Episode 41: Caragea’s Plague

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If you’ve never heard of John Caragea and have no idea where Wallachia is, you’re certainly not alone. This look at the seamy underbelly of Eastern Europe in the 1810s may be obscure, but it’s no less fascinating than anything else covered on Second Decade. Wallachia, now part of the modern nation of Romania, was 200 years ago a minor province of the Ottoman Empire, and except as a breadbasket the Turkish sultans couldn’t be bothered to care much about it. That’s why rule of provinces like Wallachia ultimately fell to an elite class of Turkish-born Greeks, the Phanariotes, who outdid each other at sending the sultan lavish gifts to secure political offices. But in 1813 the new hospodar of Wallachia, John Caragea, immediately inherits a hot mess when people start dropping like flies from one of the most virulent outbreaks of the bubonic plague since the 14th century. Things get even worse when Caragea puts the city of Bucharest on lockdown, triggering a wave of lawlessness, violence and thievery that pushes Wallachian society to its limit.

In this unusual look at an event little-studied in the English-speaking world, Dr. Sean Munger pulls back the curtain on the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire and also paints a grim picture of what it was like to live in Eastern Europe two centuries ago. In this episode you’ll find out what a nosegay is, you’ll understand the utterly disgusting biology of bubonic plague, and you’ll appreciate why residents of modern Bucharest are a little wary when construction contractors start digging holes into the sites of plague pits. When this episode is over you’ll finally know something about the history of Romania that has nothing to do with vampire lore, Vlad the Impaler or the Communist era.

Fair warning: though not profane, this episode contains descriptions of medical conditions that some listeners may find disturbing.

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Additional Materials About This Episode

[Above] Ioan Caragea, about 1810. He was from Istanbul (Constantinople) and born of a noble family tracing their lineage back to pre-1453 Byzantium. Caragea and the Phanariotes demonstrate, through their appearance and customs as much as anything else, how intertwined the destinies and identities of Greeks and Turks were in the centuries after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

[Above] The interior of the Curtea Nowa, the palace in Bucharest where the hospodar traditionally ruled—until it burned down the night Caragea arrived in December 1812. This view shows a scene in the palace in which British diplomats were received, circa 1806. The palace was less than 40 years old at the time of its destruction and was not rebuilt.

[Above] Vlad III Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, in a depiction painted almost a century after his violent death in 1477. Vlad was a prince who resisted doing the bidding of his Ottoman overlords, and waged ruthless war on them and on his own people. By some estimates nearly 100,000 Wallachians and Turks were executed on his orders. Somewhat disturbingly, he has become a folk hero in modern Romania and the supposed site of his burial, in the monastery at Lake Snagov, is a pilgrimage place.

[Above] Mahmud II, the Turkish sultan who appointed Ioan Caragea. Mahmud ruled from 1808 to his death in 1839 and is generally regarded as one of the more progressive sultans of the late Ottoman period. Though demonized in Western Europe during the heavily romanticized Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, Mahmud instituted a number of administrative and military reforms that ultimately paved the way for the transition to the Turkish republic of the 20th century. He may be the subject of a future episode of Second Decade.

[Above] Controceni Monastery, then (1810s) on the outskirts of Bucharest, was where Caragea and his court fled during the plague. Later in the 19th century the old monastery became the nucleus of the palace of the King of Romania, and is today, after numerous remodels, the residence of the President of Romania.

[Above] An ordinary street in the neighborhood of Dudesti, Romania as it appears today. There is nothing here to indicate that there may be, in the words of the title of one of the sources for this episode, “40,000 doses of plague under Bucharest.”

Source: “Resilient and Mortal Scourge” by Mihai Ştirbu and Costin Anghel, web article (in Romanian).

Source: “40,000 Doses of Plague Under Bucharest” by Minhea Talau (in Romanian).

Source: “Scrisori către Vasile Alecsandri” by Ioan Ghica (in Romanian).

All images are believed in to be in the public domain.

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