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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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Books

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© Tanos
1997-2016

Robert Curzon's Visits To Monasteries in the Levant, 1849

Curzon visited Egypt in 1833 and his 1849 book described the women's style of clothing that he had seen:

An Egyptian lady's dress consists of a pair of immensely full trousers of satin or brocade, or often of a brilliant cherry-coloured silk: these are tied under the knees, and descending to the ground, have the appearance of a very full petticoat. The Arabic name of this garment is Shintian. Over this is worn a shirt of transparent silk gauze (kamis). It has long full sleeves, which, as well as the border round the neck, are richly embroidered with gold and bright-coloured silks. The edge of the shirt is often seen like a tunic over the trousers, and has a pretty effect. Over this again is worn a long silk gown, open in front and on each side, called a yelek. The fashion is to have the yelek about a foot longer than the lady who wears it; so that its three tails shall just touch the ground when she is mounted on a pair of high wooden clogs, called cobcobs, which are intended for use in the bath, but in which they often clatter about in the house: the straps over the instep, by which these cobcobs are attached to the feet, are always finely worked, and are sometimes of diamonds. The husband gives his bride on their marriage a pair of these odd-looking things, which are about six or eight inches high, and are always carried on a tray on a man's head in marriage processions. The yelek fits the shape in some degree down to the waist; it comes up high upon the neck, and has tightish sleeves, which are long enough to trail upon the ground. "Oh! thou with the long-sleeved yelek" is a common chorus or ending to a stanza in an Arab song. Not round the waist but round the hips a large and heavy Cashmere shawl is worn over the yelek, and the whole gracefulness of an Egyptian dress consists in the way in which this is put on. In the winter a long gown, called Jubeh, is superadded to all this: it is of cloth or velvet, or a sort of stuff made of the Angora goat's hair, and is sometimes lined with fur.

Young girls do not often wear this nor the yelek, but have instead a waistcoat of silk with long sleeves like those of the yelek. This is called an anteri, and over it they wear a velvet jacket with short sleeves, which is so much embroidered with gold and pearls that the velvet is almost hid. Their hair hangs down in numerous long tails, plaited with silk, to which sequins, or little gold coins, are attached. The plaits must be of an uneven number: it would be unlucky if they were even. Sometimes at the end of one of the plaits hangs the little golden bottle of surmeh with which they black the edges of their eyelids; a most becoming custom when it is well done, and not smeared, as it often is, for then the effect is rather like that of a black eye, in the pugilistic sense of the term. On the head is worn a very beautiful ornament called a koors. It is in the shape of a saucer or shallow basin, and is frequently covered with rose diamonds. I am surprised that it has never been introduced into Europe, as it is a remarkably pretty head-dress, with the long tresses of jet black hair hanging from under it, plaited with the shining coins. Round the head a handkerchief is wound, which spoils the effect of all the rest: but a woman in the East is never seen with the head uncovered, even in the house; and when she goes out, the veil, as we call it, though it has no resemblance to a veil, is used to conceal the whole person. A lady enclosed in this singular covering looks like a large bundle of black silk, diversified only by a stripe of white linen extending down the front of her person, from the middle of her nose to her ungainly yellow boots, into which her stockingless feet are thrust for the occasion. The veils of Egypt, of which the outer black silk covering is called a khabara, and the part over the face a boorkoo, are entirely different from those worn in Constantinople, Persia, or Armenia; these are all various in form and colour, complicated and wonderful garments, which it would take too long to describe, but they, as well as the Egyptian one, answer their intended purpose excellently, for they effectually prevent the display of any grace or peculiarity of form or feature.

He explains the real nature and protections offered by the harem:

There is no greater mistake than to suppose that Eastern ladies are prisoners in the harem, and that they are to be pitied for the want of liberty which the jealousy of their husbands condemns them to. The Christian ladies live from choice and habit in the same way as the Mahomedan women: and, indeed, the Egyptian fair ones have more facilities to do as they choose, to go where they like, and to carry on any intrigue than the Europeans; for their complete disguise carries them safely everywhere. No one knows whether any lady he may meet in the bazaar is his wife, his daughter, or his grandmother: and I have several times been addressed by Turkish and Egyptian ladies in the open street, and asked all sorts of questions in a way that could not be done in any European country. The harem, it is true, is by law inviolable: no one but the Sultan can enter it unannounced, and if a pair of strange slippers are seen left at the outer door, the master of the house cannot enter his own harem so long as this proof of the presence of a visitor remains. If the husband is a bore, an extra pair of slippers will at all times keep him out; and the ladies inside may enjoy themselves without the slightest fear of interruption. It is asserted also that gentlemen, who are not too tall, have gone into all sorts of places under the protection of a lady's veil, so completely does it conceal the person. But this is not the case with the Levantine or Christian ladies: although they live in a harem, like the Mahomedans, it is not protected in the same way: the slippers have not the same effect; for the men of the family go in and out whenever they please; and relations and visitors of the male sex are received in the apartments of the ladies.

A particularly attractive girl who waits on Curzon as a guest in a house near the Coptic Christian area of Cairo, where the rules on the segregation of women were more relaxed than in Muslim households:

On one occasion I accompanied an English traveller, who had many acquaintances at Cairo, to the house of a Levantine in the vicinity of the Coptic quarter. Whilst we were engaged in conversation with an old lady the curtain over the doorway was drawn aside, and there entered the most lovely apparition that can be conceived, in the person of a young lady about sixteen years old, the daughter of the lady of the house. She had a beautifully fair complexion, very uncommon in this country, remarkably long hair, which hung down her back, and her dress, which was all of the same rich material, rose-coloured silk, shot with gold, became her so well, that I have rarely seen so graceful and striking a figure. She was closely followed by two black girls, both dressed in light-blue satin, embroidered with silver; they formed an excellent contrast to their charming mistress, and were very good-looking in their way, with their slight and graceful figures. The young Levantine came and sat by me on the divan, and was much amused at my blundering attempts at conversation in Arabic, of which I then knew scarcely a dozen words. I must confess that I was rather vexed with her for smoking a long jessamine pipe, which, however, most Eastern ladies do. She got up to wait upon us, and handed us the coffee, pipes, and sherbet, which are always presented to visitors in every house.

An old jeweller treats his wife as a servant during Curzon's visit. As Curzon and the jeweller sit and talk on the raised divan, the wife was required to stand and wait to be of service on the low floor of the room in her high "cobcob" wooden clogs:

This custom of being waited upon by the ladies is rather distressing to our European notions of devotion to the fair sex: and I remember being horrified shortly after my arrival in Egypt at the manners of a rich old jeweller to whom I was introduced. His wife, a beautiful woman, superbly dressed in brocade, with gold and diamond ornaments, waited upon us during the whole time that I remained in the house. She was the first Eastern lady I had seen, and I remember being much edified at the way she pattered about on a pair of lofty cobcobs, and the artful way in which she got her feet out of them whenever she came up towards where we sat on the divan, at the upper end of the apartment. She stood at the lower end of the room; and whenever the old brute of a jeweller wanted to return anything, some coins which he was showing me, or anything else, he threw them on the floor; and his beautiful wife jumping out of her cobcobs picked them up; and when she had handed them to some of the maids who stood at the door, resumed her station below the step at the further end of the room.

The physical attractiveness of the women compared:

She had magnificent eyes and luxuriant black hair, as they all have, and would have been considered a beauty in any country; but she was not to be compared to the bright little damsel in pink, who, besides her beauty, was as cheerful and merry as a bird, and whose lovely features were radiant with archness and intelligence. Many of the Abyssinian slaves are exceedingly handsome: they have very expressive countenances, and the finest eyes in the world, and, withal, so soft and humble a look, that I do not wonder at their being great favourites in Egyptian harems. Many of them, however, have a temper of their own, which comes out occasionally, and in this respect the Arab women are not much behind them. But the fiery passions of this burning climate pass away like a thunderstorm, and leave the sky as clear and serene as it was before.