Odalisques blog

The Female Slave Market in Constantinople (1 Mar)
From the slave market to the sultan's bedchamber (17 Feb)
Buying a new slave for your harem (4 Feb)
Odalisquian books list now on Odalisques.com (29 Jan)
Edward Lane's descriptions and drawings of female clothing (27 Jan)
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"The Arab Scribe" by J.F. Lewis, 1852
"The Bath" by J.L. Gerome, in the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
"Odalisque" by Max Nonnenbruch
"By order of the sultan" by Antonio Fabres
"Idle Moments" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1875
more pictures...


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© Tanos

Charles White "Three Years in Constantinople"

White's account of his observations of the Ottoman Turkish capital in the 1840s contains many details of harems, odalisques, and slaves.

Despite the paintings of odalisques being sold in the public slave bazaar, this was never the case for new rather than second-hand girls. Instead they were handled by dealers and given some amount of training:

Newly imported white slaves are never sent to this bazar. On their landing from Circassia, whence they arrive in small coasting vessels, by tens or twenties, under the charge of Circassian conductors, they are landed at Tophana, where the merchants of that country take up their abode, and may be seen lounging about the coffee-houses in that quarter. Hither the Turkish dealers proceed and purchase on speculation. Girls remarkable for personal charms, or promising children, are of course preferred. The purchase being made, if not on commission, the girls are removed to the speculator's residence, where they are neatly clothed, carefully attended, and in most cases not only taught needlework, embroidery, and domestic duties, but instructed in reading, writing, the principles and practices of the Mohammedan religion, and various accomplishments calculated to enhance their value in the eyes of both sexes, either as attendants or wives.

A young girl, purchased for 10,000 piastres, from a Circassian dealer, thus increases in value to 20 or 30,000 in the course of three or four years, especially if she be highly favoured by nature. Instances have been known where they have been sold for 60 to 70,000. A German medical gentleman who attends many Turkish families, among others the kadinns of the late Sultan, was sent for to prescribe for a young Circassian slave belonging to one of these ladies. Having examined the patient, he assured the kadinn's lady of honour that no danger was to be apprehended; whereupon the latter replied, "Thank God. It would be a sad loss - she cost 45,000 piastres."

(Vol. II, pp.287-288)

White has explained how expensive European-looking slaves were trained for months or years and then sold privately, rather than in the open-air slave market. To visit one of these houses, White had to pretend to be a doctor helping a Turk make his choice. My comments are in brackets:

Although it is extremely difficult for Franks (Western Europeans), or even Rayas (Christian subjects of the empire), to obtain access to the houses where Circassian (southeast of modern day Russia) women are educated for sale, accident enabled me, during the spring of 1842, to accompany a Turkish officer, under the character of a physician, to one of these establishments, contiguous to the "Burned Column." On arriving, we were received by a black man-slave and Turkish porter, the former of whom conducted us into a large apartment, where the usual pipes and coffee were offered by the proprietor, a man of respectable appearance and agreeable manners. In due time, my Turkish companion, affecting a desire to purchase, expressed his wish to examine the dealer's stock. The latter rose, passed through a side door, and after a short absence returned. Presently, the door curtain was held back, and in glided a string of eleven girls, who placed themselves in line before us.

Of these, three only were remarkable for personal attractions. They had all large feet, red and bony hands, strong features, and coarse complexions; but their eyes were full-orbed and expressive, their teeth white and regular, their hair luxuriant, and their figures well developed and proportioned, though thick-waisted. They were clothed in the Circassian fashion, but with the usual Turkish materials; that is, shalwars (harem pants) and short entary (gowns) of printed cotton; waist-girdles of imitation shawl; chemises of birunjik, and the common yellow papoosh (leather slippers) without stockings. They wore a small flat fez, encircled by a bright-coloured handkerchief on their heads, and a veil of coarse muslin was thrown over these, the ends hanging down below the waist, whilst they held the side across their faces with their left hands. Their hair was braided in several plaits, and hung down their backs. Three or four ringlets adorned each temple, but the front was cut short and square, causing their foreheads to look low and unprepossessing.

They appeared neither bashful nor disturbed at our close inspection, and yet there was nothing forward or immodest in their manner. Their exposure was a matter of course. Daughters of Circassian serfs, reared in servitude and taught from their cradles to consider themselves as marketable articles, there was nothing to them novel or degrading in slavery or the preparatory exhibition. So far from it, they appeared to watch the countenance of the pretended purchaser with anxiety, and their faces flushed with hope rather than shame when prices were mentioned. They readily thrust out their tongues, extended their wrists, and submitted to other scrutiny. In short, their whole expression of feature and manner denoted an earnest desire to be purchased forthwith.

There is nothing extraordinary in this, as regard these girls. They are aware that many of their countrywomen have become mothers, and pro forma wives of sultans; that many also have been and are married legitimately to influential and wealthy men.

(Volume II, p.288)

White describes the public slave market in some detail:

The present Yessir Bazary is supposed by some writers to stand upon the spot occupied by the Byzantine Slave-Market. This is not the case. The "Vale of Tears" of the Greek emperors was situated lower down, nearly upon the site now covered by Djevahir Bezestany. The existing slave-market was established by Mohammed II, some years after the conquest. It has been frequently burned and rebuilt, and at present stands in the utmost need of repair. During the first ten years subsequent to the conquest, slaves were sold in the open streets, at the will of proprietors, who, however, generally congregated upon certain favourable spots, and especially that occupied by the present market, which was then an open space, the ruins of a Greek palace.

According to tradition, the existing market owes its origin to the following circumstance. Mohammed II being upon his way from the water-side to the At Maidany, chanced to pass through this place, which was obstructed on all sides by slaves and dealers. His horse, a fiery animal, alarmed at the clanking of the captives' chains, became restive, and, after striking furiously with its fore legs, slew a female Christian captive with a child in her arms. At this sight the Sultan was much moved, and therefore, in order to prevent the recurrence of such misfortunes, he directed that a regular market should be constructed, and placed under the superintendence of proper officers. The building was originally destined for the sale of captives, thence its name, which signifies a prisoner taken in war, rather than a menial slave (keool).

The aspect of Yessir Bazary sorrowfully harmonizes with its destination and the degraded condition of its temporary inmates. It is entered by a large wooden gate, open during business hours, that is, from eight a.m. to mid-day, excepting upon Fridays, when it is closed to purchasers. (The original motives for closing this and the Jewel Bezestan at midday are identical. Custom has confirmed the practice.) This gate is guarded by a capidjy, whose duty it is to watch persons passing to and fro, and to give alarm, should slaves attempt to escape. But this is nearly impossible, as the chambers or cells are locked up soon after mid-day, and the laws relating to the abstraction or harbouring of runaway slaves are peremptory.

The interior consists of an irregular quadrangle. The southern extremity is in ruins, and serves as a receptacle for filth and rubbish, which tend to produce deleterious exhalations, and to render disease permanent in this quarter. In the centre is a detached building, the upper portion serving as lodgings for (yessirjee) slavedealers, and underneath are cells for ajamee, (slaves newly imported). To this is attached a coffee-house, and near to it is a half ruined mosque. Around the three habitable sides of the court runs an open colonnade, supported by wooden columns, and approached by steps at the angles. Under the colonnade are platforms, separated from each other by low railings and benches. Upon these, dealers and customers may be seen seated during business hours smoking and discussing prices.

Behind these platforms are ranges of small chambers, divided into two compartments by a trellice-work. The habitable part is raised about three feet from the ground; the remainder serves as passage and cooking-place.

The front portion is generally tenanted by black, and the back by white, slaves. These chambers are exclusively devoted to females. Those to the north and west are destined for second-hand negresses (Arfib), or white women (beiaz) - that is, for slaves who have been previously purcliased and instructed, and are sent to be resold, perhaps a second or third time. Some are known to have been resold many times. The hovels to the east are reserved for newly-imported negresses, or black and white women of low price.

The platforms are divided from the chambers by a narrow alley, on the wall side of which are benches, where black women are exposed for sale. This alley serves as a passage of communication and walk for the dellal (brokers or criers), who sell slaves by auction and on commission. In this case, the brokers walk round, followed by the slaves, and announce the price offered. Purchasers, seated upon the platforms, then examine, question, and bid, as suits their fancy, until at length the woman is sold or withdrawn.

Being at Yessir Bazary, in February, 1843, with Mr. Solvyns, Belgic charge d'affaires, we saw a fine negress, with good recommendations as a superior cook and sempstress, who, on account of incorrigible temper, had been sold thirteen times. After languid bidding, she was at length knocked down to an old Mollah for 1870 piastres (£17). We likewise saw another unhappy girl knocked down much more literally. She had been directed to follow the dellal round the colonnade, but, either through shame or obstinacy, she proceeded in an opposite direction. Seeing this, the brutal old broker pursued, overtook, and smote her so severely on the face, that blood gushed from her nose and mouth. Ours rose to fever heat at this sight; but we could not attempt either to assist or to console her. This was a moment when we would gladly have sacrificed one hand for permission to employ the other upon the savage broker's head. But the slightest demonstration of sympathy would have exposed us both to insult and expulsion. It is but just to add that, although I visited the slave-market repeatedly, this was the only instance of maltreating slaves that came under my notice.

Underneath the above-mentioned galleries are ranges of cells, or rather vaults, infectiously filthy and dark. Those on the right are reserved for second-hand males; the furthest and worst of these dens being destined for those who, from bad conduct, are condemned by the kihaya to wear chains, a punishment inflicted upon women as well as men in aggravated cases; such as theft, outrageous conduct, contempt of decency, maltreating their companions in captivity, attempting to set fire to the building, and other offences committed within the walls. The central cells and those upon the eastern side are reserved for male slaves newly imported.

When weather permits, the newly imported black females are called forth, mats are spread in front of the central building, and they are seated unveiled in groups and lines to await purchasers. The dress of these poor creatures, mostly young girls from ten to fifteen years of age, consists of a red-striped cotton handkerchief twined round the head, a pair of coarse linen drawers, and the common Arab or Egyptian linen abba (wrapper), which serves as veil and robe. Some wear brass anklets and bracelets riveted on the leg or arm.

The chambers to the north and west are occupied by second-hand slaves. When black women are thus resold, their value often increases, because they have generally been instructed in domestic duties, especially in the culinary art, for which purpose they are employed in all families where male artists do not form a part of the household. But the value of white women generally decreases from twenty to forty per cent., as no one parts with a female of this colour unless from profligate motives or incorrigible defects. It is no uncommon practice with young and wealthy libertines to purchase young women from the Circassian dealers at Tophana, or from those who buy women from the latter to educate and resell, and then, at the expiration of a few weeks, to send them to Yessir Bazary, in order to procure money for purchasing other novelties.

The principal and favourite marts for the supply of negresses are Tripoli and Tunis. Regular dealers, almost all Arabs, trade between Stambol and these places at stated periods. They purchase their human merchandize from the Arabs dealing with the interior, and ship them for the Bosphorus, where about two-thirds are disposed of in the city, and the remainder for the interior and Persia.

An old Arab, who, "with Allah's permission," had carried on the trade during many years, informed me that it was a profitable business, and, as he cleared about thirty per cent, by his bargains, he hoped to continue so to do until he quitted this perishable world for the gardens of Paradise. According to his statement, the profits of the original dealers and Stambol merchants would be enormous, were it not for the great mortality that invariably occurs among their unhappy merchandize, which, from the period of their quitting Fezzan, or other places in the interior of Africa, until their arrival at Stambol, exceeds sixty per cent.

Notwithstanding this, the average price of strong newly imported slaves at Yessir Bazary is as low as 1500 piastres (not £14), and never exceeds 2500. The ordinary price for second-hand slaves, clean, healthy, and well instructed, averages from 2500 to 3000, and never exceeds 5000. White women sold in this bazar, when young and without defects, average from 10 to 15,000 piastres. The maximum, according to the dellal, was 45,000; but this is rare, and only in cases of great beauty, extraordinary accomplishments, and virginity, as sometimes occurs when death of proprietors, or other circumstances, throw the whole contents of a harem on the market.

Slaves brought from Egypt, that is, the blacks of Sennar and the higher regions, are not in such request as those imported via Tripoli. They are regarded as belonging to the "race of Pharaoh," inapt to learn, stubborn, and neither diligent nor trustworthy. Their price is proportionably low. But the Abyssinians form an exception. They are comely in person, their figures beautifully modelled, and their tempers gentle. They are intelligent, industrious, and cleanly, and thus fetch the full price of their class.

All slaves brought to Constantinople pay a government tax at the Custom House upon landing, after which no other duty is demanded either on sale or transfer. This tax amounts to 800 piastres per head for whites, and 200 for blacks, above the age of three years. The average population of the slave-market amounts to about 300. Of these about a third are new importations. The total number of those imported within the year 1842 was 2800. The number of Circassians sent to the capital did not exceed 500, so that the total importations amounted in round numbers to 3300. The Circassian trade has considerably diminished, not from reluctance on the part of parents and relatives to sell their children, but from the difficulties attending exportation in consequence of the Russian blockade.

Persons sending second-hand slaves for sale generally employ a regular dealer or broker. He takes charge of the slave, and receives two piastres per day for maintenance, and from seven to thirty per month for lodging, which latter sum is paid to the kihaya. The dealer receives a small per centage, and the dellal a fee, amounting together to about five per cent. Slaves, especially females, are usually sent well clothed by their proprietors, in order to set them off to better advantage; but purchasers must return all these articles, except the veil and ferijee, as the law only directs that he should receive his purchase decently covered.

The bazar is under strict regulations and severe internal scrutiny. It has its sheikh, kihaya, and vekil, its brokers, watchmen, and police, and is a wakoof attached to the mosque of Mohammed II. All merchants, independently of rent for lodging themselves and slaves, pay a trifling head-tax on each slave to that mosque. These men are little respected. The greater part are Arabs, whose countenances are as mean and forbidding as their trade is execrable.

(Vol. II, pp.279-287)

After his description of private dealers and training, White returns to the public slave market and the processing of new African slaves and the arrangements after their sale:

To return to the slave-market. Negroes of both sexes, on first arriving, are for the most part thin, of a dingy, lustreless colour, and present an appearance of great bodily suffering, far different from the plump, glossy, and jovial locks of those who sit in the upper apartments, having all the air of being well contented in mind and body. When customers express a desire to purchase slaves of either sex, a trial of two days, if a new importation, is allowed; if second-hand, a longer probation is granted. The slave is then removed to the house of the customer, who first causes him to be examined medically, in order to ascertain if he be sound in body and free from constitutional defects.

If girls, this duty is performed either at the market or elsewhere by an official matron, a sort of sworn appraiser, called ehl khibra, whose sole occupation is the examination of female slaves. Peculiar attention is paid during the time of probation to their disposition and habits by day and night. It is observed whether they talk, walk, snore, or grind their teeth, when sleeping, and whether they are addicted to filthy habits. Purchasers, being satisfied that slaves are as free from defects as can be expected of these poor creatures, return to the bazar, conclude bargains, and slaves at once become members of their families.

If of tender age, as is frequently the case, they are treated with parental kindness, and generally participate in the education and fare of their owner's children. They are invariably taught to read and write, and are instructed in some useful domestic duty. The mistress of the house, or the kylarjee khalfa (housekeeper), generally some old and tried slave, undertakes the young slave's tuition, and the latter is gradually raised from a playfellow of the mistress's children to higher and more confidential functions. Arrived at womanhood, she becomes attendant on the ladies, cook, bed maker, pipe-bearer, coffee-maker, laundrymaid, or stewardess, according to her abilities and disposition, or the extent of the proprietor's households. Those of wealthy pashas or effendys generally consist of some fifteen or twenty female slaves; those of ordinary gentlemen of five or six. Inferior persons limit themselves to one or two at the utmost. Some there are who can no more afford even one slave, than persons of a similar class can afford servants in England.

(Vol. II, pp.292-294)

Limitations on physical punishment:

Proprietors may inflict chastisement on slaves, but this must not extend to unnecessary severity or to the injury of eye or limb. In such case, slaves are entitled to complain to the magistrates, and the latter can compel masters to sell them, in the hopes of their falling into more humane hands - a sorrowful compensation. They can also compel the aggressor to pay a portion of the fine attached to similar assaults on free men. In the event of masters murdering slaves, the fisc can also claim the price of blood, which amounts to the full value of the slave, always provided that it does not equal 10,000 drachms of silver, the blood-price of free men. But cases of this kind rarely occur, or, if they should occur, they are carefully concealed; for acts of barbarity are not only punishable at law, but are held in deserved execration by the community at large.

(Vol. II, p319)

Further details of the treatment of slaves and ways in which they are freed or married:

At the present day, female slaves, both black and white, are not only clothed as richly as their mistresses, but infinite pains are taken to educate the one and to instruct the others in all domestic duties calculated to be of service to them, whether in bondage or freedom. Similar attention is paid to the instruction of males. In great houses, white slaves are placed in the path of distinctions and honours, and blacks are carefully and kindly treated. In middling families, white male slaves are rarely found; but negroes are more common, and are taught their master's trade. At the end of seven or nine years they are generally liberated, and admitted to work as journeymen; so that, in due time, they may set up in business for themselves.

Instances repeatedly occur where fathers and mothers, desirous to find suitable wives for their sons, prefer white slaves to free women; especially such girls as have been educated in their own families, or in those of near relatives. They argue thus: "The daughter of an acquaintance may be recommended to us. She may possess personal attractions, good connexions, and fair prospects. But what do we know of her character or disposition? She may be of unamiable and uncongenial habits. We are strangers to her person, and ignorant of her temper and acquirements. Her relatives may bring dissension into our family, and she may be the reverse of all we most desire in a daughter-in-law. On the other hand, when a slave has been reared in our own house, we know her thoroughly. She has been fashioned by our own hands. She regards us as her second parents. She is accustomed to our opinions and mode of life; the only difference is that she will become our daughter legally, in lieu of our adopted child - the wife instead of the sister of our son."

Thus it often occurs that parents purchase young females of the age of eight or ten, and educate them for the purpose of forming good wives for their sons; and thus it is also that girls of this class frequently possess greater accomplishments than those free born. But this must not be taken as a general rule. Indeed, supposing the number of Circassian girls, now annually imported into Stambol, to average five hundred, it may be said that not more than a fourth are likely to form good wives, and that the marriages of this class do not exceed from one hundred and fifty to two hundred annually.

The Tophana slave-dealers affirmed that not more than fifteen vessels, averaging cargoes of from thirty-five to forty-five, had been able to put to sea from the Circassian coast during last year (1843).

Turkish gentlemen of respectability often express themselves strongly in condemnation of the practice of marrying Georgian or Circassian women. They describe the former as dull, uninteresting, and indifferent to their domestic duties; as mere machines, apparently taking no other interest in life than is excited by the material functions of eating, drinking, bathing, and dressing, of which they are inordinately fond, and thence extravagant. The latter are depicted us the reverse - bold, independent, obstinate, intriguing, and constantly meddling in affairs not within their sphere; prone to expense, yet selfish and avaricious; disobedient wives and passionate mothers.

The position of slave-wives, no matter what the husband's condition or rank, is also a drawback. Independently of their having no prospect of fortune to add to the common stock, on the demise of parents, they are always regarded as inferior to free-born women, and constantly hamper the husband with poor members of their family, who come to the capital to seek employment. The distinctive appellation of Kadinn is annexed to their names; and their free-born female connexions by marriage, who regard them as inferiors, will scarcely deign to rise when they enter an apartment. Other young men, again, prefer these marriages, knowing that their wives, if slaves, have no relations to interfere and protect them in case of maltreatment, or to shelter and counsel them, should divorce be desired by the husband.

(Vol. II, pp.320-322)

Finally, White reports a wife who had an amicable relationship with her husband's favourite slave:

Reis Effendy, has the reputation of being joint proprietor with his wife of a garden of beauty, each flower of which is worthy of being added to the imperial parterre. A foreign lady, having repeatedly seen Rifat Pasha's wife attended by one of her husband's supposed favourites, for whom the wife evinced the tender affection of a sister, said to her, "How is this, Khanum Effendy? (The title of Effendy is also given to ladies after the word Khanum (madam)) Are you not jealous? I confess that I could not feel so fond of a rival." - "That would be unjust," answered the Khanum meekly. "Surely it is not the poor girl's fault if my husband loves her."

This was most amiable philosophy - incompatible alike with our notions and with the general feelings of Turkish wives, who are not at all prone to submit patiently to these rivalries. But it proved that Rifat Pasha's wife had the good sense to promote domestic concord as far as possible, and to endure patiently that which could not be cured, at least, by violent opposition.

(Volume II, p.143)

Finally, the end of Volume II includes a "Plan of the Bazars", showing the Slave Market on the lower left: