Montesquieu

Usbek to his friend Rustan in Isfahan


We stayed just a week at Tokat1 ; after thirty-five days’ march we have arri­ved in Smyrna.2

From Tokat to Smyrna not a sin­gle city is to be found that deser­ves men­tio­ning. I have been sur­pri­sed to see the weak­ness of the Osmanlin empire : this sick body is not main­tai­ned by a gentle, tem­pe­rate regime, but with vio­lent reme­dies which cons­tantly drain and wea­ken it.3

The Bachas,4 who acquire their posi­tions only by paying, are broke when they enter the pro­vin­ces, and pillage them like conque­red lands. An inso­lent mili­tia ans­wers only to its own whims : the for­tres­ses are dis­man­te­led, the cities deser­ted, the coun­try­side rava­ged, the far­ming of the land and com­merce enti­rely aban­do­ned.

Impunity rei­gns in this harsh govern­ment5 : the Christians who farm the land and the Jews who raise the tri­bu­tes are expo­sed to a thou­sand acts of vio­lence.6

The owner­ship of the land is uncer­tain, and as a result the eager­ness to exploit it repres­sed ; nei­ther title nor pos­ses­sion can stand against the whim of those who govern.

These bar­ba­rians have so aban­do­ned the arts that they have neglec­ted even mili­tary art. While the nations of Europe become more refi­ned every day, they remain in their for­mer igno­rance, and it does not occur to them to adopt their new inven­tions until they have used them a thou­sand times against them.

They have no expe­rience on the sea, no skill at maneu­vers. It is said that a hand­ful of Christian nati­ves of a rock7 harass all the Ottomans, and wea­ken their empire.

Incapable of car­rying on trade, they almost reluc­tantly suf­fer the Europeans, always hard-wor­king and enter­pri­sing, to come do it for them : they think they are indul­ging these forei­gners by allo­wing them to come get rich off of them.

In this whole vast land which I have cros­sed, I have found only Smyrna that can be consi­de­red a rich and power­ful city : it is the Europeans who make it so, and if it were up to the Turks it would be like all the others.

There you have, dear Rustan, a fair notion of this empire which in less than two cen­tu­ries will be the thea­tre of some conque­ror’s vic­to­ries.8

Smyrna this 2nd day of the moon of Rahmazan 1711

“Tokat, formerly Neocaesarea and Hadrianopolis, a city in Natolia in Asia. It is in Amasia, on the Casalmach, about 33 leagues to the east of the city of Amasie” (Moreri 1732).

Usbek’s last letter, written from Erzerum, was dated 20 August ; here it is 2 November. From Smyrna (today’s Izmir) to Tokat, Tavernier indicates about 35 days by caravan (book I, ch. vii, vol. I, p. 95).

Numerous voyagers contributed to this general perception of the decline of the Ottoman empire (which, implicitly, does not apply to Persia).

The word bachas (in the form bassa) is defined in L’Espion turc as an “honorific title given to provincial governors and to the private counsellors of the Grand Signor” (“Table alphabetique de certains mots Turcs et Arabes” at the end of vol. I of Jean Paul Marana, L’Espion dans les cours des princes chrétiens).

Turkey at the time passed for the very type of the despotic state.

Jews and Christians were tolerated in Turkey as in other Muslim countries, but they had an inferior legal status and had to pay a capitation.

These are apparently the Knights of Malta [author’s note].

In this letter Usbek exposes the natural causes of the defeat, which in letter 119 will be attributed to supernatural causes.