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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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Image-stream

"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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Books

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© Tanos
1997-2016

Edward Lane's Customs and Manners of the Modern Egyptians

The harem was the women's quarters of a house, and was needed due to the cultural and religious restrictions on women being seen by men other than close relatives. A man would maintain separate staffs of female and male servants, either employed or slaves, to serve the women in the harem or in the public part of the house that welcomed male visitors respectively. So all "middle class" houses had a harem, even if it only consisted of the rooms the wife used which were looked after by a paid servant girl. It does seem that domestic slavery in a place like Cairo was as normal as having servants was in Victorian England in the same period, where it was essentially the definition of being middle class and respectable.

Edward Lane spent many years living in Cairo, learning Arabic and trying to live in the manner of the Egyptians. His "Modern Egyptians" of 1836 is a treasury of observations about daily life, and on this subject he says:

The hareem, or the females of the house, have distinct apartments allotted to them; and into these apartments (which, as well as the persons to whom they are appropriated are called "the hareem") no males are allowed to enter, except the master of the family, and certain other near relations, and children. The hareem may consist, first, of a wife, or wives (to the number of four); secondly, of female slaves, some of whom, namely, white and (as they are commonly called) Abyssinian (but more properly Galla) slaves, are generally concubines, and others (the black slaves) kept merely for servile offices, as cooking, waiting upon the ladies, etc; thirdly, of female free servants, who are in no case concubines, or not legitimately so. ... Very few of the Egyptians avail themselves of the licence, which their religion allows them, of having four wives; and still smaller is the number of those who have two or more wives, and concubines besides. Even most of those men who have but one wife are content, for the sake of domestic peace, if for no other reason, to remain without a concubine-slave: but some prefer the possession of an Abyssinian slave to the more expensive maintenance of a wife; and keep a black slave-girl, or an Egyptian female servant, to wait upon her, to clean and keep in order the apartments of the hareem, and to cook.

At this time Egypt was a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and Turks had power and wealth within society. As Lane tells us, this was reflected in the harems they could afford, with expensive, trained girls imported from southern Russia:

The white female slaves are mostly in the possession of wealthy Turks. The concubine-slaves in the houses of Egyptians of the higher and middle classes are generally Abyssinians, of a deep brown or bronze complexion. ... Latterly, from the impoverishment of the higher classes in this country, the demand for white slaves has been small. A few, some of whom undergo a kind of preparatory education (being instructed in music or other accomplishments, at Constantinople), are brought from Circassia and Georgia. The white slaves, being often the only female companions, and sometimes the wives, of the Turkish grandees, and being generally preferred by them before the free ladies of Egypt, hold a higher rank than the latter in common opinion. They are richly dressed, presented with valuable ornaments, indulged, frequently, with almost every luxury that can be procured, and, when it is not their lot to wait upon others, may, in some cases, be happy: as lately has been proved, since the termination of the war in Greece, by many females of that country, captives in Egyptian hareems, refusing their offered liberty, which all of these cannot be supposed to have done from ignorance of the state of their parents and other relations, or the fear of exposing themselves to poverty

The Abyssinian girls cost £10 to £15 in 1836, which is about £1000 to £1500 in today's money, and the others proportionately less or more:

I should here mention, that the slaves who are termed "Abyssinians" are, with few exceptions, not from the country properly called Abyssinia, but from the neighbouring territories of the Gallas. Most of them are handsome. The average price of one of these girls is from ten to fifteen pounds sterling, if moderately handsome; but this is only about half the sum that used to be given for one a few years ago. They are much esteemed by the voluptuaries of Egypt; but are of delicate constitution: many of them die, in this country, of consumption. The price of a white slave-girl is usually from treble to tenfold that of an Abyssinian; and the price of a black girl, about half or two-thirds, or considerably more if well instructed in the art of cookery. The black slaves are generally employed as menials.

However slaves owned by a man's wives were not under his direct authority:

Some wives have female slaves who are their own property, generally purchased for them, or presented to them, before marriage. These cannot be the husband's concubines without their mistress's permission, which is sometimes granted (as it was in the case of Hagar, Sarah's bondwoman); but very seldom. Often, the wife will not even allow her female slave or slaves to appear unveiled in the presence of her husband. Should such a slave, without the permission of her mistress, become the concubine of the husband, and bear him a child, the child is a slave, unless, prior to its birth, the mother be sold, or presented, to the father.

The painter J.F Lewis used his own house in Cairo as the model for his painting The Harem of a Mameluke Bey, Cairo: The Introduction of an Abyssinian Slave, in which a rich Turk is surrounded by his women drawn from different parts of Europe, and watches as a new girl imported from modern-day Somali is exposed before him.

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. In the presence of the husband, they are usually under more or less restraint; and hence they are better pleased when his visits, during the day, are not very frequent or long: in his absence, they often indulge in noisy merriment.

Lane gives a detailed description of the female clothing of different classes:

The dress of the women of the middle and higher orders is handsome and elegant. Their shirt is very full, like that of the men, but shorter, not reaching to the knees: it is also, generally, of the same kind of material as the men's shirt, or of coloured crape, sometimes black. A pair of very wide trousers (called "shintiyan"), of a coloured, striped stuff of silk and cotton, or of printed, or worked, or plain white, muslin, is tied round the hips, under the shirt, with a dikkeh: its lower extremities are drawn up and tied just below the knee with running strings; but it is sufficiently long to hang down to the feet, or almost to the ground, when attached in this manner. Over the shirt and shintiyin is worn a long vest (called "yelek"), of the same material as the latter: it nearly resembles the kuftan of the men; but is more tight to the body and arms: the sleeves also are longer; and it is made to button down the front, from the bosom to a little below the girdle, instead of lapping over: it is open, likewise, on each side, from the height of the hip, downwards. In general, the yelek is cut in such a manner as to leave half of the bosom uncovered, except by the shirt; but many ladies have it made more ample at that part: and, according to the most approved fashion, it should be of a sufficient length to reach to the ground, or should exceed that length by two or three inches, or more. A short vest (called "anteree"), reaching only a little below the waist, and exactly resembling a yelek of which the lower part has been cut off, is sometimes worn instead of the latter. A square shawl, or an embroidered kerchief, doubled diagonally, is put loosely round the waist as a girdle; the two corners that are folded together hanging down behind: or, sometimes, the lady's girdle is folded after the ordinary Turkish fashion, like that of the men, but more loosely. Over the yelek is worn a gibbeh of cloth, or velvet, or silk, usually embroidered with gold or with coloured silk: it differs in form from the gibbeh of the men chiefly in being not so wide; particularly in the fore part; and is of the same length as the yelek. Instead of this, a jacket (called "saltah"), generally of cloth or velvet, and embroidered in the same manner as the gibbeh, is often worn. The head-dress consists of a takeeyeh and tarboosh, with a square kerchief (called "faroodeeyeh") of printed or painted muslin, or one of crape, wound tightly round, composing what is called a "rabtah." Two or more such kerchiefs were commonly used, a short time since, and are still sometimes, to form the ladies' turban, but always wound in a high, flat shape, very diflerent from that of the turban of the men. A kind of crown, called "kurs," and other ornaments, are attached to the ladies' head-dress: descriptions and engravings of these and other ornaments of the women of Egypt will be found in the Appendix to this work. A long piece of white muslin embroidered at each end with coloured silks and gold, or of coloured crape ornamented with gold thread, etc., and spangles, rests upon the head, and hangs down behind, nearly or quite to the ground: this is called "tarhah" - it is the head-veil: the face-veil I shall presently describe. The hair, except over the forehead and temples is divided into numerous braids or plaits, generally from eleven to twenty-five in number, but always of an uneven number:; these hang down the back. To each braid of hair are usually added three black silk cords with little ornaments of gold, etc., attached to them. For a description of these, which are called "safa," I refer to the Appendix. Over the forehead, the hair is cut rather short; but two full locks hang down on each side of the face: these are often curled in ringlets, and sometimes plaited.

Lane describes the footwear of the higher status ladies, including the high wooden clogs, called nalin in Turkish, which would later appear in many Orientalist paintings:

Few of the ladies of Egypt wear stockings or socks, but many of them wear "mezz" (or inner shoes), of yellow or red morocco, sometimes embroidered with gold: over these, whenever they step off the matted or carpeted part of the floor, they put on "baboog" (or slippers) of yellow morocco, with high, pointed toes; or use high wooden clogs or pattens, generally from four to nine inches in height, and usually ornamented with mother-of-pearl, or silver, etc. These are always used in the bath by men and women, but not by many ladies at home: some ladies wear them merely to keep their skirts from trailing on the ground: others, to make themselves appear tall - Such is the dress which is worn by the Egyptian ladies in the house.

Next he turns to clothing they wear outdoors:

The riding or walking attire is called "tezyeereh." Whenever a lady leaves the house, she wears, in addition to what has been above described, first a large, loose gown (called "tob," or "sebleh"), the sleeves of which are nearly equal in width to the whole length of the gown: it is of silk; generally of a pink, or rose, or violet colour. Next is put on the "burko," or face-veil, which is a long strip of white muslin, concealing the whole of the face except the eyes, and reaching nearly to the feet. It is suspended at the top by a narrow band, which passes up the forehead, and which is sewed, as are also the two upper comers of the veil, to a band that is tied round the head. The lady then covers herself with a "habarah," which, for a married lady, is composed of two breadths of glossy, black silk, each ell-wide, and three yards long: these are sewed together, at or near the selvages (according to the height of the person); the seam running horizontally, with respect to the manner in which it is worn: a piece of narrow black riband is sewed inside the upper part, about six inches from the edge, to tie round the head. This covering is generally worn by the Egyptian ladies in the manner shewn by the sketch in the next page; but some of them imitate the Turkish ladies of Egypt in holding the front part so as to conceal all but that portion of the veil that is above the hands. The unmarried ladies wear a habarah of white silk, or a shawl. Same females of the middle classes, who cannot afford to purchase a habarah, wear instead of it an "eezar," or "izar;" which is a piece of white calico, of the same form and size as the former and is worn in the same manner. On the feet are worn short boots or socks (called "khuff"), of yellow morocco, and over these the "haboog."

This dress, though chiefly designed for females of the higher classes, who are seldom seen in public on foot, is worn by many women who cannot often afford so far to imitate their superiors as to hire an ass to carry them. It is extremely inconvenient as a walking attire. Viewing it as a disguise for whatever is attractive or graceful in the person and adornments of the wearer, we should not find fault with it for being itself deficient in grace: we must remark, however, that, in one respect, it fails in accomplishing its main purpose; displaying the eyes, which are almost always beautiful; making them to appear still more so by concealing the other features, which are seldom of equal beauty; and often causing the stranger to imagine a defective face perfectly charming. The veil is of very remote antiquity; but, from the sculptures and paintings of the ancient Egyptians, it seems not to have been worn by the females of that nation. In the present day, even the female servants generally draw a portion of the head-veil before the face in the presence of the men of the fimiily whom they serve, so as to leave only one eye visible.

Finally he addresses the clothes of the poorer and rural women:

The dress of a large proportion of those women of the lower orders who are not of the poorest class consists of a pair of trousers or drawers (similar in form to the shintiyan of the ladies, but generally of plain white cotton or linen), a blue linen or cotton shirt (not quite so full as that of the men), reaching to the feet, a burko of a kind of coarse black crape, and a dark blue tarhah of muslin or linen. Some wear, over the long shirt, or instead of the latter, a linen tob, of the same form as that of the ladies: and within the long shirt, some wear a short white shirt; and some, a sudeyree also, or an anteree. The sleeves of the tob are often turned up over the head; either to prevent their being incommodious, or to supply the place of a tarhah. In addition to these articles of dress, many women who are not of the very poor classes wear, as a covering, a kind of plaid, similar in form to the habarah, composed of two pieces of cotton, woven in small chequers of blue and white, or cross stripes, with a mixture of red at each end. It is called "milayeh:" in general it is worn in the same manner as the habarah; but sometimes like the tarbah. The upper part of black burko is often ornamented with false pearls, small gold coins, and other little flat ornaments of the same metal (called "barlk"); sometimes with a coral bead, and a gold coin beneath; also with some coins of base silver; and more commonly with a pair of chain tassels, of brass or silver (called "oyoon"), attached to the corners. A square black silk kerchief (called "asbeh"), with a border of red and yellow, is bound round the head, doubled diagonally, and tied with a single knot behind; or, instead of this, the tarboosh and faroodeeyeh are worn, though by very few women of the lower classes. The best kind of shoes worn by the females of the lower orders are of red morocco, turned up, but generally round, at the toes. The burko and shoes are most common in Cairo, and are also worn by many of the women throughout Lower Egypt; but in Upper Egypt, the burko is very seldom seen, and shoes are scarcely less uncommon. To supply the place of the former, when necessary, a portion of the tarhah is drawn before the face, so as to conceal nearly all the countenance except one eye. Many of the women of the lower orders, even in the metropolis, never conceal their faces. Throughout the greater part of Egypt the most common dress of the women merely consists of the blue shirt, or tob, and tarhah. In the southern parts of Upper Egypt chiefly above Akhmeem, most of the women envelop themselves in a large piece of dark-brown woollen stuff (called a "bulaleeyeh"), wrapping it round the body, and attaching the upper parts together over each shoulder; and a piece of the same they use as a tarhah. This dull dress, though picturesque, is almost as disguising as the blue tinge which, as I have before mentioned, the women in these parts of Egypt impart to their lips. Most of the women of the lower orders wear a variety of trumpery ornaments, such as ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets, etc., and sometimes a nose-ring. Descriptions and engravings of some of these ornaments will be found in the Appendix.

The women of Egypt deem it more incumbent upon them to cover the upper and back part of the head than the face; and more requisite to conceal the face than most other parts of the person. I have often seen, in this country, women but half covered with miserable rags; and several times, females in the prime of womanhood, and others in more advanced age, with nothing on the body but a narrow strip of rag bound round the hips.

In the chapter dedicated to The Baths, he describes the bathing procedures in detail and then the customs of their female visitors:
The women who can afford to do so visit the hammam frequently; but not so often as the men. When the bath is not hired for the females of one family, or for one party of ladies, exclusively, women of all conditions are admitted. In general, all the females of a house, and the young boys, go together. They take with them their own seggaddehs, and the napkins, basins, etc., which they require, and even the necessary quantity of sweet water for washing with soap, and for drinking; and some carry with them fruits, sweetmeats, and other refreshments. A lady of wealth is also often accompanied by her own "bellaneh" or "mash'tah" who is the washer and tire-woman. Many women of the lower orders wear no covering whatever in the bath; not even a napkin round the waist: others always wear the napkin, and the high clogs. There are few pleasures in which the women of Egypt delight so much as in the visit to the bath, where they frequently have entertainments; and often, on these occasions, they are not a little noisy in their mirth. They avail themselves of the opportunity to display their jewels and their finest clothes, and to enter into familiar conversation with those whom they meet there, whether friends or strangers. Sometimes a mother chooses a bride for her son from among the girls or women whom she chances to see in the bath. On many occasions, as, for instance, in the case of the preparations for a marriage, the bath is hired for a select party, consisting of the women of two or more families; and none else are admitted: but it is more common for a lady and a few friends and attendants to hire a "khilweh": this is the name they give to the apartment of the hanafeeyah. There is more confusion among a mixed company of various ranks; but where all are friends, the younger girls indulge in more mirth and frolic. They spend an hour or more under the hands of the bellaneh, who rubs and washes them, plaits their hair, applies the depilatory etc. They then retire to the beytowwal or meslakh, and there, having put on part of their dress, or a large loose shirt, partake of various refreshments, which, if they have brought none with them, they may procure by sending an attendant of the bath to the market. Those who smoke take their own pipes with them. On particular occasions of festivity, they are entertained with the songs of two or more "Almehs", hired to accompany them to the bath.

("Tire-woman" is a nineneeth century expression for a maid who helped her mistress dress.)

In an appendix, Lane describes jewellery worn by Egyptian women, including anklets:

Anklets ("khulkhal"), of solid gold or silver, and of the form here sketched, are worn by some ladies; but are more uncommon than they formerly were. They are of course very heavy, and, knocking together as the wearer walks, make a ringing noise ; hence it is said in a song, "The ringing of thine anklets has deprived me of my reason." Isaiah alludes to this, or perhaps to the sound produced by another kind of anklet which will be mentioned hereafter. ...

"Khulkhal", or anklets of solid silver, already described, are worn by the wives of some of the richer peasants, and of the sheykhs of villages; and small khulkhals of iron are worn by many children. It was also a common custom among the Arabs, for girls or young women to wear a string of bells on their feet. I have seen many little girls in Cairo with small round bells attached to their anklets. Perhaps it is to the sound of ornaments of this kind, rather than that of the more common anklet, that Isaiah alludes in chapter iii. verse 16.