Points of View, Literary Reflections

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Visit to a Harem

About This Resource

One of the first Western accounts of harem life was recorded by an eighteenth-century English noblewoman. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) visited the Ottoman Empire with her husband, the British ambassador to the Ottoman sultan’s court. Lady Montagu’s letters are a unique source on Turkish society because she was admitted into elite Turkish female society, where no European male could go. Her letters from Turkey were not published in her lifetime, but she revised them and gave a transcript to a family friend in 1761. The letters were widely circulated as travel writing became popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lady Montagu's description of the harem illustrates the way travel and diplomacy served as sources of Western imagery and attitudes, influencing the work of Orientalist painters, illustrators, and writers. Readers can find a twentieth-century perspective on harem life in Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, a book in the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf collection.

Text

To The Countess of Mar, Adrianople [now Edirne], April 18, 1717

….I was invited to dine with the Grand Vizier's lady, and it was with a great deal of pleasure I prepared myself for an entertainment which was never given before to any Christian.… I found the lady sitting on her sofa, in a sable vest. She advanced to meet me, and presented me half a dozen of her friends with great civility.  She seemed a very good looking woman, near fifty years old. I was surprised to observe so little magnificence in her house, the furniture being all very moderate; and, except the habits and number of her slaves nothing about her that appeared expensive. She guessed at my thoughts, and told me that she was no longer of an age to spend either her time or money in superfluities; that her whole expense was in charity, and her whole employment praying to God. There was no affectation in this speech; both she and her husband are entirely given up to devotion. He never looks upon any other woman; and, what is much more extraordinary, touches no bribes, notwithstanding the example of all his predecessors He is so scrupulous in this point, that he would not accept Mr. Wortley's present, till he had been assured over and over that it was a settled perquisite of his place at the entrance of every ambassador.

She entertained me with all kind of civility till dinner came... I returned her thanks and soon after [I] took my leave I was conducted back in the same manner I entered; and would have gone straight to my own house; but the Greek lady with me earnestly solicited me to visit the kiyaya's lady [the kiyaya was the deputy to the grand vizier], saying, he was the second officer in the empire, and ought indeed to be looked upon as the first, the Grand Vizier having only the name while he exercised the authority. I had found so little diversion in this harem, that I had no mind to go into another. But her importunity prevailed with me, and I am extreme glad that I was so complaisant.

All things here were with quite another air than at the Grand Vizier's; and the very house confessed the difference between an old devote and a young beauty. It was nicely clean and magnificent. I was met at the door by two black eunuchs, who led me through a long gallery between two ranks of beautiful young girls, with their hair finely plaited, almost hanging to their feet, all dressed in fine light damasks, brocaded with silver. I was sorry that decency did not permit me to stop to consider them nearer. But that thought was lost upon my entrance into a large room, or rather pavilion, built round with gilded sashes, which were most of them thrown up, and the trees planted near them gave an agreeable shade, which hindered the sun from being troublesome The jessamines [jasmines] and honeysuckles that twisted round their trunks shedding a soft perfume, increased by a white marble fountain playing sweet water in the lower part of the room, which fell into three or four basins with a pleasing sound. The roof was painted with all sorts of flowers, falling out of gilded baskets, that seemed tumbling down. On a sofa, raised three steps, and covered with fine Persian carpets, sat the kiyaya's lady, leaning on cushions of white satin embroidered; and at her feet sat two young girls, the eldest about twelve years old, lovely as angels, dressed perfectly rich, and almost covered with jewels. But they were hardly seen near the fair Fatima (for that is her name) so much her beauty effaced every thing I have seen, all that has been called lovely either in England or Germany and [I] must own that I never saw any thing so gloriously beautiful, nor can I recollect a face that would have been taken notice of near hers. She stood up to receive me, saluting me after their fashion, putting her hand upon her heart with a sweetness full of majesty, that no court breeding could ever give. She ordered cushions to be given to me, and took care to place me in the corner, which is the place of honour. I confess, though the Greek lady had before given me a great opinion of her beauty, I was so struck with admiration, that I could not for some time speak to her, being wholly taken up in gazing. That surprising harmony of features! that charming result of the whole! that exact proportion of body! that lovely bloom of complexion unsullied by art! the unutterable enchantment of her smile!... She was dressed in a caftan of gold brocade, flowered with silver very well fitted to her shape, and shewing to advantage the beauty of her bosom, only shaded by the thin gauze of her shift.  Her drawers were pale pink, green, and silver, her slippers white, finely embroidered; her lovely arms adorned with bracelets of diamonds, and her broad girdle set round with diamonds, upon her head a rich Turkish handkerchief of pink and silver, her own fine black hair hanging a great length in various tresses, and on one side of her head some bodkins of jewels. I am afraid you will accuse me of extravagance in this description….

She told me the two girls at her feet were her daughters, though she appeared too young to be their mother. Her fair maids were ranged below the sofa, to the number of twenty, and put me in mind of the pictures of the ancient nymphs.  I did not think all nature could have furnished such a scene of beauty.  She made them a sign to play and dance.  Four of them immediately began to play some soft airs on instruments between a lute and a guitar, which they accompanied with their voices, while the others danced by turns.  This dance was very different from what I had seen before. Nothing could be more artful, or more proper to raise certain ideas.  The tunes so soft! the motions so languishing! accompanied with pauses and dying eyes! half falling back, and then recovering themselves in so artful a manner, that I am very positive the coldest and most rigid prude upon earth could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be spoken of.... When the dance was over four fair slaves came into the room with silver censers in their hands, and perfumed the air with amber, aloes-wood, and other rich scents.  After this they served me coffee upon their knees in the finest Japan china, with soucoupes [saucers] of silver, gilt. The lovely Fatima entertained me all this time in the most polite agreeable manner, calling me often Guzel sultanum or the beautiful sultana, and desiring my friendship with the best grace in the world, lamenting that she could not entertain me in my own language.

When I took my leave, two maids brought in a fine silver basket of embroidered handkerchiefs; she begged I would wear the richest for her sake, and gave the others to my woman and interpretress.  I retired through the same ceremonies as before, and could not help fancying I had been some time in Mahomet's paradise, so much I was charmed with what I had seen….
The Sultana Hafiten is what one would naturally expect to find a Turkish lady, willing to oblige, but not knowing how to go about it; and it is easy to see in her manner, that she has lived secluded from the world.  But Fatima has all the politeness and good breeding of a court; with an air that inspires, at once, respect and tenderness; and now I understand her language, I find her wit as engaging as her beauty.  She is very curious after the manners of other countries, and has not that partiality for her own, so common to little minds.  A Greek that I carried with me, who had never seen her before (nor could have been admitted now, if she had not been in my train) shewed that surprise at her beauty and manner which is unavoidable at the first sight, and said to me in Italian, “This is no Turkish lady, she is certainly some Christian.” Fatima guessed she spoke of her, and asked what she said. I would not have told, thinking she would have been no better pleased with the compliment than one of our court beauties to be told she had the air of a Turk; but the Greek lady told it her; and she smiled saying, “It is not the first time I have heard so: my mother was a Poloneze [Polish], taken at the siege of Caminiec [a locality in Poland]; and my father used to rally me, saying, He believed his Christian wife had found some Christian gallant; for I had not the air of a Turkish girl.” I assured her, that, if all the Turkish ladies were like her, it was absolutely necessary to confine them from public view, for the repose of mankind; and proceeded to tell her what a noise such a face as hers would make in London or Paris. “I can’t believe you,” replied she agreeably; “if beauty was so much valued in your country as you say, they would never have suffered you to leave it.” Perhaps, dear sister, you laugh at my vanity in repeating this compliment: but I only do it as I think it very well turned, and give it you as an instance of the spirit of her conversation.

Source

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley, and Lady Louisa Stuart. The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1893, pp. 314–319, 348–350. Image credit: Lady Montagu in Turkish dress, by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756, National Museum of Warsaw, Poland.  Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Liotard_Lady_Montagu.jpg?qsrc=3044.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #91: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Visit to a Harem", October 31, 2014 http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/items/show/91.

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