Conversations with an Ottoman Gentleman: Nathaniel Bland’s Paris Notebooks

Dr Nil Palabiyik, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute, writes:

The British orientalist Nathaniel Bland (1803-1865) is perhaps best known as the scholar who (mis)attributed the origins of the game of chess to Persians. His hypothesis was based on a single manuscript. This is now John Rylands Library, Arabic MS 93. This erroneous assumption aside, Bland was an accomplished orientalist. He contributed to the knowledge of Persian literature through several thought-provoking papers delivered the Royal Asiatic Society, which later appeared in the Journal of the Society. His translation of the Atesh Kedah, or the Fire Temple, a biographic work on Persian poets, and his anthology of Persian ghazels became standard texts in the field. Above all, Bland was a bibliophile. His long-lasting legacy is his vast collection of Arabic, Persian and Turkish books. Many of the oriental manuscripts at the John Rylands Library can indeed be traced back to Bland.

Bland’s biography carries all the hallmarks of a nineteenth-century aristocrat’s life. He was born into an affluent family who divided their time between their townhouse in Marylebone and Randall Park, a lavish estate in Leatherhead, Surrey. The young Bland attended Eton and then studied oriental languages at Christ Church, Oxford. He played cricket for the exclusive MCC, got chummy with other gentlemen orientalists in Paris and Vienna in smoke-filled coffee-houses, and attended salons in Bad Homburg with the rest of the high society. He lost his fortune to his insatiable gambling habit and died a tragic death away from home at the relatively young age of 62.

Turkish MS 57, Bland’s Paris notebook, inside of front cover and p. 1.

John Rylands Turkish MS 57 and MS 58 are a pair of slim notebooks fittingly bound with marbled paper board covers by the Parisian stationer Wallerand who operated at number 11 on the fashionable Rue de la Paix. In them Bland meticulously recorded real and imagined conversations with an Ottoman gentleman resident in Paris. It seems, Bland took down these Turkish conversations with pencil at hand as they happened. At a later stage, he revised them in ink and translated the text into English. The Turkish column is always full, but the English equivalents are sometimes missing. Bland, like any other absent-minded scholar, possibly could not read what he previously scribbled in haste. The conversations begin on general topics such as the weather in London, the ills of the revolution and the poor’s enthausiasm for it, Paris’s wonderful sights and loose women, and pleasant walking routes through Tuileries Gardens. The subject matter shifts increasingly towards personal territory as one pages through the notebook. Pascal’s love of singing is revealed by his offer to perform Turkish and Armenian folk songs at Bland’s next dinner party, and we learn a lot about Bland’s widowed sister Isabella, who was suffering from a terrible cough at the time, as Pascal’s desire to meet her grows deeper and deeper. These intriguing exchanges between the Ottoman gentleman and Bland offer us a window into the intellectual world and multicultural networks of nineteenth-century Paris.


Turkish MS 57, pp. 22-23.

Bland’s companion, an Armenian merchant from Caesarea (modern-day Kayseri in middle Anatolia) by the name of Pascal, was a well-travelled man. Indeed, a section entitled ‘Pascal’s Travels’ follows the Ottoman subject’s progress from his home town to Paris over the course of nearly twenty years. While the accounts of European travellers’ peregrinations in the East are abundant, it is rare to catch a glimpse of how Ottomans travelling to Europe fared. According Bland’s notes, Pascal set out from Caesarea and went to the Armenian towns of Hacne and Sis, then to Adana and Tarsus. Then, he embarked on a ship to Cyprus. From there to Lebanon, Beirut, Sidon and Acre. A detail Pascal gave and recorded by Bland helps us pinpoint the year in which he visited Acre, where he witnessed the local governor Jezzar Ahmed Pasha erecting a mosque. This famous mosque was completed in 1781. From Acre, Pascal travelled to Nazareth and Nablus and finally to Jerusalem. Pascal tells us that he clothed himself as a dervish to be able to move freely in the city of Jerusalem. Being incognito, he was able to visit not only the Muslim monuments but also the earliest Christian churches that were converted to mosques. He resided in an Armenian convent in Jerusalem, where he stayed for the next three and a half years. After this extended stay, he returned to Anatolia. He spent some time as a travelling salesman in Sivas and Tokat. Soon after he settled in Constantinople and joined other Armenian jewellers in the famous Bedesten of the Ottoman capital. Three years of rest and stability in Constantinople was more than enough for our Pascal who apparently contracted the travelling bug. His next destination was Gallipoli, and from thence the bustling port city of Symrna, where he stayed for four years. Pascal’s business flourished in Symrna and furnished him with the funds that allowed him to engage in further adventures, this time to Western Europe, through Alexandria, Livorno and Marseilles. He arrived in Paris for the first time ‘in the seventh year of the Republic’. That would be 1799. After that Pascal lived in Madrid for a decade, details of which he does not grace us with. He had returned to Paris and was permanently resident there when he met Bland.

Maybe it is more important to know why Bland conversed with Pascal rather than when. Bland indicates that he always wanted to improve his Turkish and hired Pascal’s services. On the paste-down on the front cover of Turkish MS 57, we find Bland’s itemised expenses listed as: ‘Porter, Washing, Wine, Coffee, Valet’ and ‘Pascal’. Bland did not disclose how much he paid his Turkish teacher, but it is clear that Pascal charged for his help. Pascal was not at all a bad teacher, it seems: he encouraged Bland to converse on a diverse range of daily topics, but he also challenged him to discuss intricacies of Turkish language, poetry and folk tales. Bland duly praised his teacher remarking that he ‘finally found a good master’ who helped him progress rapidly.

The titles mentioned in the conversations are still extant in the John Rylands Library’s Turkish manuscript collection. Interesting codices include the Sefāretnāme-i Fransa, the Turkish Ambassador Yirmisekiz Mehmed Çelebi’s Paris journals spanning the years 1720–21 (Turkish MS 9), which must have proved a handy guide to Turkish language as well as Paris’s cityscape, and a sixteenth-century copy of the famous Kitāb-ı Ḳırḳ Vezīr, or the Tale of the Forty Viziers accompanied by a French translation by François Petis de la Croix, dragoman to the French Embassy in Constantinople from 1676 to 1680 (Turkish MS 8).

Turkish MS 8, Tale of Forty Viziers.
Turkish MS 9, Yirmisekiz Mehmed Çelebi’s Paris journal.

There’s much work to be done on Bland’s collection of Turkish manuscripts. But thanks to his Paris notebooks we now know that he was no vanity collector when it came to Turkish manuscripts. Bland actually read his Turkish books from cover to cover and perused his bilingual dictionaries. He enjoyed memorising and reciting Turkish poetry. He read traditional folk tales in their original Turkish. In the absence of published work, these notebooks and the conversations recorded in them help us chart Bland’s interest in and knowledge of Turkish language, culture and literature.

Dr Nil Palabiyik
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow
The John Rylands Research Institute

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