-European member of original Ottoman Committee. After its dissolution, the organisation reformed and reestablished into the Ottoman Association in 1914, and its executive committee included besides Ali; Marmaduke Pickthall and Abdallah Quilliam.

Copies of Turkey in Agony circulated as far as India and attracted the attention of the Bombay government in 1914, after which a minister wrote to the British foreign office warning that the book contained “various attacks on Her Majesty’s government, and “the entire trend of its criticism is against Europe and Christianity”. Ironically, the committee had hoped that their efforts in publishing and distributing Loti’s sympathetic account of the Turks may allay growing dissatisfaction and dissent that they describe as “animating the Moslems of India” in order to protect their economic interests and retain their control of the region. Raffalovich declares in the preface of his translation; “we hope earnestly that our labour be not in vain, and that it may avert lamentable upheaval in our Indian Empire”.

All these humble people are so good-tempered, so honest and dignified. Labourers, little trades men of pure Moslem descent, had lived from day to day, happy in their wooden houses without the feverish longing, the envious hatred which grows in the heart of the people of our great Western towns. They were not the modernised Turks; but like the Turks of old, they went to the Mosque when the muezzin called. They were wont to gather in picturesque animated groups in the quiet places, smoking their narghiles under the shade of the plane trees. Travellers very often stopped to observe their incomprehensible serenity, astounded at their trust in the efficacy of prayer. Many a traveller owes them today an alms for delightful reveries enjoyed in watching them.

So begins Loti’s love letter to an Istanbul in flames; a city so close in geographic proximity to the mania of Europe and yet so far removed from her cupidity and hopelessness. “Scarcely three days from our nerve racking and feverish Paris”, Loti writes in his opening chapter, was a city where “life was flowing, thoughtful and discreet, tempered by faith”. He laments, “men still prayed there”.

Death and the resting places of men are frequently mentioned throughout the book. In the first chapter the author despairs at the West’s irreverence towards the sacred and beautiful; mosques and tombs, venerated by their ancestors and Muslims alike, destroyed to make way for the rational and the modern. He goes on to describe thousands of uniformed tombs of exquisite shapes lining the shaded streets of the city, “gently reminisce of a death without terror”. Prayer, quiet, hope, and eternal tranquility, all at risk of being burnt to the ground.

Pierre Loti at the mosque room in his home in Rochefort. He is stood leaning against the stele taken from the grave of his beloved Aziyadé (Hakidjé Khalkhassé), a Circassian women he came to know and fall in love with over a three month period in the autumn and winter of 1876 in Istanbul. He would wear a gold ring inscribed with her name for the rest of this life, with which he would later be buried.
A painting of Aziyadé, said to be the work of Loti’s sister Marie, (L). Loti frequented Aziyadé’s grave on his visits to Istanbul (R). He removed the stele from her grave and kept in the mosque room of his home in Rochefort where it remains today. Four men were charged by Loti to maintain and preserve Aziyadé’s tomb for as long they, and after them, their sons shall live. Claude Farrère wrote of the tomb and his friend: “Seven hundreds leagues away, on a slope studded with wild cypresses, I know a little Turkish tomb. It’s forty three years since that tomb was closed upon the body of a Circassian girl. The man went on living; but devoured by torturing melancholy. Time and again he returned to that childish tomb”.
The mosque room in Loti’s house today. Now a museum, it is open to the public to visit. The objects on display here represent only a fraction of the collection he accumulated in his lifetime; in the weeks before his death he instructed his son Samuel to burn and destroy much of it. These objects were memorials to the past he cherished, they nourished his nostalgia, and as his biographer Lesley Blanch suggests, perhaps stood as a barrier between him and the nothingness or the oblivion which he feared lay in wait for him. He seemed to fear the transitory or impermanent, and his collection allowed him to hold on to fleeting memories and encounters. But his hope of maintaining a life inclined to our natural form, and of eternity after death, suggest that more than permanence, perhaps what Loti sought most was continuity.

In December 1911, a few months after Italy’s bombardment of Tripoli, an Italian soldier writes to Loti curious to gauge French support of Italy’s “glorious” campaign on Tripolitania. The solder, Tito Mazzini writes:

Loti responds scathingly, declaring the Italian army as aggressors, and making clear his support of the Turks and Arabs who despite the suddenness of Italy’s invasion, and their limited and pitiful resources, stand in the way of the invaders like “heroes of an epic”. He writes: “glory and right, I see only on the side of the admirable defenders of their hereditary soil”. In the same chapter, dedicated to the Italian Turkish war, he praises the Turks and the Arabs who in spite the “disease of modernism”, remain fearseome and indomitable fighters. In contrast to those Loti anticipates will be enraged by his manifesto, deluded and selfless, to whom, he writes, “civilisation means railways, exploitation, and slaughter”.

Another letter, from the mother of an Italian soldier who was killed very soon after the invasion of Tripoli began, asked Loti if his position would be the same had it been a French conquest, to which he responds: “with the deepest respect, I want to tell this mother of a soldier who died on the field of glory that, if the Tripoli exhibition had been a French undertaking I would have protested in the same terms. If a son of mine had been killed in such a war of conquest, my protest would have been, without doubt, more indignant”.

Loti had elsewhere lamented that the French had left Algiers insipid, “thieved and exploited by us”, and reported on the savagery of French attacks on Algiers and Tonkin. In 1883, he published articles denouncing the massacre of natives by French sailors in Indochina. His graphic accounts of the killings turned public sentiment against French colonial policies. Such was Loti’s influence, even the British government became concerned at his openly anti-colonialist writings. He dedicated his book, India Without the English in 1903 to President Krüger of South Africa in tribute to the Boers who stood against the British. Loti also published The Death of Philae in 1909, in which he openly criticises the English colonisers.

In March 1889, Loti was sent on an official mission to Morocco to represent the French Navy, in the hope that he would impress Sultan Abdelaziz with French prestige and power. In an account of his trip, Au Maroc, which was published later than year, Loti makes clear that he was concerned only to represent the traditionalism and simplicity of Islamic culture. Twenty two years before the publication of Turkey in Agony, he writes of his admiration of the steadfastness with which the Moroccans adhere to their faith, and their attitudes to Western influences. Of Loti’s investment in the preservation of Islam in the face of industrialisation and moral decline, Michael Lerner remarks: “The decline of Islam in the face of the advent of Western civilisation evokes in him the melancholy of his own vanished past of belief and simplicity”. Au Maroc closes with a prayer to preserve Morocco and her unspoilt freedom from the upheaval and innovation of Europe.

Italy arrived late in the scrabble for colonial and economic expansion, after France wrought havoc in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, and the English in Egypt, but in spite of this, Italy carried just as much fire and blood into Libya (their late and short lived enterprise is described by Professor David Atkinson as “an accelerated form of colonialism”). With the destruction, Loti suggests, came “Western confusion… a virus, which spreads quicker in unaccustomed blood”. The pernicious fallacy of the new, with its “vain restlessness, mania for speed, alcoholism, trumpery wares of all kinds”.

The ugliness of modernism is about all they would bring with them. When the silhouette of minarets and domes has disappeared from the sky what will there be left? What will there be left when the deep mosques, with their beautiful facings of blue tiles have lost their mystery, when there will no longer be felt around them the peaceful witchery of cypress and tomb? There are other things in life besides factories, railways, opening up trade, shrapnel and neurasthenia. Besides all these pernicious delusions which delight the crowd of crowd of mediocrities and lead to final hopelessness, there is also that calm which we should preserve somewhere; there is meditation; there are dreams. From that point of view Turkey, the old Turkey, as a kind of oasis in the midst of whirl winds and furnaces, will prove as useful to the world as those great parks of which we feel every day more and more the need in the midst of our seething cities.

“Ah! Those ancient towns lost in the depth of Anatolia, those villages set in green, standing round white minarets and black cypress, what peace and security emanates from them, how honest and patriarchal seems their life! Oh! Those men, peasants of humble artisans who go and kneel in the mosque five times a day and who sit in the evening in the shade of their vine near their ancestors’ tomb, smoking and dreaming of eternity!” Image from Léon de Laborde, Voyage de l’Asie Mineure, Paris, 1838.

The author proceeds to question the superiority of Europe, asserted through modern warfare, destruction, and injustice. In the name of civilisation and liberty, Europe perfect their explosives and killing machines. “We know that, wherever the liberators passed”, he writes, “there remains nothing but corpses and smouldering ruins”. Loti recounts graphic scenes of slaughter and barbarity. In the village of Petropo, two young girls raped by Bulgarian soldiers in front of their mother, who unable to bear the sight, seized a rifle from the soldiers and fired. The woman and her daughters were locked in the village cafe and set alight. “All perished in the flames amid heartrending cries”, he writes. In the village of Esehkeli, ten girls were rounded up and buried alive. Montenegrins tortured Turkish soldiers and civilians alike, cutting their faces “until they looked like orangoutangs”.

It is against us all, the so-called Christian nations of Europe; most of the killing in the world is done by us; with high-sounding words about fraternity on our lips we invent every year new and more infernal explosives. We carry fire and blood, for sheer love of plunder, into the African and Asiatic worlds; and we treat like cattle men of black or yellow race. Everywhere we shatter with shells civilizations that differ from our own. We despite them a priori, without understanding anything about them, because they are less practical, less utilitarian than ourselves and inferior in armaments. And in our train, when we have done with killing, we always introduce unrestrained exploitation; our great factories with their prison-like methods, destructive of small individual trading, together with the restlessness, the ugliness, the cheap goods, the apéritifs, the covetousness and the feeling of hopelessness. In the eyes of so-called Christian Europe, Moslems of every country are considered legitimate game, and the hunt is usually successful, thanks to the superiority of European killing machines, which soon convert their land into great red charnel houses.

In his final chapter, Complementary Notes, the author includes letters from readers of his articles and appeals. In one letter dated January 1913, addressed to someone else but forwarded to Loti, French diplomat Lucian Maurouard suggests that the Ottoman Empire is the chosen land for the development of foreign economic interests, “owing to the fact that the Turks are more given to agriculture than to industrial and financial activities”. While he expresses disapproval of Europe’s methods, he approves of her view to establish commercial houses across the waning Empire: “mines, ports, quays, lighthouses, railways, financial régies, banks, and factories”, prospering and secure under the direction of the Europe’s technical personnel, and with the help of her capital. Another letter, addressed to Loti from a group of young Jewish girls from Constantinople begins: “We are little Turkish Jewesses, and we share all the sufferings borne so courageously by our Moslem countrymen”. They go on to express thanks to a people who gave them refuge and treated them generously, and proclaim “Turkey will remain our Fatherland”.

Pierre Loti on the day of his reception at the Académie française in April 1892.

Loti had first visited Istanbul during his time in the navy. He returned in 1910, following his retirement and a year before the publication of Turkey in Agony, to a different city. The Sultan no longer brooded over the city but sat captive in a villa in Salonika (Alphonse Cillière, a French diplomat once remarked on Loti’s sympathy with the Sultan Abdulhamid: “Abdulhamid, for reasons far-removed from the sentimental idealism of Pierre Loti, had undertaken to struggle against the torrent of fire of time. It is from that, I think, and from that alone, that Loti was grateful to him”). In his place, a bourgeois puppet of the Young Turks. The Istanbul of Azyadé, of calm men who “lived and prayed as their ancestors did, and marked the hour only by the muezzine’s call” was gone. The process of Europeanisation had begun, much to his disapproval and dismay. It was during this visit that Loti was seen to pray at the mosque of Sultan Selim. The dervishes and imams are said to have asked him why he had not formally become a Muslim. His close friend, Edmund D’Auvergne, who published Loti’s biography in the year following his death, suggests that perhaps behind Loti’s passion for Islam and the East “there was always his loyalty to those Huguenot ancestors of his, lying out on the isle in the Atlantic [the island of Oléron]”. Despite his inordinate number of lovers, and the intensity of his love for Aziyadé, Loti returned to Rochefort to marry someone of his mother’s choosing; a Basque woman who would bear him his only legitimate child. However far he travelled, Loti always returned to his birthplace and childhood home, and it was from the confines of this home that he nurtured his love of everything Eastern and everything related to Islam. “Everything which touches Islam”, he once wrote, “near or far, casts a spell over me”.

Loti was unlike his often cited contemporaries, European travellers through Eastern lands on the cusp of Europeanisation who while on one hand praised the native inhabitants for their dignity, piety, and trustworthiness, often followed with a barrage of criticisms, always related to the inhabitants’ system of trade and economy: the natives are unproductive, inefficient, content with little, slow, lazy, fanatical and distracted. This is where Loti’s later work was different; it was exactly these qualities of the Muslims that he admired and wished to see preserved. His praise did not just preface an economic critique of a land ripe for European conquest; the entire text of Turkey in Agony was a heartfelt plea to save a civilisation. He was also aware of his diminutive contribution to the cause of Islam and the Turkish people in the face of such destruction and barbarity. In response to a letter of gratitude from the Turkish heir apparent Yusuf Izzeddin, Loti writes: “I will keep up the struggle as if my own country was in question. But this small current of sympathy which I may perhaps have succeeded in creating will count alas for very little compared with the appalling calamities which are befalling Islam on all sides and which cruelly wound me”.

Nazim Hikmet’s poem Pierre Loti, ridiculing Western attitudes of “the Orient” as reflected in literature. Translated by Taner Baybars, from Selected Poems of Nazim Hikmet.

It is true that Loti had a tendency to evoke the exotic in his work, and often wallowed in sentimentality. But as he aged, and certainly by the time he wrote Turkey in Agony, the subject of his writing became less the aesthetic sensations and more the moral implications of the cause of progress; so much so, that the decline of steadfastness and simplicity of the Ottoman Empire became irrevocably intertwined with his own senility. “I watch the decline of the summer of the Orient and of my own life”, he wrote in the months leading to his death. His friend, Claude Farrère, who was with him as he breathed his last, reveals the depth of Loti’s passion for the Turkish cause: “I had the honour of his supreme confidence. It was me who he made on his death bed, swear to continue after he had gone to struggle for Turkey, an Islamic Turkey unjustly condemned by a Christianity, which is no longer Christian in anything but name”.

Loti was a peculiar man, but one with genuine sympathies towards to the Turks and Islam. In the face of globalisation and imperialism, he created a very real anti-colonial sentiment. His horror at the spread of Westernisation is often discounted as Orientalist, self-indulgent and self-gratifying, but this denies the populist writer’s influence. He was a lover of beauty, and as his friend D’Auvergne remarked, he “wrote out of the fullness of his heart”. He decried the degradation of Muslims and Islam, and would defend Islam to the last with all the vehemence of his despair.

Loti died in June 1923 during a trip to Hendaye, surrounded by his family. He would be buried in the garden of a house on his ancestral island of Oléron. He purchased the property in 1899 but never resided there (L). His will outlined the precise spot on which he wished to be buried, and that he should lay in the direction of Mecca in an open coffin. He requested a simple tombstone, made of granite and engraved with only his name (R). It is said that his son Samuel had not been able to overcome opposition from the undertakers regarding burying his father in an open coffin. The night of his funeral, Samuel, accompanied with two of his friends and armed with shovels and a pick axe, dug up the grave and gashed it open, afterwards shovelling back the earth and returning the wreath. Loti’s funeral was attended by a delegation from Turkey, and the Turkish flag is said to be flown at half mast in Constantinople that day.
Pierre Loti Tepesi, the hill named after Loti overlooking the Golden Horn in his beloved Istanbul. The Eyüp Sultan mosque and cemetery are near by.


Selected bibliography

Edmund D’Auvergne (1926). Pierre Loti: The Romance of a Great Writer.

Elwood Hartman (1994). Three nineteenth-century French writer/artists and the Maghreb: the literary and artistic depictions of North Africa by Théophile Gautier, Eugène Fromentin, and Pierre Loti.

Lesley Blanche (1983). Pierre Loti: Portrait of an Escapist.

Ian Duffield (1971). Duse Mohamed Ali and the Development of Pan-Africanism 1866-1945.

Michael Lerner (1974). Pierre Loti.

Peter Tuberfield (2011). The Anti-colonialism of an Orientalist Writer: The Paradox of Pierre Loti.

Pierre Loti (1889). Au Maroc.

Pierre Loti (1913). Turkey in Agony.