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Lavish opulence within a confined life
on October 2, 2002
This book could be considered a companion to "Inside the Seraglio" by John Freely. Whereas the latter volume describes the harem from the point of view of the Sultan, this book describes it from the point of view of the women. The author herself lived in Turkey, in an old building that was once the harem of a pasha. Her paternal grandmother, Zehra, lived in a harem until 1909 when the institution was abolished and declared unlawful after the fall of Abdulhamid, the last Osmanli Sultan.
"Harem" is lavishly illustrated with photographs, Turkish woodcuts, and Persian miniatures of tastefully clad ladies within their private world. There are also paintings of what European artists imagined (for the most part) the interior of a Turkish bath or seraglio might look like. "La grand Odalisque" by Ingres adorns the cover and Gérôme, Delacroix, Renoir, and John Frederick Lewis are among other European artists whose paintings embellish these pages.
The details of everyday life in a wealthy sultan's harem (the author focuses on the Seraglio of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul) stuns the reader's senses. Dinners were set on velvet cloths embroidered with silver. The napkin rings were mother-of-pearl set with diamonds. The sherbet might have been concocted from the essence of violets or roses, as well as more commonplace fruit juices.
And the clothing! Veils of sheerest muslin, tasseled caps of velvet embroidered with pearls, trousers of Bursa silk, vests and girdles encrusted in precious stones. European males may have fantasized about the state of undress in a harem (as witnessed by their paintings), but their wives and daughters--those who were fortunate enough to actually visit a harem--wrote home about the intricate and beautiful costumes. Even the color of a lady's handkerchief could convey an unspoken message, rather like the Victorian Language of Flowers. Red signified passionate love. Purple meant 'suffering from love.' A torn, burned handkerchief signaled that its owner was dying of heartache.
Wives, concubines, and female relatives were not the only inhabitants of a rich man's harem. There were also the eunuchs. The author goes into quite a bit of detail (as she does with everything in this wonderful book) about the different types of eunuchs and how they were created. Male readers might even want to skip this chapter since it involves verbs like 'bruising and crushing,' 'dragging,' 'twisting,' and 'searing.' A prepubescent boy had the best chance of surviving the various operations.
Eunuchs were also employed by the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, as attendants for the female worshippers.
One of the questions most frequently asked of the author is whether harems still exist, and in the last section of her book, "Harems Today," she answers, "yes, they do." The only disappointment in this otherwise fantastic and opulent history is that Alev Lytle Croutier was not able to include a photograph of a modern harem. A still from the James Bond movie, "The Spy Who Loved Me" has to serve as a rather silly substitute.