The Face of Far Away Moses
People who have come to visit our research center in the beautiful Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress may have noticed the interesting faces that adorn its exterior. Known as the “ethnological heads” or “keystone heads,” the faces were intended to demonstrate the different characteristics of the races of humankind. This idea was popular in the nineteenth century, but has since been abandoned by science, along with the concept of “race” itself. Interestingly, though, at least some of the heads are based on real people, living individuals who had fascinating stories. One of the most compelling is “Far Away Moses,” a Sephardic Jew from Constantinople, whose spot on the Jefferson Building is not so far away from the Folklife research center. 
The story of how the faces of real people ended up on the outside of the Jefferson Building is told by John J. Wayne in a 1991-1992 series of articles in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, which you can find here, here, and here. It’s a long story, but the short version is that there was a significant overlap among the artists and ethnologists who worked on the Jefferson Building, those who created sculptures for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and those who worked for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In particular, Otis T. Mason, the Smithsonian’s curator in ethnology, worked for all three projects. Through this overlap, real people who were known and photographed by ethnologists were used as models for sculptures at both the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, and also in many cases invited to the Exposition, where Americans could meet them in person. All this was true of Far Away Moses, but Moses’s story is particularly fascinating, because he was already a celebrity by the time the Jefferson Building was built. Moreover, his fame was spread by no less an American icon than Mark Twain.
Twain met Moses in 1867, during the travels that resulted in the humorous travelogue The Innocents Abroad. At the time, Far Away Moses was a professional interpreter and guide in Constantinople, a position often referred to by the anglicized Semitic word dragoman. Twain’s account of Far Away Moses was neither the first nor the most detailed description of his subject, but it was certainly the most influential. His entire passage on Moses ran thus:
We left a dozen passengers in Constantinople, and sailed through the beautiful Bosporus and far up into the Black Sea. We left them in the clutches of the celebrated Turkish guide, ‘FAR-AWAY MOSES,” who will seduce them into buying a ship-load of ottar of roses, splendid Turkish vestments, and all manner of curious things they can never have any use for.
Murray’s invaluable guide-books have mentioned ‘Far-away Moses’ name, and he is a made man. He rejoices daily in the fact that he is a recognized celebrity. However, we can not alter our established customs to please the whims of guides; we can not show partialities this late in the day. Therefore, ignoring this fellow’s brilliant fame, and ignoring the fanciful name he takes such pride in, we called him Ferguson, just as we had done with all other guides. It has kept him in a state of smothered exasperation all the time. Yet we meant him no harm. After he has gotten himself up regardless of expense, in showy, baggy trowsers, yellow, pointed slippers, fiery fez, silken jacket of blue, voluminous waist-sash of fancy Persian stuff filled with a battery of silver-mounted horse-pistols, and has strapped on his terrible scimitar, he considers it an unspeakable humiliation to be called Ferguson. It can not be helped. All guides are Fergusons to us. We can not master their dreadful foreign names.
Twain’s joke here, among others, is that he’s NOT refusing to use Moses’s “dreadful foreign name,” but rather refusing to use an English-language moniker presumably bestowed on him by another tourist. This makes his absurd solution of calling Moses “Ferguson” all the more obnoxious. Twain was clearly writing for literary effect, not accuracy. He was more concerned with developing his narrator’s character as an “ugly American” than with describing Moses in any detail, so we can hope that he did not really treat Moses as badly as he claimed.
Twain published this passage alongside an etching of Moses based on a photographic carte-de-visite. This allowed Moses to carry around a copy of Twain’s chapter to prove to other English-speakers that he was the real Far Away Moses, the genuine article as described by the famous American author. We know that he did this; Wayne’s article points out that his request for copies of the book was passed on by Twain to his publisher and answered in due course, and other people who met Moses described him using Twain’s book as a kind of ID card in later years.
Another portrait of Far Away Moses was created by the famous caricaturist Thomas Nast for James Eglinton Montgomery’s book Our Admiral’s Flag Abroad, also published in 1869. The fact that two such famous portraits of Moses were available to Mason and to the sculptors working on the Jefferson Building helps explain how he came to adorn our building.
The Facts of Far Away Moses
For a folklorist, Far Away Moses is especially interesting for the way in which his story incorporates elements of folklore. We’ll explore those elements below, but first it may be useful to give a brief summary of the facts of his life. For someone who left behind such numerous references, verifiable facts such as dates of birth and death, spouse’s name, and number of children are very hard to come by, especially since we don’t know his real name. Yet there are some general things we can say. 
In 1863, he made his first known appearance in western writings , when a medical doctor, J. N. Radcliffe, attempting to elicit memories of Florence Nightingale among residents of Constantinople, found that no one remembered the preeminent nurse. “They recalled vaguely the fact of the women nurses,” he wrote, “but of the chiefest of these not the utmost efforts of that best of dragomen in the ‘City of the Sultan,’ ‘Far-away Moses’ could recall a remembrance.” In 1867, exploits of Far Away Moses were recounted in a humorous “Letter from Abroad,” published at first anonymously in a newspaper  but later by John Franklin Swift as a chapter in his Going to Jericho. As it happened, Mark Twain was traveling on the same ship as Swift, and met Far Away Moses at the same time as his fellow writer. In the same period, Moses acted as a guide to Admiral Farragut and his staff, and was thus in Montgomery’s book as well. According to Twain, Moses had by then been recommended as an honest dragoman by John Murray, a publisher of travel guides . In 1869, Twain’s own account of Far Away Moses was published, and the tour guide’s fame grew exponentially.
At about this time, the Jewish merchant Elia Souhami and his Muslim partner, Sadullah Bey, formed a company in the Ottoman capital to sell traditional “oriental” goods in the main bazaar of Istanbul. To capitalize on Moses’s fame, they made him a manager of their shop, and called the business “Far Away Moses and Company.” In the 1870s, Moses traveled to establish branches of the shop, initially in Cairo and other parts of the Empire. By 1876, he had traveled to the United States, and spent much of the next decade establishing Far Away Moses shops in such cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
In the 1880s Far Away Moses returned to Turkey, where he continued to manage his shop in the Bazaar and to be a celebrity among English-speaking tourists, especially Americans. He seems to have continued traveling, and it also appears that other members of his family joined the business; in 1885, evidence indicates that his son ran the Souhami-Sadullah booth in the Turkish Bazaar at the World’s Fair in Antwerp .
In the early 1890s, preparations were underway for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago while the Library of Congress’s Jefferson building was being built. Apparently Otis Mason recommended photos of Far Away Moses as the model for the Semitic head on the building at that time. Although by then Moses was at least 60 years old, the famous engravings of him from Twain’s and Eglinton’s books showed him in his 30s, and the sculptors seem to have opted for an age somewhere between. Far Away Moses returned to the United States in 1892 or 1893 to set up for the Exposition. He was widely regarded as one of the celebrities of the “Midway Plaisance,” the main thoroughfare of the Exposition, and was featured in numerous books, articles, and photographs published of the fair. He returned home to Istanbul after the Expo, and resumed his life as a merchant and guide, eventually disappearing from travelers’ accounts.
As a real person who lived through real history, Far Away Moses reflected many of the trends and developments of his lifetime, including the increasing globalization of markets, mobility of peoples, the use of individuals as corporate brands, and “Orientalism” on the part of the Western intelligentsia. Several scholars have looked into his life; see the bibliography below for more details.
The Folklore of Far Away Moses (Part 1)
The various accounts of Moses created by travelers suggest that stories about him spread widely by word of mouth. In particular, John Franklin Swift’s account mentions the phenomenon of oral folk stories about Far Away Moses, spread by tourists throughout the Ottoman Empire:
While we are yet in the land of Egypt, vague and indistinct rumors floated down the waters of the great sea and up the sluggish current of the Nile, about the inestimable qualities of one Far-away-Moses, who resided in Constantinople. This phenomenon, so the report went, was honest to a degree never before known in the East. And many were the indistinct stories we heard of amber mouthpieces, of embroidered slippers, or of Persian carpets, refused absolutely to the Giaour in person with money in hand, at one sum, but brought in triumphantly at a later day by the ingenuous Moses, who had in the mean time been dispatched on a secret mission to the bazaar for that purpose, at one-half, or even one-fourth, of the money before contemptuously declined. It was said that the way for the traveler to do was to go to the bazaar and select the goods desired, and making a careful examination, remembering the marks, and asking the price, to return to his hotel and send Far-away-Moses in quest of the article. That he had never been known to fail in reappearing in a few hours with the goods at a price which was but a small part of that demanded by the merchant. As we worked our way slowly along the Syrian coast, approaching gradually the scene of Moses’s operations, his fame grew more distinct and decisive. That which had been whispered at Cairo was muttered at Damascus, and statements which at Beyrout were ventured with mysterious reluctance, were boldly and defiantly proclaimed at Smyrna.
Stories circulating in oral tradition resulted in some tales showing up in multiple variants, one of the hallmarks of both folklore and popular culture . The stories Swift encountered as he approached the Empire’s capital often mentioned his abilities as a negotiator in bazaar shopping. The latter skill was one of the necessary functions of the Ottoman guides of the time, and helps explain how Moses ultimately graduated from tour guide to successful merchant and manager: the necessary commercial skills were always among his best known abilities. But even more than this, Moses had a reputation for honesty, which was at the heart of many of the stories about him. The folklorist Linda Dégh (2001) famously pointed out that legends do not only serve to express belief but to debate it. This is exactly what we find in these stories, and the main point to be debated was Far Away Moses’s honesty.
It’s not surprising that Far Away Moses was so widely famed for honesty. The Murray guidebook to Constantinople, which Twain claimed was the source of Moses’s fame, contained only one sentence about him: “’Far away Moses,’ to be heard of at the Liverpool Steam-packet Office, Perchembi Bazaar, Galata, is an intelligent and honest dragoman.” Within the same two years that Twain and Murray mentioned him, Moses had several other people comment on his honesty. James Eglinton Montgomery, a Naval officer of Admiral David Farragut’s staff, referred to him as “’Far Away Moses,’ a guide and dragoman known to all modern travellers, and decidedly the most trusty man of his species in that city.” Montgomery recounted how Moses not only helped the Admiral and his staff navigate the bazaar, but also set up his own little bazaar on the deck of the USS Franklin during an official visit of the flagship to Istanbul.
A newspaper writer who signed only E.S.P. wrote another account of Moses’s trustworthiness in 1871:
Yesterday I met the celebrated Jew, ‘Faraway Moses,’ of whom Mark Twain writes in his ‘Innocents Abroad.’ Moses is a Constantinople Jew in the Bazaar, and known as the most honest merchant in the East. He speaks English thoroughly, and is highly esteemed by travelers, bearing in his pocket the warmest testimonials to his integrity; amongst others, one from the late Admiral Farragut. Moses has come to Cairo for the first time to establish a shop in the Bazaar. A friend of mine told me that he was in the Bazaar the other day, making some purchases. Seeing something he desired especially, he inquired the price. As soon as he was told, some one behind him said in English, ‘You are being cheated, sir.’ My friend turned around and said. ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am Faraway Moses, from Constantinople,’ was the reply. ‘Here,’ said my friend, pulling out his pocket- book, ‘if you are Faraway Moses, go into the Bazaar with this money, buy me so-and-so, and bring the articles, with the change, to Shepherd’s Hotel;’ and my friend turned on his heel and walked away.’ Moses executed the commission at about one-third the price my friend would have been obliged to pay himself.
The wealthy traveler Harry Harewood Leech In Letters of a Sentimental Idler, similarly recounted how Moses saved him from being cheated by “rascally Turks,” and then expressed his surprise at the fairness of Moses’s terms:
Moses. — ‘Listen. I will serve you while you are here ; buy for you in Stamboul, and give you the benefit of my commissions: give me nothing until you go away, and, if you are satisfied, pay me.’
This was fair, certainly, and here I will record that a more trustworthy, intelligent, and faithful servant I never had in the Orient than ‘Far-away’ Moses.
Leech further praises Moses’s good service in the bazaars, in dealing with customs officials, and in taking care of all manner of daily issues encountered by travelers, summing it all up with the blessing, “peace and good fortune be with thee, ‘Far-away’ Moses!”
All these accounts, like those that floated up the Nile to Swift, emphasized Moses’s honesty and his commercial acumen. Several of them made it clear that if you simply gave Moses your money and sent him to the bazaar, you would do much better than if you went yourself, in the process suggesting that he was completely trustworthy with other people’s money. (Imagine giving your cash to a stranger in a foreign country, and you can see how trustworthy many people found the extraordinary Moses!)
On the other hand, Moses’s integrity was also impugned sometimes, especially in later years when he was known more as a merchant than a guide. Antisemitism and anti-Eastern xenophobia certainly played some part in this, as did people’s general mistrust of merchants. In his Moss Gathered by a Rolling Stone, Richard Ferguson, while admitting that the ‘Jew broker’ was (mostly) honest, did not go as far as Moses’ admirers:
Travellers, almost invariably, are victimized by their dragoman who, of course, gets a percentage on their purchases, and has his favourite tradesmen, or they fall into the hands of Jew brokers, of whom the most famous, much patronized by Americans, is Far-Away-Moses of Constantinople and Cairo, a man as honest as an Eastern can be expected to be.
A special advertising section paid for by Wanamaker’s, the direct competitor of Far Away Moses’s Philadelphia store , took this anti-Eastern (and perhaps antisemitic) attitude farther:
The Humbug of Far-away Moses has often been punctured and yet foreign travelers in Turkey are still swindled in Constantinople. Devious and crafty Armenian ways are grafted upon American trading in Oriental Embroideries and Rugs. Childlike and bland, dignified and solemn, mysterious and mystical are the manners; artful and subtle the methods by which the credulous are cajoled into purchasing ‘bargains’ that pay fabulous profits.
In 1885 the novelist Leigh Younge wrote an account of her encounter with the famous merchant. While not expressing antisemitism, her distrust of Moses has no other obvious source:
In the bazar we found Far Away Moses, who produced a worn, tattered copy of The Innocents Abroad, and pointed with pride to his picture there, then insisted, because we were Americans, he had the sole right to sell us wares, and cheat us, too, though he did not say so, only acted it. He presented me with a cup of the thick, black, groundy coffee that every one uses here, and persuaded me to buy table covers, scarfs, etc., at about half the ‘fixed’ prices he first asked, and then, I doubt not, laughed in his sleeve to think how he had over-reached me.
What we see here is a classic characteristic of traditional stories, especially legends but also personal experience narratives: the same details can be recounted by different tellers, but each is free to interpret them differently. Several people found that Moses was able to get them goods at half price; for some, these bargains seemed genuine, while others suspected they could have done better without him. In other words, Moses’s actions were the same, but some found him extraordinarily honest and others found him to be a cheat.
To return to the account where we started, John Franklin Swift took a more complex approach to Moses. His writing was more tall tale than legend, and his chapter on Far Away Moses was a classic tall tale “sketch.” One important characteristic of this genre was described by Carolyn Brown (1987):
The narrator’s response to people and places is of greater interest than the people and places are in themselves. Ultimately, the sketch reveals as much about the narrator about his subject.
This is certainly true of Swift’s account, which shows the complexity of the question so many others grappled with: was Far Away Moses really honest? Take their experience with his advice in shopping:
When we would start for a particular bazaar we would so inform Moses. When we drew near the place he would stop and warn us. ‘Now this fellow with whom you are going to trade is a rogue. He will ask you just double what the article is worth. You must therefore offer him but one-half what he asks.’ This plan we adopted for a time, but soon found it to work badly. True, we would get the goods at the price offered, but we found that, instead of double, the fellow had demanded from six to even ten times what it was worth. […] The General would at times come puffing back to us…the sweat trickling down his sides. He had bought an amber mouthpiece or a pair of slippers at a price so low that it must be the same as a present. In two minutes Mr. C. or the Captain would appear from an opposite direction…in a like condition, and bearing aloft similar articles, purchased at half the sum paid by the General. Then they would consult and march together back to the merchant, who would offer them still more of the same at a quarter. […] But Moses was never to blame. He always told us to be on our guard. That the merchants were but little better than thieves, and not to give them the prices they would ask. We must offer them, he said, just half what they asked.
The narrator seems unwilling to believe that Moses may be setting them up to overpay and then taking a cut of the profits, but the possibility is clear to the reader. This is par for the course in the tall tale realm: the narrator is typically certain of the facts he is recounting, but they seem farfetched to the listener. When the “fact” under discussion is Moses’s sterling reputation, the tall tale has the effect of showing us that previous accounts, while quite likely more accurate, also represented only one side of the story.
Swift brilliantly leaves the question of Moses’s honesty open to the bitter end: at the close of his story, Moses accompanies the narrator and his party back to their ship, at which point they realize that they have forgotten to buy tobacco. They quickly give Moses money and send him back to shore for it. An hour passes, and Moses does not return. Eventually, the ship’s captain insists on leaving without him, much to the General’s dismay (and the narrator’s as well):
The General rushed to the stern, in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of poor Moses, in order to assure him, by a parting wave of the hand, that we had not lost confidence in his integrity. He was nowhere to be seen. It was evident that he had been detained by his envious fellow dragomans against his will, probably in order to make us think him a dishonest fellow. But if this was their object, it most signally failed, for our good opinion of young Moses remains unshaken to this day.
Once again, the characters within the story are not in doubt, but the readers are. Had Moses run Far Away with the money, or was he on his way back with the goods, heroically sailing his little caïque on the swift tide? Sadly, we’ll never know.
What we do know is that the details of many travelers’ stories about Far Away Moses were similar to one another and also similar to oral stories that reportedly drifted with travelers to Damascus and Cairo. This suggests that, whatever conclusion we may draw in Swift’s tall tale realm, in the real world of nineteenth century travelers, the honesty of Far Away Moses was, quite literally, legendary.
Check back for a second post on Far Away Moses and folklore in a few weeks!
- Different writers have chosen different conventions for spelling, hyphenating, and capitalizing Far Away Moses’s name. I have opted for ‘Far Away Moses,’ but I have not attempted to standardize the name within quotations from other writers.
- The information on Far Away Moses’s life comes from a multitude of sources, most of which are linked above or in part 2 of this post. Previous syntheses are also available, by John J. Wayne and Julia Phillips Cohen; Cohen’s article is not freely available online, but find full bibliographic information below. I would like to clear up a fallacy unwittingly created by Wayne, since like me he was writing for the Library of Congress. In his 1992 article, “Constantinople to Chicago: In the Footsteps of Far-Away Moses,” Wayne interpreted the word ‘mosyo,’ written in Ottoman script before the name of one of Far Away Moses’s associates, as an approximation of ‘Moses.’ He therefore identified Far Away Moses as Harry Mandil, an American citizen with business interests in Constantinople. But my research indicates that Mandil was far too young to have been Far Away Moses, and Julia Phillips Cohen has further pointed out that ‘mosyo’ was a common phonetic spelling of ‘monsieur,’ indicating that Mandil was a foreign gentleman, not that his alias was Moses! This mistaken identification of Moses with Mandil caused Wayne to suggest that Far Away Moses was a partner of the firm where he was most likely just an employee, and that he was American-born. These misconceptions have been accepted by other scholars, including folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, but more recently refuted by Cohen.
- It is not impossible that Far Away Moses was mentioned earlier in a Turkish source; however, his fame seems to have been greatest among English-speakers, so this may be the first reference to him in print.
- “Letters from Abroad,” Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California), Saturday, September 21, 1867
- I can find no mention of Far Away Moses until the 1871 revision of Murray’s guide to Constantinople. However, Twain seems to have known about a reference by 1867, and certainly knew of it by 1869, so there must have been an earlier Murray source.
- According to Julia Phillips Cohen, the firm won an award for their booth there. Lee Meriwether encountered Moses’s son there.
- We normally think of this as an attribute of folklore, but popular culture too reuses plots extensively: think of all the sitcom episodes based on Cyrano de Bergerac, to choose just one example.
- The Wanamaker’s ad ran in the Philadelphia Times on April 6, 1892.
Note: many books and articles are linked within the text. The following is a list of those sources which are not freely available online. Links are to their catalog records in the LC online Catalog. Some items may be available by subscription.
Brown, Carolyn S. 1987. The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Cohen, Julia Phillips. 2016. “The East as a Career: Far Away Moses & Company in the Marketplace of Empires.” Jewish Social Studies n.s. 21, no. 2 (Winter 2016) 35-77.
Dégh, Linda. 2001. Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1997. “A Place in the World: Jews and the Holy Land at World’s Fairs” in Encounters with the “Holy Land” : place, past and future in American Jewish culture, ed. Jeffrey Shandler and Beth S. Wenger. Philadelphia: National Museum of American Jewish History.