Seduced by the Orient: European Fantasies about Harems Cover Image
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Uwiedzeni Orientem– europejskie fantazje o haremie
Seduced by the Orient: European Fantasies about Harems

Author(s): Dorota Kołodziejczyk
Subject(s): Cultural Essay, Political Essay, Societal Essay
Published by: Stowarzyszenie Czasu Kultury
Keywords: Harem as Secret; Enlightenment and the Harem; Romanticism and the Harem; harem fantasies;

Summary/Abstract: Europeans had always wanted to satisfy their cognitive curiosity towards the exotic character of harems. From a Christian point of view the harem “negated the virtue of temperance”. It was, therefore, even more intriguing because of this superficial layer of disapproval. Dorota Kołodziejczyk speculates that from a man’s point of view, the oriental court could have been the source of envy with its unfulfilled potential of female sensuality at the exclusive command of one man. The later colonial expansion of European empires finally made it possible to explore the mysteries of the Orient. Europeans identified the harem with the fulfilment of all types of erotic desires which on the old continent had been limited to the world of imagination. They also knew that such places constituted a restricted world of despotic rule, as described by Montesquieu in his Persian Letters (1755). According to the writer, the harem was a prison: while the sultan was away his wives were jealously guarded by the chief eunuch and this lead to a tragic finale. Already in the 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, a famous explorer of Turkey, described a naked woman’s body stabbed with a dagger. The event was perceived as a form of punishment for breaking the laws of obedience. During Romanticism the ruthless oriental rules became an ideal context for creating plots about ill-fated love affairs which accompanied attempts to unveil the mysteries of harems that evaded the rationale of the Enlightenment. Lord Byron in particular sentenced women in his poems to death because they had dared to try forbidden love which was equivalent to rejecting the strict rules of the harem community. It is interesting that the inhabitants of harems embodied both innocence and diabolic qualities. This intriguing duality was vividly described by Jan Potocki in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1813). Whilstn awake the main character of the novel, a Christian nobleman, perceived the Muslim women who seduced him as demons concealed in unquestionably beautiful bodies. In his dreams, however, they would become creatures with whom being intimate was natural and not sinful. It was possible to give in to the oriental female aspect, but only in the safe realm of fantasy. Dorota Kołodziejczyk draws this conclusion from Gérard de Nerval’s Voyage to the Orient (1851) which clearly proved that in reality the attitude towards the temptations of the non-European world was a passive and contemplative one. Even if real love was at stake the traveller preferred to withdraw from such an affair as quickly as possible. At the turn of the 20th century the harem fantasy became commercialised in the context of French colonialism. This took the form of widely published postcards depicting Algerian women surrounded by the luxury of the harem: the object of desire became available to everybody.

  • Issue Year: 2003
  • Issue No: 01
  • Page Range: 51-70
  • Page Count: 20
  • Language: Polish