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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Oriental recollections: Peeps into the harem



I have enjoyed some privileges, as a traveller, under the auspices of a doctorial degree, and though I am not dignified with an M.D. title, the LL.D., for all practical and useful purposes, did just as well in the Levant. In fact, having an official position during my progress, I was known among the Arabs as El Hakim El Kebir, the great doctor—the doctor par excellence, and was not only frequently consulted on medical matters, but permitted and invited to penetrate into some of the mysteries of that domestic life which is in general carefully screened from foreign observation. Much has not been done to convey accurate notions of the family and social interest among Mahomedan races.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had the advantage of rank and the stimulant of curiosity, and has told her amusing tales of what she saw in Turkey, and some few privileged Christian ladies have since been welcomed into the recesses of the harem—nay, one or two Osmanli women of high position have been seen in European circles. In British India even the Zenanas have opened their doors to receive the visits of distinguished British females, and I have heard from members of my own family various accounts of what they have witnessed within the palace of a Mussulman prince; but, without being able to say much, I will dot down a few memories from my own experience.

The seclusion of women in oriental countries is not a habit introduced by, or even peculiar to, the Mahomedans. In patriarchal times we learn that Sarah, Abraham’s life, had a tent of her own, to which Rebekah, when betrothed to Isaac, was conveyed, and the separate tents of the women are frequently spoken of in the book of Genesis.

A description which would serve as a modern princely harem, is found in the provision made for King Ahasuerus (Esther ii. 2 and 3), where fair young virgins are sought by the king, and “all the fair young virgins are gathered together unto Shushan the palace, to the house of the women, under custody of the king’s chamberlain”—an eunuch, no doubt—the keeper of the women. The separation of the sexes was carried further by those of elevated rank than among the less opulent classes, but the veiling of women is still practised both by Jews and Christians in the Levant. The poetry of the East is full of the passion of love, yet, whatever may be the admiration for beauty and the professions of attachment to females, I know of no part of the world in which they are raised to a position of absolute equality with men,—certainly the Levant affords no such example. Reverence for parents and ancestors in which, of course, are included mothers, grandmothers, and female progenitors, is a universal religion in China,—the religion of all the sects, whether Confucians, Buddhists, or Taouists; but the condition of woman is generally unenviable and unhappy, and it can hardly be otherwise where polygamy is sanctioned alike by law and by usage.

I once dined with an Aga in a village of Palestine. No Mahomedans, except his own family, were among the guests, and he, like many of his race did not hesitate in allowing himself more than one luxury denounced as sinful by the Koran, especially when he could screen himself from the observations of more severe and more censorious followers of Islam.

I have listened to strange excuses for the enjoyment of intoxicating beverages—wine and spirituous drinks are undoubtedly prohibited by the positive and imperative commands of the prophet, and denunciations are pronounced against those who shall dare to indulge in their use, but “champagne,” it has been averred, is not specially mentioned; the name is not to be found in the Arabic text, and therefore, say the tempted and the yielding sinners, it cannot be considered as included in the interdict. Neither is Moya Inglīs (English water) the ordinary term for Cognac brandy when a Mahomedan desires to drink it. Well do I recollect one of the earliest inquiries whispered into my ears by a Mufti, at whose house I descended when visiting the capital of the ancient kings of Syria, Hamath on the river Orontes, and who received me with wonted Oriental hospitality.

“Have you brought with you any Moya Inglīs?” and on having ascertained that it would, in good time, be forthcoming, he proposed we should withdraw to a secret chamber immediately after dinner to partake of the delicious water with becoming kief, a charming word implying the serenity of repose and tranquil felicity.

The dinner of the Aga over, conversation became more and more lively, and the colloquies ran from tongues, somewhat unbridled, upon the lovelier portion of creation. Under ordinary circumstances it is a great affront to talk to a Mahomedan of the lady portion of his household, or even to suppose or imply the existence of a female sex. You may venture upon a general and vague inquiry as to the well-being or well-doing of a family, but it would be ill-bred and impertinent to show any interest about the health of a mother, wife, or daughter, even though you may have heard rumours of sickness, or even of impending death.

But wine, and still more the Moya Inglīs, thaws the frozen reserve and opens the locked lips of conversation to the most forbidden topics, and our Aga began to talk of the beauties of his harem, and to describe to us some of the many handmaidens who looked up to him as their lord and master. We could not but express great interest in communications so eloquent; and complimented him on the possession of so many pearls of great price. At last his enthusiasm mounted to its full height, and his proud satisfaction broke out into an ejaculatory interrogation:—

“Would you like to see the damsels?”

“Above all things,” was the natural reply.

“Come along, then,—come.”

And he himself led the way to an upper apartment.

It was a large room surrounded by a cushioned divan, and female shawls and robes of silk were scattered over the carpets and rugs on the floor. There were many mirrors on the walls, and lamps hung from the ceiling, and the moment we entered the door, following closely the footsteps of the Aga, clamours and shrieks broke forth from voices more or less melodious or discordant:—

“You Giaours! you infidels! you Christian dogs! what brings you here! Begone! begone!”

The Aga laughed aloud at the reception we experienced; but “the Christian dogs” were not a little perplexed and confounded; it was easy to perceive, though every one of the women drew her veil more closely over her face and round her shoulders, that the noisiest and loudest were the eldest of the ladies; so addressing myself to one whose accents were harmonious and fascinating, I said:—

“So sweet a voice must belong to a pretty face.”

Upon which the damsel suddenly uncovered her countenance, looked penetratingly upon me with her black and brilliant eyes, and exclaiming:—

“You Giaour! You infidel!” laughed aloud, and drew the veil over her blushing cheeks. Again and again the same amusing comedy was performed by other ladies with a readiness or a backwardness which might be measured by the presence or absence of personal charms; there were several who remained veiled through the whole of our visit with the most stubborn and stolid obstinacy. The Aga said, they were the old and ugly ones of the harem. Woman is everywhere woman—proud, and well she may be proud of her attractions.

“Now then, let us withdraw,” said the Aga. We bowed to the fair community, and retired, for the visit lasted only a few minutes, amidst many voices not altogether so boisterous, or so impetuous, as at our advance, but still they cried, “Infidels! Infidels!”

I was not quite so fortunate on another occasion when I was the guest of the Pacha of Nablous, the Sechem of the Old Testament, the Sichar of the New. To me Samaria has always appeared—next to Galilee—the most interesting part of the Holy Land, for the lies and legends of the monks have less intruded themselves, or they less haunt the traveller with their contradictions and absurdities, and the whole region represents, far more than does Judæa, the unchanged characteristics of the Gospel History. Fables and groundless traditions crowd themselves into every part of Jerusalem, and even the sites of the most memorable events are subjects of doubtful disputation; but Samaria has the charm of being now what it was nineteen centuries ago; and the Samaritans, though reduced to a very small number of families, have retained the language, the religion, the prejudices of their ancestors; and they love the Jews as little as their ancestors did. To the pacha I owed a friendly introduction to the Samaritan sheikhs, one of whom was his principal scribe, and I received from them many courtesies and kindnesses. In answer to some inquiries, my host offered to show me the female apartments of the palace; but this was not after dinner; and he had not accommodated his conscience to his tastes, nor found arguments for surrendering his temperance to temptation, nor in wresting both the letter and the spirit of the Koran to a very free interpretation. A messenger was despatched to the harem, and soon after I accompanied the pacha upstairs. We heard much bustle and confusion; and as the doors were opened we saw women scampering away in all directions along the balconies, and towards the inner apartments, in obvious haste and apprehension. They were all veiled, and the mode in which their garments hung about them showed they had been unprepared for so sudden an exodus. We found the rooms in “most admired disorder,” and everything looked as if the late occupants had been menaced with, and taken flight from fire and sword, earthquake, or other convulsion. There were on the carpets and the divans, Cashmere shawls and unfinished embroidery, and decorated slippers, and musical instruments, and broken nosegays; but absolute silence reigned. Beyond these last apartments I neither penetrated nor sought to penetrate, any such attempt would have been alike a great discourtesy to the rules of the country, and an offensive intrusion. The ladies were not unaware of the presence of foreign guests, and the next morning bouquets of fragrant flowers and sweetmeats prepared by their own fair fingers were brought to us for acceptance. The most distinguished and acceptable present from the ladies of the harem is, however, a fairly woven kerchief, or napkin, on which the receiver’s name, or a verse of poetry, or a sentence of the Koran, is wrought in Arabic letters of gold.

There is a little hidden coquetry in all women’s nature which, conceal it as they may, will break out in the presence of admiring man, and ordinarily the coquetry will be in the proportion of the comeliness of the possessor. No woman is insensible to the charms of her own beauty, and she will seldom fail to exhibit it when she finds the opportunity. It is not an unusual thing among Mussulmans of wealth, when they invite strangers, to give musical or theatrical entertainments after their meals, which the women of the harem honour with their presence; but they are concealed behind gratings and curtains, so that no guest can distinguish their faces, even when their voices are heard; but I have remarked that the prettiest feet are invariably put out under the curtain to be observed and admired, and that through every opening of the damask the brightest eyes were to be seen; and one might always be certain that the loudest tittle-tattle was from the youngest and fairest of the crowd; the master of the house seldom reproves an exhibition from his birds of paradise when fairly and safely caged. If the chances are few which a pretty girl of the harem has to exhibit her graces, she has the ready ingenuity to avail herself of them. There is no doubt a charm in winning the admiration of the other sex—a charm which in the Levant sometimes tempts a lady beyond the limits of maiden modesty and Western decorum. It is the breaking of the string of an overstretched bow.

The first resting-place on the principal road from Damascus to Jerusalem is a very ancient city, and was known by the name of Khan Shekune. It has still some gates of brass, evidence of the great antiquity of the place. The government is administered by a native Syrian, an old man, to whom, as to all the rulers of the country, I had a general recommendatory firman signed by the Sultan, which had been forwarded to me by the courtesy of the British ambassador at Constantinople; and a circular letter from Mahomet Ali, Pacha of Egypt, for which I was indebted to Boghos Bey, then the prime minister at Cairo, a man whose history resembled in many respects that of Joseph, for the vicissitudes through which both passed in their ascent to the highest dignities of the Egyptian State; Boghos Bey had been the adviser and the favorite of Mahomet Ali. On one occasion, when he offered some unpalatable counsel to his despotic master, great offence was taken at his boldness, and the Pacha in a moment of rage ordered his attendants to fling Boghos into the Nile. His Highness was informed that his mandate had been obeyed, instead of which, an old friend, an Hungarian by birth, concealed the Bey, under the conviction that when the moment of passion had passed away, Mahomet Ali would regret the loss, and long for the restoration of his ancient and faithful councillor; and so it was, for some months afterwards the Pacha was seen walking up and down the palace in a disturbed and excited state, saying aloud:—

“O, that I had Boghos Bey to consult! what a misery it is that people are so willing to obey the hasty words they hear!”

After some time the attendant, who had been the saviour of Boghos, found courage to ask his master whether, indeed, the Bey would be welcome if he could be restored, and on Mahomet Ali saying he would purchase his return at any cost, Walmas (for that was the name of his protector), told the Pacha what had happened, and how he had dared to disregard the viceregal mandate, believing that reflection would bring regret at its having been issued. And he introduced Boghos Bey to the Pacha, who received him with the most affectionate expressions, and restored him to his office of Prime Minister with greatly extended powers and influence, an office he held to the day of his death.

But we return to our journey towards Khan Shekune, and on our way thither we heard much of the extraordinary beauty of the old Sheikh’s young wife, who had the fame of being the most lovely woman that had ever been spoken of in those regions, and who was—jealous and distrustful as Oriental husbands frequently are—the object of special jealousy, but, at the same time, of the most affectionate admiration, on the part of her husband. Concealed and secluded, though she lived in the darkness of the harem, yet the brightness of her fair countenance shone by the reflection of its fame like a remote star in the heavens, and the old Sheikh was an object of envy to a thousand youths less privileged than he in their domestic treasures. It was sunset when we reached the Sheikh’s abode, but he came to meet us with the most urbane and perfect courtesy, and the usual phrases that his house was honoured by our presence.

We observed evidence of much disquietude on the good Sheikh’s visage, and it was obvious he was wrestling with some sore but untold anxiety, and that he desired to get rid of a burden which pressed heavily on his mind. At last he let fall that there was sorrow in the harem, that the child of his old age was sick, and, as he feared, at the point of death. It is a habit among Orientals to conceal from others, and even from themselves, the extent of any danger or affliction that seems to menace them, under the influence of that fatalism which is almost a religious creed, and which teaches that what is not to be need not be anticipated by an anxiety for which there is no sufficient cause, and what is to be cannot be averted by giving way to solicitudes or sorrows. And even after an afflicting event there is an unwillingness to communicate the evil news. Of this there is a touching example in the history of David, whose servants feared to speak to him of the death of his child, for they said: “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake to him, and he would not hearken unto our voices; how will he then vex himself if we tell him the child is dead.”[1] But in the whispering of the servants David discovered his bereavement, and in the face of the Sheikh we could perceive his agitation. “Doctor! will you heal my child?” was his inquiry.

Now the infant boy had been born to the beautiful bride, and I own to a petty plot, which I then concocted in my thoughts, that I might possibly, through the desire of the father to save the suffering child, get a peep at the charming mother, the echoed fame of whose loveliness was still sounding in my ears, and, let me own it, much sharpened my curiosity.

“Well, then,” I answered, “take me to the harem, and I will see what is to be done!”

“Impossible!” said the Sheikh; “impossible.”

“But if the child die, and you should be visited by the thought that the Hakim could and would have saved it?”

“Impossible!” he repeated. “It cannot be.”

“If the child is not relieved, he will die.”

“Alas! but you cannot be permitted to enter the harem. Shall the infant be brought out?”

“By no means—the child must not be exposed. Besides, men know nothing about the complaints of children. We Western physicians have only one way of proceeding. We talk to the mother—that is invariably our practice. We hear from her the symptoms of the complaint, and we prescribe only after getting all possible information—information which the mother alone is able to give.”

“It cannot be! it cannot be!” he repeated with new emphasis.

“I am sorry for it,” was all my reply.

He hung down his head, saluted me, and quickly left the apartment.

Meanwhile I was amused by the extraordinary doings of a renowned magician, who had obtained the character of a prophet, whose presence alarmed many of our suit, especially a “jester,” who had been attached to our cavalcade by the Governor of Damascus, for the purpose of amusing us with his stories, so as to lighten the fatigues of travel. On hearing the magician was in the house, the jester—called by the Arabs a maskara—fled—but was ordered to be found and brought into the presence of the magician, who cried to him with a loud voice, “Be dumb!” And assuredly the man attempted to speak, but in vain. He exhibited the utmost agony, and trembled like an aspen leaf under the spell of the magician. Undoubtedly he believed himself to be wholly delivered into the hands of his tormentors. I interfered for his release from this extraordinary thraldom; and, having heard from the magician the word “Speak!” which was loudly and peremptorily pronounced, he ran immediately out of the house, hid himself in the mountain, and only rejoined our party when we had resumed our way towards Jerusalem.

It was some hours after this interlude that the Sheikh again made his appearance and approached me.

“It was very disagreeable—very annoying; but what must be, must. He could not run the risk of losing his child. Would I do him the favour to follow him?”

I bowed, of course, with great complacency, inwardly rejoicing on the success of my admirable arrangement, but giving no outward sign of self-gratulation or delight.

He preceded me with a slow and seemingly hesitating step. He unlocked, he opened the doors of several apartments, through which we advanced to the sanctum sanctorum of the women. Upon a many-coloured rug lay a poor emaciated suffering infant, which seemed two or three months old. It was encumbered with garments; it had the Mahomedan rosary round its neck, and its body was covered with amulets, charms, and verses from the Koran, to whose miraculous influence, aided by prayers to the Prophet, they had ventured to look for the recovery of the patient. Other hope there was none: and that hope had failed, as the child appeared sinking and to be past recovery.

Hanging over the child, looking like a statue of grief, a veiled woman was seated.

To her I addressed myself, but not a word did she reply. She seemed abandoned to sorrow and absorbed in contemplation of the little sufferer on the Persian rug. A sigh escaped her, and my sympathy was strongly excited. I pursued my inquiries as to the complaints of the infant. What was its age? How long had it been ill? What had been done for its recovery? Who had been consulted? What were the symptoms? Did it get any sleep? and so forth: but only indistinct replies were given to my questionings. I said, “You must speak more plainly. If your language were English, I should have difficulty in understanding you talking through that veil, and I comprehend your Syriac-Arabic very imperfectly. You must remove your veil, and you may then be intelligible, and I shall know better what to prescribe for your boy.” She shook her head; it seemed as if I made no impression. I insisted more strongly. I said I was an English doctor, only accustomed to the practice of English mothers. We talked to them with unveiled faces; they told us all we wished to know; they gave every particular of their children’s indisposition; and we were able then to see more clearly what ought to be done. Moved by my increasing urgency, she raised her hands, threw off her veil, stared me in the face—an ugly hag of a woman, worn and wrinkled. “I am the old wife,” were the only words she uttered.

“Sold, sold!” I exclaimed to the Sheikh; and I could not check an outburst of laughter as we left the harem together. I did, however, give some medicine for the child, and learnt afterwards that he had got well.

The next day, we crossed the Jordan on our way to Nazareth.

I have availed myself of such opportunities as I have had to learn from intelligent Orientals themselves their views as to the comparative influences of polygamy and monogamy upon domestic happiness; and the result has been most favourable to that policy consecrated by Christian laws and Christian usages, by which one man and one woman are exclusively bound together by the marital link, and the children only of such marriages deemed to be the legitimate descendants of their parents. One of the most cultivated Turks I have ever known—a man occupying at the present moment one of the highest positions in the Ottoman empire, and well acquainted with other nations as well as his own—assured me that he had confined his attentions to the lady whom he had selected for his wife as the best means of securing his own felicity. She was a beautiful Ciresssian slave, for whom he had paid a high price: he had her instructed in various Oriental languages, so that she talked readily Turkish, Arabic, and Persian. She had visited the holy cities of Mekka and Medina, and was well read in the Koran and in the doctrines and rites of Islamism. He told me I was not to suppose she was free from woman’s weaknesses; and assured me that at different times he had adorned her person with diamond necklaces, diamond bracelets, diamond anklets—ay! and even, said he, “presented her with a diamond girdle for her waist.” He said she was a tender and a loving wife and mother: but though I did insinuate that it would gratify me much to be introduced to so meritorious a lady, I received little encouragement, and had never the privilege of setting eyes upon the wife of my illustrious friend, notwithstanding a long and close intimacy.

John Bowring.


  1. 2 Sam. xii. 18, 19.