The Development of Orientalism in the Ottoman Imperial Harem

By: Adam Hasewinkle

Department of History, The University of Texas at San Antonio


This essay is an expansion of Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. This research demonstrates that Orientalist discourse developed in the West long before the periods of history that Said examines. As this essay shows, Orientalism developed over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the European-Ottoman (Christendom-Islamic) world’s power dynamics shifted. Orientalist discourse defined European perceptions of the Ottoman and the broader Islamic world for centuries that are still prevalent today. By targeting the Ottoman’s premier institution of the Imperial Harem, the West could conjure perceptions of Ottoman sexuality, morality, politics, and slavery from imagination. Orientalist discernments of the Imperial Harem defined the “others” to Europeans by exhibiting what Europeans were not. This essay employs primary literature, paintings, and photographs to display the development of Orientalism from the sixteenth century onward and how the Orient of European imagination became preferred to Ottoman reality.

Orientalism is a theory developed and published by scholar Edward Said in his text Orientalism in 1978. Orientalism is a perspective that distinguishes the “Orient” from Western civilization. The Orient, of which Said writes, refers to what is commonly known as the Middle East, while the Western civilization refers to the Imperial Powers of Europe and the United States. Said contends that Orientalism is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”[1] Orientalism eradicates any chance for accurate understandings of peoples and geographies that are different. It takes away from the reality of these cultures and conjures stereotypes that replace the truth. Those deemed “oriental” were given such a label by people outside the so-called Orient. The origins of such a view were to undermine the peoples there, to exploit and colonize those deemed naturally subaltern. While being a product of European imagination, the Orient has continually been viewed as a real place by the West throughout history.

Despite the validity of this proclamation, Said’s book ignores a significant factor in the development and perpetuation of Orientalist discourse. Said focuses on the development of Orientalism through British and French imperialism in the Orient during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how it has continued throughout the twentieth century concerning American interests and occupations of the Middle East. Said’s narrow focus does not permit an examination of the West’s crucial relationship with the Ottomans which existed as a powerful Muslim empire on the fringes of Christendom. This essay will expand upon Said’s theory of Orientalism, examining the development of Orientalism in the late Renaissance period through an investigation of the Ottoman-European relationship. The focal point of this study will be the Ottoman Imperial Harem, utilizing primary sources from various mediums to demonstrate how the Ottoman Imperial Harem became a driving fascination for the West to push Orientalist perceptions of the Ottomans that would outlast the empire.

The Ottoman-European relationship, which existed before European colonialism, is a significant component in the foundation and endurance of Said’s theory of Orientalism. The development of the West’s relationship with a Muslim state in such proximity to Christendom motivated Orientalist perceptions of the Islamic world in Europe. The Ottoman Empire’s relationship to the West is integral to understanding Orientalism. Edward Said’s exclusion of an examination of this relationship hinders understanding of how Orientalism became so widespread in the West before colonialism and after.

Orientalism is also crucial for European identities and cultural development by having the Orient (or other) to contrast with itself.[2] Donald Quataert argued that the Ottomans served as a way for Europeans to define themselves. Europeans looked to Ottoman culture sometimes to determine qualities they wished to possess, but they also utilized Ottoman culture to express what they were not.[3]  Quataert says that “[e]ven in the nineteenth century, European imaginings marked the Ottoman East as the degenerate site of pleasures supposedly absent or forbidden in the civilized and vigorous West, where Europeans by contrast allegedly were restrained, sober, just, sexually controlled, moderate, and rational.”[4]

Orientalism influenced and coincided with how the West understood the Ottomans. The “invincible Turk” narrative would eventually lose its place in European minds, as European imperial power would rise in the centuries after the Renaissance. Orientalist motifs in literature and paintings would become more commonplace. As the imperial prowess of the West grew, its perception of the Ottomans through the lens of Orientalism increased. The Imperial Harem became fundamental for the West’s perception of Ottoman politics, sexuality, morality, and slavery. The Orient of European imagination became more important than the reality of the Ottoman world.

The Ottoman Imperial Harem was one such Islamic institution that was immensely Orientalized and shaped Westerners’ understandings of the Ottoman state and society. The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman Sultan was an institution that was off-limits to outsiders; only the women, the eunuchs, and the Sultan could enter. This secrecy led Western observers to begin fantasizing and mystifying the harem and, more importantly, its women. Orientalizing the Ottoman harem shaped how Westerners understood Ottoman politics, slavery, and sexuality. Orientalism created the perception of the Ottoman Sultan as despotic, his underlings merely slaves to his will, and the women of his harem nothing more than sex objects. However, the reality of the harem and its inhabitants was much more complex. The harem was indeed an institution of slavery, but elite slavery.

Moreover, this is not to detract from the oppression these women faced; they lost control of their sexual autonomy, were forcibly uprooted from their homes, and relocated to Istanbul (Constantinople) to serve the Sultan. Nevertheless, they were crucial to the Ottoman political/social structure, and slavery in the Ottoman world was not a social death like in the transatlantic context. Enslaved people were essential to Ottoman society from the lowest to highest ranks in the social ladder.

To understand the effect of Orientalism in shaping Western perceptions of the Ottoman harem, it is necessary first to understand the reality of the harem. Orientalism detracts from a proper understanding and replaces it with an otherizing substitute to serve Western interests. Leslie P. Pierce dispels the notion that women of the Imperial Harem were merely sexual objects. Pierce contends that sex was an aspect of life in the harem, but it poses a minute component, and the women of the harem possessed a power that went far beyond the Imperial bedroom.[5]

An aspect of the Ottoman world, which was hard for Westerners to understand, was the roles of public and private spaces and how they differed from the East to the West. The public/private domains differed from the Ottoman’s concerning family in the West. In the West, the family was viewed as part of private space and thus apolitical. In the Ottoman world, the family was political. Pierce contends that the members of Ottoman families’ males and females “had socially sanctioned and legally protected rights against one another, as well as state-supervised mechanisms for obtaining legal redress.”[6] This distinction of the family and politics meant that the larger the household for elites, the more structured its harem would be.

Furthermore, as for the Imperial Harem, it belonged to the household of the Sultan, and the hierarchy possessed opportunities for immense political and financial power. Pierce illuminates the difference between Ottoman versus European power structures. Power tended to grow on a vertical axis in the West, whereas power grew horizontally in the Ottoman world. The closer in, rather than up, defined power in the Ottoman world, with the Sultan being the vortex.[7]

The Ottoman harem was a political institution, and the harem women were responsible for the continuation of the dynasty. Female palace slaves were given new identities and education and made a utility of the Ottoman state. Their lives did not end with enslavement; they became assimilated into the elite stratum of Ottoman society. Female palace slaves were unfree, but they became part of elite society. If the Sultan did not choose them, they might marry other various high-ranking officials of the Ottoman elite. The harem itself presented occupational opportunities for women.

Betul Argit has studied the lives of female palace slaves of the Ottoman court after their manumission. While Argit focuses on women’s lives after their time in the harem, her text also illuminates the reality of harem women during their time as palace slaves and, importantly, their role in Ottoman society. As palace slaves, they were provided for by the Ottoman state through a new identity, education, and salaries to support themselves.[8]  Women of the harem were educated and compensated for the role they played in the structure of the Ottoman State. That payment could increase depending on their level in the harem hierarchy and whom they later married, possibly from the Ottoman court.[9] The institution of slavery possessed immensely different functions in Christendom than in the Islamic world. Slaves were a crucial element of society; they were not merely free labor but played pivotal roles in Ottoman households, social conflicts, and politics.

Educating, paying, or assimilating an enslaved person into society, let alone the elite of society, was an unheard-of concept for Westerners. Ancient historian Moses Finley has argued that there were only five actual “slave societies,” and all others constituted “societies with slaves.”[10] The flaw in this analysis is that Finley only included Western societies, those being ancient Greece, Roman Italy, modern Brazil, the Caribbean, and the U.S. South. Such an examination only focuses on societies where the enslaved possessed no agency or experienced a “social death.”[11] There are dramatic differences between Transatlantic slavery and Ottoman slavery, which underscore how Europeans could misconceive the nature of life in the Imperial Harem. The Imperial Harem was a forbidden space that left room for speculation by European observers. This secrecy of the Ottoman Imperial Harem allowed curious Western observers to take liberties in their perceptions and narrations of the harem and its inhabitants.

Argit contends that the prevalence of Orientalist literature on the Imperial Harem portrays the Ottoman harem as symbolic of slavery, decadence, luxury, sexism, and despotism. Westerners use Orientalist discourse to understand the harem and the broader Ottoman culture.[12] Argit’s analysis of the harem women’s lives after serving in the harem demonstrates the fallacy of the Orientalist perspective, showcasing the misconceptions of European imagination regarding the role of the harem and the women of it.

The experience in the harem for female palace slaves was only one phase in their lives. Once their service in the harem ended, many harem women’s crucial ties to the Imperial Palace continued through the patronage relationships formed during their service. Harem women’s proximity to the vortex of power (i.e., the Sultan) was viewable in their roles and exhibited in their lives after the palace. When women of the harem left the Imperial Palace, their statuses were reflected in their new homes after their years of service. The proximity of their new homes would represent how close they got to the vortex of Ottoman power. The higher status when in service is now showcased in broader Ottoman society. The patronage relationships formed by female palace slaves analyzed by Argit and Pierce demonstrate that women of the harem gained opportunities to develop and exercise varying levels of agency during their service. The level within Ottoman Imperial hierarchy that harem women obtained reflected in their civilian lives. While it may be fair to view these women’s lives as simply making the best of their situation, harem women’s privileged position granted them agency in their lives during service, and even after the harem, illuminated how Orientalist discourse detracts from their reality. These women were enslaved, but their connotation of slavery possessed an entirely different meaning and reality in the Ottoman world as opposed to the European. Both Argit and Pierce demonstrate in their works that the women of the Imperial Harem in the Ottoman state were more than just sexual objects. These women could and did rise to immense importance in Ottoman society. They secured the continuation of the dynasty and created and maintained patronage relationships, accrued wealth, and engaged in philanthropic activities in society.

Heather Madar argues that Orientalizing the women of the Ottoman harem paralleled the perception of the whole Ottoman Empire that European powers possessed throughout centuries following the Renaissance. The portraits of Ottoman women that Madar examines demonstrate that Orientalist discourse of the Ottoman harem was not always commonplace. Rather than creating or continuing Orientalist depictions, these portraits do quite the opposite. Madar contends that the Renaissance “did not embrace the harem as its overarching representational system for the Ottoman Empire because harem imagery was ill-suited to the period of the ‘invincible Turk,’ the ‘terror of the world.’”[13] Madar’s work focuses on Sultana imagery which appears very similar to portraits of European women of power. The work of Madar is demonstrative of Europe’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire in that when perceiving the Ottomans as a rival or formidable foe, European visual representations displayed prominent Ottoman women as other, but still distinctly powerful and with a striking resemblance to European portraiture. (See fig. 1&2).

Madar’s work is illustrative of the development of Orientalist discourse concerning the Ottoman empire and the women of the Imperial Harem. During the Renaissance, pre-colonial Europe perceived the Ottomans as a force to be reckoned with and depicted them as such. Madar asserts that in 1683 the second siege of Vienna by the Ottomans stood as a watershed moment in Europeans’ perception of the Ottomans. This event is when a tilt in the balance of power led Europeans to view the formidable foe, the Ottomans, as weakening.[14] Madar concludes that multiple events and ideologies (political, philosophical, colonialism, gender roles, sexual morality, high profile Ottoman Visitors to Europe, rise in popularity for Turkish things, translations of Arabian Nights) pushed the Ottoman harem to the forefront of European curiosity.[15] However, the exclusivity of the harem allowed European imagination to fill in for the Ottoman reality. As the perception of the Ottomans changed from rival power to lesser power in the eyes of European empires, such imaginations fueled Orientalist discourse, utilizing the inaccessible Imperial Harem as the focal point.

Madar’s assessment holds when examining Europeans’ representations of the Ottoman world in mediums other than portraiture. Michele Longino examines travel literature produced by French bourgeoise who traveled to the Ottoman Empire. Longino’s examination confirms Madar’s conclusion that the development of colonialism appears to be presently targeting the Ottoman world within some of the travel narratives. The narrative of Guillaume-Joseph Gerlot demonstrates this occurrence. Gerlot’s writing and illustrations (Fig. 3) attempt to capture the magnificence of the Ottoman Empire, but he is reluctant to create anything that may be intimidating to Paris. Gerlot’s narrative argues the significance of ruling from Constantinople, which the French King should emulate because, had not Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople?[16] If Constantinople was the best place to rule the world, it is clear that Gerlot did not feel the Ottoman Sultan should be on the seat of power. Gerlot’s gift to King Louis XIV, illustrations of the Ottoman world, were intended to be more valuable than jewels or other material gifts his contemporaries may have presented. Gerlot’s work alluded to giving his king the city. Longino contends that Gerlot’s work is illustrative of the development of the colonialist mentality underlying attempts to understand or illustrate the Ottoman world.

Longino noticed a trend when examining French travel narratives. When French travelers began to articulate the beauty of the Ottoman world, they were quick to couple these descriptions with equal criticisms of the Ottoman people and architecture. These critiques indicate that to the French; the Ottomans were underserving of the natural beauty of their territory.[17] In Gerlot’s work, when remarking about the beauty of the Ottoman territory, he is sure to include that Ottoman beauty is still lesser than what his home of France has produced, to remain politically aligned with the king whom he serves:

Now it is not to be imagin’d, that the Gardens of the Serraglio are in any manner to compare with that of the Thuilleries, Versailles, Fontainebleau, nor with the Gardens of several private Gentlemen in France; nor is it to be thought, that the Buildings which they enclose, can boast of any thing comparable to the Louvre, the Escurial, or the Magnificent Palaces of many Christian Princes; for there is nothing handsome or regular about the outside of this building; so that if it vaunt itself over all the palaces in the universe, it is only the prospect which renders it the most delightful palace in the world.[18]

Madar demonstrated that Orientalist discourse was not Europeans’ only perception of the Ottoman Empire. Longino’s work establishes the underlying colonialist agenda Europeans began to possess regarding the Ottoman territory. Both Madar and Longino’s efforts showcase that Orientalist discourse coexisted with one another. The century difference (the 1500s & 1600s) between the primary sources may make the longevity of these coexisting views hard to conceive. However, an analysis of primary source material by Marianna D. Birnbaum illuminates that this coexistence was prevalent even in the 1400s, long before the portraiture examined by Madar and the travel narratives by Longino. Birnbaum utilizes a memoir written by a Christian captive enslaved person in the Ottoman Empire named Giovanni Antonio Menavino, I costume et la Vita de Turchi, from the late fifteenth century. Menavino got captured when he was twelve and dwelled in the harem of Bayezid II. During his time as a captive, he received an education from four tutors in Arabic, literature, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, geography, and even studied the Qur’an.[19] Menavino also describes the reality for women within the harem, observing that they were each taught literacy, embroidery, music, and notates that the education that the harem women received was only to be paralleled in Europe by the women of the aristocracy.[20]

Menavino’s captivity appears to be rather pleasant considering the reality of other enslaved Christians in the Ottoman world. Because of the privileged position as a captive, Menavino can make firsthand observations about the Ottoman world, specifically the harem, that is not Orientalist discourse. Menavino’s comments align more with what the works of Betul Argit and Leslie Pierce have illuminated in modern scholarship. However, the significance of Birnbaum’s work to this study is to illuminate how both Orientalist discourse and non-Orientalist prevailed until the rise of colonialism in Western Europe. Birnbaum’s work examines another enslaved Christian named Bartul Djurdjevich, who presented anti-Turkish sentiment in his writings about the Ottomans.

It is essential to consider that Djurdjevich and Menavino had very different experiences during their captivity. Djurdjevich got captured during the Battle of Mohaca in 1526. Because he attempted to escape, he endured harsher treatment during his captivity.[21] Djurdjevich eventually returned to Europe through many tribulations, but once there, Birnbaum explains that Djurdjevich became a fierce advocate for the anti-Turkish sentiment. Djurdjevich is critical to this study because his resentment towards the Ottomans is primarily due to harsher treatment. However, his later writings take more direct aim at attacking the faith of the Ottomans and upholding his Christian faith.[22] Birnbaum looks at a debate that Djurdjevich had with one of his masters during captivity named Chelebi. This debate centered around their faiths, and Djurdjevich refused to acknowledge any issues with Christianity, even when Chelebi chastises Christianity for allowing dogs to enter churches where they defecate and fornicate on the floors.[23] This point made by Birnbaum is related to the development of Orientalism in that Orientalism was utilized to place the West (i.e., Christendom) on moral high ground above the Orient (i.e., Islam), especially by utilizing the Ottoman harem, as will be demonstrated later.

The works of Madar, Longino, and Birnbaum demonstrate that there persisted two ways of perceiving the Ottoman “Orient” prior to the eighteenth century. Conflicting perceptions of the Ottomans existed. Western powers perceived the Ottomans as rivals whose prowess and distinctions merit depiction (shown by Sultana portraiture & Menavino’s narrative). The other perceptions were altogether Oriental, which insinuated the Ottoman territory ought to be controlled by a European power (as shown by Gerlot) and viewed the Ottomans as morally lesser due to their faith (as shown by Djurdjevich). Events such as the second siege of Vienna (1683) and new developments in academia, politics, philosophy, colonialism, gender roles, sexual morality began to push Orientalist perceptions of the Ottoman world over reality, becoming a fascination.[24] The Orient of European imagination justified colonialist views of the Ottoman territory. The Ottoman harem became foundational for Orientalism. The spark that gave Western European imaginations of the harem as an Orientalist motif to utilize was Lady Montagu’s Letters from the end of the eighteenth century, which circulated throughout Europe after her death in 1762.[25] The harem came to embody the otherness Western Europe attributed to the Ottomans. To European imaginations, the harem was a forbidden sanctuary filled with luxury, exoticism, eroticism, and most importantly, enslaved foreign women serving a Muslim despot.

Lady Mary Montagu was a British noblewoman who visited the Ottoman Empire with her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, the British ambassador to the Sultan’s court. Montagu’s letters represent a unique perspective; because Montagu was a woman, she gained entrance into the world of elite Turkish women, where no prior European male observer could enter.

Hasan Baktir stresses the importance of Lady Montagu’s letters: “Among all 18th-century texts about Ottoman Turkey, the most path-breaking and influential one is Lady Mary’s Turkish Embassy Letters; she seems to enjoy writing about the mistakes of preceding male travelers.”[26] Baktir devotes time to analyzing previous Western observations that Lady Mary’s work contests. Baktir argues that Lady Mary Montagu disputed observations made by English travel writer Robert Withers in his writings: A Description of Grand Seignior’s Seraglio from 1650. Both Lady Mary Montagu and Robert Withers are crucial sources because they demonstrate that up until this time, there were two competing ways of perceiving the Ottomans. Due to the secrecy of the Ottoman harem (being barred from men), those who were not permitted to enter tended to Orientalize what they were capable of encountering. Baktir exposes the fallacies present in Robert Withers’s Description by comparing it with Lady Mary’s Letters. Withers, in his Description, claims to have observed a Turkish custom regarding the Sultan. During his selection of a mistress from the harem, the Sultan indicates his decision by dropping a handkerchief into her hand.[27] However, Baktir then contrasts this observation with Lady Mary’s account. She writes of a conversation with the Sultana herself, who assured her that this was merely fiction: “the throwing of the handkerchief was altogether fabulous.”[28] Lady Mary’s description is demonstrative of how perceptions of Ottoman society differed. Lady Mary’s narrative was from firsthand accounts and interactions with the women of the harem. In contrast, Robert Withers had to utilize his imagination because he could not enter the harem. It showcases how easily fabricated the story of the harem and its inhabitants could become.

Fantastical fabrications became popular with those who write these accounts and those who will eventually read and be captivated by them. Robert Withers also showcases an example of Orientalism when describing the Turkish women whom he possibly came across during his travels. Withers views the veiling of Turkish women as a sign of their enslavement, therefore indicative of the “uncivilized, inferior, and barbaric aspect of the Ottoman civilization.”[29] Baktir does not delve into what women Withers may have accounted for, whether enslaved or free. However, Withers’s expression is of Orientalist nature in labeling a culture different from his own, which he does not understand, as barbaric.

Moreover, Withers does not stop with his Orientalizing there; he surprisingly then notes the beauty of Turkish women: “the Turkish women are the most charming creatures in the world… They seem to be made for love…Their actions, gestures, discourse and looks are all amorous.”[30] Such conflicting perceptions make his account all the more questionable.

Robert Withers was not alone in accounting for the Ottoman world and its women. Baktir examines another English travel writer who similarly describes the Ottomans. Jean Dumont’s travel narratives portray a scene that would become immensely prevalent in Orientalist discourse during the nineteenth century and a prevalent motif for Orientalist artworks. According to Dumont, Turkish men appear to be entirely happy with their situation: “they sit whole days on sopha, without any other occupation than drinking coffee, smoking tobacco, or caressing their wives.”[31] Jean Dumont expresses Orientalist perceptions of the Ottomans. Dumont’s account depicts Turkish men as lazy, weak, and immoral people who live a life of excess and luxury. Accounts such as these will become the embodiment of nineteenth-century Western Orientalist art. Their lives of luxury weaken Turkish men, and Turkish women are merely sexual objects for the taking. It is becoming more apparent in European travel literature (French & English) that the Ottoman character possesses less morality than Europeans. Again, these narratives are based mainly upon imagination since entering the harem was prohibited.

Lady Mary Montagu’s work is of the utmost importance as it is one of the only travel accounts from an individual that gained access to forbidden spaces. Montagu appears to attempt an honest description of the Ottoman harem and women of it. Baktir has utilized her work to challenge more imaginative male travel accounts from England. Lady Mary’s work is not without fault in impacting Orientalist discourse. Montagu’s accurate portrayals of the Ottoman women of the harem are one of a kind. However, her work would later become widely circulated throughout Europe; it influenced Orientalist painters and writers by fueling curiosities. It is apparent that Orientalist perceptions were already present in travel logs, and Lady Mary Montagu’s letters serve as another source. Although the content is relatively objective, many Orientalist elements such as opulence are cherry-picked from Lady Mary’s account and portrayed in later paintings. It seems apparent that the formation of an Orientalist motif for artworks in the nineteenth century took what was similar between travel accounts from previous centuries. The luxury, exoticism, and beauty of the harem women are captured in Lady Mary Montagu’s Letters, not with the intent of otherizing but instead embracing. Lady Mary Montagu gave an account of what she saw and experienced in the harem, setting her account apart from the more imaginative male English and French travelers. The travel accounts only focus on the opulence portrayed by Lady Mary Montagu’s Letters.

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….[32]

Here Lady Mary Montagu alludes to the magnificent beauty of the women she encounters. Nineteenth-century Orientalist artworks seem only concerned with capturing this aspect of Lady Mary’s account and pairing it with the more otherizing accounts from male travelers. This quote from Lady Mary Montagu’s Letters captures beauty, luxury, and wealth: significant components of Orientalist artworks. An aspect of Lady Mary Montagu’s letters that will not be present in nineteenth-century artworks is the character and manner of the Ottoman women whom she encounters. Lady Mary Montagu’s account differs from her male counterparts. It gives scholars a glimpse into a very secluded space in the Ottoman world, gaining insight into the character of some of the women in it:

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.[33]  

Such descriptions do not seize the minds of nineteenth-century painters, as exoticism, luxury, eroticism frequently permeate their artworks.

The visual representation of the exotic and sexualized nature of the harem became a demanded visual representation of Ottoman culture in the nineteenth century for Europeans and is very apparent in the artwork. The Orientalist fantasy depicted in nineteenth-century artworks is similar to that of male traveler accounts in that male travelers could never enter the harem. The painters of the nineteenth century often never traveled (or did not until much later) to the Ottoman territories.

Isra Ali has examined the trend in artwork during this period of portraying the Ottoman harem as the focal point of the Orient through an analysis of several Orientalist painters and writers. The first example pertinent to Orientalism in the harem is Jean-Jules-Antoine-Lecomte de Nouy’s painting titled L’Esclave de Blanche (Fig. 4), translated as The White Slave. The painting depicts a Circassian palace slave of the harem. As Ali notes in her piece, the artist never visited the Ottoman Empire or the harem. Nouy painted this scene from his imagination, likely influenced by the narratives circulated in Europe in the previous century.[34]

In her work, Rana Kabbani, whom Ali references, asserts that this painting displays the Circassian palace slaves as being in a state of “pleasing vulnerability.”[35] This depiction aligns with the Orientalist notion that women of the harem are merely sexual objects, always ready to be of use to the Sultan they serve. The “White Slave” depicted (Fig. 4) alludes to the Orientalism emitted by Jean Dumont, mentioned in the work of Hasan Baktir: the Circassian palace slave in this scene barely clothed, with a spread of food and drink while smoking tobacco. This work exhibits the characteristics proclaimed by Dumont. The woman shown is ready to be sexually arranged; she is lazily enjoying the luxuries of her exotic world and partaking in the smoking of tobacco while she relaxes near a bath. By 1888 it seems the Orientalist perspective had become immovable.[36] Despite the overarching Orientalism displayed, Nouy does showcase an actual Ottoman distinction in the harem. The African women in the background of the painting were subject to more domestic labor roles, as is shown. In contrast, the white Circassian women were usually depicted as concubines in the harem, enjoying extravagance.[37] Nuoy may have included this more realistic cultural depiction because European culture possessed a similar racially-based social hierarchy; perhaps the French painter included this aspect because he could believe it.

Ali also examines artist Jean-Leon Gerome’s work Le Garde de Serail from 1859 (Fig.5). Ali contends that this painting stresses the seclusion of the harem from outsiders by depicting a black eunuch. Eunuchs of the Imperial Harem were responsible for protecting the harem and its women.[38]  Ali contends women of the harem often are portrayed as “inviting,” and the men who guarded it depicted as “obstacles” to the entry of the Orient.[39] As Orientalism does today in the United States, it characterized those deemed Oriental as violent and forbidden to outsiders even through force. Ali takes a moment to point out the Orientalist depiction of harem women in literature through the example of Gustave Flaubert, who wrote, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, in which his female characters of the Orient (Egypt) possess dumb and overtly sexual characteristics.[40] In reality, the palace slaves of the harem received the type of education and healthcare reserved for only the most elite women in European societies.[41]

Ali’s work delves into another Orientalist painting by Eugene Delacroix in 1827 titled, The Death of Sardanapalus (Fig. 6). Like many Orientalist painters, Delacroix painted images of the Ottomans from imagination. Delacroix’s Orient in this painting is violent, despotic, and sexually charged.[42] Delacroix did not visit the “Orient” (Algeria) until more than a decade later to visit the Sultan of Morocco as part of a diplomatic envoy (King Louis Phillipe would also commission Delacroix to paint the Sultan Moulay Abd-er Rahman).[43] In the 1830s, France had begun colonizing parts of Algeria, alluding to the rise in depicting the “Orient” as “oriental” rather than a realistic representation based upon firsthand experiences. Orientalist artwork and literature, in many instances, was based upon fabrications to portray the land and peoples that were being colonized as other(s) to nourish a demand.

Edward Said argues that the creation of Orientalist paintings relies upon previous references and narratives about the Orient rather than relying upon the Orient itself.[44] Furthermore, even artists who eventually traveled to the “Orient” remained fascinated with the Orient of their imagination. As Ali points out, Delacroix is a prime example of this; once in Algeria, Delacroix utilized models in a studio instead of actual Ottoman women or settings to create paintings that would quench the thirst for the Orient of their imagination.[45]

A desire for Orientalist artworks in Europe is prevalent through the critiques of artist Henriette Browne’s, A Visit: A Harem Interior (Fig.7). Ali contends that Browne’s work goes against what her Western audiences wanted. This artwork lacks opulence, wealth, sex and instead attempts to capture a more realistic depiction of the harem and its women.[46] Ali brings forth two critiques of Browne’s work that support the validity of European Orientalist preference: “Critic Oliver Merson saw Browne’s depictions of the Orient as a mistake rather than an alternative and perhaps more realistic perspective… Leon LeGrange attributed Browne’s lack of depictions of hypersexuality and languorous partially clothed odalisques in the harem to sexual naivete.”[47] 

Ali showcases the demand for Orientalist art because an attempt to capture a more realistic representation (based upon experience in the Ottoman world) obtains rejection in favor of the “fantasy.”[48] The Orient of the imagination was what the Western world wanted. It gave them a sense of moral high ground. It justified the colonialist and imperialist action surrounding the Ottoman world because these people are understood as backward, requiring Western influence to be civilized.

The Orientalist artworks of the nineteenth century and their demand illuminate that there could no longer be two coexisting interpretations of the Orient. One was grounded in experience, and the other conjured through imagination. The West had made its decision of the Orient they preferred. It is important to remember that Britain and France had begun carving out their portions of the world during the nineteenth century, many on the fringes of the Ottoman empire. Perceptions and portrayals of the Ottomans as Oriental fueled a colonialist mission to undermine their society.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, new technology brought about a way to capture subjects rather than through paintings. Saadet Ozen from Bogazici University conducted a seminar with her students in which they examined photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Once viewing the photographs, neither the students nor the professor initially could identify the women in the photographs. There was nothing that indicated to them their social status or cultural allegiance.[49] Ozen notes that photography found its way to Ottoman Empire in 1842, Iran in 1844, and India in 1840.[50] The significance of these photographs (Fig. 8 & 9) and this seminar by Ozen is that it shows how ingrained the Orientalist imagery has become. Even in the twentieth century, the understanding of the Ottoman Imperial Harem remained one of a sexualized, exotic, luxurious, opulent nature.

Ozen proclaims, “With their thick eyebrows, wearing tutus inspired from the ballerinas that the Shah saw in Europe, and not least because of their serious, direct gaze to the viewer, these women challenged our immediate visual codes of the harem aesthetically, bodily, and behaviorally.”[51] Ozen maintains that these photographs “challenged” the European “odalisque” misinterpretation; these photographs by lacking the opulence expected made those in her seminar feel almost judgmental when facing an actual image of harem women.[52] The possibility of preserving the photographs was due to the Ottoman government, which became “dichotomous” during the republican era. One faction wanted to utilize the realistic representations of harem women (which had ended) preserved through photography. The other (Mainly Turkish Elite) opted for the continuation of Orientalist harem image production,  done for centuries in the West (such as French Postcards using model substitutes for harem women) (Fig.10).[53] Those opting for Orientalist imagery promoted imaginary representations.

An examination of Orientalism of the Ottoman empire, specifically harem imagery, demonstrates that Edward Said’s theory should incorporate a study of the Ottoman-European relationship. The exclusion hinders an understanding of the development and purpose of Orientalism. In the 1500s and 1600s, it seems apparent that the threat of the Ottoman Empire to Christendom led artists to capture the prowess of the harem women in portraiture, making them appear equivalent to Europeans. However, as the end of the seventeenth century approached, the myth of the invincible Ottoman Empire began to decline; the rise of imperial and colonialist Europe was only beginning. The power shift, the change in the level of threat, appears to have made the perception of the Ottomans more a matter of choice. The few accounts based on firsthand experience in the harem or with the women of the harem receive little attention. What sticks are portrayals of hypersexuality, objectification, decadence, despotism, violence, and a sense of otherness. Henriette Browne, Lady Mary Montagu, and Giovanni Antonio Menavino gave realistic representations of a people not well understood, and unfortunately, the accuracy went largely ignored. The fantasy of the Orient was too alluring. As colonialist powers such as Britain and France began carving out their portions of the world, portraying the peoples and place they intended to make subaltern embody otherness made spreading their hegemony justifiable.

The harem was a crucial institution in Ottoman society. To begin to appreciate the significance of these women’s lives in the trajectory of the Ottoman state requires one to shake their Western influence as much as possible. The harem was an institution of slavery but religiously sanctioned slavery. These women were abducted and sold into the institution. However, they then had the opportunities to embrace a new life with the best education, medical care, and amenities that the Ottoman world offered. These women engaged in philanthropy; they held occupations within the harem structure itself and never served for life. After service in the harem was over, these women continued to be cared for by the state. The women whom the Sultan may have selected were then responsible for securing the continuation of the entire Ottoman dynasty, an alternative to Europe where dynastical challenges often occurred with catastrophic results. Orientalism in the Ottoman harem prevailed throughout the centuries, despite honest attempts to capture the reality of the Ottoman harem. It shaped how the West perceived Ottoman culture, understanding the women in the harem as uneducated and merely sexual objects serving a despotic Muslim ruler.

In reality, as the politics of the empire changed after the seventeenth century, the Sultan was held more responsible by the Ottoman people and administrative elites. Harem women possessed influence and agency. The eunuchs were well-educated sacred figures. However, through an Orientalist lens, he was an Emperor of slaves and surrounded himself with women and wealth. The eunuchs who guarded the harem were not well educated, not religiously versed, and not sacred beings in Ottoman society. Orientalist discourse represented them vicious as Africans who knew nothing but violence and only responded to orders from their tyrant. The reality was the opposite.

Donald Quataert proposed in his work the significance of what the Ottoman Empire’s resistance to the Western hegemony symbolized to much of the world: “The Ottomans, together with imperial China and Japan, were the most important of such states which survived with any strength. As independent states, they became models and sources of hope to the colonized peoples of the world in their struggles against European imperialism.”[54] The Ottoman Empire could prove a model of resistance against the European colonial hegemony. However, despite Quataert’s optimistic view of the Ottoman model, Orientalism in the past as well as now seeks to make sure that the West will only continue to view and understand the Ottomans (as any other “oriental” peoples) as others, and most importantly as subaltern to Western culture.

Edward Said’s Orientalism is a landmark text that exposes how the West has viewed and acted towards the peoples and places of the world that are non-Western. Said delivers a very well-supported theory. However, as this essay has demonstrated, examining the Ottoman-European relationship in the centuries preceding colonialist Britain and France is necessary to understand how Orientalist discourse took shape. The sources analyzed throughout this essay showcase that Orientalist discourse developed before the eighteenth century. Once Orientalist discourse captured European fascination, the harem served as a pivotal institution to otherize Ottoman culture.

 Orientalism in the harem has shaped the West’s understanding of the Ottoman empire and continues to shape Western understandings of the Middle East. The West views other parts of the world through an Orientalist, and arguably colonialist/imperialist, lens. Orientalism still captivates the minds of Westerners today. The previous Orientalist discourse had not been critiqued or replaced but instead perpetuated to undermine non-Western peoples and fulfill imperialist operations there. The same Orientalist depictions of harem women have modernized to fit modern Western settings and situations in the Middle East. Popular media continues to draw on Orientalist discourse to perpetuate the Middle East of imagination, to keep the Orient a real place.

Figure 1: Studio of Titian, La Sultana Rossa, 1550s, Bequest of John Ringling, 1936, Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida.

Figure 2: Titian, Cameria, Daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent as St. Catherine, ca. 1555, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery.

Figure 3: Foldout View of Approach to Constantinople. Guillaume-Joseph Grelot (1680).

Figure 4. Jean-Jules-Antoine- lecomte de Nouy. 1888.

Figure 5. Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Guard of the Harem. (1859) ©The Wallace Collection

Figure 6. The Death of Sardanapalus, 1844 – Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, French, 1798 – 1863. Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986, 1986-26-17.

Figure 7. Henriette Browne’s A Visit: A Harem Interior © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Figure 8. Group of women from the Nasiri court. Late nineteenth–early twentieth century. Photo credit: Fahimeh Rastkar and Sohrab Daryabandari Collection, http://www.qajarwomen. org/en/items/1250A23.html.

Figure 9. Nasîr al-Dîn Shah in his inner quarters. Inscription: “Zaʻfaran Baji, Aqa [?] Khvajah.” Photo credit: Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, en/items/1261A58.html.

Figure 10. Saadet Özen (2017) The Visual Making of the Harem, Art in Translation, 9:sup1, 51-58, DOI: 10.1080/17561310.2015.1088220 p.56.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979) P. 3.

[2] Said, Orientalism, P. 3.

[3] Donald, Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. 2nd ed. New Approaches to European History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) P. 7.

[4] Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. 2nd ed. New Approaches to European History, P. 7.

[5] Leslie P. Pierce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), P. 5-7. 

[6] Pierce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, P. 6-7.

[7] Pierce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, P. 9.

[8] Betul Argit, Life After Harem: Female Palace Slaves, Patronage, and the Imperial Ottoman Court, (Cambridge: University Printing House, 2018), P.168

[9] Argit, Life After Harem: Female Palace Slaves, Patronage, and the Imperial Ottoman Court, P.168

[10] Lenski, Noel, and Catherine M. Cameron, eds. “What Is a Slave Society?”, In What Is a Slave Society?: The Practice of Slavery in Global Perspective, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) P. 1.

[11] Lenski, Noel, and Catherine M. Cameron, eds. “What Is a Slave Society?”, In What Is a Slave Society?: The Practice of Slavery in Global Perspective, P. 9.

[12] Argit, Life After Harem: Female Palace Slaves, Patronage, and the Imperial Ottoman Court, P.226-227.

[13] Heather Madar, “Before the Odalisque Renaissance Representations of Elite Ottoman Women,”  Early Modern Women Vol. 6 (2011): 1-41. P. 35.

[14] Madar, “Before the Odalisque Renaissance Representations of Elite Ottoman Women,” P. 32.

[15] Madar, “Before the Odalisque Renaissance Representations of Elite Ottoman Women,” P. 32. 

[16] Michele Longino,  French Travel Writing in the Ottoman Empire: Marseilles to Constantinople, 1650-1700, (New York: Routledge, 2015), P 112.

[17] Longino, French Travel Writing in the Ottoman Empire: Marseilles to Constantinople, 1650-1700, P 113.

[18] Longino,  French Travel Writing in the Ottoman Empire: Marseilles to Constantinople, 1650-1700, P 114.

[19] Marianna D. Birnbaum, “Renaissance Orientalism” Harvard Ukrainian Studies Vol. 28, no. ¼ (2006) pp. 379-389.

[20] Birnbaum, “Renaissance Orientalism”, 379-389.

[21] Birnbaum, “Renaissance Orientalism”, 379-389.

[22] Birnbaum, “Renaissance Orientalism”, 379-389.

[23] Birnbaum, “Renaissance Orientalism”, 379-389.

[24]  Madar, “Before the Odalisque Renaissance Representations of Elite Ottoman Women,”  P. 32

[25] Muslim Journeys | Item #91: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Visit to a Harem”, November 21, 2021,

[26] Hasan Baktir, The Representation of the Ottoman Orient in Eighteenth Century English Literature, (Ibidem Verlag, 2014) p.158.

[27] Baktir, The Representation of the Ottoman Orient in Eighteenth Century English Literature, p.158.

[28] Baktir, The Representation of the Ottoman Orient in Eighteenth Century English Literature, p.158.

[29] Baktir, The Representation of the Ottoman Orient in Eighteenth Century English Literature, p.158.

[30] Baktir, The Representation of the Ottoman Orient in Eighteenth Century English Literature, p.159.

[31] Baktir, The Representation of the Ottoman Orient in Eighteenth Century English Literature, p.159.

[32] Muslim Journeys | Item #91: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Visit to a Harem”, November 21, 2021,

[33] Muslim Journeys | Item #91: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Visit to a Harem”, November 21, 2021,

[34] Isra Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings” Dialectical Anthropology Vol. 39 no. 1 (2015) pp. 33-46. (P.40)

[35] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.40.

[36] [ Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte de Nouy: The White Slave] * Uploaded by Atlaslin |Date=June 16, 2007, at 23:42 |Author

[37] Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte de Nouy: The White Slave] * Uploaded by Atlaslin |Date=June 16, 2007, at 23:42 |Author

[38] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.40.

[39] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.40.

[40] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.40.

[41] Birnbaum, “Renaissance Orientalism,” P. 384.

[42] Judy Sund, Exotic A fetish for the Foreign, (Phaidon Press, 2019).

[43] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.42.

[44] Said, Orientalism, P. 23.

[45] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.42.

[46] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.44.

[47] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.44.

[48] Ali, “The Harem Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Paintings,” P.44.

[49] Saadet Özen (2017) The Visual Making of the Harem, Art in Translation, 9:sup1, 51-58, DOI: 10.1080/17561310.2015.1088220 p.51-52.

[50] Özen, The Visual Making of the Harem, Art in Translation, 52-53.

[51] Özen, The Visual Making of the Harem, Art in Translation, 53.

[52] Özen, The Visual Making of the Harem, Art in Translation, 53.

[53] Özen, The Visual Making of the Harem, Art in Translation, 54-56.

[54] Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922, P. 11.


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Özen, Saadet. (2017) The Visual Making of the Harem, Art in Translation, 9:sup1, 51-58, DOI: 10.1080/17561310.2015.1088220

Pierce, Leslie. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. 2nd ed. New Approaches to European History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511818868.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Sund, Judy. Exotic A Fetish For The Foreign. Phaidon Press, 2019.

“Muslim Journeys | Item #91: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Visit to a Harem”, November 21, 2021,

“Edward Said on Orientalism,” YouTube Video, 8:37. Posted by Palestine Diary, October 28, 2021.

Yilmaz, Gulay. Becoming a Devsirme: The Training of Conscripted Children in the Ottoman Empire, Ohio University Press: 2009.

[ Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte de Nouy: The White Slave] * Uploaded by Atlaslin |Date=June 16, 2007, at 23:42 |Author