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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

Sophia Lane

from Letter 15, April 1843

No person can imagine the strictness of the hareem without adopting its seclusion, nor can a stranger form a just estimate of the degree of liberty enjoyed by the women without mixing in Eastern society. One thing is certain, that if a husband be a tyrant, his wife is his slave; but such cases are extremely rare. I do not pretend to defend the system of marrying blindfold, as it were; nor do I look for those happy marriages which are most frequently found in England; but I am pleased to find the Eastern women contented, and, without a single exception among my acquaintances, so cheerful, that I naturally conclude they are treated with consideration. The middle classes are at liberty to pay visits, and to go to the bath, when they please; but their fathers and husbands object to their shopping; therefore female brokers are in the frequent habit of attending the hareems. The higher orders are more closely guarded, yet as this very circumstance is a mark of distinction, the women congratulate each other on this subject; and it is not uncommon for a husband to give his wife a pet name, expressive of her hidden charms, such as "the concealed jewel."

from Letter 16, April 1843

I do assure you that slavery in the East is not what you imagine it to be. Here, perhaps, the slave is more in the power of the master than in the West, and there are some monsters, at whose names humanity shudders, who dreadfully abuse the power they legally claim; but, generally speaking, an Eastern slave is exceedingly indulged, and many who have been cruelly torn from their parents at an early age, find and acknowledge fathers and mothers in those to whom they are sold. They are generally extremely well-dressed, well-fed, and allowed to indulge in a degree of familiarity which would astonish you. If they conduct themselves well, they are frequently married by their masters to persons of respectability, and the ceremony of the marriage of a slave in the high hareems is conducted with extreme magnificence. It is not unusual for a grandee to give away in marriage several female slaves, and sometime concubines, on the same day, to husbands of his own selection. In some instances, the slaves are distressed at being thus disposed of, and would rather remain in their old home, but generally a marriage of this kind is a subject for extraordinary rejoicing; and accustomed as the women are to submit to the will of others in the affair of matrimony, from the highest to the lowest in the East, the fact of their superiors choosing for them their husbands rather recommends itself to their approval, and excites their gratitude. On the day of their marriage they are dressed in the most costly manner; while in the hareems to which they belong, Cashmere shawls, sometimes cloth of gold, are laid that they may walk over them. Singing and dancing women are engaged for the occasion, and several girls bearing censers, and others sprinkling perfumes, attend each bride. You have heard and read of the Arab dancing, which is far from delicate, but the dancing in the Turkish hareems is not in any respect objectionable. The girls throw themselves about extravagantly, but frequently gracefully; and turn heels over head with amusing dexterity. It is not a pleasing exhibition, but not a disgusting one.

...

We imagine in England that the husband in these regions is really lord and master, and he is in some cases; but you will scarcely believe that the master of a house may be excluded for many days from his own hareem, by his wife's or wives' causing a pair of slippers to be placed outside the door, which signifies that there are visitors within. It is true that the husband sometimes becomes tired of frequent exclusion, and forbids, as indeed he has a right to do, the constant admission of visitors; but in so doing, he draws down on his head much discomfort. He has his remedy, certainly; but how sad is the system of divorce! Who can defend it? Where a wife has become a mother, the husband is seldom willing to divorce her; but where this is not the case, the affair is far too easily managed.

...

The employments of the hareem chiefly consist in embroidery, on an oblong frame, supported by four legs; but they extend to superintending the kitchen, and indeed the female slaves and servants generally; and often ladies of the highest distinction cook those dishes which are particularly preferred. The sherbets are generally made by the ladies; and this is the case in one hareem I visit, where the ladies, in point of rank, are the highest of Eastern haut ton. The violet sherbet is prepared by them in the following manner:- The flowers are brought to them on large silver trays, and slaves commence by picking off the outer leaves; the ladies then put the centres of the violets into small mortars, and pound them until they have thoroughly expressed the juice, with which, and fine sugar, they form round cakes of conserve, resembling, when hardened, loaf-sugar dyed green. This produces a bright green sherbet, prettier than the blue or pink, and exceedingly delicate. I do not know of what the blue is composed, but am told that it is a particular preparation of violets : the pink is of roses; the yellow of oranges, apricots, &c. It would be tedious were I to describe the variety of sherbets; but those I have mentioned will give you an idea of these cooling summer drinks. About four table-spoonfuls of syrup in three quarters or a pint of water form a most agreeable beverage.

You will be surprised to hear that the daughter of the Pasha, in whose presence the ladies who attend her never raise their eyes, superintends the washing and polishing of the marble pavements in her palaces. She stands on such occasions barefooted on a small square carpet; holding in her hand a silver rod: about twenty slaves surround her; ten throw the water, while others follow them wiping the marble, and lastly polishing it with smooth stones.

It is very grievous that the women in general are merely instructed in handiwork. But I must not speak slightingly of their embroidery; for it is extremely beautiful - as superior as it is unlike to any fancy-work practised in England. Taste of a very remarkable kind is displayed in its execution; and similar, in many respects, to that exhibited in the most elaborate decorations of Arabian architecture; but its singular beauty is in some measure produced, where colours are employed, by the plan of often taking the colours at random.

The embroidery which is done in the hareems is very superior to any other, and frequently interspersed with precious stones, generally diamonds, pearls, emeralds, and rubies. The rich large brocade trousers often are richly ornamented with jewels, and are stiff with decorations; but the Sal-tah (a small jacket) for chasteness and elegance is that which I most admire of all the embroidered articles of dress. For winter wear, it is of velvet, or fine cloth, lined with silk. Sal-tahs of rich silk are worn during the autumn and spring; and, during the summer, dresses of European muslin are almost universally adopted, and are the only kind of apparel suited to the intense heat of an Egyptian summer.

Few of the ladies can read and write even their own language. I know, however, some exceptions. In one family, the daughters have been extremely well instructed by their brother, whose education was completed in Europe. In their library are to be found the works of the first Italian poets and the best literature of Turkey; and these they not only read, but understood.