Ottoman Empire and European Theatre Vol. III -  - ebook

Ottoman Empire and European Theatre Vol. III ebook



On 3 May 1810 George Gordon, Lord Byron, swam like the mythic Leander from Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont to Abydos on the Asian shore. The hero of his poem "Don Juan" has lived in “feminine disguise” in the sultan's harem for more than a century. To commemorate Byron's Don Juan, the third volume of the "Ottoman Empire and European Theatre" series focuses on the image of the harem in literature and theatre. Nineteen international contributors explore historical conceptions of the Ottoman harem and seraglio in British, French and South East European sources from the late seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Contributions by Jennifer L. Airey, Gönül Bakay, Michael Chappell, Anne Greenfield, Isobel Grundy, Bent Holm, Michael Hüttler, Hans Peter Kellner, Emily M. N. Kugler, Andreas Münzmay, Domenica Newell-Amato, Walter Puchner, Marian Gilbart Read, Käthe Springer, Stefanie Steiner, Laura Tunbridge, Himmet Umunc, Hans Ernst Weidinger, Mi Zhou.

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Series Editors









Editorial assistance, copy-editing and index: Inge Praxl, Ana Mitić (Vienna, Austria)

English copy-editing: Emily M. N. Kugler (Washington, D.C., United States)

Turkish copy-editing: Suna Suner (Vienna, Austria)

Layout and Cover: Nikola Stevanović (Belgrade, Serbia)

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Cover-image: Tughra of Sultan Mahmud II

The symposia were supported by the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Austrian Cultural Forum Istanbul, the Austrian Foreign Ministry, the Turkish Embassy Vienna and the UNESCO International Theatre Institute (ITI) – Austrian Centre.

The publication was supported by



Michael Hüttler, Emily M. N. Kugler and Hans Ernst Weidinger (eds.): Ottoman Empire and European Theatre, vol. 3: Images of the Harem in Literature and Theatre.

Wien: Hollitzer Verlag, 2015 (= Ottomania 5)

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Don Juan in his feminine disguise

With all the damsels in their long array,

Had bowed themselves before the imperial eyes,

And at the usual signal ta’en their way

Back to the chambers, those long galleries

In the Seraglio, where the ladies lay

Their delicate limbs; a thousand bosoms there

Beating for love, as the caged birds for air.1

Images of the Harem in Literature and Theatre: A Commemoration of Lord Byron’s Sojourn in the Ottoman Empire is the fifth volume of the “Ottomania” book series and, within that series, the third issue of the Ottoman Empire and European Theatre collection. While “Ottomania” deals with Ottoman–European cultural transfers and questions of Orientalism–Occidentalism in general, the latter focuses on theatre, music, arts and literature. The preceding volumes directed attention to musical interconnections and the works of composers such as Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756–1791)2 or Joseph Haydn (1732–1809).3 The present volume points more toward poetry and literature by devoting this edition to two popular topics of the long eighteenth century. It expands a subject that earlier volumes had touched upon but not explored in depth, one of the most popular subjects of eighteenth-century theatre and literature: the seraglio and its harem.

The second major topic of this volume, also closely tied to the themes associated with European depictions of the harem, is one of the most influenital British poets, George Gordon Byron, later George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), commonly known as Lord Byron. In Byron and his works all of the afore-mentioned themes are combined: theatre, literature and music, the seraglio and adventures inside its harem, Orientalism and Occidentalism. The hero of his poem Don Juan (written 1819–1824) lives in ‘feminine disguise’ in the sultan’s harem for more than a century, from the regency of Soliman II (or of Soliman I, according to some experts) to the siege of the fortress of Ismail by Alexander V. Suvorov in 1790 (Cantos VII and VIII). Cantos V and VI of the poem include various descriptions of the palace, the harem and its inhabitants. Byron himself, on his Grand Tour travelled to the Ottoman Empire, among others to Albania where he personally met Ali Pasha of Janina (c.1744–1822) and got insight into an Ottoman seraglio, all of which had an immense impact on the poet. “The poetic outcome of this journey would blow its English readers away with its new content and form”, as Käthe Springer-Dissmann notes.4 Byron also continued to Athens, Smyrna and Constantinople. On May 3, 1810, George Gordon Lord Byron swam like the mythic Leander from Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont to Abydos on the Asian shore. Later in his life he supported the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire and during his stay in Missolonghi eventually died on Ottoman Greek soil.


In European literature of the eighteenth century the term seraglio was usually treated as synonymous with the term harem. The Italian word serraglio, often spelled in libretti with two r’s, means a ‘cage’ (as used for wild animals), while the Turkish word saray, derived from the Persian sara’i (a ‘palace, inn’), means ‘palace, court’. The harem, the women’s quarters, is part of the seraglio, and the word ‘harem’ derives from the Arabian haram, which means ‘unlawful, forbidden, sacred’. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Ottaviano Bon’s (1552–1623) book Descrizione del Serraglio del Gransignore (1608; in English, The Sultan’s Seraglio, 1650) provided a general description of the palace and its architecture, but true to the meaning of the word harem, the women’s quarters remained inaccessible.

Despite or perhaps because of this inaccessibility, the space of the harem frequently acts as the access point for European representations of the Ottoman Empire. Hidden from literal visitors, the imagined harem in European plays, letters, novels, and other mediums invited European audiences to see the Ottomans as well as their own cultures played out through the political and sexual intrigues of this cloistered world.

Differing European accounts over the nature of the harem reveal to today’s readers more about the stakes of the writers within their cultural contexts than a historical reality of the Ottoman Empire. The capacity of the harem to illuminate concerns and contestations within Europe comes ironically from both the foreignness and the familiarity of the Ottoman Empire to these occidental audiences. It served at times as a negative, foreign, other associated with tyranny and opulence. Although often on opposing sides of political issues, both Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) pointed to the harem as a site of degradation against their aspirations for European society.5 Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) defends European monarchy as an amenable environment to promote individuality, holding that those who called for the end of the French monarchy mistook a European Enlightenment system for “the barbarous anarchic despotism of Turkey.”6 Working from a different thesis but still using the Ottomans as a means of defining Europe against an unenlightened other, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) holds that the “despotism that kills virtue and genius in the bud, [does not] hover over Europe with that destructive blast which desolates Turkey.”7 Having established the Ottomans as the model to shun, she uses the image of the harem as a means to criticize European treatment of women as estranged from a culture of liberty. She argues that an orientalist “love of pleasure or sway” describes “the husband who lords it in his little harem [and] thinks only of his pleasure or his convenience” and quotes in order to reject Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712–1778) advice to have “‘a young English-woman cultivate her agreeable talents, in order to please her future husband, with as much care and assiduity as a young Circassian cultivates her’s, to fit her for the haram of an eastern bashaw.’”8

From stage representations of the harem to later depictions in prose fiction, verse, music, the visual arts, as well as in legal discourse (all of which are discussed by the authors of this volume), the harem haunts European culture. To this day, it appears in multiple mediums of popular culture, including ones that only gained prominence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The simplified portrayals of the Ottoman harem continue, with examples such as North American graphic novelist Craig Thompson’s Habibi (2011),9 in which present-day oil oligarchies of a vaguely defined Middle East blur with an older image of the Ottoman harem reminiscent of orientalist images by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). The global popularity of the Turkish soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl (‘The magnificent century’, 2011–2014) in Europe, Latin America, as well as parts of the former Ottoman Empire also points to the continued resonance of history of European-born Hürrem Sultan (c.1500–1588), commonly known as Roxelana, whose rise from captive to harem favorite to sultana has inspired playwrights, novelists, and poets since her reign. Likely born in present-day western Ukraine, the historical Hürrem was captured by Tartars and sold to the Ottoman harem where she rose to unprecedented power as sultana. Her name in many forms – Roxelana, Roxelane, Roxanae, Roxane – became shorthand in European representations of the harem, especially in narratives where European women come in contact with this Ottoman space. The variety of portrayals of Hürrem in European sources illustrates an equally varied range of stances on the Ottoman Empire and its relations with its Western neighbors. Does she represent a European influence on the foreign space of the harem, or does she serve as a warning to European audiences not to allow outsiders to influence domestic hierarchies? This complexity is explored throughout this volume, with specific discussions of the historical Hürrem’s role in European culture alongside essays in which variations on the name Roxelane are found in other representions of the Ottoman.10

This volume aims for something more complex than simply retelling the history of European objectification of Eastern culture. In his seminal work Orientalism (1978), Edward Said (1935–2003) described European relations with the ‘Orient’ as one of Europeans exerting systematic knowledge of the region since the mid-eighteenth century and continually representing Europe “always in a position of strength, not to say dominance.”11 Forming a binary option, the “Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, ‘different’” which in turn makes “the European […] rational, virtuous, mature, ‘normal’.”12 Said’s concept of Orientalism – “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority of the Orient” – accurately describes many European representations of the Ottoman Empire and its surrounding areas. Yet the historical reality was far more complex; there were active exchanges and collaborations on both sides, with the Ottoman Empire acting alternatively as a partner, rival, and often more powerful force than its European counterparts.13

This volume presents diverse portrayals of European and Ottoman empires and their interactions, its authors drawing upon English-, German- and French-language sources from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. One of the most famous European visitors to the Ottoman harems, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) provides an epistolary account of the harem that – as Stefanie Steiner points out in the PROLOGUE of this volume – provided a rare eyewitness account of the Turkish harem, along with an equally rare attempt to understand the culture through a study of its languages and literature.14 As discussed by authors in this volume, Montagu’s work played a key role both in producing new knowledge of the harem as well as entering into an ongoing discourse on the harem occurring in Europe.15 Later, another key figure in this volume, Lord George Gordon Byron, would again shape European conceptions of the Ottomans through the profusion of poetry produced in his short life. His travels to the Ottoman world – from his 1809–1811 Grand Tour’s inclusion of the Ottoman Mediterranean to his involvement in the Greek independence struggle in the last years of his life – deeply influenced his writing and provided an influential cultural representation of the Ottomans and the harem.16


The PROLOGUE presents the reader with an overview of various Western conceptions of the harem from literary sources of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Stefanie Steiner’s introductory text “Enchantment/Disenchantment: Conceptions of Harem and Seraglio in Selected Literary Sources from 1608 to 1852” offers probably the most lucid description of the (literary) Orient in the early twentieth century, by quoting Paul Valéry’s (1871–1945) famous thoughts about the development of an oriental myth generated by Western literary fiction. Steiner than analyzes how fictitious harem scenes were literally constructed and explores the general intentions of selected authors of travelogues, romances, poems or letters.

ACT I is dedicated to ENGLISH AUTHORS OF THE LATE SEVENTEENTH AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURIES, with works of Mary Pix (c.1666–1709), Aaron Hill (1685–1750), Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), and Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) in the center of the contributions. Anne Greenfield’s “Veiled in the Seraglio: Whig Messaging in Mary Pix’s Tragedy Ibrahim (1696)” investigates if Pix’s play Ibrahim, the Thirteenth Emperour of the Turks contained Whig political propaganda and messaging, despite Pix’s claim that her play was not designed to be taken ideologically. Greenfield here questions the critical commonplace that Pix’s plays are not overtly political.

English writer Aaron Hill, on the other hand, in his dramatic works and especially his historico-political book A Full and Just Account of the Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1709), deliberately included some quite titillating descriptions to whet the appetites of readers. In “Capturing the Seraglio: From the Life and Work of Aaron Hill (1685–1750)” Hans-Peter Kellner takes a close look at Hill’s life, examining how this young Englishman – Hill was only 15 when he arrived in Istanbul – could obtain such close insight into the secrets of the seraglio in Constantinople, which he later used successfully to draw attention to his works.

Emily M. N. Kugler, in her contribution “Playing the Sultana: Erotic Capital and Commerce in Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724)”, analyzes that novel in the light of female and English identity. Although set in Britain during the reign of Charles II (1630–1685, r.1660–1685), the name given to the heroine, Roxana, is meant as an allusion to the historical Roxelana, a harem slave that became the wife of Sultan Süleyman I (1494–1566, r.1520–1566). Kugler shows how Defoe’s text ties itself to a history of English representations of the Ottomans, in particular the contradictory views of the harem as a place of female enslavement, enclosed safety, and potential power.

Michael J. Chappell investigates “The Pleasures of Friendship and Society” by analyzing “Pekuah and the Arab’s Seraglio in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (1759)”. Chappell focuses on narratives of intercourse – social as well as sexual – in Johnson’s work, with the experience of the maid Pekuah in an Arabic harem as a critique of both Arab and English patriarchalism, using women as objects of trade in not so different ways.

ACT II continues the focus on English authors but shifts chronologically to BRITAIN IN THE LATE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES. In “Justice and the Bashaw of Merryland: Harem Fantasy, Rape Narrative, and the Trial of Lord Baltimore (1768)” Jennifer L. Airey takes a close look at the most astonishing case of a true captivity tale that took place in England and included an English harem replica and English ‘sultanas’.

Isobel Grundy contributes “English Women’s Various Harems”, considering the varied and even contradictory approaches to the harem subject by three female authors: Eliza Haywood (c.1693–1756), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) and Elizabeth Marsh (1735–1785). As Grundy shows, all these writers used the image of the harem to further their own ends.

Another English female author is the focus of the attention in Gönül Bakay’s contribution “Is It Possible to Have Freedom in a Prison? Emmeline Lott’s The Governess in Egypt (1865)”. Lott lived as an English governess in the harem of the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, İsmail Pasha (1830–1895), and later wrote a book about her experiences. Bakay’s analysis of Lott’s memoirs examines the socio-cultural politics of the Ottoman-Egypt harem and questions how much freedom was possible for its inmates.

The following contributions in ACT III and ACT IV are all dedicated to Lord Byron’s works and their significance for the subject of the book. ACT III – BYRON: THE YOUTH starts with Käthe Springer-Dissmann’s essay about Lord Byron’s travels to the Ottoman Empire: “‘Now at Length We’re Off for Turkey, Lord Knows When We Whall Come Back!’: Byron’s Grand Tour to the Bosphorus 1809–1911”. Springer-Dissmann unfolds Byron’s journey as a travelogue, focusing on his travels in Albania and his sojourn in Ali Pasha’s seraglio, and commenting on the great impact that journey had on the poet and his creative life. Added to the essay is a useful addendum listing “Scanderbeg in Italian Opera up to Byron’s Time”.

Mi Zhou researches “The Monster Within” by also taking a close look at Byron’s encounter with Ali Pasha and scrutinizes “Ali Pasha’s Seraglio in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. Zhou’s critical attention is drawn to Byron’s description of the “Mahometan Buonaparte’s”17 seraglio and his writing on Albania and its people, which for him oddly resembled the familiar Highlanders of Scotland.

For nineteenth century Greece Lord Byron became a national hero. Greek writers, inspired by Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and Manfred (1816), created a whole literary production dealing with the death of the romantic poet, along with an entire style of ‘Byronism’. Walter Puchner takes a close look at these developments in “The Reception of Lord Byron in Greek Theatre and Drama in the Nineteenth Century”, analyzing how, among others, The Giaour:A Fragment of a Turkish Tale (1813) and Manfred deeply influenced Greek dramatist Panayotis Soutsos (1806–1868).

ACT IV BYRON: THE SULTANA revolves around the role of music either in Byron’s works or musical works influenced by Byron’s poetry. In “‘The Soft Hours of Sardanapalus’: Music and Effeminacy in Stagings of Byron’s Seraglios” Laura Tunbridge examines the role of music in Byron’s descriptions of seraglios and harems, especially in his poem Sardanapalus (1821) and its nineteenth-century theatrical productions.

Marian Gilbart Read investigates Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813–1901) opera Il corsaro (1848), an adaptation of Byron’s narrative poem The Corsair (1814), in its Risorgimento context. Her “‘Schiava son io, Corsaro!’ Does the Escape from the Harem Dramatize the Risorgimento Struggle in Verdi’s Adaptation of Byron’s The Corsair (1814)?” takes a close look at the textual changes in the Italian-language version of the text, written by Verdi’s Venetian librettist Francesco Maria Piave (1810–1876) after his instructions. Added to this is an appendix with a “Timeline of Byron, Verdi and Risorgimento Events”.

Himmet Umunç’s contribution “In Search of Exoticism: Byron’s Reveries of the Ottoman Orient” looks for an inherent oriental exoticism in Byron’s work. Umunç focuses on the poet’s perception of the Ottoman Orient and demonstrates through references to his fabulations and statements how this perception was romanticized in fantasies and exotic reveries.

The Orient had been a special source of fascination for the French since the late seventeenth century, with theatre playing a particular role in mirroring otherness to the French (and European) self. ACT V therefore shows how the FRENCH INFLUENCES to European theatre had also affected the oriental plays and Türkenopern (‘Turkish operas’) of that time. The character of Rox(el)ane started her literary success in France, and she appears, as the attentive reader will notice, in all contributions of this chapter.

Domenica Newell-Amato opens ACT V with the discussion of a classical French tragedy of the oriental harem. In her contribution “Of African Monsters and Eunuchs: Colonial Fashioning with the Harem of Jean Racine’s Bajazet (1672)” she considers the orient as cultural counterpoint to the French.

Michael Hüttler in “‘Five Hundred very happy Women!’: The Harem as a Locus of Social and National Identities in Eighteenth-Century German-Language Theatre” studies three theatre pieces – all deriving from a French source, Charles-Simon Favart’s (1710–1792) comedy Soliman second (1761) – and their use of the setting of an Ottoman harem to profile social and national identities, as well as for representations of the other.

Bent Holm directs our attention further north with “The Ambiguous Harem: Moralism and Exoticism in Danish Harem Images of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”. Holm makes a successful attempt to observe the harem motif through Danish historical glasses, while at the same time refracting certain Danish notions through the harem prism.

Last but not least Andreas Münzmay leads us directly back to the Parisian stages. His text “Musical Representations of the Seraglio in Eugène Scribe’s Vaudeville L’ours et le pacha and in its Adaptations in Nineteenth-Century European Theatre” examines Scribe’s play, its subject and idea, how it plays on exoticism, how its musical dramaturgy works in general, and the musical representation of the seraglio in particular. Münzmay raises the question if and to what extent the musical patterns of representing the seraglio in French vaudeville were transferable to other European music-theatre cultures.

The publication is rounded up with an Appendix, containing an Index and Curricula Vitae.


The texts that appear in this book have been prepared partly at the occasion of three academic gatherings: a session on “The image of the harem” at the ASECS conference in Vancouver 201118, and two symposia on “Seraglios and Harems. A Commemoration of the Bicentenary of Lord Byron’s Sojourn in the Ottoman Capital (1810)”, as part of the Ottoman Empire and European Theatre conference series at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Istanbul and the UNESCO International Theatre Institute in Vienna.19

For supporting the symposia Ottoman Empire and European Theatre in Vienna and Istanbul we would like to thank the Turkish Embassy Vienna, the Austrian Foreign Ministry, the UNESCO International Theatre Institute (ITI) – Austrian Centre and the Austrian Cultural Forum Istanbul. The Vancouver conference was organized by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

The Don Juan Archiv Wien Forschungsverein has to be thanked not only for organizing the Ottoman Empire and European Theatre symposia series since its beginnings in 2008 but also for supporting the production of the books series, including the present volume, which is a valuable contribution to the academic research of the cultural transfers between the Ottoman Empire and European Theatre.

The character Don Juan has, again, proven to be a cultural link between theatre, music and literature, as well as between Orient and Occident because, as Himmet Umunç in his contribution to the present volume concludes,

[…] it is in Don Juan that Byron’s reveries of the Ottoman Orient reach their climax. His representation of the Ottoman seraglio, which, for him, constitutes the core of his oriental reveries, is fully romanticized and glamourized through his depiction of the sultana Gulbeyaz, captivating concubines, black eunuchs, a magnificent set of rooms and halls, and Eden-like gardens with exotic flowers and trees.20



Burke, Edmund: Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceeding in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. In a Letter Intended to be Sent to a Gentleman in Paris. London: Printed for J. Dodsley, 1790.

Byron, George Gordon: Don Juan, in: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome McGann, vol. 5. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Wollstonecraft, Mary: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1792.


Garcia, Humberto: Islam and the English Enlightenment, 1670–1840. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Grundy, Isobel: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Hüttler, Michael, and Hans Ernst Weidinger (eds.): Ottoman Empire and European Theatre, vol. 1: The Age ofMozart and Selim III (1756–1808). Vienna: Hollitzer, 2013.

Hüttler, Michael, and Hans Ernst Weidinger (eds.): Ottoman Empire and European Theatre, vol. 2: The Time ofJoseph Haydn: From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r.1730–1839). Vienna: Hollitzer, 2014.

Kugler, Emily M. N.: Sway of the Ottoman Empire on English Identity in the Long Eighteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Okay, Meral, and Yılmaz Şahin (writers): Muhteşem Yüzyıl (‘The magnificent century’). Istanbul/Turkey: Show TV, 2011.

Said, Edward: Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. (Orig. London: Routledge, 1978).

Thompson, Craig: Habibi. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.

Turham, Filiz: The Other Empire: British Romantic Writings about the Ottoman Empire. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Yermolenko, Galina I. (ed.): Roxolana in European Literature, History and Culture. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.


1George Gordon Byron: Don Juan, in: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome McGann, vol. 5. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, Canto VI, stanza 26, p. 307.

2Michael Hüttler and Hans Ernst Weidinger (eds.): Ottoman Empire and European Theatre, vol. 1: The Age ofMozart and Selim III (1756–1808).Vienna: Hollitzer, 2013 (= Ottomania 1).

3Michael Hüttler and Hans Ernst Weidinger (eds.): Ottoman Empire and European Theatre, vol. 2: The Time ofJoseph Haydn: From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r.1730–1839). Vienna: Hollitzer, 2014 (= Ottomania 3).

4For an in-depth view of Byron’s travel to the East cf. the contribution by Käthe Springer-Dissmann in this publication.

5For an excellent comparative analysis of Burke and Wollstonecraft’s depictions of the Ottoman Empire see Filiz Turham: The Other Empire: British Romantic Writings about the Ottoman Empire. New York: Routledge 2004, pp. 5–7.

6Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceeding in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. In a Letter Intended to be Sent to a Gentleman in Paris. London: Printed for J. Dodsley, 1790, p. 189.

7Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1792, p. 90

8Ibidem pp. 158, 190.

9Craig Thompson: Habibi. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.

10See the contributions by Emily M. N. Kugler, Michael Hüttler, and Bent Holm in this volume. For an example of Roxane as a name associated with harem representations in general see the contribution by Domenica Newell-Amato in this volume. For more on the historical Hürrem, see Roxolana in European Literature, History and Culture, ed. Galina I. Yermolenko. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.

11Edward Said: Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. (Orig. Lodnon: Routledge, 1978).

12Ibidem p. 40.

13Ibidem, p. 3. It is worth noting that Said’s Orientalism is less concerned with presenting a historical analysis for its own sake and more with explaining through historical example late twentieth-century representations of Palestine in Europe and North America. For more see Emily M. N. Kugler: Sway of the Ottoman Empire on English Identity in the Long Eighteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 2012, pp. 5–6.

14Montagu’s letters were based on her travel diaries during her husband’s 1717–1718 ambassadorial, circulated as manuscripts later, and finally published posthumously as a whole in The Turkish Embassy Letters (1763). Although they significantly influenced future portrayals of the Ottoman Empire, Humberto Garcia points out that they also drew on the pre-existing European genre featuring around a fictitious Muslim narrator, such as Giovanni P. Marana’s Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (1691). These were a popular genre, for example, Garcia points out that the eight-volume English translation of Marana text went through thrity-one editions between 1692 to 1801. Humberto Garcia: Islam and the English Enlightenment, 1670–1840. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012, p. 63

15For more on Montagu in this volume, see contributions by Stefanie Steiner, Hans-Peter Kellner and Isobel Grundy in this publication. For a fuller treatment, see Grundy’s excellent biography: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

16See especially Acts III and IV of this volume.

17Cf. the contribution by Mi Zhou in this publication.

18Annual Meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies March 17–20, 2011, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

19Ottoman Empire and European Theatre, Seraglios and Harems. A Commemoration of the Bicentenary of Lord Byron’s Sojourn in the Ottoman Capital (1810). International Symposium in Two Acts Organized by Don Juan Archiv Wien Forschungsverein für Theater- und Kulturgeschichte in cooperation with The UNESCO International Theatre Institute in Vienna and The Austrian Cultural Forum in Istanbul. April 23–24, 2010 at the UNESCO – ITI, Palais Khevenhüller, Türkenstraße 19, Vienna and on May 27–28, 2010 at the Austrian Cultural Forum, Palais Yeniköy. Köybaşı Caddesi 44, Yeniköy, Istanbul.

20Cf. Himmet Umunç: “In Search of Exoticism. Byron’s Reveries of the Ottoman Orient” in this publication, p. 338.




In 1938, the French philosopher Paul Valéry (1871–1945) made a try to give a general description of the ‘Orient’, probably not even aware of the fact that he actually described with an astounding lucidity the development of an oriental myth generated by (Western) literary fiction:

Pour que ce nom produise à l’esprit de quelqu’un, son plein et entier effet, il faut, sur toute chose, n’avoir jamais été dans la contrée mal déterminée qu’il désigne.Il ne faut la connaître par l’image, le récit, la lecture, et quelques objets, que de la sorte la moins érudite, la plus inexacte, et même la plus confuse. C’est ainsi que l’on se compose une bonne matière de songe. Il y faut un mélange d’espace et de temps, de pseudo-vrai et de faux certain, d’infimes détails et de vues grossièrement vastes. C’est là l’ORIENT de l’esprit.1

(‘For the Orient to develop its full scope in the mind, it is essentially important never to have travelled to the undefined region the term denotes. Illustrations, narrations, readings and a few small items should only give you the most inaccurate, unscholarly, even nebulous “knowledge” to deliver you with a good foil for your own dreams. It needs a blend of space and time, of ostensible truths and deceitful certainties, of tiny details and wide perspectives. This constitutes the ORIENT of the mind.’)

Predestined for this process denoted by Valéry – an unstructured, unsystematic fictional approach towards a foreign culture mainly based on fantasy and dream – was the harem. This secret, hidden place, inaccessible to the Western male’s curiosity seemed to be synonymous with promiscuity, with a promise to perfect sensual and sexual fulfilment – even if seen only from the outside. Its inaccessibility did not help at all to avoid wildest speculations, just the contrary: Lacking trusted facts about the real life in the harem, doubtful lores depending on western males’ fancies were invented and presented for real in literary descriptions. The less you knew for sure about the harem, the better it was for projecting a lot of secret wishes and desires upon the empty canvas of the term.

In the following, I’d like to give an account of some examples taken out of selected literary sources. How is a fictitious harem scene literally constructed? What are the intentions of the authors? The selected examples are intentionally taken out of different countries and different literary genres, the spectre ranging from letters to travelogues, from romances to poems. The time frame considered extends over the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries.


[…] Qu’entends-je au loin?… des cœurs… sont-ce des voix de femmes?

Des chants murmurés par des âmes?

Ces concerts!… suis-je au ciel? – Du sang… c’est le sérail!2

(‘[…] What do I hear from far away? … these choirs … are that women’s voices?

These chants whispered from the souls?

These concerts! … am I in heaven? – Blood… this is the sérail!’)

To western cultures, the ‘Orient’ often appeared as a menace as well as a strange, fascinating and seducing world. Reports of cruelties during the Turk wars were constantly perpetuated, myths of immeasurable treasures circulated in the Occident, and legends of the secret harem where hundreds of beautiful women were available to a mighty sultan’s disposal ignited the fancy of western males. Especially the idea of polygamy attributed to the oriental world seemed to be very tempting – in fact, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at least two bills were introduced to the English parliament to legally allow multiple marriage.3 At about the same time, in the German speaking world some treatises defending the Vielweyberei (‘polygamy’) were anonymously published.4

On the other hand, there were conservative authors such as the Swabian clergyman Salomon Schweigger (1551–1622) who, in the year 1608, published a Newe Reyßbeschreibung auß Teutschland Nach Constantinopel und Jerusalem […] Mit hundert schönen newen Figuren5 (‘New description of the journey from Germany to Constantinople and Jerusalem […] With Hundred fine new figures’). Though Schweigger never explicitely mentions the term harem, his book contains a detailed account of the seraglio building – from the outside.6 According to his vivid description, however, the daily life of the Turkish male does not seem to be too appealing; the Turkish husband is rather depicted as a deplorable person, mistreated by his wives who keep him on his toes all day long. While all the world shudders in the face of the Turkish army, their warriors shudder in the face of their ‘house dragons’ (or so Schweigger claims to know):

Eigentlich davon zu reden, sein die Türcken ihrer Weiber Trippelknecht, die da müssen die Haushaltung versorgen mit Brot, Fleisch, Kuchenspeis und ihnen allerlei Nahrung zutragen. In solcher Weil sitzen die Weiber daheim bei ihren guten Gespielen, verrichten ihr Geschwätz. Oder wenn sie gut Wetter haben und schön ist, spazieren sie hin und wider in der Stadt zu ihren Gespielschaften, ziehen rottenweis – etwan ihrer 10 oder 20 miteinander – oder gehen solcher Gespielschaft ins Bad. […] Diese Gnadfrauen treiben kein Arbeit, weder mit Spinnen, Nähen, Stricken, Weben, Wirken oder dergleichen weiblicher Arbeit. Sie wissen nicht, was Haushalten ist – unsere Kinder in der Christenheit, wann sie mit ihren Docken und mit sich kurzweiln, können dasjenig, was zur Haushaltung dienet, besser und mit mehrerm Verstand anschicken (als Essen-, Trinkenkochen etc.) dann diese türckischen Schlumpen ihr Hauswesen –, sondern sitzen daheim im Haus wie ein Gast, der sich keines Dings annimmt. Jedoch haben sie viel Magde […].7

(‘If it comes to that, the Turks are their women’s servants who have to organize bread, meat, cake, and other types of food. Meanwhile, the women are sitting at home with their female friends, chatting away. Or, if the weather is fine, they go for a walk to their companions, assemble outside in groups of 10 or 20, or go to the hamam. […] These idle women don’t do any housework, don’t spin, sew, knit, weave or do any other such female works. They don’t even know what housework is – our children in Christianity, when playing with their spindles, are more competent of and skilled in housematters such as the preparation of drinks and food, than these Turkish slumps – they behaving like guests in their houses, not caring for anything. But they do have maidservants […].’)

Perhaps Schweigger, a protestant clergyman, slightly ‘modulated’ his report with intent to convince his contemporary readers of the nonexistent desirability of the Turkish harem life. So, many of his descriptions are indeed tinted by negative feelings towards the relaxed oriental approach to physicalness – describing oriental belly-dancers, for example, Schweigger declined their dancing as voluptuous, shameless, and even obscene.8

Die Weibsbilder haben ihre besondere Musicam – in jeder Hand zwei Hölzlein, ein jedes größer dann ein Messerheft. Solche regieren sie mit Greifen und Kläppern, gauklen im selbigen mit ausgestreckten Armen. Ihrer 2 oder 3 treten also gegeneinander mit üppiger, leichtfertiger Bewegung des Leibs, singen schandbare, unzüchtige Buhlerliedlein darein […].

(‘The women have their very special music – two sticks in each hand, each of them bigger than a kniveblade. With these sticks, they are clapping, playing joyfully with their hands spread out wide. Two or three of them are confronting each other with lascivious, frivolous movements of their bodies, chanting disgraceful, obscene paramour’s songs […]’.)

To the severe Swabian cleric, singing and dancing (probably the joy of life in general?) must have appeared highly dubious. Accordingly, his travelogue also seems to be a deliberate sermon against a foreign culture. Schweigger’s susceptibility towards the Orient as a world of its own rights, is considerably narrowed by his own upbringing in an environment of Swabian Protestantism. There is an interesting fact we should always keep in mind: every travelogue author was gravely influenced by his own educational and cultural background, religion and upbringing, and every author, hence following his own intentions (f.e. using the foreign culture as a strong contrast or even as a means to hold up a mirror to the own culture, as Montesquieu did in his Lettres persanes in 1728).


Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an immense number of printed travelogues, novels, plays, opera libretti and poems dealt with oriental matters on very different levels and with very different intentions: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762), for example, strove for an unprejudiced view of the foreign culture and manners in her letters from the Turkey embassy where she lived between 1717 and 1718 with her husband, the British ambassador. Her letters were only posthumously printed in 1763, but there were several manuscript copies in circulation.9 Montagu must have been a very remarkable person; she tried to get to know as much as possible of the oriental mind and manners, she learnt Arabic and Persian to be able to read the foreign-language poetry without distorting the original style of speech by translation.10 To her new, oriental environment she accommodated herself in a way that she even had her son innoculated against smallpox with a method well-established in Turkey, but till then unknown in the occidental world.11 Her famous report of her visit to the Turkish hamam has been quoted many times – with an astounding richness of detail she describes the ostentatious interior of the hamam, and also the Turkish women’s reaction to her somewhat out of place appearance clothed in a fancy riding dress with a corset which she embarrassedly refused to take off.12

Montagu succeeded in getting admission to the inside of a hermetically closed female society, not only to the hamam but also to a harem – a fact that cannot be valued high enough. Her eyewitness report from a place usually inaccessibly hidden from (male) strangers is a document high in rank in the history of cultural exchange between Orient and Occident, and obviously Montagu was well aware of the uniqueness of her experiences in a foreign world writing to her sister Lady Rich:

Adieu, madam, I am sure I have now entertained you with an account of such a sight as you never saw in your life, and what no book of travels could inform you of, as ‘tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of these places.13

Her proudness to have seen Turkish female culture from the inside is barely hidden:

Now that I am a little acquainted with their ways I cannot forbear admiring, either the exemplary discretion, or extreme stupidity of all the writers that have given accounts of [the Turkish women].14

She gets access to the harem of the Sultana Hafise, the former favourite of the late emperor Mustafa, getting in touch with its inhabitants and attaining invaluable insights in the daily life of the women living there.15 In detail she describes the luxurious interior, the rich paintings and thick tapestries, the fine porcelain, opulent clothes and the abundance of jewellery. Montagu’s role as an early eyewitness is quite unique: In contrast to male authors she reports of what she has actually seen and experienced. In doing so, she is well aware of the danger to mix reality and exaggeration, or – expressed in a more positive way – poetic license:

Now do you imagine I have entertained you all this while with a relation that has, at least, received many embellishments from my hand? This, you will say, is but too like the Arabian Tales. – These embroidered napkins! and a jewel as large as a turkey’s egg! – You forget, dear sister, those very tales were written by an author of this country, and (excepting the enchantments) are a real representation of the manners here. We travellers are in very hard circumstances. If we say nothing but what has been said before us, we are dull, and we have observed nothing. If we tell anything new, we are laughed at as fabulous and romantic […].16

The ‘Arabian tales’ mentioned by Montagu are the famous stories of Alf layla wa-layla (‘Thousand and one nights’) the French orientalist Antoine Galland (1646–1715) accidentally came across. From 1704 to 1717 Galland published the first western (French) translation of this oriental fairytale collection under the title Les mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en français.17 For his adaption, Galland drew from several manuscripts containing oriental tales and lores; he not only compiled and translated the stories, but also transferred them into his own culture, changing gravely the originally simple style of speech to a courtly mannered style of eighteenth-century France, adapting the described oriental costumes to French court society fashion, and most notably, omitting the sexually explicit passages of the original – all unfortunately without laying open the many modifications he made.18 Nonetheless, the tales of the Arabian Nights – the title of the first English original translation19 – seemed to confirm at best all the current stereotypes linked to the harem: a forbidden, secret and dangerous place of desire, of presumed sensual pleasure, lush opulence and sexual satisfaction where many beautiful, lascivious oriental girls were waiting for the mighty sultan ruling unlimited over life and death of his inferiors.

Contrary to Montagu’s friendly attitude towards the ‘other’, authors such as Sir James Porter (1720–1786) who in 1768 published a travelogue of an oriental journey mostly repeated all the well-established oriental stereotypes derived partially from hearsay, partially from the tales of the Arabian Nights, partially from his own imagination.20 Nonetheless, he explicitly claims to describe the ‘authentic’ Orient based only on sources “of great veracity”21. In detail he deals with the education of the women in a harem: they are carefully educated, learn to speak several languages, their “great accomplishments are singing and dancing”, and “in many Harems, indeed, I have heard that they embroider and spin”22.

But, in general, it is known that the women who are sold or presented to their great men, either for wives or concubines, have their price and value regulated [mostly] according to those acquired graces, and artificial allurements, which they have industriously been taught: these are always such as may conduce to raise and inflame the passions. Hence they teach them vocal and instrumental music; […] and often such dances as to a modest spectator would appear rather indecent.23

He is a little undetermined whether to praise the beauty of Turkish women (“Whence the idea of the transcendent beauty of Turkish women has arisen, is difficult to say, unless it be from the warm imaginations of inventive travellers”24) or to reproach their lasciviousness. Finally, he reports a crass incident, which in his opinion, is very characteristic for Turkish women:

The Harems of great men, that is, all the ladies, and their attendants, are in the summer season frequently permitted to take an airing on foot, either in the fields on the borders of the Bosphorus, or other such public places: these parties generally consist of twenty of thirty, and sometimes of forty or fifty women […]25.

Two Christian foreigners by chance came to meet such a group of ladies from the distance, and suddenly

a confused noise of female voices behind them. Their curiosity prompted them to see, as well as hear: they turned short, and stopped. They found these voices proceeded from two Harems, composed of near forty women: their faithful watchmen the Blacks attended on each side, guarding them, though at some distance. One of the spectators stood longer, and with more earnestness to contemplate their figure and behaviour. He thought they would rather avoid than approach him. He was mistaken: for on a sudden, he found himself seized by a seeming dapper brisk girl, followed by the whole band; who first accosting him with indelicate amorous expletives, and after with soothing and tender expressions, attempted to unravel the mystery of his whole dress.26 […] he could not disengage himself from such numerous, determined assailants by threats nor entreaties; nor vanquish the vehemence of their curiosity, by representing the shame to which they exposed themselves, in consequence of a behaviour so […] publicly indecent.27

Obviously nobody helped the poor man in his struggle against “such importunate violators”.

The situation is depicted in full detail and with a certain sense of slapstick humour. Finally the poor guy is released because of another young man who, “either envying the other, or prompted by compassion at seeing his untoward situation, boldly advanced”, and the women “at once quitted hold of their first prey, flew on him [i.e. the second guy] with eager and inquisitive hands, and whilst he underwent the same treatment, gave the other time to reach his boat […] happy not to have been quite stripped, and to have been able to join the company with decent covering”28.

But Porter, having finished his lengthy report I quoted in an abridged form, comes to a fatal ‘conclusion’:

I must add, as the general opinion, and what I have always heard, that the Turkish ladies in general are rather immodest and libidinous.29

This generalization of the alleged lascivious Turkish woman – whether derived from the Arabian Nights tales, from male wishful thinking or from an Occidental feeling of superiority – is quite common in travelogues of the late eighteenth century.


Throughout the late eighteenth century, there is a deep cleft between travelogues and fictive literary descriptions. In plays, opera libretti, or romances, you would often find the beautiful unhappy female trapped in the harem of a cruel sultan, waiting for the noble savior helping her to escape from a detested, scary environment where her personal, individual freedom is bitterly restrained. This goes hand in hand with a certain redefinition of the term ‘love’ in the Age of Sentiment and Romanticism. ‘Love’ was more and more connotated with a strong emotional bond between two individuals: one single man and one single woman. This seemed to be diametrically opposed to the concept of a harem, consisting of one man and many women. But throughout the nineteenth century, harem and seraglio as hidden, mysterious, allegedly depraved places continued to kindle the imaginations of occidental men:

Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle

Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime –

Where the rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle

Now melt into softness, now madden to crime?30

Lord Byron’s (1788–1824) question taken from The Bride of Abydos, blatantly hinting at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749–1832) land of desire, Italy, “das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn”31 (‘the land where lemons flower’), unites the two main subjects shaping the western vision of the Orient and its poetry: eroticism and cruelty, often presented in the dim, enchanting light of an opulent, exotic stage suspending the moral concepts of Western civilization (which excluded multiple marriage). In literature, the Orient still meant the alluring land of desire, of hidden dreams, even if the bright shiny colors from time to time get muted to a thoughtful, reflecting melancholy. In Théophile Gautier’s (1811–1872) poem Sultan Mahmoud (1845), for example, the sultan complains about the “corps sans âmes” (‘body without soul’) in his fictitious harem:

Hélas ! j’ai six cent femmes,

Et pas d’amour!32

(‘Hark! I have six hundred wives,

And yet no love!’).

On the other hand, in travelogues of the first half of the nineteenth century, there are a lot of hearsay descriptions, allegedly ‘from inside the harem’, by dubious authors. Two especially crass examples of this male double standard come from 1835 to 1840, in the works of German travel writer and expert for horticulture Hermann Fürst von Pückler-Muskau (1785–1871),33 travelled through (among other countries) Algeria, Tunesia, Malta, Greece, Turkey, and finally Egypt, reporting in several widespread volumes about his oriental sojourns.34 In one travelogue, he gives a detailed second hand report in indirect speech assumedly delivered by one of the “hiesigen Konsulardamen” (‘ladies of the local consulate’). Through the mouth of this noble lady, Fürst Pückler describes Turkish belly-dancing in the harem (only with the downer that he has not been himself an eye-witness to the spectacle):

Jetzt erschienen zwei junge Maurinnen und begannen einen Tanz, der so häßlich, indezent und so ungemein widerlich für uns war, daß ich ihn nicht zu beschreiben vermag […].35

(‘At that moment two young moors arrived and began a dance that was so ugly, frivolous and extraordinary appalling to us that I’m not able to describe it properly […].’)

Nonetheless, Pückler gives a general depiction of the Turkish women’s appearance: “meistens Brünette[n] mit feurigen Augen, schwarzem Haar und größtenteils schönen Zähnen” (‘brown-coloured, with fiery eyes, black hair and mostly beautiful teeth’), but “sie tun bekanntlich alles, um dick zu werden, und man mästet sie zu diesem Behufe förmlich, wie bei uns die Gänse”36 (‘as is well-known, they do everything to fatten up, and therefore they are crammed like geese […]’). He also muses with a lot of prejudices about the intellectual qualities of the ladies in a harem which he has never seen from inside: “Die Naivität und der Mangel an Bildung der türkischen Frauen sollen alle Vorstellung übersteigen.”37 (‘The Turkish women’s simplicity and lack of education are said to be beyond all imagination.’)

Pückler reaches the climax of hypocrisy by commiserating “die armen Mädchen” (‘the poor girls’), “[die] fortwährend zur Frönung ihrer Lüste dienen müssen – vielleicht die demütigendste und empörendste aller Lagen für ein weibliches Gemüt”38 (‘who constantly have to be in attendance on their masters’ desires and to fulfil all his wishes – probably the most humiliating and outrageous condition for a female mind’). In Nubia, Pückler himself bought a female slave and took her to his domestic castle in Muskau where his wife was waiting – not too happy to be forced into a ménage-à-trois. The Nubian girl, however, died only some months later, unable to endure the cold climate.

In 1836, Julia Pardoe (1806–1862), an example for an unbiased author, travelled to Constantinople with her father Major Thomas Pardoe and issued an extensive travelogue entitled The City of the Sultan39 describing in a very detailed manner her Turkish journey. In the foreword to the first edition she described the difficulties to get in touch with domestic life in Turkey. On the other hand, she found this attitude quite understandable given how

cruelly they have been misrepresented by many a passing traveller, possessed neither of the time nor the opportunity to form a more efficient judgment.40

She intended

to hazard no assertion or opinion which did not emanate from personal conviction, and I found that I could not prove an honest chronicler if I merely contented myself with a hurried and superficial survey of a country constituted like Turkey.41

Her account comprises chapters on costume, jewellery and ceremonies as well as on political and diplomatic issues. Luckily, she was accompanied by an older Greek lady who was acting as an interpreter. Therefore, she was able to get many insights and enter even ‘forbidden’ areas such as the harem or the hamam, the

terrestrial paradise of Eastern women, where politics, social and national, scandal, marriage, and every other subject under heaven, within the capacity of uneducated but quick-witted females, is discussed […].42

Julia Pardoe described life in the harem as a lazy one: days mostly filled with sleeping, dressing, eating43, and women living a life between slavery – sweetened by sumptuousness and luxurious ambience – and seeming freedom which included even being able to visit female friends and relatives:

A Turkish woman consults no pleasure save her own when she wishes to walk or drive, or even to pass a short time with a friend: she adjusts her yashmac and feridjhe, summons her slave, who prepares her boksha, or bundle, neatly arranged in a muslin handkerchief; and, on the entrance of the husband, his inquiries are answered by the intelligence that the Hanoum Effendi is gone to spend a week at the harem of so and so. Should he be suspicious of the fact, he takes steps to ascertain that she is really there; but the idea of controlling her in the fancy, or of making it subject of reproach on her return, is perfectly out of the question.44

Only in rare cases, a Turk becomes the husband of two or more wives – more often,

he purchases slaves from Circassia and Georgia, who are termed Odaliques; and who, however they may succeed in superseding the Buyuk Hanoum, or head of the harem, in his affections, are, nevertheless, subordinate persons in the household; bound to obey her bidding, to pay her the greatest respect, and to look up to her as a superior.45

Julia Pardoe’s report is an astonishing example of impartiality, well written and abundant with facts – she even experienced a ceremony of Dancing Dervishes which was considered “‘an absurdity’”46 by some other travellers. Pardoe draws a remarkable conclusion characterized by religious tolerance:

That it does not accord with our European ideas of consistent and worthy worship is not only possible, but certain; yet I should imagine that no one could feel other than respect for men of irreproachable character, serving God according to their means of judgment.47

Similar to Montagu (and different from all the male authors who were denied access to the harem), Julia Pardoe is mostly striving for objectivity; only in rare cases she offers a negative personal opinion, for example, on the issue of the Turkish female’s head-dress: “Nothing can be imagined more hideous!”48, or on the topic of wildly coloured eyebrows “fine eyes, but disfigured by the dye with which she had made her eyebrows meet across her nose”49. Pardoe was clearly aware of the cultural differences between the European and Turkish way of life and thinking – a wide gap not easy to span. She also observes the “almost total absence of education among Turkish women, and the consequently limited range of their ideas”50, but still she does not devaluate them but rather notices in an apologetic way that

they do not, therefore, torment themselves with the myriad anxieties, and doubts, and chimeras, which would darken and depress the spirit of more highly-gifted females […] a woman in person, but a child at heart.51

Her vivid, brillantly written report is very interesting from a historico-cultural point of view; the most extraordinary part is probably where she, with a slight hint of irony, compares mutual preconceptions between Eastern and Western world:

How comparative is happiness! I never lay my head upon my pillow, but I am grateful to Providence that I was not born in Turkey; while the fair Osmanlis in their turn pity the Frank women with a depth of sentiment almost ludicrous. They can imagine no slavery comparable with ours – we take so much trouble to attain such slight ends – we run about from country to country, to see sights which we must regret when we leave them – we are so blent with all the anxieties and cares of our male relations – we expose ourselves to danger, and brave difficulties suited only to men – we have to contend with such trials and temptations, from our constant contact with the opposite sex – in short, they regard us as slaves, buying our comparative liberty at a price so mighty, that they are unable to estimate its extent; and then, the hardship of wearing our faces uncovered, and exposing them to the sun and wind, when we might veil them comfortably with a yashmac! Not a day passes in which they have commerce with a Frank, but they return thanks to Allah that they are not European women!52

Though she does not give up her own Western identity, Pardoe showes much understanding and curiosity for the foreign country and its inhabitants. She approaches the strange culture open-minded and without fear or prejudice.

In 1842, the German author Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer (1816–1877), after attending the “Oberstallmeister” (‘chief equerry’) Wilhelm von Taubenheim on a journey through various oriental countries, chose another strategy to invade the harem’s impenetrability.53 Firstly, he confirms all the stereotypes already found in Pückler’s description: Turkish women are – as is generally said and well-known – not highly educated and mostly too fat. With some degree of disappointment, Hackländer states that he has not seen one single women fulfilling the high criteria of the legendary beauty promised by the tales of the Arabian Nights; he would rather not risk his life for one of them by illegally entering the harem of a jealous Turk husband, even if such stories are told in many romances and poems. Turkish men love fat women, “eine Eigenschaft, die sie sich auch durch ihre faule Lebensart beizubringen wissen”54 (‘a feature they manage to achieve by their lazy way of living’) and so on and so on. Even if polygamy is allowed, most men don’t make use of this license, because they have “an einer schon genug […]”55 (‘because one is already enough’). Invited to dinner at the Reschid Pasha’s residence, Hackländer is quite surprised to find the rooms partially furnished in an European style:

Das Gemach ist wie der ganze Palast halb türkisch, halb europäisch eingerichtet; denn neben den Divans enthält es Fauteuils, schöne Spiegel und französische Kronleuchter. […] Die Divans waren hier das einzige Orientalische und Reschid Pascha hatte von seinem früheren Aufenthalte als Gesandter in Wien Stühle, Sopha’s, Consoletische, Spiegel etc. von dort mitgebracht.56

(‘The chamber is furnished half Turkish, half European, just as the whole palace; because next to the divans there are fauteuils, beautiful mirrors and French candelabra. […] In this room, only the divans were designed in an oriental manner, and from his former sojourns as an ambassador in Vienna, Reschid Pasha brought chairs, sofas, console tables, mirrors, and many other things from there.’)

His harem experience is transferred into a historical, mythical past: Most probably by bribery, he succeeded to get entrance to the new seraglio in Constantinople in the summer months when the building was unoccupied and empty. He later depicted his illegal visit as a spooky scenery of menace and lust: