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The Sultan's Organ
The diary of Thomas Dallam 1599

Put into modern English
John Mole




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Finally  published - 400 years late!

A fascinating glimpse of the clash of Western and Muslim cultures. Faithfully translated into modern English, unembellished and unedited, this illuminating historical source reads as if its Elizabethan author were alive now.

In 1598 merchants of the City of London paid for a Present to be given by Queen Elizabeth to Sultan Mehmet III of Turkey. In return the merchants hoped to secure trading concessions, and the Virgin Queen to turn the Sultan's military might on her Spanish enemies. 

The Present was a carved, painted and gilded cabinet about sixteen feet high, six feet wide and five feet deep. It contained a chiming clock with jewel-encrusted moving figures combined with an automatic organ, which could play tunes on its own for six hours - or by hand.

The Present was dismantled and dispatched on a merchant ship early in 1599. It took six months to get from London to Constantinople. With it went four craftsmen. They were Thomas Dallam the organ builder, John Harvey the engineer, Michael Watson the carpenter and Rowland Buckett the painter. Dallam was just twenty four years old.

On their odyssey they encountered storms, volcanoes, exotic animals, foreign food, good wine, pirates, brigands, Moors, Turks, Greeks, Jews, beautiful women, barbarous men, kings and pashas, armies on the march, janissaries, eunuchs, slaves, dwarves and finally the most powerful man in the known world, the Great Turk himself.

The Sultan was so impressed by this marvel of British technology that he offered Dallam a permanent job, with two virgins included in the remuneration package, and granted England vital trading concessions. 

Dallam was the first foreigner to record a glimpse into the Sultan's harem. And the first to make an overland crossing of mainland Greece. The Sultan's Organ is a wonderful traveler's tale that will entertain and inform travellers to Greece and Turkey and fans of Elizabethan history.


For those of us who have an insular and nationalistic vision of Elizabethan England formed by Shakespeare, school history, film and TV, Dallam's diary opens up the wider world that Elizabethans lived in. Many English people of all types and social class made their homes in the Mediterranean. Two Muslim Turkish interpreters worked with Dallam. One was born in Lancashire and the other in Cornwall.

We most often see Elizabethan England through the eyes of the aristocratic and wealthy. Thomas Dallam gives us the point of view of the skilled working man. He has not been to grammar school or university so does not distort the scenery with classical or biblical references and when he tries usually gets it wrong. He writes fluently and colloquially in an English not deformed by classical education. He writes what he sees and experiences as plainly as he can. Above all he has an open mind towards foreigners. His attitude to Turks and Muslims is conditioned by the racism and paranoia of his age but when he actually meets them he interacts without prejudice.

My purpose is to let Dallam describe his experiences without the impediments of spelling, vocabulary and grammar peculiar to Elizabethan English and without the distraction of footnotes and references. I have resisted the temptation to edit the boring or repetitive bits as they give a rhythm to the journey and a setting for the fascinating passages. I have translated the place names into their modern equivalents so you can follow the journey on an atlas or Google.

The Sultan was the most powerful ruler in the world. No foreigner, unless they were a concubine or a eunuch, ever came closer to him than Thomas Dallam. He played for the Sultan, touched him, received gold from his pocket. He is the first foreigner to peek inside the Sultan's harem and live to write about it. He is the first to describe an overland journey in Greece. For these alone his diary is worth reading. But mainly it is because he tells a great story.


The clock


Night alarm


We left our boats at Hora and went three miles to the town of Ganos . We could not go any further along the sea for it is so hilly and wooded, a veritable wilderness. So we spent the day and the night there on the lookout for our boats, but they did not come. We had a good look around the town and did not think much of the people's living conditions so our leader, Mr Glover, found a house for us to stay in near the shore. The town was on a hill and this house was on a cliff the height of St Paul's overlooking the sea. We had to go up a ladder onto a balcony built on the side of the house with a little door into a room with only bare boards to sleep on. For the whole time we were on the road we never took off our clothes or found a bed to sleep in. In this room there was not so much as a stool or a bench to sit on or anything else except a shelf with two jugs and two earthenware plates. There was no window and the only light came through a little hole in the stone wall.

We arrived at the town before noon and, after a quick dinner, passed the time by walking down to the edge of a wood beside the sea. It was abandoned and unexploited by the look of it. We saw many wild animals that we do not have in England. As it was getting dark and remembering how hard the beds were in our new hostelry, we found thick, soft vegetation at the edge of the wood. Every one of us gathered a bundle of it to sleep on. When night fell and we had had our supper every man chalked his place on the bare boards. Our janissary chose a board that was loose on the joists. We all kept our swords beside us. Two of us had muskets. We had been lying down for half an hour when those of us who had weed pillows were suddenly attacked by insects that bit much worse than fleas. We were glad to throw our pillows away and swept the house clean. But we could not get off to sleep. As we lay awake in that dark, uncomfortable house Mr Glover, who had lived a long time in those parts, told us about the strange animals he had seen. He talked a lot about adders, snakes and reptiles, the differences between them and how big they were.

We passed the time talking of such things until most of us fell asleep and those who could not lay quietly and said nothing so as not to disturb the others. All was quiet. Mr Bailey needed to go outside to relieve himself. The little door opened onto the balcony. The wind was blowing hard and made a lot of noise for the house was exposed to the sea and the elements. When he lay down Mr Bailey untied his garters. One of them was loose and trailed behind him and when he went onto the balcony the wind blew it round the other leg. It was a long silk garter and the strong wind wrapped it round his legs. Our talk of adders and snakes and reptiles was still in his mind. He imagined they swarmed around him and was convinced there was a snake round his legs. He shouted at the top of his voice "A snake! A snake! A snake!" He was so terrified he could not find the door to get back in and blundered about the balcony and made a great din. The rest of us inside

the house thought he said "Attacked! Attacked!" During the day we suspected they were plotting against us in the town so now we thought the house was surrounded with men determined to cut our throats.

There were fifteen of us in that little room. It was around midnight and very dark. We seized our swords and were about to attack each other for no reason. One man could not find his sword and tried to climb up the chimney, which collapsed on top of him. Another man woke up suddenly and lashed out with his sword and knocked down the shelf with the jugs and plates and smashed them. Others thought they were pulling the house down around our heads. Startled by the sudden noise, our janissary, who was supposed to be guarding us and protecting us from danger, and who also suspected the townspeople, took up the board he was lying on and slipped down into the cellar. In the midst of the panic Mr Bailey at last found the door. Seeing him come in Mr Glover said "Hey, what's going on, who's out there?" Mr Bailey, gasping with fear and shouting and struggling to get in the door, could not answer at first. At last he said "A snake! A snake attacked me!" As soon as he heard this Mr Glover's fears evaporated. He went outside and found Mr Bailey's garter blowing away in the wind.

We were astounded that something so trivial had caused such panic. Then Mr Glover had a roll call to see if anyone had been killed or wounded. There were sixteen of us with weapons drawn in that little room. We were all alive and with only some minor injuries. Then we discovered that our janissary was missing. He was probably embarrassed to tell us where he was. Mr Glover shouted for him several times until he answered from the cellar. There was no way he could get out. Mr Gonzale took up the board where he went down and lying on the floor just managed to reach his hand. They pulled him up without difficulty. When he jumped into the cellar he was very frightened and took off his top coat. He left it in the cellar and could not be persuaded to go down again to fetch it. It was horrible down there and it seemed he was scared of the same sort of thing that frightened Mr Bailey. His coat stayed there until morning when the owner of the house fetched it out.