What do you think about when you hear the words "Middle East"?
Possibly, you imagine an exotic and hot land, the streets filled with dark skinned people wearing turbans, women with their bodies covered with a myriad jewels, strong tanned men wearing sheathed curved knives in their belts. Among these crowds, you can see snake charmers playing the flute, cryptic thieves stealing gold and belly dancers dancing in front of spellbound crowds. It's an exciting view, a place of danger and mystery which you can't even fully fathom. Yet, this perception has nothing to do with the real world. As a matter of fact, it's a distortion of reality, a fictional vision of these cultures that actually has very little to do with the reality that these people have lived throughout the centuries. We've had our view on the world shaped according to the benefits of our own culture.
This is what Edward Said calls "Orientalism": the fictional discourse through which Western culture, by representing the Orient as savage, luscious, and dangerous, claims superiority over their culture. And what would be the purpose of doing this? Surely, to justify their domination of these cultures on the political and economic sphere, in the name of "civilization."
The Snake Charmer (ca. 1879), Jean-Léon Gérôme
Throughout the nineteenth century, Orientalist art was booming in Europe, possibly because artists got the chance to travel the world and also because this century was at the center of the second rise of Imperialism. Out of its usual themes, harems are one of the most depicted spaces in these paintings. The idea of a place where the wives and concubines lived in seclusion seemed to the Western mind, the most sensual and forbidden place to have ever existed. Our painters became obsessed with the idea of this forbidden place, allowing themselves be taken over by their own imaginings and fantasies. They portrayed these places as houses of pleasure or temples of bodily delight.
In reality, harems were much more than a place designed for the pleasures of men. They were centers of political power and the house of the most renowned people in Muslim society. The paintings that we've grown used to see are, in reality, a projection of a Western fantasy : they're absolutely speculative in all the senses of the word.
The Western vision doesn't comply with the social reality of the culture that it portrays, but it actually denigrates it. Nevertheless, some artists had a deeper vision than their peers, and they've left images of harems with a truer perspective of how these spaces work, also revealing the falsehood of the exotic and sensual images that we've been raised to think of as true.
Harem Interior: A Visit (1860), Henriette Brown
While being on a diplomatic mission with her husband in Constantinople —modern day Istanbul— Brown had the opportunity to enter a Harem and realized that its reality was far different to the luscious scenes male painters had created before her. Instead of creating an exotic place, the scene she portrays looks rather chaotic, with little clicks of women having ardent discussions rather than languorous and opulent settings.
Portrait painting of Rabia Gulnus Sultan, (19th century), Unknown
Despite the common Western conception of Sultans as the ultimate rulers of harems, things weren't as simple as that. As a matter of fact, the person who held the highest rank in a harem in the Ottoman Empire was the Valide Sultan ("sultan mother"), who was the one in charge of administering the internal affairs, as well as being the second-most important character in the government scheme. This position was usually held by the mother of the sultan and perhaps, in rare cases, by a concubine. This anonymous painting portrays a woman of will, powerful and royal.
Harem du Palais (ca. 1870), Gustave Boulanger
The depiction of Boulanger's harem makes it look definitely eden-like and mischievous, with misbehaving children playing in the background. The placid waters of the fountain and the detailed carpets remind us that these spots were a place of recreation and upbringing.
In the Harem (1882), Filippo Baratti
In Baratti's picture, three women enjoy the company of a slave who plays an instrument. It's a delightful scene of tranquility, in which the three concubines convey to the viewer an emotion of idleness. A certainly romantic vision that is still colored by these exotic imaginings of the western world.
The Harem (1860), John Frederick Lewis
Lewis's painting depicts a moment of vulnerability with a woman shying away from the gaze of the sultan as she covers herself with a robe. The skittish antelope looking at the viewer and the platters of food dripping with sumptuous fruits appear ripped from the very pages of Francis Bacon's Arabian Nights. What captures our attention is the hierarchy that existed in these places and which is shown in this piece. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the woman and the servant who is about to drape or perhaps remove the black robe from her hunched shoulders. Who is this smiling man? We imagine he's a slave and during the Ottoman Empire, slaves were at the bottom of the hierarchy and were normally eunuchs. While his painting does show the lushness of a western fantasy, we are instead drawn to the complex social structures that lay within.
Harem Scene (1876), Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant
Constant's harem is a dark place that elude the imagination. The features of the women are only made visible by the light shining through the door, which appears to lead to an interior garden. This place is luscious yes, but the women in this room appear to be holding a discussion. The vision we have of harems are of centers of pleasure for hedonistic sultans; however, they were homes for women and power structures with immense influential political power.