(Being a travelogue with accompanying photos written in the summer of 2005, following a research trip to Istanbul; the Turkish novel is still woefully incomplete 15 years after I started it, the project too big, time too short, excuses too slim… One day, one day – inshallah!)
I was in Istanbul to search for the grave of Aziyadé, the ill-fated Turkish lover of French writer and sailor Pierre Loti. Some years ago I read Loti’s first novel Aziyadé and was hooked.
For its time, Aziyadé was a racy book. By today’s standards it is a racy book, with its allusions to escapism, homosexuality, transvestism, young boys paid for sex, and of course extra-marital relations. While Loti was a showy anachronism, hated and loved in equal measure in his lifetime, his writing has an appeal today that has transcended literary fashion.
His anti-colonial, anti-war, travelling-to-escape motifs apply easily to today’s restless multitudes that travel to get away from the humdrum of life back home.
And Loti lived it all: He travelled to distant parts in his role as a sailor; he dressed up as the locals; he had a wide and varied sex life; he had friends from all walks of life, from boat boys to princes and sultans: He lived it all.
But what got me hooked in the myth of Aziyadé was the reality that underpinned Loti’s flaccid, impressionistic prose. Anyone reading his work, especially his first book Aziyadé can’t help but wonder how much of it is true, and in the case of Aziyadé Loti wrote directly from experience, only changing names and places, occasional bouts of exaggeration when he gets carried away; in Aziyadé truth is never far from fiction.
And while reading Aziyadé you pick up the hints of intrigues that never rise to the surface, preferring to lie low, like a dangerous undercurrent, always threatening to pull you down: A homosexual relationship with Samuel (real name Daniel), the Macedonian boatman he picked up in Salonika; nights of debauchery spent in cellars entertained by young boys in dresses plucking on gilded harps till dawn; nights spent in the graveyards of Istanbul in the company of prostitutes… Loti leaves himself vulnerably exposed, open to ridicule by his peers back in Paris. Later he regretted ever writing and publishing such an unreserved book, but once his first novel was published there could be no return. Pierre Loti could never return to being just second lieutenant Viaud.
After reading Aziyadé, I read several biographies of Loti, including Lesley Blanch’s comprehensive one, in an attempt to get beyond the fiction to the reality. I had travelled to France to Loti’s hometown in Rochefort in the spring of 2005. Then, in the late summer, I was in Istanbul: not the best time to be in the city. My objective was to find Aziyadé’s grave located in a cemetery beyond the walls of the old city.
It was my belief that there was more to the affair than had previously been voiced. Aziyadé had taken secrets to her grave that still lay undisturbed, secrets that even Loti’s friends and family had shied away from.
My friend Greg, a former flatmate when I lived in Turkey in the 1990s and now an Ottoman reader back in Tucson, had flown in the previous night from the States, his flight 48 hours delayed, his baggage still in Washington. He is a fluent Turkish speaker, so I’d held back my visit to the cemeteries until he arrived: If we were questioned as our activities in the cemetery, he would be able to explain much better than I with my stumbling Turkish.
We were booked into the Saydam, or the Transparent: a hotel right in the heart of Beyoğlu, the district known as Pera by the Europeans in Loti’s time.
When Greg arrived last night, bleary eyed wearing his two day old clothes, I brought him directly to the hotel, where I presented him to Murat Bey, the manager, no taller than four foot, but making up for it by his width.
He was standing on a sturdy stool behind the reception, so that our eyes were on the same level.
“Ah, your friend is arrived,” he said. Then with a gleam in his eyes: “The two girls you requested are already waiting in your room.”
Greg looked at me, concern etched into his earnest face. I began to explain to Murat that I hadn’t requested any girls to be waiting in my room: there must be some mistake.
Then Murat burst out in hoarse laughter, slapping the Formica counter top. Obviously it wasn’t the first time he had tried the line on unsuspecting foreigners.
It was ten o’clock Sunday morning when we left Murat sitting on his stool drinking tea by the entrance to his hotel. It was over eighty years since Pierre Loti left this earth, a hundred and twenty-five since Aziyadé was buried in the Topkapi Cemetery, outside the ancient walls of the Old City.
It was a short walk from our hotel to the Tunel, the short damp section of underground railway that transports you down from Beyoghlu to Karakoy in minutes.
Greg had been wearing the same clothes for three days. His hand luggage contained only books. He was leaving in a few days to study Ottoman on an island in the Aegean, a summer school he had won a scholarship to attend for the last four years. As the train drew to a halt, he joked, “Is this our stop?”
There is only one stop on the Tunel.
We emerged from the damp of the Tunel into the dry heat and sunshine of what promised to be another sweltering day. Any Turks with sense and money were down on the coast in their summer houses, where they never strayed too far from their pools.
We took the Uskudar – Eyup ferry. It is better to be on the open deck of a ferry than sitting in the stifling confines of a bus. The ferry criss-crosses the Golden Horn: Karakoy, Eminonu, under the Galata Bridge, Cibali, Kasimpasha, Aykapi, Fener, Balat, through the Old Galata Bridge, Ayvansaray, Halicioghlo, Eyup: names with which Loti would have been familiar.
Years ago each village along the Horn was a separate entity: The Christians lived in the heights of Pera, the Muslims in the Old City of Stambul beside the great mosques, the Greeks in the Fener and Balat quarters, the Armenians and Jews pushed further down the Horn. These days the hills are covered in sprawling concrete and brick apartments; the villages have merged into one ugly melee, the roads between jammed with cars, mainly yellow taxis that have taken the place of the graceful kayaks that once ferried people up and down the Horn. Almost everyone today is Turkish, for official purposes at least, in a city where “cosmopolitan” has negative connotations.
I filled Greg in on what I knew about Loti, summarising his relationship with Aziyadé as the ferry made its meandering way up the Horn.
In 1876, second lieutenant Loti – real name Julien Viaud – embarked on a love affair with a young Circassian beauty he called Aziyadé in the book of the same name. In reality her name was Hatijeh, and she was the fourth wife of a wealthy Turkish trader, Loti called Abeddin.
Their relationship began in the springtime in Salonika, then an Ottoman port, now Thessaloniki – Greece’s second largest city. Their love affair relocated to Constantinople in the wintertime where it blossomed before Loti was recalled to French waters. Back in France he began putting together his first novel chronicling his doomed relationship: the book was Aziyadé.
Abandoned to her fate, Aziyadé died shut away in her room, shunned by the rest of her household. That was in 1880, over three years after Loti had left her.
In 1887 the now married Loti returned in search of his former lover. But he had to satisfy himself by visiting her graveside, a peregrination he undertook every time he visited the city. The grave held great importance to Loti: It was his link to his romantic past lived out in Constantinople with Aziyadé. Before he left Constantinople for the last time in 1913, he was promised that her grave would be maintained as he wished, and for many years it was…
In his books Loti describes the whereabouts of the grave, but always he misleads his readers by placing it in a different graveyard in Istanbul. Only a select few ever knew where she was really buried. But as the years passed and those few died, the secret died with them.
Then, a few months ago, in Loti’s hometown of Rochefort, I came across a book by a Frenchman, André Grinneiser, a teacher in Istanbul. Grinneiser managed to relocate the grave in 1988 after months of enquiring and searching in the Topkapi Cemetery. While the marble base of her tomb remained, the two stones, the headstone and the footstone, were missing. I had seen photographs of the stones, or ‘steles’, intact in 1985, so the stones must have been taken between 1985 and 1988. Grinneiser’s sketch showing the location of the tomb is included in his book La Vérité sur Aziyadé, along with a black and white photograph of the grave.
In cemeteries where the recent dead elbow for room with Ottoman pashas and princes, the ghosts of the Stambul, it was possible that the remains of Aziyadé’s tomb had been removed to make way for the newcomers. Did her tomb still exist, seventeen years later, or had that too been destroyed?
As the last proof of Aziyadé’s existence remaining in Istanbul that I know of, it seemed incredible to me that this tomb could so easily have been destroyed without as much as a murmur. The tomb symbolises a milestone in French literature: The first novel by the prodigious talent of Loti: the only French writer to have received a state funeral besides Victor Hugo.
The ferry continued at its leisurely pace, switching back and forth across the Horn. We passed Kasimpasha where Loti lodged after his arrival in Constantinople. On a night he descended to the graveyards and made love to the prostitutes, mainly Christians and Jews, rarely Muslims, while waiting for Aziyadé to arrive from Salonika. His ship, the Gladiateur, was stationed a short ride away at Dolmabaghcheh.
On the deck of the ferry the light breeze was welcome. Facing me sat a covered girl hiding behind designer sunglasses, her headscarf more fashion statement than religious symbol. In Loti’s day the women hid behind thin veils that highlighted rather than hid; these days tinted sunglasses have replaced the veil, I thought. The girl texted adeptly on her mobile phone. She was twenty-one or –two: about the same age Aziyadé was when she passed from this world.
All we know about Aziyadé is what Loti chose to tell us.
She was young, seventeen or eighteen when Loti first set eyes on her in Salonika. She grew up in Circassia before coming to Constantinople. She lived in the house of an old man and his son on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. She was to marry the son but he died in battle and so did his father. Then she was married to the wealthy Turkish trader, Loti calls Abeddin. In the spring of 1876 she arrived in Salonika to live in Abeddin’s household with his three other wives.
She had only been there ten days before Loti spotted her in the window of the house by the mosque. She wore a veil, but Loti noticed her great green eyes staring out at him. She wore her hair in plaits. She could write her name, but little else. Her voice was husky-edged.
He managed to arrange a meeting with the young Circassian. In a simple barge lined with cushions they made love to the rhythm of the waves under the starlit sky in the Roads of Salonika.
Loti had to pay off the household’s servants; he sent messages through his manservant to Aziyadé’s black maidservant Khadija. It was a risky business: if her husband found out it would have been the end for both of them. As it happened it was the end for Aziyadé.
These days arranging meetings can be done more discreetly: All the covered girl on the ferry had to do was to send a text to arrange to meet her boyfriend in front of the Taksim Square post office.
We passed through the Old Galata Bridge (It was towed to its present position after it was damaged by fire in 1993, once its replacement was already in place). On the left I glimpsed the old walls of the Old City and to my right is the village of Haskoy.
The ferry doesn’t stop at Haskoy anymore. The landing stage is now part of a museum. I spy an incongruous red London bus parked up on the quayside beside a submarine.
It was at the Haskoy landing stage that Loti met Hatijeh after she moved with her family from Salonika to Stambul at the beginning of winter, 1876. After Loti left his sailors’ lodgings in Kasimpasha, he took a house on the hill up from the landing stage. The day before I walked the streets of Haskoy looking for evidence that he had ever lived there. It was in Haskoy Hatijeh and Loti had their little love nest. Initially at least.
But Loti glossed over his ever having lived there in Aziyadé. It was a Jewish quarter at that time and not very fashionable. But later he admitted having had that house on the hill in Haskoy for several months, in fact until February 1877. In Aziyadé he claimed he was living in Eyup during this time, but this was wishful thinking on Loti’s part. He left Istanbul in March, allowing him a maximum of two months in Eyup, if he lived in that holy Muslim quarter at all.
Loti claimed to have had a house in a street in Eyup called Kuru Cheshmeh, Dry Fountain Street, while he was actually living in Haskoy. The street name does not exist in Eyup, not today at any rate. In Haskoy I asked the whereabouts of a Dried Fountain Street at the meyhane, the teahouse where the local men gathered. They crowded round me, twenty of them, eager to help. They asked me for an address. I said it was in my head. They asked me if it was a company or a person I sought. I told them it was a person. They asked me the name of this person.
I put my hands in the air and said the only name that came to mind: “Loti.”
They murmured back the name. I was grateful they didn’t recognise it. One of them told me that there wasn’t a Dry Fountain street but there was a Faded Fountain street. I abruptly asked directions to this Faded Fountain Street, eager to be on my way. But they refused to leave it at that.
They called a boy over from a group of street kids and told him to take me to Faded Fountain Street. The boy walked in front and five minutes later I was standing at the bottom of a short road that winded to the top of the hill. A street sign told me I was in the right place. I handed the kid a million lira note and sent him back to his friends. It would buy him a coke.
The street was in the location Loti described in his sequel to Aziyadé, Fantôme d’Orient, in which he admitted having lived in this quarter. This short street with a view across the Horn to Fener and Balat could be where Loti and Aziyadé spent their cold winter nights, huddled together.
No older houses remained in the area and the residents I spoke to were all Turkish. A middle-aged woman asked me why I took a photograph of her street and I told her the truth: that Loti might have once lived on this hillside, maybe in his very street. She explained to me that Loti once lived in Divanyolu in the Sultanahmet district and in Eyup, but not here in humble Haskoy. She pointed me across the Horn and told me to get a taxi over to what was in Loti’s time the Turkish part of the city: Stambul.
At Eyup Greg and I ate pide, Turkish pizza, at a restaurant in front of the mosque. A man at the next table, his meal over, reached for his cigarettes, and before the cigarette reached his lips the waiter produced his lighter and lit the man’s cigarette for him. “You don’t get that in the States,” Greg commented.
We walked along Pierreloti Street to the path that leads up through the cemeteries. In these cemeteries there are many Ottoman tombs. The men’s are crowned with fezzes and headdresses that indicate the deceased’s position in society. The woman’s are crowned with the floral sculptures.
At the top of the path is the Pierre Loti Café.
It was here that Loti sat, drank coffee and smoked his narghileh, enjoying the view down the Horn. The last time I came here there was only the coffeehouse that bore his name. Now there is a Nargileh Café, an Aziyadé Café and a row of new wooden hotels bearing Loti’s name. Final preparations were underway on the cable car ride that will ferry people directly to the Loti complex at the top, saving them the walk up through the cemeteries. In this corner of the world, Loti’s name is still a marketable commodity.
At the gift shop they had Turkish reprints of Aziyadé in both French and English, and new books on Loti by Turkish authors. While it is practically impossible to find a copy of Aziyadé in a bookshop in Britain, the interest in Loti remains strong in Turkey. Only in the bookshops in Rochefort can you find more books by and about Loti.
There were many postcards of Loti in his different guises: In Turkish dress with fez and prayer beads, as a Bedouin chieftain, naked except for a loincloth, as the Egyptian Sun God Osiris, as an old man half paralysed following a stroke.
The café’s terrace was crowded with people waiting to be seated. I knew from experience that the drinks were expensive and we were anxious to make our way to the cemetery where Aziyadé is buried, so we headed back down the hill. While Loti might have drunk coffee and inhaled on his nargileh on this hillside, there was nothing else tying him to this place.
I have a copy of a sketch that Loti made of Eyup in 1878. It shows an idyllic scene: an old fountain in the foreground, some old Turks under a vine-draped terrace, a house behind. It is supposed that this is the house that Loti shared with Aziyadé before his departure. In the background you can make out the minarets of the Eyup mosque and the incline of the hill we had just descended to the right.
By matching up the minarets with the incline I located the position of the house to be in the middle of what was now a construction site. I hadn’t expected to find the house: It had been destroyed by fire before he returned in 1887, Loti claimed. In Eyup, the most holy quarter of Istanbul most closely associated with Loti, there is no evidence that he actually lived here. Only we hear that he drank coffee at the coffeehouse on the hill and visited the mosque.
It was past midday and we decided to set off to the Topkapi Cemetery. We flagged down a taxi on the main road.
The driver spoke English reasonably but French better. He had been a French teacher before turning to taxi driving for the money, he told us. I asked him if he had read Loti. He said he had, before reeling off a list of other great French writers. Camus was his favourite. I doubted he had actually read Loti.
Rather than asking to be dropped at the cemeteries we were deposited further along, outside of the city walls. We rested on plastic stools by a mosque with a single minaret, while I checked my map and Grinneiser’s sketch map. We had to cross a road curiously called London Asphalt to get to the right cemetery.
A man appeared and shook our hands welcoming us to his primitive tea garden in Turkish. His hands were wet. He asked what we’d like to drink and we ordered tea, obliged to order something by sitting on his little plastic stools. He was interested in us as we were both obvious Westerners but spoke Turkish; Greg fluently.
He asked Greg where we were from. Greg replied that he was American; I was English. The tea man then began a tirade against Bush, Blair and the war in Iraq.
Greg had heard it many times before. For many Turks he is the first American they have met who they can speak to in their language. For people who don’t know English it is possibly the first opportunity they’ve had to vent their feelings. The man asked Greg which way he voted. Greg said that he didn’t vote for Bush. The man shook his hand again and set off to get our teas.
We crossed London Asphalt twenty minutes later. Ahead of us was the Topkapi Cemetery, a wooded area crowded behind white walls; to my right were the old city walls.
Sections of the walls had been recently rebuilt, the colour of the new bricks obviously pinker than the original. The new parts lacked the picturesqueness of the old crumbling parts and I wondered why they bothered. In years to come these rebuilt parts will merge with the old indistinguishably. It will be impossible to separate the old from the new. At least in the graveyards the old tombs were easy to tell apart: They were just left to decay.
We walked through the cemetery gates. There were cemetery attendants around, but they took no notice of us. The trees provided welcome shade and there were few other visitors. It was silent, the air still, the sound from insects deafening. We took a path away from the main road, so that we were in the right section of the graveyard.
In Loti’s day, the cemetery was a barren place with a few cypresses growing between the headstones and grave markers. He had no problem locating his loved one’s grave. These days it is bursting with trees and graves. Most marble stones are from the last fifty years, their inscriptions in Roman letters. The older graves have made way for the new. There are few stones older than fifty years. We managed to find a line of old stones within a family enclosure that still bore Ottoman inscriptions, the Arabic lettering picked out with black paint.
There are thousands of gravestones crowded into this corner of the cemetery: I began to think that we would never find it. Then I remembered that according to Grinneiser her grave is near an old cypress, behind a grave bearing the Turkish family name meaning “delicate”. I passed on this information to Greg. We found an old cypress and searched for the name on the new marble graves along from it.
Greg spotted it almost immediately: “Delicate” clearly cut into the clean white marble. Aziyadé’s grave should be directly behind that tomb.
The graves are so closely packed that the only way to pass from one to another is to walk on the thin marble walls that separate them. I climbed along the edges of the tombs careful not to step onto the graves themselves.
I stepped down into a small clearing, and only then realised I was actually standing where Aziyadé’s grave should be. I stepped back.
I recognised the view from the photograph in Grinneiser’s book. The position of the two trees, coinciding with the adjacent raised tombs. It was definitely the right spot, but the grave itself was hidden by undergrowth.
I cleared away the greenery from the base. It was exactly as Grinneiser had left it. At either end of the tomb were the slots where once the stones had proudly stood over five feet tall, taller than Loti himself. In the centre of the base was an elliptical concavity, its purpose I wasn’t certain of. Beneath the stone lay the remains of Aziyadé.
It can’t be this easy, I thought, disappointed that we had achieved the object of our search so speedily. We took each other’s photographs standing in front of the grave, and I took a couple more. Greg went to transcribe the inscriptions of the Ottoman headstones we had found earlier. I remained by Aziyadé’s grave, trying to put all the pieces together so that they made sense.
Three months earlier I had seen her headstone at Pierre Loti’s house in Rochefort, France. In an upstairs room converted into a mosque transported from Damascus, her headstone stands there to this day. The house is a by-appointment only museum.
The headstone at Rochefort bears the same inscription as the stone that once stood in the cemetery in Istanbul until the mid-1980s. But is it the real headstone at Rochefort or a replica?
To some Pierre Loti claimed it was a replica; to others he said it was the real one. For Loti, a collector by nature, her headstone was the ultimate souvenir of his affair.
It was while he was commander of the Vautor, stationed at Istanbul during 1903 – 1905, that Loti carried out his long held plan of renovating the tomb of his little Turkish friend, as he called her.
He was a famous man in Istanbul at the time with connections that went right to the top, to the Sultan himself. With palace protection he restored the tomb that was evidently uncared for: The grave was overgrown, the paint flaked away, the stones leaning drunkenly towards the ground.
Loti paid for the tomb to be renovated by local stonemasons. At the same time, he had a replica made. When he departed Constantinople he had the headstone with him. Did he take the real headstone and leave the replica behind? It is impossible to know.
While the inscription on both headstones is the same, from photographs of the one that was in Topkapi Cemetery the inscription was written horizontally, but the headstone at Rochefort has writing that ascends diagonally from right to left:
Ah, cruel Death
The delicate body lying in this plain, solitary grave
The eye could not bear to look upon its delicate beauty
Ah Death, it withered her while she was in the flower of youth
Allah did not deem her suitable for the earth: He took her to His side
Abdullah Efendi the Caucasian’s
Beloved daughter, Hatijeh Hanim
Upon her soul–with the consent of Allah
the Most High–el-fatiha
In the year 1297, the 19th of Zilkaade
(corresponding to 22-24 October 1880)
(translated from the Ottoman by Greg Key)
The inscription on the gravestone mentions that Hatijeh (Aziyadé) is the daughter of Abdullah the Circassian, but strangely omits the name of her husband. Was it because she was divorced her husband’s name does not appear? Or did Loti alter the inscription, omitting the husband’s name during the renovation?
Given that the stones were uncared for, Hatijeh’s husband was now dead; Loti had a free hand in the inscription and the appearance of the tomb. He could have had inscribed whatever he wanted and no one would have known.
Most intriguing of all, there are significant differences in the appearance of the two headstones that indicate that the steles were carved at different times, by different masons, and supports the idea that one of the stones is the genuine one while the other is a replica with the same inscription. But the word “replica” gives the idea of the mason starting from scratch and making an identical copy of the original from it. This is not the case, as the two stones differ significantly.
Why is this? If the stonemason had a limited range of stones to chose from, Loti or the man acting for Loti, might have chosen the one most similar to the one in the cemetery from the mason’s stockpile and the mason would have applied to it the same inscription. Another explanation is that the stonemason applied his own style to the headstone. He might not even have seen the headstone in the cemetery, he might have been unaware that he was actually making a copy of an existing stone. He was only following precise instructions from his workshop. But surely Loti would have wanted the stones to look alike.
It is my theory that the differences between the stones were deliberate.
Both headstones are crowned by floral sculpture, but crucially from the photographs of the Topkapi headstone, there were just two flowers, while the Rochefort headstone has three flowers carved into the top.
In some of the old Ottoman gravestones, the number of flowers indicates the number of children the woman had. Do the flowers indicate that Aziyadé had two or three children? It is presumed by many that she died childless, but it is possible that she had three children between Loti’s leaving and her passing, in those drawn out three and a half years.
Was Aziyadé pregnant with Loti’s child when he left her promising that he would return?
At the end of Aziyadé, there are harrowing scenes were she declares she will surely die if he does not return. She breaks a cup in her hand and nearly bleeds to death. While before they had been careful not to arouse her husband’s suspicions, she now takes great risks. Is it just the intensity of her feelings for Loti that drives her to distraction or is there an underlying cause?
Loti knew that after he left Constantinople she was sick. A doctor came to the house, he tells us, but he could do nothing for her condition. Loti puts her sickness down to love sickness now that he is gone.
Aziyadé held out hope that her lover would return, that they would disappear together. It would seem natural for her to maintain marital relations with her husband, while she was having her affair with Loti and later, so that he would not suspect her of being unfaithful. But Loti only returned ten years after he left her, seven years after she died.
When he did return, he was married. His wife had given birth to a son but this child died a few days after his premature birth. Loti placed his son’s corpse beside the portrait of Aziyadé he’d had painted almost ten years earlier. Strange behaviour even for an eccentric like Loti.
Shortly afterwards he set off for Constantinople, not knowing, he claimed, if Aziyadé was still alive. What did he hope to discover? It is impossible to believe that he thought that she might still be alive. Was the reason for his return at that time to find out what had happened to the child she might have been carrying when he last saw her?
If so, did Loti acknowledge that she bore his child on the headstone that remains in Rochefort? If not, why is the number of flowers different?
If Loti had fathered an illegitimate child, that child wouldn’t have been by himself. When Loti died, he left behind one legitimate son, Samuel, and two illegitimate sons, Raymond and Edmond Gainza that he publicly acknowledged as his own. Loti went as far as lodging his Basque mistress, mother of these two sons in Rochefort, around the corner from his marital home. Edmond Gainza attended his father’s funeral in 1923, though he was not on the official mourners’ list.
Then there was the illegitimate child, conceived in Senegal and born in Geneva, who was brought up as the son of Loti’s lover’s husband, a high colonial official, probably unaware of his true parentage, his name lost to history. Loti knew about him but was denied contact. When he first met Hatijeh, he had still to get over this lost love, his well-beloved, as he referred to her in his journal.
And then there were the possibilities of children from his many relationships across the planet; Loti had been a sailor after all. In his long career as a naval officer Loti had landed, loved and left countless times, and the possibility that he left more than memories in every port cannot be denied.
Aziyadé was only one in a long line of Loti’s loves, both women and men. But Aziyadé paid the ultimate price, and at the end of Loti’s life it was her name on Loti’s lips, her ring she had given him on his wedding finger.
And if Aziyadé gave birth to a child, Loti’s child, what happened to him?
One possibility is that he was brought up as Aziyadé’s husband’s child to save further scandal, as had happened with the child in Geneva. There were still three other wives in the harem that could have cared for the then toddler as their own. The other possibility is that the child was turned out, brought up as an orphan, unaware of his true parentage.
If Aziyadé had one or two other children, whose father was in fact Abeddin Efendi, they most probably would have been brought up as Abeddin’s sons. If Abeddin suspected that his first child was the son of another man, it is doubtful he would have allowed the child to remain in his house.
The idea that descendants of Loti and Aziyadé could exist in Istanbul today, unaware of what blood ran in their veins took hold of me. Loti’s Turkish lovechild could have grown up on the streets of Stambul, worked perhaps as a porter on the harbour, fought in the First World War, grown old and died, not knowing that he was the son of Loti. Of course, this is conjecture and will remain conjecture.
Now nobody will ever know the truth. Those that might have known have died. I believe that many of those that read Loti and knew Loti suspected such an episode, but their suspicions remained unvoiced. Now it is too late to know the truth for sure.
I wandered through the Topkapi cemetery wondering at the possibilities, while Greg transcribed Ottoman into his notebook, careful to keep to the marble walls between the graves, thinking about the possibility of a Turkish love child, Aziyadé the girl that he loved and the novel that launched Loti’s literary career.
The last chapter of Aziyadé Loti first titled “Fiction” to contrast with the previous chapters. Later he changed the title to “Azrael,” the Muslim angel of death. He needed a fitting end to his book and this he had to make up. His fictional ending to the romance goes like this.
After his return to France he returns to Constantinople in May 1877 to find out what has happened to his Turkish lover. He discovers from her maidservant Khadija that she has died. He visits her grave, which he places in the great cemetery of Kasimpasha. He then sets off to fight the Russians at Kars. Aziyadé concludes with a newspaper announcement of his death in battle.
After Aziyadé was accepted for publication Loti wanted nothing more to do with the book. He did not even trouble himself to correct the proofs. His soul in anguish he booked himself into a Trappist monastery at Briquebeck to seek reprieve in religion. On leaving he went straight to an inn with a sailor friend, drank cider and smoked cigarettes, wishing he could embrace Islam instead of Christianity. Aziyadé was published in January 1879 without the name of its author. At the time of its publication Aziyadé, the book’s heroine, was still very much alive.
Although banned in Turkey, Aziyadé did the rounds of the harems and soon became a talking point. People speculated on the identity of the young Turkish woman, who had had the audacity to have a relationship with a French officer under her husband’s nose. It didn’t take long for the scandal to reach Aziyadé’s door.
While Loti went to the trouble of changing some of the names of the people in his novel, the main events of the book were as they happened, transcribed from his journal with minor changes and additions. As there weren’t many wealthy Turkish households who relocated from Salonika to Constantinople in the winter of 1876, her husband Abeddin soon realised that it was his own wife who had been unfaithful.
So it wasn’t until after the book’s publication that Abeddin discovered his young wife’s infidelities and responded. This explains why she survived over three and a half years after Loti had abandoned her, in which time her husband had no evidence that his wife had strayed. With the book as evidence he could punish his wife as he saw fit. She was confined to a room, where she died in October 1880, if one can believe the inscription on her gravestone.
I discovered a grave with a message in black paint. “Stealing is a Sin. Don’t break Stones.”
Had Aziyadé’s headstone been destroyed to make room for newer graves? The base remained intact, sandwiched between two newer tombs: I doubted it.
Had the stones been broken up to be used in shoring up the nearby graves? It was possible. The message roughly painted in black supported the possibility that stones were routinely removed and used in constructing the new graves.
There was another possibility.
In a Turkish national newspaper an article was published concerning the whereabouts of the grave, including photographs. The headstones went missing shortly after this. It is possible that the article’s appearance generated interest in the grave.
People went to visit the site. It would not have been difficult to remove the stones in daylight without anyone noticing. If this is the case, the headstone from the cemetery could exist to this day in the collection of some literary treasure hunter.
I came across a corner of the cemetery were a lot of old headstones lay discarded, many obscured by earth. I discovered a broken head of stone that had two flowers carved into it, almost the same as Aziyadé’s but the flowers were not as deeply embossed. Beside it was a large stone lying face down. It had a vine on its back indicating it was a woman’s. Could it be Aziyadé’s? I went to get Greg, who was still copying down Ottoman inscriptions into his notebook.
Greg suggested we turn the headstone over to see. The corner of the cemetery was exposed to an area below where there was a makeshift market. The stone was too heavy, and after a misguided attempt to turn it over, I glanced down to see a shoeshine man looking up at us. I told Greg, and we hurried away, seeking to get among the nearby cypresses. I glanced back and saw the shoeshine man beckoning to a man in a blue shirt. Was it a policeman? I couldn’t be sure.
As we retreated along the thin walls of the graves, I caught my trousers on an overhanging ledge. They ripped leaving a triangle of exposed flesh, and a deep scratch below my knee.
I told Greg that the police might be on their way. He said not to worry: we weren’t doing anything wrong. He showed me his page of Ottoman he’d taken down in his notebook. “We’ll just tell them the truth,” he said.
He was right. We weren’t doing anything wrong. Though I couldn’t help feeling guilty with my torn trousers and blood trickling down my leg, as we made our way to the exit. A cemetery worker stood waiting for us, pensively smoking by the gatehouse. “Selam,” I said as we passed. “Selam,” he replied.
We walked through a market area outside the cemetery.
There were no policemen waiting for us, but we skirted round the shoeshine man who had spotted us. It seemed very subdued, removed from the chaos of the central quarters. Nobody shouted at us as we passed through despite our obviously being tourists. We bought bottles of water at a kiosk.
We walked to the tram stop at Topkapi, and took the tram to Sirkeji. It snaked through the Old City, past the house where Loti was once put up on Divanyolu, then the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia… This is the tourist epicentre of the city: To be visited in short bursts, avoided if possible, especially at the height of summer.
By Sirkeji Station, where the Orient Express once arrived from Paris, we got out. We crossed the Galata Bridge and then the underground train back up the hill to Beyoghlu, grateful for the Tunel’s damp air.
Then back to the Saydam, where Murat sat on his stool as though he had not moved since we left him perched there that morning.