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Tag Archives: The Ottoman Empire

When I started writing my October historical release, Indiscreet, I didn’t intend for the story to be set anywhere but in England. But my heroine, Sabine, had been so terribly wronged, she and her uncle (and guardian) had to leave the country. Well. Where would they go? Europe smack in the middle of the Napoleonic wars would be a bit dicey.

For some reason my brain brought up the Ottoman Empire, as mentioned in previous posts here. Syria happened to be a province at the time and Aleppo, one of its most famous cities, had a crucial location and role in the period. This city was a main stop for caravans going to the Orient or back toward the port city of Iskenderun. But Aleppo (Haleb, as it is more accurately spelled today) isn’t the only fascinating place in Syria.

The Roman city of Serjilla is one place I’d love to visit.
Picture courtesy of

Then there’s the castle of Bagras, of which Wikipedia has this to say:

Bagras or Baghras is the name of a town and nearby castle in present-day Turkey, in the Amanus Mountains.

The castle, properly known as Gastun (or Gaston, Guascon, Gastim) provided a base for a force to cover the Syrian Gates, the passes between İskenderun and Antioch. It was built in two levels around a knoll, the fortification resembling Armenian work, and with water supplied by aqueducts.[1]

It was built about 1153 by the Knights Templars[1] and held by them or by the Principality of Antioch until it was forced to capitulate to Saladin on 26 August 1189. It was retaken in 1191 by the Armenians (under Leo II),[1] and their possession of it became a major point of contention between them and the Antiochenes and Templars.

After much negotiation, it was finally returned to the Templars in 1216. According to the Armenian chronicles, it withstood a siege by the forces of Aleppo at about this time.[2] After the fall of Antioch to Baibars in 1268, the garrison lost heart, and one of the brothers deserted and presented the keys of the castle to him. The remaining defenders decided to destroy what they could and surrender the castle. Despite the loss of the castle, Hethum II of Armenia and Leo IV of Armenia soundly defeated a Mamluk raiding force in the nearby pass in 1305.

In America, we tend to think of England has having some real but the UK has nothing on a country like Syria (Some very interesting information at that link). And with vistas like this:

There’s also the water wheels in the Syrian city of Hama. When Syria talks about history, don’t be surprised if they’re talking about the Iron Age. Here’s a great link to a website that had pictures of traditional costumes You probably won’t be surprised if I tell that I wasn’t very far into my research before I wanted to visit Syria.

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Today’s post is a bit, well, risque, so if you’re offended by art depicting nude women, I suggest you click away now. Also, I am NOT an art historian. The commentary is all mine and surely lacks any professional insights that would make this more coherent and detailed. But that never stopped me from forming an opinion!

Nevertheless, I think it’s quite plain that these paintings say more about the painter and the targeted observer than they do about life in a harem at any time. One can certainly extrapolate — women sequestered from men, expected to sexually service a single man. For the European man whose religion officially limited him to one wife and, culturally, to a single mistress, the thought of having a (cough) harem of women in service to him at his very male whims, must have been quite beyond titillating. I have no doubt some men disapproved. But the paintings suggest a good many were fascinated…

These women are all youthful, I found no pictorial mention of women who had lived past the state of desirability. And the majority of men with harems did not have a whole city of woman at their beck and call — they were perhaps a few women, but I suspect it depended upon the man’s rank and wealth. The Sultan was another matter; he did have thousands of women in the Seraglio.

From all the accounts I read, Caucasian women were preferred for the harems. There seems to have been some discomfort about what was, in effect, the sexual slavery of social cohorts. Slavery is for Others, after all. Turks and Arabs routinely raided Eastern Europe and into Spain for women to sell. This “White Slavery” did stop, officially, by the very late 1700’s.

You’ll notice that this Ingres painting features two extremely pale women. The servant standing in the background is dark skinned and, in this image, not identifiable as female. If this is a man, he is a eunuch. And since he is in the presence of women, his penis has been removed entirely. Eunuchs who worked in the harem but outside the women’s quarters had their testicles removed or damaged beyond fertility but retained, generally, the rest of the package. Note, too, that the more naked the woman, the paler the skin. What does that suggest about notions of what and who was sexually desirable? Is there some racial anxiety here?


Of course, this is not a real Odalisque. Again, note the pale, European skin. A real Odalisque would have been a servant. European notions of the harem, and anxieties, not completely unfounded, about Caucasian women in the harem, about women and their sexuality are subtly expressed here. Remember, this is not a factual depiction, but rather a depiction of the European conception of Caucasian women whose sole purpose was the sexual pleasure of a man.

A very famous Ingres painting I’m sure you all recognize. Same remarks as above.

Gentleman in his Hare,
This painting shows a gentleman being entertained by the ladies in his harem. He is seated in the right corner of the divan, this was the place of honor, as it were. Servants and lower ranking individuals would not be permitted on the divan, they would sit on the floor. He is as you can see, with (presumably) his favorite at his side whilst he is entertained by other women. There are some quite lovely architectural and furniture details — the divan, which runs the perimeter of the room, the high windows and beautiful scroll work and filigrees. The table to the right is quite authentic as well.

Interior of a Harem

This sketch shows the interior of the Seraglio. They had to be efficient in order to house so many women!

Sultan's seat
Ah, one can just imagine the Sultan being entertained by his very accomplished concubines. To the right is a fountain, very much like you’d see in one of the baths.

Concubine in the Hammam

This woman (again, note that the naked woman is very pale, the servant is not…) is in the hammam, the Turkish bath. She is wearing pattens on her feet so she doesn’t fall and break her neck. European notions of rank, sexuality and desirability once again in full display.

Harem Beauties
Lest you come away thinking that all the woman painted as members of a harem were white, they weren’t. Here’s a woman of color. Though I feel compelled to note she is arranged in an inferior position, with the paler woman plainly the focus. After looking a dozens of such pictures the commonality was pretty obvious.

The women are typically depicted as sitting around with nothing much to do but wait for the Male (and not any old male, but The Male to have sex with her.) Again, this says more about the state of mind of the (male) painter than it does about actual life in the harem.

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When I realized that my October 2009 historical from Berkley Indiscreet was going to be set, for the most part, in the Ottoman Empire, I had to do some research. It is a fact of my writing process that important developments develop in media res, so it’s not as though I knew ahead of time I wanted to set a story outside of England.

At some point during the writing, fairly early on, I am glad to say, I discovered — that’s how it seems to me, I don’t decide, I discover– that my hero and heroine meet in Turkey. Oh, how interesting, I thought. And then I thought I’d better do some research about that.

Some random Facts

Foreigners (non-Muslims for the most part) were not permitted to live in Constantinople. Instead, the extensive European community lived just outside the capital, in two cities, for the most part; Pera and Buyukdere. There were European diplomats from Britain, France, Russia, the Netherlands and Prussia among many others. The British had a not insignificant military presence, as did the French. And these men brought their families or were married here and started families. There was great alarm on one occasion when the wife of a British diplomat received a Turkish dignitary in her home in her husband’s absence. But there wasn’t the feared international incident with the potentate taking offense at being entertained by a woman without her head covered. By all accounts he was charmed. There was as well as subtext of his having found her sexually attractive. Were overtures subsequently made? There are hints.

The heavy diplomatic and military presences shouldn’t come as a surprise since Napoleon was mucking about in Egypt at the time. Egypt was fairly unstable internally, though Ibrahim Pasha had a firm grip once he’d massacred the Mameluks. Earlier in the 1800’s, British and Turkish troops marched through the desert to Egypt in order to put on a show of force. British accounts of the desert march were not particularly complimentary of the Turkish troops which were not trained with the European love of discipline. I’m quite sure prejudice and ignorance of culture and custom played a large role in the troubles.

It was customary for British ships to fire cannons (salute) when they passed the Seraglio, a word by the way, that was specific to the sultan’s harem, despite the definition having since been often misused to refer to any harem.

There were, reputedly, over 30,000 women in the Seraglio. Parents sold their daughters into the Seraglio in the hopes that she would catch the sultan’s eye and bear him a son. A son would immediately elevate the woman into favored status. Such a woman had political influence. The sons, however, did not have the princely life you’d imagine. They were confined to their own quarters, uneducated for the most part, and deliberately isolated so they would not represent a threat to the Sultan. Historians have speculated that this isolation and lack of training of any possible successor deeply contributed to the decline of the Empire.

British accounts of sojourns in Ottoman Turkey are overwhelmingly, gushingly complimentary of the horses. Arabians, of course. They were small but hardy, fast, tireless and smart, subsisting on meager rations. A day’s journey of 25 miles through rugged country was quite common. The British were not so complimentary of their treatment of these Arab horses. The local custom was to leave the horses saddled, wet blankets and all, for the entire course of journey. Most every account takes disapproving note of this practice. The Bedouins were considered heroic with respect to their horsemanship.

I came across some interesting spellings of city names which I conformed to current spellings where those cities still exist — most do. Iskenderun, on the Mediterranean coast of modern day Turkey, was commonly spelled Skanderoon. Beirut was often spelled Bayroot. Iskenderun, by the way, is named after Alexander the Great. It is not far from the pass where he defeated Darius of Persia.

The Syrian city of Aleppo, in ancient times and presently called Haleb, may well be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world — at least 5,000 years. Aleppo was once the crossroads for caravans from all directions. It was the trade center of the ancient world and for centuries beyond.

Throughout Syria, Serjillo to the north for example, there are Roman ruins, entire villages, actually, that stand as if only recently abandoned. Crusaders from England, Richard The Lionheart among them, came to what is now Syria, some were imprisoned in the Citadel of Aleppo.

The Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire, with Aleppo still dominant, was a religious melting pot. Christians (Nazrins), Druze (often spelled Drooze, in period writings) the Wahabists, Muslims all made their homes here.

The Levant Company was the functional equivalent of the East India Company. The diplomatic corp was funneled through and approved by the Levant Company. So, often, was foreign policy. King George, and later, the Regent, had frustratingly little input — in part as a function of time. It’s difficult to conduct foreign policy when instructions to the region might take 6 months to get there and by then, conditions may well have changed. The Levant Company, in effect, conducted British foreign policy in the region and you better believe commercial interests superseded politics more than once.

Well, there you go. A quick and random overview of the Regency era Ottoman Empire.

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