Voyage to Constantinople: The Story of an Eighteenth-Century Rare Book and the Pioneering Spanish Diplomatic Mission that Inspired It. An Illustrated Monograph By Benison Varon

Fairfax, VA: Quicksilver Printing, 2012. 107 pp. Print.

Reviewed by David Navarro.


The Ottoman Empire, its expansion throughout the Mediterranean, its corsair attacks, its wars and conflicts against Christian European nations, and its tolerant posture towards its non-Muslim communities, have fascinated writers, artists and readers of all eras. Among the European powers that fought against the Ottomans, Spain was without a doubt one of its major enemies: a Catholic stronghold with enclaves along the North African coast and a vast empire across the Atlantic, Spain spent most of the 16th and 17th centuries in a constant conflict against the Ottomans to secure control of the Mediterranean shores and stop the expansion of Islam. However, the 18th century developed as a period of commercial and trading expansion, which necessitated establishing good relations with former enemies. An example of this alliance between Spain and the Ottoman Empire is analyzed in Bension Varon's book, Voyage to Constantinople: The Story of an Eighteenth-Century Rare Book and the Pioneering Spanish Diplomatic Mission that Inspired It.1 Varon's work explores in depth the historical and economic motifs behind the configuration of a travel book written in 1784 in Spain and its further publication in 1790 under the title Viage á Constantinopla en el año de 1784. The 1784 manuscript describes the voyage of a squadron of four Spanish ships sent by King Charles III of Spain to Constantinople (today Istanbul) to celebrate the signing of a trade agreement between the Spanish and Ottoman authorities. By employing a clear, concise language and relying on good bibliographical references, Varon delivers to the reader a detailed monographic overview comparing this rare manuscript and the book that came out of it, contributing significantly to the study of both Spanish and Ottoman diplomatic relations. The two main objectives of the manuscript and its future book edition are accurately explained in the monograph. These are: the forging of new commercial and trading relations between Spain and the Ottomans; and a description of the cultural, religious and traditional aspects of the Ottoman Empire and its inhabitants. The monograph is divided into six chapters, organized chronologically and topically to provide the reader with a general overview of the original manuscript, followed by two appendices, which list the major libraries in which a copy of the 1790 book edition is found; they also include a list of historical characters who played a role in the drafting of the book. A major strength of Varon's contribution is the use of excellent bibliographical resources (Henry Kamen, Avigdor Levy et al.) to provide a concise historical context for the period in which the manuscript and book were conceived. In chapter 1, entitled "The Voyager," the author highlights the diplomatic policies pursued by both Spain and the Ottoman Empire during the 18th century, re-envisioning the Mediterranean Sea not as a Christian-versus-Muslim battlefield, but rather as a potential economic ground that would benefit these two former enemies. These efforts were consolidated in the Treaty of Friendship and Trade, ratified by both sides in 1784, allowing Spain to have diplomatic representation in Ottoman lands (22), a right that had been rejected in earlier attempts during the Capitulations of the previous two centuries.2

Chapter 2, "The Manuscript behind the Book," deals with the structure, purpose, content and authorship of the manuscript; the work is divided into two sections consisting of 45 folios, handwritten and accompanied by 47 drawings. It comprises 21 articles involving rights and obligations concerning trade, customs, taxes, and the treatment of merchants and prisoners among others. It also serves as a guidebook to approach Ottoman life, culture, traditions and government, in order to bring both countries closer. The first section of the manuscript describes a factual account of the journey, its challenges on reaching Constantinople, and the trip back to Spain. The second section focuses on the socio-political structure of the city and the Ottoman regime (Muslim religious practices, the harem, and the Janissary army), information that, as Varon wisely remarks, "had been lacking" until that point (32) in the Spanish-Ottoman relations.3 As for the authorship of the manuscript, Varon suggests that it has been ascribed to Gabriel de Aristizábal y Espinoza, the commander of the expedition, based on the information compiled by previous researchers. The manuscript was later commissioned to be transformed into a book in 1790, during the kingship of Charles IV, and supported by the First Secretary of State, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca, who entrusted the task to Joseph Moreno. However, "Moreno's name appeared only as signatory of the statement of transmission or dedication to the Count of Floridablanca" (36), leaving the authorship of the text unidentified. Varon argues that the book "might have been the product of more than one person, perhaps of a team of many [and] whereas the dedication is addressed and signed just by Moreno, this introduction seems to have been written from the mouth of many, so to speak, that is, with a 'we'." (36)

The differences between the manuscript and the 1790 edition of the book are analyzed in chapter 3, "The Book." Varon distinguishes four main transformations found between the manuscript of 1784 and the 1790 published account of the royal expedition: the coverage, the presentation, the substance, and the illustration inserted in both accounts. The book is three times the size of the former manuscript, adding a total of 393 pages, including two appendices. He also makes note of the authors' intentions to enhance the narrative and content of the book, covering Byzantine, Greek and Phoenician history, the customs and rituals of the Islamic faith, and Ottoman military orders; above all, though, its main contribution resides in the "comprehensive discussions of the prospects of trade between these two Mediterranean powers" (38). Since the manuscript was not written by a professional author, but was rather a product of Commander Gabriel de Aristizábal, Varon explains how the text lacked structure, coherence and sequential order (39). This represented a challenge for Joseph Moreno, who was in charge in organizing the narrative of the text edition. The 1790 book is divided into three parts preceded by an introduction, and completed with two appendices and 27 engravings. As Varon points out, while the manuscript's account of the voyage is largely descriptive, the book's approach is analytical (40), portraying the Turks and the Ottoman Empire in a favorable manner and perceiving the Ottomans not as long-term enemies as they had previously been, but as potential allies with whom Spain might build trust that would benefit both countries. He accurately remarks that the text "leaves no doubt that the authors' main objective was to erase the clichés about the Ottomans built in the West over centuries" (42). An example of this is the way the conquest of Byzantine Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453 is described; the book simply calls it the 'fall' of the city in "a cool, journalistic manner with no connotation of a disaster" (44). In regards to the illustrations, Varon highlights a reduction of the number of drawings inserted in the book, 25 versus the 47 which are found in the manuscript. The monograph includes 13 selected subjective illustrations as examples.

In chapter 4, "Special Topics," Varon focuses on the purpose of the 1790 book, target audience and authorship. Taking into account its content on theoretical and applied knowledge about business transactions, economics, transportation and other areas related to trade, the book shows a clear purpose of enhancing economic and mercantile relations between both countries. Due to the nature of the book, it was targeted to an audience made of government officials and the business community. This helps clarify the question of authorship. Varon indicates that its authors would have belonged to a group of the entrepreneurial class, and the text, based on its coverage of themes, would have been drafted "by the support of the Chamber of Commerce" (58). To support this argument, Varon makes use of his strong knowledge of history and external sources, ascribing the work to some important businessmen of the period, including, among others, Juan de Bouligny, the first ambassador of Spain to the Ottoman court, Juan Bautista Lostau, and Juan Soler y Sans (58-9). This section also brings up interesting information about the division between Muslims and non-Muslims in Ottoman society as perceived by the Spanish diplomats. Among the non-Muslim groups, Armenians, Greek and Jews - known as dhimmis or 'protected ones' (59) - the Jewish group was perhaps the most important for the Spanish mission, since it was without doubt the first encounter between the Spanish diplomats and the Sephardim since the expulsion of the Jewish community of Spain in 1492. However, the remarks about the Spanish Jews focus mainly on their role as businessmen. Varon argues that the descriptions of the Jewish lifestyle and customs in the book were never documented, because both sides avoided each other "out of a combination of hatred, fear, or mutual suspicion" (63). Spain still had anti-Jewish laws in force, as well as the Inquisition; therefore, an approach to the Sephardim would have been against the current Spanish law and norms.

In chapter 5, "The Impact of the Book," Varon comments on the influence and role the text had after its publication in 1790. By describing in general terms the historical context that shaped these two countries at the beginning of the 19th century (the independence of the Spanish-American colonies, the invasion of the country by Napoleon, and the loss of the Ottoman territories of Syria and Egypt to France), he analyzes the outcomes of the ratification of the Treaty of Friendship and Trade between Spain and the Ottomans. It is initiated with the arrival of the first Ottoman ambassador to Spain, Ahmet Vasif Efendi, on August 23, 1787 and the co-signing of the Treaty with Spanish Prime Minister Floridablanca (79). Based on the historical documents selected by Varon, the establishment of diplomatic relations between both countries was "on the whole, positive" and helped reduce the "old stereotype of ferocious barbarians sustained over the years" that Spaniards had held towards the Ottomans (78-9). Using his knowledge and expertise in finance and economics, Varon remarks how establishing commercial routes with the Ottoman Empire encouraged trade as a "feasible and desirable activity" (80). In regards to the commercial relations that arose from the Treaty, Varon describes in clear and analytical terms the development of the mercantile agreements and activities between both countries from the Royal Expedition in 1784 through current times.

The last chapter, "The Aftermath," compiles biographical information of the lives of the main historical figures that shaped and contributed to the creation and future release of the book. It also enumerates the libraries where some of the copies of the book can be found, both in the US (16 libraries) and elsewhere worldwide (another 16).

Bension Varon's monograph rescues a remarkable and educational contribution of a travel manuscript which, after its release as a book in 1790, served as written proof of the efforts of two nations to seek alliance and secure an economic domain in a period of constant changes and economic expansion. The book will introduce the reader to an accurate and fascinating view of the forging of diplomatic and trading relations of two world powers, Spain and the Ottoman Empire, shedding light on their ups and downs, their gains and losses, and the valuable socio-economic-cultural facets of a century that started to embrace new business and commercial opportunities.


Angell, James B. "The Turkish Capitulations." The American Historical Review 6 (1901):  254-59. Print.

Garcés, María Antonia. Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive´s Tale. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Print.

Haedo, Fray Diego de. Topografía e historia general de Argel. 3 vols. Madrid: Sociedad de bibliófilos españoles, 1927-29. Print.


1. Bension Varon was born into an observant Sephardic family in Turkey and has lived in the United States since 1960. He is an economist, with a long career at the World Bank in Washington, DC. He is the author of Cultures in Counterpoint: Memoirs of a Sephardic Turkish-American (Xlibris Corporation, 2009) and The Promise of the Present and the Shadow of the Past: The Journey of Barbara Frass Varon (Xlibris Corporation, 2011).

2. The Capitulations consisted of treaties, which were provided by the powerful sultans as concessions to the relatively small European merchant communities, so as to enable them to live within their own quarters under their own laws as administered by their own consuls. These decrees, which started in 1535 with Francis I of France, extended to other European powers, remaining active policies for 300 years. See James B. Angell, "The Turkish Capitulations" in The American Historical Review 6 (1901), 254.

3. A previous account of Ottoman life and customs, focusing on the region of Algiers, was compiled by Diego de Haedo and his Topographia e historia general de Argel, edited in Spain in 1609 (Garcés 70).

David Navarro is Lecturer in Spanish at the University of Dayton, Ohio, USA

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800