The Search for the Exotic: Post Enlightenment Images of Turkey

If Paris can be considered the pivotal city of European civilisation in the late eighteenth century as a result of French Revolution and its innovative impact upon social, political and cultural life, in the nineteenth century London began to assume similar prominence, as England became the first industrialised country and started to capture economic markets all over the world. Overseas, by the end of the Napoleonic wars, the commercial dominance of France in the Levant was being reversed in favour of England. A new economic era opened up for England where factories sought new markets overseas under the protection of a strong imperial sea force.

 Despite the scientific spirit of the nineteenth century that found major expression in advances in biological sciences and in medicine, coupled with the strong social and reforming temper of the times, pornography and pornographic writing became a very popular industry during the Victorian period especially through fiction and travel books (76). Eroticism was particularly repressed within British Victorian society and transferred either into the world of underground pornography, or to foreign lands, such as Ottoman Empire and other Eastern countries. As Mary Ann Stevens argues:

One of the preoccupations which profoundly affected the western understanding of the Near East was the belief that this region could satisfy the West's urge for exotic experience. Exoticism meant the artistic exploration of territories and ages in which the force flights of the imagination were possible because they lay outside the restrictive operation of classical rules. Despite the existence of 'Turqueries' in the eighteenth century, Romanticism's celebration of the primacy of the imagination, together with the pattern of early nineteenth century political and scholarly interests, guaranteed a position for the Islamic lands as one of the most effective locations for western expressions of exoticism (77).

When Kabbani points out that one dominant image of the Orient in nineteenth century writing is the Oriental sensuality and exoticism mainly associated with imaginary fantasies about Oriental women she makes a similar comment that the East is envisaged within the context of Romanticism as a repository for desires which were increasingly unsatisfied in a Europe dedicated to materialism:

This Coleridgian use of the East as a metaphor for sensuality and seductive sonority changed, later in the nineteenth century, into an explicit sexual message....The Orient of the western imagination provided respite from Victorian sexual repressiveness. It was used to express for the age the erotic longings that would have otherwise remained suppressed (Europe’s Myths of the Orient, 36). 

 The western taste for the exotic in the nineteenth century can be seen as the legitimisation of an illicit desire for eroticism through representing the unacceptable side of Eastern life. Some writers of literary pornography during this period employed Eastern settings and characters to satisfy their readers' erotic expectations about mysterious peoples such as the Turks. Texts such as Byron's The Giaour and Don Juan (especially cantos 5-8) which focus on images of the Oriental harem reveal the figure of the veiled Eastern girl symbolising the colonial Other, created by a narrative structure in which a male attempts to liberate a female object from the tyranny of the harem and is interrupted or arrested by a stereotypical patriarchal aggressor who prevents him from possessing the woman. It has been argued that the Orient figures as the harem fantasy of European imperialism that shows 'the East' as the obscure object of western desire:

The Western male could possess the native woman by force of his dominion over her native land; she was subjugated by his wealth, his military might, and his access to machinery. She was his colonial  acquisition, but one that he pretended enjoyed his domination and would mourn his departure (Europe’s Myths of the Orient, 81).

 In fiction, The Lustful Turk (first published in 1828) is an outstanding example of a convention that consists largely of a series of letters written by its heroine, Emily Barlow, to her friend, Sylvia Carey. When the heroine sails from England for India in June 1814 their ship is attacked by Turks and afterwards they are taken to a sumptuous harem (78). In this epistolary novel readers quickly encounter bizarre sexual scenes and stories associated with the lecherous and cruel character of the Turkish Dey. All the erotic fantasies are narrated through Emily as she talks to the other enslaved girls in the harem. For example, one of the captives in the harem is a Greek girl named Adianti, who tells the tragic story of how her father and brother were slaughtered before her eyes by the Turks.

 From an integrated perspective of pornography and cruelty, Stephen Marcus makes an analogy between the Dey himself and the Byronic hero figure and remarks that 'The Lustful Turk uses the trappings of the Gothic romance in much the same way as it uses Byron. The Abbots, monasteries, novices, burials, illicit relations, etc. all function as parts of a tissue of  reference through which the whole of reality is sexualised' (The Other Victorians, 210). Each of the sexual fantasies represented in The Lustful Turk follows a similar narrative line, starting with a virgin, reluctant, proud, chaste, a young woman who  then undergoes a series of violent experiences which ritually include various types of torture like beating, flogging, and defloration in the form of rape.

 Apart from the sadistic masculine image of a figure such as the Dey in The Lustful Turk, there are also feminine variants depicting veiled Turkish women as figures of repressed sexual desire. A prominent motif in books by travellers in the nineteenth century is the representation of Turkish women as lecherous and voluptuous under despotic suppression. The heroines of Byron's Turkish Tales (1813), Leila, Zuleika, and Gulnare are portrayed as beautiful hopeless victims of a despot, for whose sake the western protagonist, or the Byronic hero, confronts his antagonist. The image of these women comes out with curious elements of romance; the 'veil' with the unfailing attraction of the hidden, and the 'harem' with that of the forbidden.

 Another similar example is Pierre Loti’s Aziyade, a novel about a slave girl, which tells a story of the Turkish woman’s surrender to the European hero who is an English officer named Loti not by force but because he has seduced her with his personal charm and holds her in willing captivity. When the hero is about to leave with his regiment, Aziyade loses all force, falls ill, suffers in inconsolable anguish, and after his departure, dies. As Loti shows, what the European in the nineteenth century liked to cherish is only a sublimated form of Eastern women’s real dependency on Western men (Europe’s Myths of the Orient, 80). Loti, the officer, came to the East and was enticed by the love of a passionate Turkish girl.

 A similar attitude to Oriental women appeared more clearly when Loti made a speech entitled 'La Femme Turque' (the Turkish Woman) before a large gathering of European women in the conference on 'Feminine Life', which he concluded with the message; 'Open the cages, open all the harems. Yet, don't open them too quickly, for fear that the young, imprisoned birds should take a frantic flight before knowing properly where their inexperienced and fragile wings will take them' (79). According to Loti's interpretation of Oriental women, which is quite similar to that of Byron, one might imagine that 'they could be manipulated easily by their dominating masters, and further, this masculine paradigm presented these women, like their Occidental sisters, as actually craving male domination' (Pierre Loti, 3).

 As she thinks that Pierre Loti's attitude toward Oriental women is particularly worth studying for several reasons, Szyliowicz, in her Pierre Loti and the Oriental Women (1988), points out that ‘since all the Oriental women essentially support and ratify their Occidental lovers, it is proper to conclude that Loti created these fictional characters as wish-fulfilment fantasies, to simultaneously reinforce and magnify his manhood’ (Pierre Loti, 118). Eventually, in the case of Oriental or exotic women created by Loti, the reader faces a different form; they are simple, primitive, dependent, often helpless, and they worship the hero as though he were God. 'And despite the fact that he was still a product of his Occidental milieu and the prejudices with which he was raised, he prided himself on his objectivity toward various lands which he visited' (Pierre Loti, 12).

 As a consequence of nineteenth-century literary attitudes, that is to project suppressed sexual fantasies onto foreign lands, pornography written in the West with an Oriental setting and sexual peculiarities (sometimes associated with brutality and sadism) was not only popular in the nineteenth-century novel (see in particular The Lustful Turk-1828), but was also introduced into travel books, especially those written by male travellers such as Burton, Lane, and Flaubert. Burton fantasised about traditional harem life that: the Moslem harem is a great school for this 'Lesbian (which I call Atossan) love'; these tribades are mostly known by peculiarities of form and features, hairy cheeks and upper lips, gruff voices, hircine odour and the large projecting clitoris with erectile powers (80).

In another description of the harem, Burton emphasises the lechery and lust of the Oriental women: 'In many harems and girls' schools tallow-candles and similar succedonia are mainly forbidden and bananas when detected are cut into four so as to be useless' (81).

 Nineteenth-century travellers tended to imply exotic and erotic elements in references to magic, mystery and bizarre practices, and the rest was left to the reader's imagination. When Alexander Kinglake pictures Istanbul in terms of beauty associated with the sensual attraction of the veiled ladies, he recounts one episode:

Of her very self you see nothing, except the dark, luminous eyes that stare against your face, and the tips of the painted fingers depending like rosebuds from out of the blank bastions of the fortress. She turns, and turns again, and carefully glances around her on all sides,...then suddenly withdrawing the yashmak, she shines upon your heart and soul with all the pomp and might of her beauty (82).

 Upon his first entrance into Istanbul via the Balkans in Around the World on A Penny-Farthing (first published in 1888 as Around the World on A Bicycle), Thomas Stevens's early utterances about the city refer to an exotic evocation of the harem, its eunuch and ladies:

I pass the country residence of a wealthy pasha, and see the ladies of his harem seated in a meadow hard by, enjoying the fresh morning air. They form a circle, facing inward, and the swarthy eunuch in charge stands keeping watch at a respectful distance (83).

He depicts Istanbul as a city with mysterious and exotic features: ‘Here, in this bewildering maze of buying and selling, the peculiar life of the Orient can be seen to perfection; the “mysterious veiled lady” of the East is seen thronging the narrow traffic-ways and seated in every stall’ (Around the World, 93).

 Subsequently, as Donald Rosenthal argues, such Romantic elements of Oriental women found their echo in the form of increasingly explicit eroticism in paintings, particularly towards the end of the nineteenth century. The idyllic trysts, taken from Byronic sources, that were often revealed during the Romantic period were gradually overshadowed by more overtly erotic wish-fulfilment safely projected onto a distant Muslim world (84).

 While criticising the place of the Oriental woman in nineteenth century painting, Linda Nochlin examines the operation of male sexual/power fantasies both in the black/white contrast, with its implicit racism latent in the slaves having their white skin washed by black servants:

in the purest distillation of the Orientalist bath scene-like Geromes, or Debat-Ponsin's the Message of 1883-the passivity of the lovely white figure as opposed to the vigorous activity of the worn, unfeminine ugly black one, suggests that the passive nude beauty is being prepared for service in the Sultan's bed (85).

 Nevertheless, this eroticism partly out of fantasising about illicit sexual practices associated with the harem, from which westerners (western men in particular) were barred, did not substantially change from the time when Lady Mary Montagu described her perception of the Turkish Bagnio or female baths in 1717, noting ‘Tis no less than Death for a Man to be found in one of these places' (86).The negative representation of Turkish women as inferior or notorious in association with the harem and the veil has sometimes been criticised by other nineteenth century travellers such as Robert Curzon with some nuances.

When Curzon emphasises the misinterpretation of the harem as a scandalous place in his The Monasteries of the Levant (1849) he tries to replace it with the genuine sense and connotation of the term:

'harem', nevertheless is not a genuine synonym for scandal, the most conservative Turkish husband of one wife had a harem, since it simply means 'wife'. It is used too, as an abbreviation for 'haremlik', an architectural term referring to the houses of the wealthy. Large houses were built in two parts, the ‘haremlik’ for women and ‘selamlik’ for men (87).

 It has also been emphasised on several occasions by especially women critics and scholars such as Rana Kabbani, Irene L. Szyliowicz and Susan Bassnett that it was very difficult for male travellers to have access to the harem or Seraglio. While Bassnett specifically remarks that 'women travellers in Turkey and other Oriental lands had access to the closed room that provided the locus of sexual fantasy for the European men excluded from them, and so their accounts derive from the first hand experience, rather than from imagined impressions of harem life' (88). Kabbani specifies that 'the Orient for Burton was chiefly an illicit space and its women convenient chattels who offered sexual gratification denied in the Victorian home for its unseemliness' (Europe’s Myths of the Orient, 7). Moreover, Irene L. Szyliowicz remarks that historians and social scientists today demonstrate that the traditional portrayal of women in Muslim societies has been biased and based on western judgements. European ethnocentrism and male chauvinism have combined to account for this phenomenon (Pierre Loti, 1-3).

 As Martina Rieker and Reza Hammani argue in their “Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism” it can be argued that the degraded images of the harem and the veil associated with Oriental women that were formed in nineteenth century travel writing have continued to dominate western discourse about the Middle East (89) and Turkey in particular.



76-Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1966) p. 2. Further reference to this work will be given after quotations in the text or footnotes, by mentioning its title, 'The Other Victorians'.

77-Mary Ann Stevens, “Western Art and its Encounter with the Islamic World” in The Orientalists: Delocroix to Matisse (London: Royal Academy and Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1984) p. 17-18.

78-See the detailed analysis of the novel in The Other Victorians, pp. 195-217.

79-'Et je dis avec eux, mais non sans inquietude:oui, ouvrez toutes les cages,ouvrez tous les harems. Cependant ne les ouvrez pas trop vite, de peur que les jeunes oiseaux prisonniers neprennent un vol eperdu, avant de bien savoir encore ou les conduiront leurs ailes inexperimentees et fragiles'. See Pierre Loti 'La Femme Turque' in Quelques aspects du vertige mondial (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1917), p. 182.

80-Richard Burton, The Book of Thousand Nights and a Night 17 vols. (London: Burton Club, 1886), vol.2, p. 204.

81-The Book of Thousand Nights and a Night vol.7, p. 238.

82-Alexander Kinglake, Eothen, or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East 1st. pub. 1844 (Oxford: Oxford University Press., 1982), pp. 36-7.

83-Thomas Stevens, Around the World on A Penny-Farthing (London: Arrow Books, 1991), p. 85. Further reference to this work will be given after quotations in the texts, by mentioning its shortened title, 'Around the World'.

84-Donald A. Rosenthal, Orientalism, the Near East in French Painting (1800-1880) (New York: Rochester, 1982), Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, p. 9.

85-Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient” in Art in America, vol. 71, pt.5, 1983, p.126.

86-Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Complete Letters (1763) ed. R. Halsband, 3 vols. (Oxford:University Press, 1965). Recent Letters in vol. i.1708-1720.

87-Robert Curzon, Monasteries of the Levant (London: George Newnes, 1897), p. 41.

88-Susan Bassnett, Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p.112-3.

89-Reza Hammani and Martina Rieker, “Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism” in New Left Review, 170, 1988, p.93.