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Travelling in Ottoman times

Caravans and paperwork were part of the preparation.

To travel at all you must procure a special teskereh from the Pacha, a huge manuscript passport, with a big seal at the bottom, setting forth your name and profession, and calling upon the inhabitants of the villages on your route to give you gratuitous lodging and food for yourself and barley for your horses, while it commands the various local authorities to provide as many men as may be necessary for a protecting escort. The "gratuitous" part of the document is, of course, a mere flower of rhetoric, and is simply inserted to protect you from the extortionate demands of villagers, who might take some outrageous advantage of your necessities if you were wholly in their power. Having got your teskereh, you make the other necessary provisions for your journey. You will have to carry with you nearly everything you may have occasion to use — your bed and blankets, your cooking pots and water skins, your little carpet and cushions — all the thousand and one things of which in civilized countries you could procure the loan at the poorest cottage. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870; of the route from Baghdad to Aleppo via Kirkuk and Mosul

The Turks say that caravanjees are the greatest rogues in the country, and this is no doubt true. But it must be remembered that these men lead the hardest of all possible lives. Year after year they tramp along the same weary roads, from Bagdad to Samsoon, from Aleppo to Mosul, or perhaps even to Constantinople, walking generally twenty or twenty-five miles a day, breakfasting on a few cakes of bread, warmed over a fire of dried cow-dung, and dining upon a dish of boiled rice. Their pay is very small. From Bagdad to Mosul, three hundred miles, or twelve days' journey, you can hire three mules and a driver for twenty dollars, the muleteer feeding himself and his animals. That is about half a dollar a day for each mule, with the man thrown in. It is perhaps, therefore, only natural that his scent for backsheesh should be keen, and that he should now and then perpetrate a little mild cheating. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870; of the route from Baghdad to Aleppo via Kirkuk and Mosul

Some of the caravanjees grow rich; they add slowly to the number of their animals until perhaps they own 100, and employ twenty or thirty drivers. The caravan business, however, grows worse and worse every year, owing to the different channels which the Eastern trade is now taking. Formerly all the European trade with Bagdad was down by caravans to Aleppo and Damascus; single caravans of five or six thousand camels, mules and horses, with an escort of 200 men, were not uncommon. But now the greater part of this commerce is done by the steamship lines to Bussorah, and the caravans have dwindled down to comparatively contemptible proportions. It is estimated that 1,000 mules or 700 camels are required to transport the cargo of a vessel of 500 tons. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870; of the route from Baghdad to Aleppo via Kirkuk and Mosul

Starting a journey is a long process.

There is a proverb here that to get outside the city gates is a good first day's journey. And so indeed it is. ... Rising at daybreak, we did our best to get off as early as possible, but it was already two o'clock when everything had been packed, and when the zabadeers, having run away a dozen times to take a farewell kiss from their wives and to praise hulwa to their children when they returned enriched with the backsheesh to be given them by the Frank effendis, were all in the saddle. Then came a long detention at the gate by an officer of customs, who only let us pass after being pacified with a handsome douceur. For, in Turkey, there is a system of octal duties, and one may, perhaps, in passing through the country have to pay a dozen duties on some one excisable article — a duty in each province. The first day we stopped in Faragat, a village only five miles from Bagdad, at the house of the Minister of Agriculture, a Pole in the serve of the Pacha. The New York Heralnd, 20 August 1870; of the route from Baghdad to Aleppo via Kirkuk and Mosul

Travel is exceedingly slow, and bound by nature.

The distance traversed is generally about twenty-five or thirty miles a day, but is reckoned by time, not by measured length. ... In asking your position you must always ask the kind of hours in which your informant is reckoning. ... An Arab says "it is so many hour (not miles or leagues) to such a place." And there are different varieties of hours. The Turkish official hour, according to which post distances are reckoned, is almost exactly three miles; the Camel hour is only a little more than two, and the Koordish hour, as it is called, is more than four. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870; of the route from Baghdad to Aleppo via Kirkuk and Mosul

The pace is frightfully slow, never exceeding three or four miles an hour. ... The caravan crawls along, indeed, with the persistence of destiny, and as one looks at it painfully traversing some long stretch of level road every image of patience and continuous effort — the travelling tortoise, a kingdom of ants, a colony of spiders — rises spontaneously in one's mind. ... A halt is made at the completion of the half of the journey, or rather, at the nearest water to that point, in order to let the animals wash the dust out of their mouths; but that is all. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870; of the route from Baghdad to Aleppo via Kirkuk and Mosul

During the winter a day's journey is necessarily fixed, not by the capacity of the animals, but by the village nearest to what ought to be a day's journey. From Baghdad to Mosul, for instance, it sometimes happens that in a distance of fifty miles you will only pass a single village. That village may, perhaps, be only fifteen miles from the point of departure, but you are perforce obliged to stay there, because your beasts could not possibly push on another thirty-five. In summer, travelling is regulated even more rigidly by the position of the wells and rivers. So that you are never at liberty to go as quickly as the animals might carry you; many days you are only able to get over four or five hours of road, and as you still start at dawn you reach your camping place before noon. To an Asiatic this is no source of irritation, but an American frets and chafes over the waste of time, even though the delay gives him a pleasant afternoon's shooting. The Turk or Arab or Koord takes the matter quietly, as a decree of destiny, and settles himself in his quarters upon his carpets and cushions, consoling himself with the never-failing balm of a nargheelah or a chibouque, and innumerable cups of coffee. It is only natural, isn't it, that a people thus strictly and palpably confined by circumstances to a particular course in one field of action should succumb to difficulties in other matters without struggling very violently to overcome them? ... The locomotive, and the locomotive alone, can regenerate Turkey. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870

The morning ritual is tiresome, repetitive, and becomes mundane.

Rising always an hour before daybreak, and sometimes earlier, a morsel of bread and a thimbleful of coffee constituted breakfast. The meal finished, the carpets on which we had been sitting, the cups from which we had drunk, the kettle in which the water had been boiled, were gathered up, and everything declared ready for packing. Until this announcement is made the caravanjee or muleteers will load nothing; they might, of course, begin to pack their animals while one is breakfasting, with such things as may be ready; but it is the custom the country to wait until everything is given to them — a custom from which even the hope of backsheesh will not induce them to swerve. And what a business packing is! I have watched day after day for six or seven weeks the same noisy, confused scene of kicking mules and swearing men, diversified only by the occasional breakage of a bale or a saddle bag, until I know it by heart. It is by far the most fatiguing part of the day's work, and is rarely accomplished under a couple of hours. ... Packing at length finished, the mules fall into line, the travellers mount and take their place at the head of the caravan, the soldiers jump into the saddle and the day's journey begins. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870; of the route from Baghdad to Aleppo via Kirkuk and Mosul

After two or three days' travelling this mule falls lame or that one gets a sore back, and a general redistribution of the burdens takes place. From that time forward each day witnesses a new arrangement, each change occasioning a general debate among the muleteers, with piteous appeals to the traveller to remember that he is killing with overwork the animals of the poorest of man. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870; of the route from Baghdad to Aleppo via Kirkuk and Mosul

However, it is a healthful experience for the typical upper-middle-class, bloated, out-of-shape Occidental.

I left Bagdad a sick man; I have arrived at Aleppo in the best health I have ever known. A traveller who has once made a month's caravan journey, indeed, understands perfectly the readiness with which in the middle ages people started on long pilgrimages, and understands further the causes which to the miraculous cures of disease frequently reported as the result of them. After a few days the fresh air, the moderate exercise, the temperate meals, the utter isolation from care and anxiety of every kind, bring one into splendid physical condition. One becomes not simply cheerful, but joyous; the spirits are intoxicated with the pleasure of simply living; simple existence grows into being the greatest happiness one can taste. Perhaps, after all, the people of the country, all of whom are forced to be nearly every day in the saddle, are not much to be pitied. They fare hardly and are poorly lodged; they are plundered by the government and insulted and beaten by its officials; but, at least, they are the healthiest race to be met with the wide world over. I have seen daily for the past two months hundreds of men who would be very foolish to step into the shoes of certain confirmed dyspeptic millionaires whom it has also been my ill fortune to have encountered. There is still hope for Turkey. The digestive faculties of the great mass of its interior population are at any rate in splendid condition. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870

The bugs are awful, even today.

Fleas, bugs, ah! even lice ... I have had to smile patiently at the tormenting attentions of these most industrious works of the Creator — grin and bear them. Gentle reader, come not hither in the winter or early spring, when the inclemency of these mild Arabian skies force you to seek the hospitable shelter of the dwellings of the people of the country. Travel here only in the summer, and bring your own tent; but even that will not perfectly preserve you from the evils I have indicated. For, of course, you will still wish to pay a visit of ceremony now and then to the house of some minor pacha or muddier. And in pachas' houses, as in the cottages of the poorest of their subjects, vermin are the real lords of the land. No pacha could possibly so far forget himself as to close his door upon the hales or pilgrims who roam the country, clad in rags and infested with every breed of vermin to be gathered from Mecca to Meshed Hassein. So the hajee stalks calmly into the big man's divan, crosses his legs under him upon the cushions and speedily sets all his neighbouring fellow creatures itching. Nor will a good Mussulman kill even these disagreeable creatures of a wise God. No, if he detects one of them crawling stealthily across his clothes to some haven of refuge inaccessible to human fingers, he quietly takes up the invader and gracefully blows him into the middle of the room. This is no fable; I have seen it done a hundred times. The only way for the traveller in Turkey to escape these annoyances would be to place himself under a glass case and never emerge from it until he has put a mile of sea between him and the Turkish shore. The New York Herald, 20 August 1870

Travelling in the late 20th century

When I came here the first time in 1993, I had to fly from Istanbul to Diyabakir (Turkey). And in Diyabakir, I got into a taxi cab and drove for about 100 miles to the border, and picked up my suitcase and went through a gauntlet of Turkish posts to finally cross the border into Kurdistan, where I was met by some KDP representatives in a Toyota Landrover, and we had to go over the most crude roads. At one we time we had to get out, and I helped push the thing, the Landrover, through a stream of water and eventually we got to Erbil, which looked like a big, overgrown village to me. Today, as you know, Erbil is one of the one of the most modern, progressive looking cities in the Middle East and indeed, as an American, I found some things here that were more modern than in the United States, in Washington or New York. Michael Gunter, 28 May 2017