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The Serpent Column in Ottoman Sources


Just over a century ago the first excavations at the foot of the Serpent Column in the Hippodrome at Istanbul led to the discovery on it of the engraved names of the city-states whose contingents had fought at Plataea, thus confirming the justice of Gibbon's caustic footnote on its authenticity: that “the guardians of the most holy relics would rejoice if they were able to produce such a chain of evidence as may be alleged” from the Classical and Byzantine historians and from the accounts of European travellers.

When first set up at Delphi, the monument represented three snakes, whose intertwined bodies formed the column, and whose three heads, with gaping jaws, branched out to make a triangular support for a golden tripod. The tripod did not long survive, but the bronze column with the three heads, transported by Constantine to his new capital, apparently remained undamaged until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. All three heads had, however, disappeared by the time of Gibbon, who alleged that the discrepancies in the travellers' descriptions were “occasioned only by the injuries which [the Column] has sustained from the Turks”, and reproduced Thévenot's story that Meḥemmed II, on his triumphal entry into the city, “as a trial of his strength … shattered with his iron mace or battle-axe the under-jaw of one of these monsters, which in the eyes of the Turks were the idols or talismans of the city.”

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1 Decline and fall, ed. Bury , II, 152.

2 VII, 198, referring to de Thévenot J., Relation d'un voyage fait au Levant, Paris, 16641675, I, 41–2 (Thévenot was in Istanbul in 1655–56). Gibbon misunderstood the talismanic virtues ascribed to the Column: it was never regarded as a Palladium of the city, but simply as a charm against snakes; as such it was respected both in Byzantine times and until late in the Ottoman period (see Dawkins R. M., “Ancient statues in mediaeval Constantinople,“ Folklore, XXXV, 1924, 234 ff.).

3 Frick O., “Das Plataeische Weihgeschenk zu Konstantinopel: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Perserkriege,“ Jb. f. classische Philologie, Supplementband III, 1859, 487556.

4 Bourquelot F., “La Colonne Serpentine à Constantinople,“ Mémoires de la Société des Antiquaires de France, XXVIII, 1865, 2047.

5 Ebersolt J., Constantinople byzantine et les voyageurs du Levant, Paris, 1919; the references are distributed through the text, see Index, s.v. Colonne serpentine.

6 Preliminary report upon the excavations carried out in the Hippodrome of Constantinople in 1927, London, 1928, 1214; Preliminary report … 1928, London, 1929, 14.

7 1927 Report, fig. 6. Some miniatures also in the Sūr-nāme (Topkapısarayı MS Hazine 1344, composed in 1582) show the Column with one jaw missing, see Tahsin Öz, Turkish textiles and velvets, Ankara, 1950, plates xiii and xv; İpşiroğlu M. Ş and Eyüboğlu S., Fatih Albumuna bir bakış (Sur l'Album du Conquérant), Istanbul, n.d., figs. 16 and 109, and Metin And, Kırk gün kırk gece, Istanbul, 1959, figs. 58 and 61. When other miniatures of the period (e.g. Istanbul University Library MS T 6624, completed in 1597, see Edhem F. and Stchoukine I., Les manuscrits orientaux illustrés …, Paris, 1933, no. 6) and European drawings show the Column as undamaged the artist is giving an “ideal” representation.

8 1928 Report, p. 1 and fig. 2; the miniature is reproduced also in Gazette des beaux-arts, 6e Période, III, 1930, 225, and in the guide-book Rumeli-hisarı (Topkapısarayı Müzesi yayınlarından 5), Istanbul, 1957, 26.

9 Schweigger S., Eine neue Reyssbeschreibung …, Nuremberg, 1608, 124.

10 Leunclavius J., Annales Sultanorum Othmanidarum, Frankfort, 1596, 29 ( = Migne J.-P., Patrologia Graeca, CLIX, col. 612). Frick knew of this passage but discounted it in view of the absence of any such story in Ducas and Phrantzes, a drawing of about 1520 which showed the heads complete, and the inference he drew from the descriptions of Ramberti and Gyllius that the heads were undamaged as late as 1544.

11 The passage represents a textual problem, for whereas the Annales is otherwise a close translation of a late recension of the Anonymous Chronicles (namely that of MSS W3, etc., of Giese's edition), all the extant Turkish manuscripts lack this short passage, having in its place a long “History of Constantinople and Aya Sofya” (see below, p. 171). The passage is suspiciously similar to Schweigger's paragraph on the Column, but Leunclavius's comments in the Pandectes (§ 130) imply that it did in fact stand in the Turkish text he used.

12 The Hüner-nāme was begun at the command of Suleymān by the court-historiographers ‘Ārif and Eflāṭūn, who did not get very far, and Loqmān, appointed by Selīm II in 1569, was ordered to make a fresh start (see Der Islam, XI, 1921, 251). Four volumes were eventually planned, the first on the sultans up to Selīm I, the second on Suleymān, the third on Selīm II and the fourth on Murād III, but it is doubtful if the third and fourth were ever written. The second volume, the only one then known, was described by Tevḥīd Aḥmed in T'OEM, I, 1910, 103111, the first by Tahsin Öz in JPOS, XVIII, 1938, 167171: now catalogued as MSS Hazine 1523–24 (see Karatay F. E., Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi Kütüphanesi türkçe yazmalar kataloğu, Istanbul, 1961, I, nos. 688–9), they are on permanent exhibition in the Çinili Köşk.

13 I owe these details to the list of the miniatures given by Alim Ekrem, in the unpublished thesis Osmanlı tarihinde şehnameciler, 1934 (Istanbul University Library, tez no. 186).

14 The sources which Loqmān names in the Hüner-nāme are the “Oghuz-nāme” (scil. of Yazıjı-oghlu 'Alī, on which see Wittek P., in BSOAS, XIV, 1952, 640 f.), Neshrī, Idrīs Bidlisī, Rūḥī and Sa'deddīn (the same five are mentioned in Loqmān's Qiyāfat al-Insāniyya, and seem to comprehend the written sources which he consulted). The Oghuz-nāme, composed under Murād II, is automatically excluded as a source for the story of Meḥemmed II's breaking the jaw; the story is not in Neshrī or Sa'deddīn (both published), nor in the Bodleian MS (Marsh 313) of Rūḥī, and I have not found it at either of the possible points in Idrīs (British Museum MS Add. 7647, f. 26 [description of Constantinople] and f. 48 [capture of Constantinople, legendary history of Aya Sofya]).

15 For Kemāl-Pashazāde and his History see now Islam Ansiklopedisi, s.v. Kemâl Paşazâde (I. Parmaksızoğlu), and Turan Ş, Ibn Kemal: Tevārīh-i Āl-i Osmān, VII. defter (tenkidli transkripsiyon), Ankara, 1957.

16 I quote from MS Ali Emiri 30, f. 132V. MS Nur-i Osmaniye 3078, f. 97V., has the same text with the (patently inferior) variants (a)inline-graphic; (b) inline-graphic; (c)om.

17 The MSS are late, but there is no likelihood that the latter part of the passage is a later interpolation: it is composed in the elaborate rhyming prose (… ‘ajīb … tertīb … yürünmezdi, … gharīb … terkīb … görünmezdi) characteristic of Kpz.'s style.

18 Ş. Turan, op. cit., 28–105.

19 Giese F., Die altosmanischen anonymen Chroniken, Teil I (Text), Breslau, 1922, 90 = Teil II (Übersetzung), Leipzig, 1925, 120.

20Ālī , Kunh al-Akhbār, Istanbul, 1277, V, 274: “That talisman against snakes still exists in the Hippodrome. At last, however, in the reign of Sultan Suleymān, while the Grand Vizier Ibrāhīm Pasha … was watching jirid one day in the Hippodrome and sporting on horseback with his intimates, he drew his mace and flung it: it struck this talisman and broke one corner of it. Since that time snakes have begun to appear in Istanbul here and there, but they are weak and powerless and cannot cause any harm.” Solakzāde (ca. 1650) reproduces this almost verbatim (p. 208). The war-game jirid, described by Sandys (Relation, 1670, 26) as “no other than prison base upon horseback”, had been played in the Hippodrome even before the Ottoman conquest, the Byzantines having learned it from the Turks (see Schéfer C., Le voyage d'Outremer de Bertrandon de la Broquière, Paris, 1892, 158); for a full description see von Oppenheim's M. F. article in Islamica, II, 1926, 590617, and Encyclopaedia of Islam 2, s.v. Dierīd (by V. J. Parry).

21 e.g. by du Fresne-Canaye, as Bourquelot noticed (consulting a manuscript; see now Hauser H., Le voyage du Levant de Philippe du Fresne-Canaye (1573), Paris, 1897, 255).

22 By Evliyā Čelebi (ca. 1650), see Hammer's partial translation of the Seyāḥat-nāme, Narrative of travels …, London, 18341850, I/i, 19, based on the MS of the Royal Asiatic Society; the same account is found in Istanbul University Library MS T 2371, f. 16v. In the printed texts the reference to “Selīm II, the Drunkard” is bowdlerised—in the “Selections” (Muntakhabāt, 1262/1846, 46) to qahramān-i sānī, “the second hero,” and in Aḥmed Jevdet's edition (I, 1314/1896, 65) to “a Janissary”.

23 Murād IV is blamed in most later accounts, e.g. Spon and Wheler (1674–75) and de Bruyn (1679).

24 See Jacobs E., in Oriens, II, 1949, 1617.

25 Some writers, e.g. Tournefort (1701), the Earl of Sandwich (1738–39), imply that there was an intermediate stage of damage when Murād IV knocked off a head, but the apparently independent descriptions of Benvenga and de Bruyn (1679) mention explicitly that only one jaw was then missing.

26 A. de la Motraye's Travels …, London, 1723, I, 196 ( = French ed., La Haye, 1727, I, 225): the Column had “three unfolded heads, which form a triangle on top of it” and is so depicted in Pl. XV; the context shows that this description was written in 1699. Frick and Ebersolt noticed this passage, but overlooked the later one (see next note).

27 op. cit., I, 205–6 (= French ed., I, 278). This passage was first noted by Bourquelot, who appreciated its importance.

28 To judge from its position as shown in Pl. XV, this must have been the Palace of Ibrāhīm Pasha.

29 de Tournefort J. Pitton, Relation d'un voyage du Levant, Paris, 1717, I, 511–2 ( = English tr., 1741, II, 196): “la colonne fut renversée et les têtes des deux autres [serpents] furent cassées en 1700 après la paix de Carlowitz. On ne sçait ce qu'elles sont devenues, mais le reste a été relevé, et se trouve entre les obélisques…’.

30 Istanbul University Library MS T 5983, new foliation 442r. This valuable reference is given in the unpublished thesis of Dengiz Neclâ, At Meydanı (1951), Ist. Un. Lib. tez no. 1972. For Silaḥdār and his works see Babinger F., Die Geschichtsschreiber der Osmanen und ihre Werke, Leipzig, Leiden, 1927, 253. The publication in fascicules of a simplified version of the Nuṣret-nāme (a most important text) has now been undertaken by Ismet Parmaksızoğlu (Istanbul, 1962– ).

31 By the conversion-tables Thursday, 8th Jum. I, 1112 = Thursday, 21st October, 1700, but as the Muslim day begins at sunset “Thursday night’ is the night Wednesday–Thursday.

32 e.g. (references which perplexed Frick and Ebersolt) Letter 41 of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (who was in Istanbul 1717–18); the anonymous Nouvelle description de la ville de Constantinople …, Paris, 1721, 29 (probably composed in the reign of Murād IV, see Iorga N., Les voyageurs français dans l'Orient européen, Paris, 1928, 95 f.); and de Saumery (in Istanbul 1720–24), Mémoires et aventures … (published under the pseudonym de Mirone M.), Liège, 1731, I, 105 (whose account is evidently copied from Spon's, of 1675).

33 An upper jaw found by Fossati in 1848 while digging near Aya Sofya (see Newton C. T., Travels and discoveries in the Levant, London, 1865, II, 26) is now in the Istanbul Museum of Antiquities (Devambez P., Grandes bronzes du Musée de Stamboul, Paris, 1937, 912 and Pl. 2; idem, Asariatika Müzesi tunç eserleri rehberi, Istanbul, 1937, 35 and Pl. 4).

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Anatolian Studies
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