A Hidden Treasure In Tarlabaşı: The Adam Mickiewicz Museum

September 2012, Time Out Istanbul

Tucked down a side street at the base of one of Tarlabaşı’s steep, swerving hills, the Adam Mickiewciz museum is well off the beaten path. Aside from a small plaque above the door, the building does not advertise its presence. Few locals know that they live just steps from the final residence of Poland’s greatest national poet.

The central neighborhood now known as Tarlabaşı lay on the fringes of the city when Mickiewicz came to Constantinople in September of 1855. He was propelled by a grand ambition: organizing a special Polish Legion that could fight alongside Turkish forces to liberate Poland, which had been under imperial Russian control since before his birth. When Mickiewicz arrived in the Ottoman Empire, two regiments consisting of Poles, Balkan Slavs, and Cossacks had already been formed. Mickiewicz visited the camps of two commanding officers there, Władysław Zamoyski and Michał Czajkowski, a.k.a. Sadık Paşa.

“There is good order in Sadık’s camp, yet at the same time eagerness and joy,” Mickiewicz wrote a friend while staying in the camp. “Their spirit and speech are far from simple soldiers’ roughness… I had a feeling as if being in a homeland, and were it not for a sudden weakness, I would have found it difficult to leave that camp.”

Mickewicz’s “sudden weakness” was, in fact, the disease that would kill him a few weeks later — most likely cholera. He died on November 25, 1855 in a wooden house on Tatlı Badem Sokak. When that building burnt down 15 years later, a Polish emigrant rebuilt it in brick and stone, exactly reproducing the original design. For several decades afterward, in addition to commemorating Mickiewicz, the building was a meeting point for Polish expatriates in Constantinople.

The four-storey museum is replete with information, photographs, and primary source documents pertaining to Mickiewicz’s life. Far from just a dreamy poet spinning sentimental verses, Mickiewicz led a life of passionate and capable political activism, of which his final effort to organize the Polish legion in Burgaz was only one example. “To speak about Mickiewicz means to speak about beauty, justice, truth,” wrote Victor Hugo in 1867.

Between 1817 and 1823, Mickiewicz and several peers at the University of Vilnius founded the Philomaths, a secret society devoted to liberating Poland-Lithuania from Russia by “promulgating enlightenment among the Polish nation”, “consolidating national feelings”, and “raising the spirit of public activity”. They read racy authors such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Goethe, as well as sentimentalist retellings of folk legends. It was during this time that Mickewicz wrote his first famous poems, ode-manifestos apotheosizing youth and bewailing social and political inaction: “Look down – where the eternal fog endarkens,/ area of indolence flooded by depths./ That’s Earth!”

In 1823, a Russian senator opened an investigation into the Philomaths, and all members were either jailed or exiled. After six years of exile, Mickiewicz obtained permission to leave Russia, and traveled throughout Europe, finally settling down in Rome, where he wrote Pan Tadeusz (Master Thaddeus), considered to be Poland’s national epic. The poem’s epilogue bewails the lot of Polish emigrés such as Mickiewicz, “who fled in times of pest/ and, timid souls, took refuge in the west!/ …Oh Mother Poland, thou that in this hour/ Art laid within the grave — what man hath power/ To speak of thee today?”

Mickiewicz moved to France in 1832, where he remained, his economic situation gradually worsening, until his trip to the Ottoman Empire in 1855. The Ottoman government was the only world power that refused to accept Russia’s annexation of Poland-Lithuania. The Ottomans’ support for Mickiewicz’s liberation movement was stoked by their own territorial conflicts with the Russian Empire, which grew more frequent over the course of the 19th century. “Today Turkey continues to be the only state who dares to officially claim that without helping Poland stand on her feet, there will be no end to the attacks and injustices of Moscow,” wrote Michał Czajkowski to Mickiewicz before they met in Burgaz.

Mickiewicz’s brief sojourn in Constantinople was vividly recorded by him and his assistant, Armand Lévy. Their observations of the city as it was 155 years ago provide a glimpse of the Ottoman capital in all its bewildering diversity:

“It is impossible to convey the variety of dress that one sees here — there is a Circassian in a long brown overcoat decorated with bullets, then there is a Persian in an Oriental dress and a black hat made of lamb leather; somewhere else you will see a Greek with an aquiline nose and a broad red hat,” wrote Lévy in a letter a few days after they arrived.

Mickiewicz’s poems, of course, are prominently featured throughout the museum, interspersed through exhibits on other famous Poles from the Romantic era, the Polish liberation movement in other countries, and Mickiewicz’s temporary crypt in the basement of the museum. A simple, somber room, the crypt exhibit contains Mickiewicz’s death mask and an original invitation to his funeral, signed by Lévy.

The Adam Mickiewicz museum receives few visitors, undoubtedly because so few know of its existence. But it is a fascinating testament, not only to Mickiewicz’s poetic genius but also to the diversity of 19th-century intellectual and political movements that the Ottoman Empire attracted and, albeit sometimes feebly, championed.

Open every day except Monday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., Serdar Ömer Caddesi, Tatlı Badem Sokak 23, Tarlabaşı, Beyoğlu, admission free

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