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Odalisques blog

The Female Slave Market in Constantinople (1 Mar)
From the slave market to the sultan's bedchamber (17 Feb)
Buying a new slave for your harem (4 Feb)
Odalisquian books list now on Odalisques.com (29 Jan)
Edward Lane's descriptions and drawings of female clothing (27 Jan)
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"The Arab Scribe" by J.F. Lewis, 1852
"The Bath" by J.L. Gerome, in the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
"Odalisque" by Max Nonnenbruch
"By order of the sultan" by Antonio Fabres
"Idle Moments" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1875
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© Tanos
1997-2016

Training odalisques

Posted by Tanos on Fri 12 Jul 13, 11:51 PM

The definition of an odalisque that I've always used includes the concept of training: a female slave in a harem, trained to serve her master's pleasure, and assigned to sexual rather than domestic duties. This training is one aspect of the odalisquian world which can be adapted to modern O&P relationships, to form a basis for our own efforts to improve and mould submissives to be pleasing. But where was that training done? And what did it consist of? To answer these question we must follow the journey taken by new slave girls in large cities like Istanbul and Cairo.

The girls destined to become odalisques were imported from the European peoples surrounding the Black Sea, especially Georgia and Circassia. They were frequently sold by their impoverished families for much-needed money and in the hope they would have a better life, or captured during the incessant raiding and warfare of that region.

These raw slaves were sold when they reached the city, either in the rooms surrounding the slave market or in private sales. They were then either bought by private individuals with the intention of bringing them up in their own household, by merchants who bought them to train and sell on, or by the agents of the sultan himself for training within the royal harem.

In the first case, some wives and favourites of wealthy men chose to train girls themselves, with the intention of eventually handing them on after several years of service and training: either selling them for profilt; giving them as gifts to curry favour with superiors or reward loyal allies; or even giving them to their sons as well mannered and obedient wives. I expect this was rather like a wealthy European lady deciding to rear and train desirable companion dogs, both to keep herself, to give as gifts, and as an additional source of income.

Not all slaves would become odalisques, and they were assigned roles according to their abilities and apperance. Melek Hanum in "Thirty years in a harem" explained the purchase of raw slaves from dealers after their journey across the Black Sea, and their subsequent education:

When anyone wishes to buy a slave, he applies to these gentry, and they exhibit, for his selection, a band of young peasant-girls, scantily clad, who have only left their mountain homes a few months previously, and speak none other than the barbaric language of their tribes. They sell for various prices, according to the degree of beauty qualifying them for engagements as dancers, musicians, bath-women, femmes-de-chambre, or odalisques. The amount ranges from about four thousand up to twenty thousand francs, or thereabouts (£160 to £800). They must be of extraordinary beauty to come up to the last mentioned figure. If they are not good-looking, they are only employed in duties that do not necessitate their appearance in the presence of their masters, in which case their value does not exceed from fifteen hundred to two thousand francs.

... where a lady wishes to bring them up as her slaves, either to accustom them to her service, or to re-sell them at a profit when they are older ... their mistress makes them dress becomingly, teaches them to conduct themselves properly, and to speak the Turkish language. Their attention is bestowed on the cultivation of the particular talent by which they are to distinguish themselves; such as music, dancing, hairdressing, etc. If their charms seem to justify their aspiring to the dignity of odalisques, they learn to deck themselves gracefully; to observe the usages recognised in Mussulman society; to offer sherbet or coffee; to salute with greater or less formality, or to seat themselves higher or lower, according to the rank of the person paying or receiving a visit; to accompany their mistresses, etc.

When they have received this primary education, their value is proportionately augmented, and it is at this period that they are re-sold. The singers, the performers on the guitar, flute, tabour, or tambourine, the dancers and castanet-players, then enter the harems of great ladies, whom they are required to entertain. These are held in the highest estimation. They cost from six to eight thousand francs.

If any lady possesses a pretty-looking slave, the fact soon gets known. The gentlemen who wish to buy an odalisque or a wife, make their offers. Many Turks, indeed, prefer to take a slave as a wife, as, in such case, there is no need to dread fathers, mothers, or brothers-in-law, and other undesirable relations.

Merchants also undertook this kind of training, buying girls speculatively in the hope they would become more valuable and training them in a more methodical manner than private households. Once they were ready, buyers could come and make their choice from a selection of girls on the merchant's premises.

Charles White in "Three years in Constantinople" described his remarkable clandestine visit to such an establishment:

On their landing from Circassia, whence they arrive in small coasting vessels, by tens or twenties, under the charge of Circassian conductors, they are landed at Tophana, where the merchants of that country take up their abode, and may be seen lounging about the coffee-houses in that quarter. Hither the Turkish dealers proceed and purchase on speculation. Girls remarkable for personal charms, or promising children, are of course preferred. The purchase being made, if not on commission, the girls are removed to the speculator's residence, where they are neatly clothed, carefully attended, and in most cases not only taught needlework, embroidery, and domestic duties, but instructed in reading, writing, the principles and practices of the Mohammedan religion, and various accomplishments calculated to enhance their value in the eyes of both sexes, either as attendants or wives.

Although it is extremely difficult for Franks (Western Europeans), or even Rayas (Christian subjects of the empire), to obtain access to the houses where Circassian (southeast of modern day Russia) women are educated for sale, accident enabled me, during the spring of 1842, to accompany a Turkish officer, under the character of a physician, to one of these establishments ... In due time, my Turkish companion, affecting a desire to purchase, expressed his wish to examine the dealer's stock. The latter rose, passed through a side door, and after a short absence returned. Presently, the door curtain was held back, and in glided a string of eleven girls, who placed themselves in line before us. ... They were clothed in the Circassian fashion, but with the usual Turkish materials; that is, shalwars (harem pants) and short entary (gowns) of printed cotton; waist-girdles of imitation shawl; chemises of birunjik, and the common yellow papoosh (leather slippers) without stockings. They wore a small flat fez, encircled by a bright-coloured handkerchief on their heads, and a veil of coarse muslin was thrown over these, the ends hanging down below the waist, whilst they held the side across their faces with their left hands. ... They appeared neither bashful nor disturbed at our close inspection, and yet there was nothing forward or immodest in their manner. Their exposure was a matter of course. Daughters of Circassian serfs, reared in servitude and taught from their cradles to consider themselves as marketable articles, there was nothing to them novel or degrading in slavery or the preparatory exhibition. So far from it, they appeared to watch the countenance of the pretended purchaser with anxiety, and their faces flushed with hope rather than shame when prices were mentioned. They readily thrust out their tongues, extended their wrists, and submitted to other scrutiny. In short, their whole expression of feature and manner denoted an earnest desire to be purchased forthwith.

Finally, the agents and functionaries of the Sultan were always looking to impress their lord by presenting him with the most attractive girls. The Istanbul, the Ottoman sultans maintained a sophisticated system of training girls which resembled a convent school, with strict discipline, religious devotion to the Sultan as commander of the faithful, and lessons in practical skills and desirable arts. There is some similarity between this system and the schools for girls in the Geisha districts of Japan, that taught skills of entertainment.

The strictness of the training regime in the Sultan's harem in Istanbul appears in one of its earliest accounts, by Ottavio Bon in the 1600s:

The women of the Seraglio are punished for their faults very severely, and extreamly beaten by their overseers; and if they prove disobedient, incorrigible, and insolent, they are by the king's order, and express command, turned out and sent into the old Seraglio. ... So that by all means it behoveth them to be very careful and obedient, and to contain themselves within the bounds of honesty and good behaviour, if they mean to prosper, and come to a good end.

Penzer's "Harem" described the equipment for beating the soles of the feet which was still on show in 1936: "Visitors are still shown the bastinado boards to which the feet were tied, and the noose into which the hands were put for similar chastisement."

In the worst cases, slaves could be sold. Charles White described the physical restraints imposed on badly behaved slaves who had been sent for sale in the slave market, and were kept in its worst underground dungeons:

the furthest and worst of these dens being destined for those who, from bad conduct, are condemned by the kihaya to wear chains, a punishment inflicted upon women as well as men in aggravated cases; such as theft, outrageous conduct, contempt of decency, maltreating their companions in captivity, attempting to set fire to the building, and other offences committed within the walls

In the 1830s, Edward Lane described the environment in a domestic harem, with attentive wives and slaves eager to please their lord and master with little services, favourite foods, and even the way they swayed their hips as they walked. No doubt women training would-be odalisques for sale to men passed on these tips as advice about how to please and seduce:

Directly after midday (if he has not taken a late breakfast), he eats a light dinner; then takes a pipe and a cup of coffee, and, in hot weather, usually indulges himself with a nap. Often he retires to recline in the hareem; where a wife or female slave watches over his repose, or rubs the soles of his feet with her hands. On such occasions, and at other times when he wishes to enjoy privacy, every person who comes to pay him a visit is told, by the servant, that he is in the hareem; and no friend expects him to be called thence, unless on very urgent business. ...

The wives, as well as the female slaves, are not only often debarred from the privilege of eating with the master of the family, but also required to wait upon him when he dines or sups, or even takes his pipe and coffee, in the hareem. They frequently serve him as menials; fill and light his pipe, make coffee for him, and prepare his food, or, at least, certain dainty dishes; and, if I might judge from my own experience, I should say that most of them are excellent cooks; for, when a dish has been recommended to me because made by the wife of my host, I have generally found it especially good. The wives of men of the higher and middle classes make a great study of pleasing and fascinating their husbands by unremitted attentions, and by various arts. Their coquetry is exhibited, even in their ordinary gait, when they go abroad, by a peculiar twisting of the body.


Edited Tue 3 Dec 13, 10:35 AM