Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Greek Manuscripts in the Old Seraglio at Constantinople

When I came out of the museums at about two o’clock, the firing was still proceeding merrily — in fact, it was increasing.


In 1916, Stephen Gaselee, Fellow and Librarian of Magdalene College, Cambridge, published a booklet entitled The Greek Manuscripts in the Old Seraglio at Constantinople. A reader, starting to read the work hoping to learn about western manuscripts in the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul (as I did when I first came across the little work in the time before online library catalogues) would, however, come in for a surprise. The work starts promising enough – perhaps with a little more historical contextualization than would nowadays be found appropriate for a library description, but nothing out of the ordinary for the time:

It was announced that one result of the Young Turk regime would be the publication of a careful and complete catalogue of the small collection of Greek MSS. which was known to exist in the Old Seraglio. Exaggerated stories of them had long been current in the West: indeed they were believed by some to be the remains of the Palace Library of the Byzantine Emperors.

In the present state of the world’s history it seems as though the appearance of this catalogue might be long delayed, and I have therefore thought it worth while to give the results of a personal inspection of them seven years ago.

What follows is, in fact, a brief two-page list of Greek manuscripts of the Palace library, embedded in ten pages of travelogue and political analysis, with a description of a stay in Istanbul during one of its most turbulent weeks in history (and that is saying something; it is not uncommon for foreign travellers to find themselves in the middle of political upheavals in the city), the week of the mutiny known as the ’31st March Incident’, an attempt to undo the Young Turk Revolution. Gaselee justifies the digression with the assertion that ‘the interest at present taken in all the political moves of Turkey for the last decade will excuse the presence of a certain amount of descriptive matter somewhat remotely connected with the Classics.’

Thus, The Greek Manuscripts in the Old Seraglio at Constantinople is a fascinating personal account of library research in an unfamiliar place, in the most unlikely of times; it describes Gaselee’s daily journey across the Golden Horn from Pera to the old Sultans’ palace, interspersed with first-hand observations of momentous events of the week, as well as reports of rumours of other related events; the sounds of the running feet of mutineers and loading and firing of rifles only silenced by the tranquillity of the palace library.

After the Wednesday, the exciting events were merely sporadic. The whole of the Thursday morning I was examining my Manuscripts in the Library of the Seraglio, and all seemed to be quiet : on my return to Pera that afternoon I was the witness of an exciting and tragic adventure that took place in front of Tokatlian’s restaurant.

Two soldiers began to quarrel — I could not see why — and one of them attempted to wrest the other’s revolver from him : the second attempted to level his rifle at his opponent and fired. The ball missed its aim, and struck in the head a young Greek who was passing, killing him instantly : the aggressor then ran for his life, while the first soldier prudently retired down a side ally. At that moment a patrol, also soldiers, came round the corner of the street and pursued the fleeing man at full gallop ; I could not see the end, but they caught him at the next corner, and put an end to him at once with bayonets and revolvers. The body lay in the gutter for two or three hours : it was finally removed to the courtyard of a neighbouring mosque, while the unfortunate Greek was taken to an Orthodox Church, the Hagia Trias, at the end of the Rue de Pera.

Stephen Gaselee’s The Greek Manuscripts in the OId Seraglio at Constantinople is available online, and well worth a read for anyone with an interest in Turkey; plus it is as close to Indiana Jones as a catalogue of books can really be.

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