Constantinople. 24 November 1634
The two men, dressed in the simple monk’s garb of the Eastern Church, had arrived from the seat of the Patriarch riding on pure white asses. The Patriarch's residence was situated in the ancient 11th region of Constantinople on the lower slope of the city’s fifth hill. It had taken much longer than usual to travel the distance of two miles to the Seraglio palace as the narrow streets of the bazaar quarter had been thronged and waiting for the monks in front of the Imperial Gate, somewhat impatiently, were the French and English Ambassadors, the Venetian bailio and their huge respective retinues of servants and chaush guards.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kyril Loukaris, dismounted from his ass and greeted the English Ambassador warmly. He then threw a curt bow in the direction of the French and Venetian envoys before turning back to introduce his own companion. “Excellencies. May I present Patriarch Theophanes of Jerusalem.”
Most of the diplomats gave the elderly priest, who after dismounting his own ass leant heavily on a strangely patterned stave, a formal if frosty greeting. They were all annoyed at this unscheduled early morning summons bringing them from the comforts of Pera to the Seraglio and were in no mood to be civil. The French Ambassador, the Comte de Cesy, in particular made least effort in trying to hide his contempt. Kyril Loukaris pretended not to notice and passing between the two lines of kapiji palace guards made for the first court of the Seraglio. “Let us not delay here then,” he said curtly.
As the monks passed through the archway the sight of a severed head set in a niche to one side unnerved them somewhat. Theophanes asked Loukaris about it once they were through. The cautious Patriarch of Constantinople looked around before replying, “Three years ago there was a military revolt in the city and the soldiers turned on the palace killing the Grand Vizier, the Grand Mufti and fifteen or so other advisors, ripping them to shreds. Six months later with a new Grand Vizier in place, a man you will meet shortly, the Sultan took his vengeance. He rounded up the mutineers and by killing, it is rumoured, upwards of 20,000 soldiers, vented his rage in a sustained bloodletting. The Sultan also banned coffee, tobacco and boza and that head you see belonged recently on the shoulders of one of the lesser viziers who was foolish enough to be caught with tobacco. By the way Theophanes, do not mind the cold reception of the Frenchman. The French nobility all suffer from folie de grandeur.”
The ambassadors in contrast remounted their respective horses and with their whole retinue of about two hundred people followed the walking monks through the archway into the First Court. Loukaris pointed out to his fellow prelate the hospital on the right and the Church of Haghia Edrine and the hazineh or Imperial Mint on the left. The distance to the second gate was about a quarter of a mile and as they walked they were astounded by the enormous number of people and horses moving in all directions. When they finally reached the second gate of the Seraglio - called the Gate of Salutations - it was also guarded by a company of kapiji. Here the Ambassadors dismounted and with the two Patriarchs were shown into a small room built into the wall on the right side of the archway. As they entered they had to step aside for a fierce-looking and elaborately dressed Turk who then crossed the portal and disappeared into a similar room on the opposite side. The French ambassador bristled.
“Who was that?” Theophanes asked his colleague as the Frenchman bundled past him.
Loukaris smiled. “That was the head gardener of the palace.”
Theophanes was puzzled. “No wonder the Comte was angry. Why should we show such a menial person such deference by stepping aside?”
Loukaris winked at the English Ambassador, Sir Peter Wyche, who had overheard the enquiry. “Because he is also the Chief Executioner. A sample of his work you saw earlier.”
Theophanes suddenly felt less confident about his mission and keeping a wary eye on the opposite door for any movement turned to Loukaris. “What happens now?”
The French and Venetian envoys were huddled in deep conversation in a far corner. Loukaris and Theophanes sat down on one of the benches. The English Ambassador approached them. “May I join you. My colleagues have made it clear they do not wish my company.” Both of the Patriarchs nodded and made room on the bench for Sir Peter, who then continued. “In answer to your question, Patriarch Theophanes, we are likely to be here for some time. It is the custom of the Turks to let us stew here awhile. Showing us our place in the scheme of things, as it were. Although with such a high powered delegation I suspect that at most it will only be an hour and we can look forward to a better table than we might expect when presenting ourselves alone.”
It was nearly two hours later - with the watery November sun reaching its zenith - when a commotion could be heard in the passageway and somebody shouting, “Let the dogs be fed and clothed!” The ambassadors stood up as one. They took no real offense at the by now customary insulting summons for foreigners presenting themselves to the Divan of the Great Turk. They removed their swords and handed them to their pages who remained outside the gate. They were joined at this point by two younger men clothed most elegantly in the Italian fashion and an elderly cleric dressed in the habit of the Franciscans. Around the neck of the first rider to dismount was a golden collar formed of laburnums and from which hung a figure of the Cross and Saint George. He was greeted warmly by the Venetian ambassador, who then introduced him, “Gentlemen this is Marco Angello Comneno, Grand Prior of the Constantinian Order in this city. He has been asked to represent the Ethiopian church in this dispute.” The young knight bowed to the other envoys but then went up to Loukaris and kissed both his cheeks.
Loukaris’s response was warm. “Grand Prior Marco it is good to see you. How is your brother?”
Behind them the Venetian envoy seemed puzzled by the familiarity between the Patriarch and the young Comneno. “Very well, your eminence. He sends you his best wishes. He has been very busy since my father Giovanni Andrea’s death.”
The second younger knight and the priest had by now dismounted. Marco Comneno turned to introduce them. “Gentlemen this is Bishop Denis O’ Driscoll, Bishop of Siguenza and representative of the Franciscans in this dispute. He is accompanied . . ." Comneno pulled the other young man forward, “...by his cousin and soldier of Spain, Dom Dermico O’Driscoll. They only arrived yesterday from Genoa and bring news of an important defeat of the Dissenting Forces by the Spanish and Imperial Armies at Nordlingen.”
The reaction to this information was very mixed. The English Ambassador was obviously disturbed by the news but restrained his initial urge to enquire further while shooting a quick glance at Loukaris to see his reaction. None was discernible. De Cesy seemed happy but his enthusiastic interrogation of Dom Dermico was soon interrupted by the approach of a troop of soldiers. The Ambassadors, the Patriarchs and the younger knights were then escorted by a detail of the Janissaries, led by the muhzir aga, across the second courtyard. The sight of gazelles grazing amongst the magnificent cypress trees and fine shrubbery plots gave a parkland air to the area. In contrast, the massed ranks of about 2000 Janissaries, sipahi and chaush which stood out from the galleries on either side of the inner wall of the gate made a splendid and yet intimidating sight in their immaculate and detailed uniforms. As the ambassadorial retinue passed between the rows they were greeted by low bows. Every now and then one or two of the soldiers would suddenly break ranks and rushing furiously to a large soup kettle would start to consume the food with feverish intent before rejoining their comrades and becoming stationary once again.Theophanes remarked on this and Loukaris whispered back to him, “For some reason the Janissaries promote this display of frenzied eating as a sign of their contentment. We are expected to notice and to be wary of the cohesion and purpose within the army. Indeed if they remain sullen and immobile there is trouble ahead for both the Sultan and the people of the city.”
After a short walk they reached the covered walkway which surrounded the Chamber of the Divan. On entering the outer room, the Ambassadors were presented with silk kaftans. Twenty four in total were given to de Cesy, and as dictated by protocol, sixteen and twelve for the English and Venetian envoys, respectively. After this ceremony they were ushered into the presence of the Grand Vizier, Beiram Pasha, who sat on a low bench with his other viziers sitting on his right. On his left-side he was attended by the two kadiaskers of Rumelia and Anatolia. Standing to one side were the three Revenue commissioners, known as the deftendars. The nisaaniji or keeper of the seal was also present as was the secretary of the divan who stood in close attention at the Grand Vizier’s side. In addition there were various Aga’s and scribes all resplendent in their elaborate and splendid regalia.
The Grand Vizier lifted his head slightly to survey the envoys, and uttering a few words he then dropped it again as if annoyed by the interruption. To his left the chief dragoman or interpreter, the terjumanbashi, translated. Unknown to most of the envoys he was also a Greek Phanariot and cousin of Loukaris. He spoke in a loud voice, “You are welcome. What is your business with the Gate of Felicity?”
At this point Loukaris prodded Theophanes and pushed him forward. The Jerusalem Patriarch spoke in Greek, “Your excellency there is great conflict in Jerusalem among the Christian brethren as to who controls the Holy Places, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I wish to assert the rightful pre-eminence of our Greek Church.”
The Grand Vizier waited as his dragoman made the translation then lifting his head slowly, studied all of the faces of the delegation carefully for some time, before speaking again. The terjumanbashi waited until Beiram Pasha had finished and then translated, “Have you proof of this?”
Theophanes reached into a shoulder bag and pulled out a silver cylinder. Removing its lid he extracted with great ceremony, and deference, an ancient rolled parchment. Kneeling down he placed it in front of the Grand Vizier’s feet. “That is a letter from the Caliph ’Umar to my predecessor Patriarch Sophronius in the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ six hundred and thirty eight - six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad - granting the Greek Church control of the Holy Places.”
At this point the French envoy de Cesy could not contain his restraint any longer. Puffing his chest out as much as his confined arms would allow he tried to place himself between the Patriarch and the Grand Vizier. This necessitated a great deal of manoeuvring given his close attendant escorts. “Your Excellency. I must protest! That document is almost certainly a forgery. The Holy Places must remain the responsibility of the Pope’s representatives, the Franciscans, in Jerusalem.”
Theophanes however was not to be deterred. Stepping to the side of de Cesy he produced more recent documents from the reigns of the Sultans Selim I and Suleyman which also supported the Greek rights. In the next half-hour each of the envoys present made their position clear. Sir Peter Wyche, the English ambassador was the only one who supported the Greek position with all of the others siding against them. Loukaris took very little part in the debate, content in the knowledge that he had laid the ground well with suitable and well placed bribes to various members of the Divan as well as a direct contribution to the Sultan’s Treasury. He watched, with amusement, the spectacle of Europe’s powerful envoys squabbling with each other like children.
Beiram Pasha did not share the Greek Patriarch’s amusement and standing up, suddenly, spoke in perfect French. It was nearly noon. “Enough. The Divan will discuss your petition and because today is a Tuesday we will later place your arz or petition before the Sultan. In the meantime please partake of the light refreshments provided.”
The meal lasted about one hour and it was notable for the complete absence of conversation and the chaotic way in which the plates were suddenly cleared by the ajemioglans or officers of the kitchen. When it was over a tall white eunuch appeared in the chamber with a silver stave in his hand. First the kadiaskers stood up and filed out of the Divan chamber followed by the deftendars and then the viziers and Grand Vizier. The envoys retook their seats to wait, their goblets refilled with rosewater and sherbet from a servant carrying a large goat skin luthro.
The awkward silence persisted until at last they were summoned to an Audience with Sultan Murad IV. After donning their kaftans they were led by two eunuchs from the divan chamber and escorted to the Third Gate, the Gate of Felicity. There they were met by the kapi agasi - the Chief white eunuch - who had appeared earlier in the Divan chamber with the silver stave in his hand. He led them through it to the Throne Room or what was paradoxically called for such an inner sanctum the Public Divan. The Sultan dressed in black and amber silks with a magnificent bejewelled turban atop his head sat on a low golden stool. To the side of the room stood the viziers and kadiaskers all with their heads bowed. Behind the throne were crammed the stern-faced soldiers of the Sultan’s elite personal bodyguard the muteferrikas. The Ambassadors were frog-marched into His presence and after bowing low three times were encouraged - as was the custom - to kneel and kiss the hem of the Sultan’s kaftan. They then had to stand stiffly with their hands held rigid by their sides.
Sultan Murad IV, although surrounded by the throng of his praetorian guard, the audience agas and other agas of the Stirrup - as the palace functionaries were known - appeared to attract what little light there was in the room. He was a young looking man, fit and battle hardened. He appeared taller than they expected with a broad face and eyes of cold steel. He looked directly at the envoys, his mood difficult to ascertain masked as it was by his impassive countenance. “I Sultan Murad, son of Sultan Ahmed, son of Sultan Mehmed, who am the Sultan of Sultans, the Shadow of God upon the Earth, the Sultan and Padishah of the White Sea, the Black Sea, Rum, Anatolia, Dulkadir, Kurdistan, Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem and all other countries of my ancestor’s conquest, have today issued a firman in favour of the Greek petition. They are to have control of my favour in the Holy Places of the Christians in Jerusalem.”
The terjumanbashi completed the translation and almost immediately before any debate could be entered into, the escorting soldiers forced the envoys to retreat backwards through the connecting door and into the second courtyard once again. The light was startling bright after the dense darkness of the Sultan’s throne room.
Behind them the Grand Vizier was ushered into the presence of Murad. “Beiram Pasha, your final thoughts on this matter?”
The Grand Vizier knelt before his Sultan. “My Emperor. I have cast the yoke off my neck. On the day of judgement henceforth you will answer. It is a good decision, my Sovereign Lord. The Christians are best kept at each others throats. The Venetians have already intimated that they would be prepared to offer a substantial sum to procure the Holy Sites for themselves. This will be a good source of bloodless income for your treasury if your divine favours are judiciously granted.”
In the courtyard de Cesy stormed ahead with the Venetian Ambassador and Marco Angello Comneno in tow. He stopped suddenly and turned to look at them. Seething with rage his voice crackled, “We must try and neutralise Loukaris. He has far too much influence.”
On reaching the second gate and retrieving their swords Comneno leant forward to whisper in the Comte de Cesy’s ear. “Leave it to me to formulate a plan. I have other business to conclude with the Patriarch Loukaris.” The young Grand Prior of the Constantinian order then turned to watch as the two Patriarchs walked slowly, accompanied by Sir Peter Wyche. They all appeared to be in animated conversation.
Loukaris caught Marco looking at him and placing his hand on the Englishman’s sleeve drew him to a stop. They were still out of earshot. Loukaris kept his voice low, “Thank you for your support with the Sultan. As agreed with your predecessor Roe and as a token of my continued desire for a closer communion between the Eastern Church and your reformed church, I have made arrangements for an ancient commentary on the Codex - the famous fifth century Greek bible given by Loukaris to Roe - to be delivered to your residence in Pera.”
Sir Peter Wyche gave a slight but grave nod of acknowledgement. He knew from his correspondence with Bishop Laud that the Codex Alexandrinus had been an invaluable acquisition and the commentary could be of equal importance. The credit would probably go to Roe but there would be enough reflected glory for him as well. He hesitated briefly before replying, “Patriarch Loukaris we are most grateful. There is another matter however that my King has instructed me to sound out with you. If you could spare me some time?”
They had just caught up with the others when there was a sudden shout of warning as three horses sped through the archway sending the de Cesy sprawling against the wall. The Frenchman immediately drew his recently donned sword but was set upon and restrained by the nearby Janissaries. The horses crossed the courtyard and made for the entrance of the Imperial harem which was in a recess behind a corner of the Divan Chamber they had been in earlier. They watched as a eunuch passage guard rush out to take the reins. Recovering his composure somewhat and shrugging off the attentions of the scowling soldiers de Cesy blustered. “I am certain that one of those idiots was a woman. She rode saddle like a man, however. Who is she?”
Kyril Loukaris attention was fixed on the now dismounted figures. They were hurrying to enter the harem through the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs. “That person, excellencies . . .” Loukaris spoke, without once averting his gaze from the distant group. “. . . is the female surgeon appointed by the Valide Sultana Kosem. I hear she was a Christian captive in Algiers and is here as a free agent. From Ireland . . .” He looked over to catch the attention of the O’Driscoll cousins who were in deep conversation. “. . . I understand.”
De Cesy was still fuming, his face crimson with anger. “A female surgeon! How preposterous. Whatever next. A witch more like. The heathen Turk are welcome to her spells. Ignorant imbeciles that they are.”
Loukaris looked at the Frenchman as he waddled his way towards his horse lashing out sideways to strike one of his nearby retinue for their perceived failure in failing to protect his dignity. “I also hear she has a great skill with eyes. Perhaps Comte de Cesy, she could help with your vision.”
The Frenchman bristled at the sarcasm but ignored the Greek Patriarch. By now all the others were shaking their heads in bemusement as they mounted their own horses. They then rejoined their own retinues and began making for the Imperial Gate. The French Ambassador turned to look down at the two Patriarchs. Fixing Loukaris with an evil sneering gaze he rasped, “Patriarch Loukaris you have not heard the last of this. I would advise caution in challenging the wishes of France.’ De Cesy then pulled at the reins so fiercely that the ornamental bit cut into the horses mouth. A few drops of blood dropped to the ground. Loukaris stretched out a hand towards the poor animal to try and relieve the pressure but the Frenchman pulled again twisting the horses head away. At the same time he dug his spurs into the stallion’s flank forcing it to rear up and just miss the Patriarch’s head with flying hooves. Loukaris did not flinch. The Frenchman without a look back then cantered away towards the Imperial Gate followed by most of the others at a gentler pace.
The two Patriarchs walked beside their asses. As the dust laden haze thrown up by de Cesy's departure settled a single horseman could be seen to have remained behind. Loukaris recognised him. “Dom Dermico, what holds you back? Is there a problem with your horse?”
The Spanish envoy shook his head and then swung down from his saddle with a lithe grace. “That woman surgeon from Ireland. You did say that she was once a captive in Algiers?”
Loukaris looked at passive face of the younger man trying to discern a reason for the enquiry. The intensity of his eyes was the only clue. “That is my information. Is there a specific reason for your enquiry?”
Dermico O’Driscoll had prepared himself for this response. “No, not really. Only you said that she was Irish. I know that about 100 people were taken captive by Algerian corsairs from a small fishing village in my family’s lands in Ireland about three years ago. I would welcome news of their well-being. Do you know where I can contact this female surgeon?”
Loukaris was still a little guarded. “At the women’s hospital attached to the mosque of Haseki Hurrem . So my informants tell me.”
O’Driscoll looked pleased. “Thank you Patriarch Loukaris. I am most grateful.” He then remounted and made to spur his horse off, but stopped. “There is one other request, you might grant me.”Loukaris waited, saying nothing. “Apparently it is common knowledge that you are giving a valuable commentary on the Codex to the English. Might I have a look at it before you do so?”
Loukaris was surprised by the question and uncomfortably searched for a reply. He decided not to deny the fact. “I did not think it was common knowledge. You are remarkably well informed Dom Dermico. Why would you want to see it? Are you a scholar?”
O’Driscoll’s eyes were jewels of practised innocence. “Yes , in a small way. Would it be possible?”
Loukaris treaded the moment as if he was in water. “Of course.”
“That is most kind of you. Where and when might I be able to view it?”
Loukaris drew a breath. “Tomorrow at the Patriarchate. Noon. Would that suit you?”
O’Driscoll made a show of turning his horse towards the gate. He leaned back to look down at the Greek and asked in a nonchalant tone. “Do you have a big repository in the Patriarchate? I would be most interested.”
By now Loukaris was concerned. The conversation was almost echoing the one he had just had with Wyech. It was too much of a coincidence. “No. Not really. Because of the ever-present threat of enforced moves within the city and the small size of the Patriarchate most of our most valuable manuscripts are scattered in several locations. Perhaps Dom Dermico, if there were documents of specific interest to your studies, the Protosyncellus, Nathaniel Canopuis might be able to track them down. Was there something specific you wished to see?”
Dermico O’Driscoll shook his head. ‘No. It was just a thought. Do not put yourself to any trouble Patriarch Loukaris. A look at the commentary would be fine. I do not have much time before returning to Spain.”
Loukaris stroked his long beard, his thoughts clearer. “I am sure Dom Dermico that this dispute is not the only reason you are here. Not implying any offence, but you made little or no contribution in the Divan.”
O’Driscoll realised he would have to be as direct as possible with a plausible answer. “You are right Patriarch Loukaris.” He looked first at the Jerusalem prelate and then back at Loukaris. “With apologies to your sensitivities Patriarch Theophanes, the King of Spain has few cares in regard to who has the keys to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as long as it remains in Christian pockets. By accompanying my Franciscan cousin it has provided me with a good cover to sound out the Divan on a sensitive matter. The King’s concern and that of our allies, the Republic of Ragusa, is the amount of forged silver Turk coin that France is producing to de-stabilise the Sultan’s economy. As silver is the major export of our Mexican Territories we are anxious that its value is maintained. I am here, on the orders of Olivares, to appraise the Divan of the threat. Given the success of your business today, against the odds I might add, you Patriarch Loukaris would be a valuable ally to have.”
Loukaris relaxed with the compliment and put aside some of his previous doubts about the young Spanish Knight. In any event the information was valuable and he would have to analyse the impact of this new threat for the Sultan on his church’s well-being and safety in Constantinople. “Thank you for your candour, Dom Dermico. I will be happy to try and help. Until tomorrow then. At noon!”