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Ch. 24: The Mysian Olympus


Journey Down the Valley--The Plague of Grasshoppers--A Defile--The Town of Taushanlü--The Camp of Famine--We leave the Rhyndacus--The Base of Olympus--Primeval Forests--The Guard-House--Scenery of the Summit--Forests of Beech--Saw-Mills--Descent of the Mountain--The View of Olympus--Morning--The Land of Harvest--Aineghiöl--A Showery Ride--The Plain of Brousa--The Structure of Olympus--We reach Brousa--The Tent is Furled.


"I looked yet farther and higher, and saw in the heavens a silvery cloud that stood fast, and still against the breeze; . . . . and so it was as a sign and a testimony--almost as a call from the neglected gods, that I now saw and acknowledged the snowy crown of the Mysian Olympus!"

~A. W. Kinglake.


Brousa, July 9, 1852.


From Daghje Küi, there were two roads to Taushanlü, but the people informed us that the one which led across the mountains was difficult to find, and almost impracticable. We therefore took the river road, which we found picturesque in the highest degree. The narrow dell of the Rhyndacus wound through a labyrinth of mountains, sometimes turning at sharp angles between craggy buttresses, covered with forests, and sometimes broadening out into a sweep of valley, where the villagers were working in companies among the grain and poppy fields. The banks of the stream were lined with oak, willow and sycamore, and forests of pine, descending from the mountains, frequently overhung the road. We met numbers of peasants, going to and from the fields, and once a company of some twenty women, who, on seeing us, clustered together like a flock of frightened sheep, and threw their mantles over their heads. They had curiosity enough, however, to peep at us as we went by, and I made them a salutation, which they returned, and then burst into a chorus of hearty laughter. All this region was ravaged by a plague of grasshoppers. The earth was black with them in many places, and our horses ploughed up a living spray, as they drove forward through the meadows. Every spear of grass was destroyed, and the wheat and rye fields were terribly cut up. We passed a large crag where myriads of starlings had built their nests, and every starling had a grasshopper in his mouth.

We crossed the river, in order to pass a narrow defile, by which it forces its way through the rocky heights of Dumanidj Dagh. Soon after passing the ridge, a broad and beautiful valley expanded before us. It was about ten miles in breadth, nearly level, and surrounded by picturesque ranges of wooded mountains. It was well cultivated, principally in rye and poppies, and more thickly populated than almost any part of Europe. The tinned tops of the minarets of Taushanlü shone over the top of a hill in front, and there was a large town nearly opposite, on the other bank of the Rhyndacus, and seven small villages scattered about in various directions. Most of the latter, however, were merely the winter habitations of the herdsmen, who are now living in tents on the mountain tops. All over the valley, the peasants were at work in the harvest-fields, cutting and binding grain, gathering opium from the poppies, or weeding the young tobacco. In the south, over the rim of the hills that shut in this pastoral solitude, rose the long blue summits of Urus Dagh. We rode into Taushanlü, which is a long town, filling up a hollow between two stony hills. The houses are all of stone, two stories high, with tiled roofs and chimneys, so that, but for the clapboarded and shingled minarets, it would answer for a North-German village.

The streets were nearly deserted, and even in the bazaars, which are of some extent, we found but few persons. Those few, however, showed a laudable curiosity with regard to us, clustering about us whenever we stopped, and staring at us with provoking pertinacity. We had some difficulty in procuring information concerning the road, the directions being so contradictory that we were as much in the dark as ever. We lost half an hour in wandering among the hills; and, after travelling four hours over piny uplands, without finding the village of Kara Köi, encamped on a dry plain, on the western bank of the river. There was not a spear of grass for the beasts, everything being eaten up by the grasshoppers, and there were no Turcomans near who could supply us with food. So we dined on hard bread and black coffee, and our forlorn beasts walked languidly about, cropping the dry stalks of weeds and the juiceless roots of the dead grass.

We crossed the river next morning, and took a road following its course, and shaded with willows and sycamores. The lofty, wooded ranges of the Mysian Olympus lay before us, and our day's work was to pass them. After passing the village of Kara Köi, we left the valley of the Rhyndacus, and commenced ascending one of the long, projecting spurs thrust out from the main chain of Olympus. At first we rode through thickets of scrubby cedar, but soon came to magnificent pine forests, that grew taller and sturdier the higher we clomb. A superb mountain landscape opened behind us. The valleys sank deeper and deeper, and at last disappeared behind the great ridges that heaved themselves out of the wilderness of smaller hills. All these ridges were covered with forests; and as we looked backwards out of the tremendous gulf up the sides of which we were climbing, the scenery was wholly wild and uncultivated. Our path hung on the imminent side of a chasm so steep that one slip might have been destruction to both horse and rider. Far below us, at the bottom of the chasm, roared an invisible torrent. The opposite side, vapory from its depth, rose like an immense wall against Heaven. The pines were even grander than those in the woods of Phrygia. Here they grew taller and more dense, hanging their cloudy boughs over the giddy depths, and clutching with desperate roots to the almost perpendicular sides of the gorges. In many places they were the primeval forests of Olympus, and the Hamadryads were not yet frightened from their haunts.

Thus, slowly toiling up through the sublime wilderness, breathing the cold, pure air of those lofty regions, we came at last to a little stream, slowly trickling down the bed of the gorge. It was shaded, not by the pine, but by the Northern beech, with its white trunk and close, confidential boughs, made for the talks of lovers and the meditations of poets. Here we stopped to breakfast, but there was nothing for the poor beasts to eat, and they waited for us droopingly, with their heads thrust together. While we sat there three camels descended to the stream, and after them a guard with a long gun. He was a well-made man, with a brown face, keen, black eye, and piratical air, and would have made a good hero of modern romance. Higher up we came to a guard house, on a little cleared space, surrounded by beech forests. It was a rough stone hut, with a white flag planted on a pole before it, and a miniature water-wheel, running a miniature saw at a most destructive rate, beside the door.

Continuing our way, we entered on a region such as I had no idea could be found in Asia. The mountains, from the bottoms of the gorges to their topmost summits, were covered with the most superb forests of beech I ever saw--masses of impenetrable foliage, of the most brilliant green, touched here and there by the darker top of a pine. Our road was through a deep, dark shade, and on either side, up and down, we saw but a cool, shadowy solitude, sprinkled with dots of emerald light, and redolent with the odor of damp earth, moss, and dead leaves. It was a forest, the counterpart of which could only be found in America--such primeval magnitude of growth, such wild luxuriance, such complete solitude and silence! Through the shafts of the pines we had caught glorious glimpses of the blue mountain world below us; but now the beech folded us in its arms, and whispered in our ears the legends of our Northern home. There, on the ridges of the Mysian Olympus, sacred to the bright gods of Grecian song, I found the inspiration of our darker and colder clime and age. "O gloriosi spiriti degli boschi!"

I could scarcely contain myself, from surprise and joy. François failed to find French adjectives sufficient for his admiration, and even our cheating katurgees were touched by the spirit of the scene. On either side, whenever a glimpse could be had through the boughs, we looked upon leaning walls of trees, whose tall, rounded tops basked in the sunshine, while their bases were wrapped in the shadows cast by themselves. Thus, folded over each other like scales, or feathers on a falcon's wing, they clad the mountain. The trees were taller, and had a darker and more glossy leaf than the American beech. By and by patches of blue shone between the boughs before us, a sign that the summit was near, and before one o'clock we stood upon the narrow ridge forming the crest of the mountain. Here, although we were between five and six thousand feet above the sea, the woods of beech were a hundred feet in height, and shut out all view. On the northern side the forest scenery is even grander than on the southern. The beeches are magnificent trees, straight as an arrow, and from a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet in height. Only now and then could we get any view beyond the shadowy depths sinking below us, and then it was only to see similar mountain ranges, buried in foliage, and rolling far behind each other into the distance. Twice, in the depth of the gorge, we saw a saw-mill, turned by the snow-cold torrents. Piles of pine and beechen boards were heaped around them, and the sawyers were busily plying their lonely business. The axe of the woodman echoed but rarely through the gulfs, though many large trees lay felled by the roadside. The rock, which occasionally cropped out of the soil, was white marble, and there was a shining precipice of it, three hundred feet high, on the opposite side of the gorge.

After four hours of steady descent, during the last hour of which we passed into a forest entirely of oaks, we reached the first terrace at the base of the mountain. Here, as I was riding in advance of the caravan, I met a company of Turkish officers, who saluted me with an inclination of the most profound reverence. I replied with due Oriental gravity, which seemed to justify their respect, for when they met François, who is everywhere looked upon as a Turkish janissary, they asked: "Is not your master a Shekh el-Islàm?" "You are right: he is," answered the unscrupulous Greek. A Shekh el-Islàm is a sort of high-priest, corresponding in dignity to a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. It is rather singular that I am generally taken for a Secretary of some kind, or a Moslem priest, while my companion, who, by this time, has assumed the Oriental expression, is supposed to be either medical or military.

We had no sooner left the forests and entered the copsewood which followed, than the blue bulk, of Olympus suddenly appeared in the west, towering far into the sky. It is a magnificent mountain, with a broad though broken summit, streaked with snow. Before us, stretching away almost to his base, lay a grand mountain slope, covered with orchards and golden harvest-fields. Through lanes of hawthorn and chestnut trees in blossom, which were overgrown with snowy clematis and made a shady roof above our heads, we reached the little village of Orta Köi, and encamped in a grove of pear-trees. There was grass for our beasts, who were on the brink of starvation, and fowls and cucumbers for ourselves, who had been limited to bread and coffee for two days. But as one necessity was restored, another disappeared. We had smoked the last of our delicious Aleppo tobacco, and that which the villagers gave us was of very inferior quality. Nevertheless, the pipe which we smoked with them in the twilight, beside the marble fountain, promoted that peace of mind which is the sweetest preparative of slumber.

François was determined to finish our journey to-day. He had a presentiment that we should reach Brousa, although I expected nothing of the kind. He called us long before the lovely pastoral valley in which we lay had a suspicion of the sun, but just in time to see the first rays strike the high head of Olympus. The long lines of snow blushed with an opaline radiance against the dark-blue of the morning sky, and all the forests and fields below lay still, and cool, and dewy, lapped in dreams yet unrecalled by the fading moon. I bathed my face in the cold well that perpetually poured over its full brim, drank the coffee which François had already prepared, sprang into the saddle, and began the last day of our long pilgrimage. The tent was folded, alas! for the last time; and now farewell to the freedom of our wandering life! Shall I ever feel it again?

The dew glistened on the chestnuts and the walnuts, on the wild grape-vines and wild roses, that shaded our road, as we followed the course of an Olympian stream through a charming dell, into the great plain below. Everywhere the same bountiful soil, the same superb orchards, the same ripe fields of wheat and barley, and silver rye. The peasants were at work, men and women, cutting the grain with rude scythes, binding it into sheaves, and stacking it in the fields. As we rode over the plain, the boys came running out to us with handfuls of grain, saluting us from afar, bidding us welcome as pilgrims, wishing us as many years of prosperity as there were kernels in their sheaves, and kissing the hands that gave them the harvest-toll. The whole landscape had an air of plenty, peace, and contentment. The people all greeted us cordially; and once a Mevlevi Dervish and a stately Turk, riding in company, saluted me so respectfully, stopping to speak with me, that I quite regretted being obliged to assume an air of dignified reserve, and ride away from them.

Ere long, we saw the two white minarets of Aineghiöl, above the line of orchards in front of us, and, in three hours after starting, reached the place. It is a small town, not particularly clean, but with brisk-looking bazaars. In one of the houses, I saw half-a-dozen pairs of superb antlers, the spoils of Olympian stags. The bazaar is covered with a trellised roof, overgrown with grape-vines, which hang enormous bunches of young grapes over the shop-boards. We were cheered by the news that Brousa was only eight hours distant, and I now began to hope that we might reach it. We jogged on as fast as we could urge our weary horses, passed another belt of orchard land, paid more harvest-tolls to the reapers, and commenced ascending a chain of low hills which divides the plain of Aineghiöl from that of Brousa.

At a fountain called the "mid-day konnàk" we met some travellers coming from Brousa, who informed us that we could get there by the time of asser prayer. Rounding the north-eastern base of Olympus, we now saw before us the long headland which forms his south-western extremity. A storm was arising from the sea of Marmora, and heavy white clouds settled on the topmost summits of the mountain. The wind began to blow fresh and cool, and when we had reached a height overlooking the deep valley, in the bottom of which lies the picturesque village of Ak-su, there were long showery lines coming up from the sea, and a filmy sheet of gray rain descended between us and Olympus, throwing his vast bulk far into the background. At Ak-su, the first shower met us, pouring so fast and thick that we were obliged to put on our capotes, and halt under a walnut-tree for shelter. But it soon passed over, laying the dust, for the time, and making the air sweet and cool.

We pushed forward over heights covered with young forests of oak, which are protected by the government, in order that they may furnish ship-timber. On the right, we looked down into magnificent valleys, opening towards the west into the the plain of Brousa; but when, in the middle of the afternoon, we reached the last height, and saw the great plain itself, the climax was attained. It was the crown of all that we had yet seen. This superb plain or valley, thirty miles long, by five in breadth, spread away to the westward, between the mighty mass of Olympus on the one side, and a range of lofty mountains on the other, the sides of which presented a charming mixture of forest and cultivated land. Olympus, covered with woods of beech and oak, towered to the clouds that concealed his snowy head; and far in advance, under the last cape he threw out towards the sea, the hundred minarets of Brousa stretched in a white and glittering line, like the masts of a navy, whose hulls were buried in the leafy sea. No words can describe the beauty of the valley, the blending of the richest cultivation with the wildest natural luxuriance. Here were gardens and orchards; there groves of superb chestnut-trees in blossom; here, fields of golden grain or green pasture-land; there, Arcadian thickets overgrown with clematis and wild rose; here, lofty poplars growing beside the streams; there, spiry cypresses looking down from the slopes: and all blended in one whole, so rich, so grand, so gorgeous, that I scarcely breathed when it first burst upon me.

And now we descended to its level, and rode westward along the base of Olympus, grandest of Asian mountains. This after-storm view, although his head was shrouded, was sublime. His base is a vast sloping terrace, leagues in length, resembling the nights of steps by which the ancient temples were approached. From this foundation rise four mighty pyramids, two thousand feet in height, and completely mantled with forests. They are very nearly regular in their form and size, and are flanked to the east and west by headlands, or abutments, the slopes of which are longer and more gradual, as if to strengthen the great structure. Piled upon the four pyramids are others nearly as large, above whose green pinnacles appear still other and higher ones, bare and bleak, and clustering thickly together, to uphold the great central dome of snow. Between the bases of the lowest, the streams which drain the gorges of the mountain issue forth, cutting their way through the foundation terrace, and widening their beds downwards to the plain, like the throats of bugles, where, in winter rains, they pour forth the hoarse, grand monotone of their Olympian music. These broad beds are now dry and stony tracts, dotted all over with clumps of dwarfed sycamores and threaded by the summer streams, shrunken in bulk, but still swift, cold, and clear as ever.

We reached the city before night, and François is glad to find his presentiment fulfilled. We have safely passed through the untravelled heart of Asia Minor, and are now almost in sight of Europe. The camp-fire is extinguished; the tent is furled. We are no longer happy nomads, masquerading in Moslem garb. We shall soon become prosaic Christians, and meekly hold out our wrists for the handcuffs of Civilization. Ah, prate as we will of the progress of the race, we are but forging additional fetters, unless we preserve that healthy physical development, those pure pleasures of mere animal existence, which are now only to be found among our semi-barbaric brethren. Our progress is nervous, when it should be muscular.


Bayard Taylor