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)
more posts...


"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...


more books...

© Tanos

Demetra Vaka-Brown

Demetra Vaka was ethnically Greek and born into the Ottoman Empire in 1877. She married an American, Kenneth Brown, and wrote several non-fiction books and novels based on her experiences.

She is cited as one of the sources for a particularly interesting passage in Reina Lewis's book:

"At the upper end of the trade the tradition continued whereby upper-class women (often apparently unaware of the horrors of the journey) bought Circassian girls and educated them into cultivated and elegant women to go as concubines and wives to elite harems, or trained them as dancers and entertainers (occupations not respectable for Muslim women). Vaka Brown among others reports on this. Although there was serious money to bemade in such ventures it was not only finances that prompted women to under-take such transactions: to be seen attended by cultivated Circassians was a sign of status and women could align themselves with powerful households through the placement of their trainees. If the slave managed to marry her master, the alliance could prove to be even more useful. Often, enslaved Circassians were considered as suitable wives from the outset, entering their new homes as freewomen. Women who did not specifically purchase and train slaves would still often consider it part of their duty to educate the slaves who came to them as young girls and arrange good marriages for them. Whilst Circassians might be intended for the highest of social alliances, many less exceptionally valued women slaves would be assisted to marry, often being given their freedom along with their dowry." - from "Rethinking Orientalism: women, travel and the Ottoman harem" by Reina Lewis, p133

This appears to be based on passages in two of Vaka Brown's books. In chapter 4 of "Haremlik" she describes a conversation with the first wife of a rich pasha in Constantinople, who was born into poverty in rural Circassian across the Black Sea:

"One day, however, my mother came to us with joy in her face and said to me : 'My children, your father must be having in his favor the ear of the Prophet. Here comes to us a miraculous help. A rich Hanoum wishes to buy six or seven little girl slaves. I am going to sell you three little girls, and with the money go back to the mountains to bring up your brothers as true Roumeliotes, not like mice in a city.'"

"We were very happy. I did not know at the time what slavery was; but my mother explained it, and we were glad of the chance given to us."

I must explain here that slavery in Turkey is not what the word implies in Christendom. A slave in Turkey is like an adopted child, to whom is given every advantage according to her talents. If she is beautiful, she is brought up like a young lady and is given as a wife to a noble and rich man ; if she is plain and clever, she becomes a teacher; if she is plain and not clever, she learns to do the manual work, sewing or domestic labor. According to the Koran, a slave must be freed after seven years of servitude and be given a dowry of no less than two hundred and fifty dollars.

Slaves always fare better than if they stayed at home. Generally they are drawn from the people who have been slaves them- selves, or from orphans. To a Turk who is poor, selling his children into slavery means giving them advantages which he could not possibly give them himself.

"Were you sorry to leave your mother?" I asked.

"How could I be sorry," was her reply, "since I was giving her back to her moun- tains and her sunshine ? My two little sisters and myself journeyed for days, sometimes on the backs of animals, and sometimes in what seemed to me then wooden boxes on wheels. "

"In the house of my new mistress I remained with my sisters for seven years. She was lovely to us, and although we did not live out-of-doors all the time, we lived in a large house, in a very large garden, and by the water. It was in Smyrna. We had never seen anything before except mountains and trees. When we came to Smyrna we were afraid of everything, even of the commonest things. After we had learned that all the strange things would not hurt us, we were taken out on the water in a small boat, and after a time we were taught how to make it go ourselves. We also learned to read and write, and we were taught French, and to paint and play the guitar, and to dance. They were not as strict there as they are in my household here. When I was fourteen I was spoken of as a very beautiful person, and a Hanoum who came to see me once said I was only fit for the Sultan. My beauty travelled from Smyrna to the Palace, and some one came out to our house to see me. That is how I was given to the Sultan on his anniversary."

The second passage is in Chapter 10 of her novel "A child of the Orient":

The household consisted of her grandfather, her grandmother, the old eunuch, a cook older than the eunuch, and a young slave the halaic.

A halaic is a slave who is plain, and consequently cannot be given in marriage to a rich husband; nor is she clever enough to become a teacher; nor does she possess that grace and suppleness which might make of her a dancing-girl. Having thus neither mental nor physical attributes, she becomes a menial.

She does all the coarsest work; and after seven years of servitude, if she belongs to a generous master, she is either freed, with a minimum dowry of two hundred and fifty dollars, or is given in marriage, with a larger dowry, to one of the menservants in the retinue of the household.

It is said that sometimes, if her master be either poor or cruel, he sells her before her time expires, and thus she passes from house to house a beast of burden, because Allah has given her neither cleverness, nor bodily beauty, nor grace; and men cheat her of her freedom and youth.