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A true story from the Caucasus

“My grandfather walks down the long corridor to the room where Maria and the other two girls he has purchased are waiting to be viewed.” So begins this luminous gem of a novel about a Greek girl from the Caucasus, brought to Constantinople in the summer of 1909. In the streets outside, fear and rumour reign. The Committee for Union and Progress has sent Abdülhamid into exile and replaced him with the brother who is a sultan in name only.

The Empire is crumbling. But in the finely furnished drawing room where Maria awaits inspection, it is as if nothing has changed or ever will. The Ottoman grandee whose wife she might become arrives arm in arm with his first wife, Zekiye, who was herself born in the Caucasus. If Maria is chosen, it will be left to Zekiye to turn her into a lady who can ride horses, play musical instruments, recite Persian poetry and converse in elegant Turkish. Once the transformation is complete, Maria will have lost all purchase on the past.

Here, then, is the story that she will never tell. It has been left to her grandson to imagine what might have been. Peter Constantine spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Athens, where what little he knew of Maria from his father was at odds with stories Greeks told of Turks and their harems. Curiosity sent him into the archives whenever his schedule allowed. (He is the prize-winning translator of Thomas Mann, Isaac Babel, St Augustine, Solzhenitsyn, Rousseau, Machiavelli, Gogol and Tolstoy, among others.) Over 20 years he pieced together what was known of the Greeks of the Caucasus, the wars that scattered them, and the Ottoman system into which some of their sons and daughters were routinely absorbed.

Little surprise, then, that his novel is historically exact. Steeped as it is in the law and lore of its place of origin, it is also a triumph of the imagination. We meet Maria and her family as the internecine wars raging across the Caucasus overtake the village where their people have lived for millennia. Now they are running into the forest, taking only what they can carry, leaving behind the two-headed bird they know to have landed on the dome of their church on the same day that the Virgin Mary, fleeing Egypt with the infant Jesus, found safety in the same houses that are now in flames.

On their long trek without maps across rough terrain, they are joined by refugees from other villages. Together they cross over into Ottoman territory, there to take refuge in a pair of abandoned barracks. Though they have in mind to travel on to Greece, they have no idea where it is. And they lack the funds. It is an itinerant priest tending to Greek Orthodoxy’s farthest-flung communities who eventually suggests a way forward. An Ottoman gentleman has come to the mountains in search of brides for his master back in Constantinople. If the refugees can persuade him to buy just one of their daughters, there will be enough money for the rest to complete their journey.

If Maria acquiesces to being thus sacrificed, it is because she has always had a clear idea of her worth. A house with sons is a fertile field, as the saying goes. A house with daughters is a cemetery. The dowries they take with them into marriage can leave a family impoverished. Now, though, she has a chance to bring money into her family, if only she can hold her nerve.

As she and the itinerant priest ride down from the mountains with the Ottoman gentleman’s entourage, she thinks back to Black Melpo, the village healer and soothsayer for whom she’d once worked as an assistant. She’d advised Maria to “tread calmly” along the path that had been chosen for her, even if it was “a path of nettles and thorns”. But Black Melpo also taught her to read, before warning her to keep it secret, for knowledge in a girl was like gold, best hidden from “all eyes and used cleverly”. As she rides through pagan villages along roads overseen by bandits, and even more in the burning streets of Batum, she will need to draw upon her undeclared resources to a degree that her future owners must never know.

Is she grateful beyond words for her new life of luxury and fine manners? Does she let go of the past, with no thought for the mountains whose bards could bring ancient warriors galloping down from the clouds? When the old Ottoman order collapses some years hence, will her old acquaintance with adversity become an asset once again? On these matters Maria is silent. We can only hope that her grandson will continue to scour the archives for more clues.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 66
  • Don McCullin’s Wars and Peace

    The great photojournalist Don McCullin talks to Maureen Freely of the darkness and light that have marked his life and his searingly truthful work


  • The Treasured Shell

    Since the 1940s time has stood still under the pines and palms of this modest Art Deco villa on Istanbul’s Marmara shore. Berrin Torolsan meets Suna Erbil Demirağ, who has fiercely protected it as a tribute to her pioneering father, who carved out a thousand kilometres of Turkey’s railways before building this much-loved haven. Photographs by Monica Fritz


  • The Season Ticket

    In the dead of winter, the photographer and filmmaker Annette Louise Solakoğlu takes the long, slow train journey east from Ankara to the borderland where Turkey meets Armenia and Georgia, scanning the frozen vastness of the north Anatolian landscape


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Issue 66, December 2023 Turkey’s Centenary Issue
£15.00 / $19.00 / 624.63 TL
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