A cross between the romance of Romeo and Juliet and the blind rage of Othello
Long ago, Prague’s Old Town Square was a market where foreign merchants would hawk their exotic wares. At the end of the day, many of them would go to a pub in Ungelt, an enclosed area near the square that also served as a protected warehouse and exchange.
A merchant from Turkey followed the routine and found himself in a pub, and fell in love at first sight with the innkeeper’s daughter, who served as a barmaid. She had seen many merchants come and go, and was usually a bit aloof, but something about the Turk’s silken clothes with gold threads and his equally silken Eastern manners caught her attention. His name may have been Ozan or Onur, and her name Jarmila. She was known for her long braid of blonde hair.
Soon, the pair were meeting in secret after the bar closed, with the merchant reciting well-known stories from the Arabian Nights and poems from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as if he had penned them himself — but such common white lies told by lovers are not what leads one to being a ghost.
He eventually asked the barmaid to marry him and she said yes. But first, he needed to go back to Constantinople to sell off some property and settle some affairs so he could come back and buy a suitable palace. He promised not to be gone long, and she promised to wait. He gave her an opulent jeweled necklace instead of a ring.
And wait she did.
Years passed by, and there was no news. Other Turkish vendors came and went, but never with any word about their fellow national.
The woman saw her youth was fading and she would soon be not only a barmaid but an old maid as well. Spinsterhood did not appeal to her, so she accepted the advances of another — a wool merchant from Kropáčova Vrutice who was also getting on in years. He told her convoluted folk tales and original poems that didn’t quite rhyme. But she appreciated the effort, having long since figured out that the Turk’s poems were borrowed. She began to suspect he told them to every pretty barmaid in every town between Prague and the Bosphorus Strait. Likely, he had long ago married another, she thought, making her promise to wait null and void.
The barmaid and the wool merchant got married at St. James Church and were having the reception in Ungelt, when who should return, but the Turk. At first, the Turk was happy. He thought somehow the barmaid had heard he was coming and was waiting in her wedding dress so they could be married right away. He quickly figured out the true situation. He was too late. He hid his rage and watched the party from the edges. Finally, once everyone was too drunk to remember anything, he snuck up to to the bride and whispered to her that he had a special wedding present to show her. They went off, unseen. He took her to a basement and cut off her head with a knife he stole from a banquet table, hiding her body under piles of coal and wood. He put her head in the carved box that he used to carry rare spices. He took the box with him and left Prague forever. Well, almost.
The wedding party eventually noticed the bride was missing but was not worried at first. There is a Bohemian game where someone “kidnaps” the bride by taking her to a pub and the groom’s friends have to “ransom” her by paying for drinks. The searchers, however, did not find her in a pub. They thought she would be home the next day at least, or the day after taking into account a hangover. But the days dragged on and she was never seen, until the end of winter when her body, still in its wedding dress, was found as the firewood supply dwindled.
The Turk had nothing but misfortune, and also died before the winter ran out. Some say by his own hand. Where he died is not known, but his spirit returned to the scene of the crime.
Since the second half of the 16th century, he has wandered Ungelt and streets nearby all dressed in finest silks and sporting a turban on his head. And in one hand, he drags the head of his beloved by its blonde wedding braids.
He is harmless though. He is so lost in his own grief that he cannot be bothered to try to haunt very hard. Sometimes, he just tries to blend into the designs on the elaborate frescoes and graffiti on the local buildings, as he is not a fan of the recent tourists. He tends to vanish almost as quickly as he is seen, making his way into the shadows.
He can be freed from his torment with the help of a living person, but nobody knows how, exactly, and he is too sulky to be bothered to tell anyone.
Ungelt, also known as Týnský dvůr or just simply Týn, was in medieval times a merchants yard, with fortified entrances and a moat. Merchants had to pay a fee or duty, known in Old German as an Um Geld, to stay there. The yard opened around the 11th century and around the 14th century, houses for wealthy residents were built around its perimeter.
As outsiders to the city, merchants had to stay in this yard. Hotels as we know them did not exist. Old Town, itself a walled city, made a big income from the merchants and the fees they paid. Keeping them and their goods in Ungelt made it easy to keep watch over them.
It was also beyond the scope of local police, and for some time all weapons had to be surrendered at the gate. It was known as the Happy House, as money always flowed and the entertainment never stopped.
Ungelt never got far from its roots. In 1774, part of the yard became a customs house, levying taxes on all items destined for the local markets. Any undeclared goods were confiscated.
Granovský House in Ungelt is decorated with religious and mythological scenes on the facade. The Renaissance colonnade on the upper level is rumored to have been the front “advertising” of a bordello catering to traveling merchants.
Ungelt also had its own hospital and was connected to the adjacent Týn Church, rightly known as Our Lady Before Týn (Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem), which was built between the mid 14th and early 16th centuries. That church is home to the tomb of astrologer Tycho Brahe. Ungelt also had the oldest apothecary in the city, no doubt due to the medicines being imported.
The yard is also across the street from the slightly older Basilica of St. James (Bazilika svatého Jakuba Většího), which was built in the 13th century but rebuilt after a fire in 1689. The church has the mummified hand of a thief and a tomb where a count was buried alive by mistake.
In the 19th century, it had a coffee house at the Vrbnovský House, where well-known Czech “awakeners” met, such as historian František Palacký and national anthem writer Josef Kajetán Tyl.
Ungelt currently has 18 buildings, mostly serving as bars, hotels, clubs and shops for tourists.
Main image: detail of an etching of a Turk’s head by Václav Hollar.