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Unveiling the Harem

Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth Century Cairo

by Mary Ann Fay

Publication Year: 2012

A history of elite women who were concubines and wives of powerful slave-soldiers, known as Mamluks, who dominated Egypt both politically and militarily in the eighteenth century.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Cover, Front Flap

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Title Page, Further Reading, Copyright, Dedication, About the Author

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pp. i-vi

Mary Ann Fay received her PhD in the History of the Middle East from Georgetown University in 1993. She is an associate professor of history at Morgan State University (Baltimore, Maryland). Previously she was the founding director of the Arab Studies Program at American University (Washington, DC), and taught at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) and at the...


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix


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pp. xi

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pp. xiii-xvi

It is gratifying to recall and thank those who provided encouragement, support, advice, and helpful criticism at various stages of the research and writing of this book. It would have been difficult to undertake a monograph based on archival documents thousands of miles away from my home in Washington, DC, without the support of grants and fellowships that allowed me to remain in Cairo for sustained periods. Thus I am grateful...

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A Note on the Transliteration

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pp. xvii

The transliteration system used is that of the International Journal of Middle East Studies. Initial hamzas are dropped but are used when they fall in the middle or at the end of a word. No diacritical marks other than the hamza and the ayn are used. Turkish words are written in Turkish where appropriate; otherwise they are Arabicized. For example, ocak, the singular form of the Ottoman Turkish word for the military units garrisoned at...

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pp. 1-20

Unveiling the Harem is a historical study of women embedded in a social and cultural history of Egypt and Cairo during the period of the Mamluk revival. In the pages that follow, I argue that elite women, identified as women in the Mamluk households that were constructed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, were able to achieve real economic, social, and even political power or influence for several reasons...

I. The Harem in Theory, in Practice, and in the European Imagination

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pp. 21

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1. Reimagining the Harem: From Orientalist Fantasies to Historical Reconstruction

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pp. 23-44

Western travelers to Egypt in the eighteenth century believed they knew and could describe the locations of harems in the cities they visited, the women who lived in them, and the kinds of lives they led, even though most of the travelers, predominantly male, had almost certainly never been inside one. Without allowing the lack of firsthand knowledge to deter them, they confidently described the harems of Cairo, indeed of the entire Ottoman...

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2. Egypt in the Eighteenth Century: The Transition from the Medieval to the Early Modern

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pp. 45-66

The period between 1260 and the Ottoman conquest of 1516–17 was the era of the Mamluk sultanate that began when the slave soldiers of Egypt stopped the advance of the seemingly invincible Mongols across the eastern Mediterranean. After more than 250 years as an independent sultanate ruling a territory that stretched into Syria and the Hijaz, the Ottoman victory of the early sixteenth century reduced Mamluk Egypt to the status...

II. Becoming a Mamluk

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pp. 67

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3. Slaves in the Family: Islam, Household Slavery, and the Construction of Kinship

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pp. 69-90

At the age of thirteen or fourteen, the girl who came to be known as Khadiga Qadin became a slave. Her parents, probably impoverished Georgian peasants, may have sold her to a slave dealer hoping she would be bought for a large and wealthy household in Istanbul or Cairo.1 Or she may have been kidnapped and then sold to a dealer, a not uncommon occurrence. From her home somewhere in the Georgian region of the Caucasus, she and...

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4. The Mamluk Household: How a House Became a Home

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pp. 91-120

The fate of women slaves from the Caucasus and Georgia was contingent on many factors—their purchase as household servants or concubines, the status and wealth of their owner, the treatment meted out to them by their masters or mistresses, and their own ability to use their talents and skills to advance themselves within the household. If, like any of the manumitted Georgian slaves whose lives are revealed to us in their religious endowment...

III. Life in Cairo: City, Neighborhood, Home

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pp. 121

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5. Mamluk Women and the Egyptian Economy: A Comparative Perspective on Women’s Property Rights

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pp. 123-154

Women who married into the Mamluk households of beys, kashifs, and high-ranking military offi cers were predominantly former slaves, sometimes the slaves of the men they married after manumission and conversion to Islam. As we have seen, as members of Mamluk households, they were able to amass considerable wealth, enjoy a high degree of personal and economic autonomy, and achieve high status and influence within the Mamluk...

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6. The City as Text: Space, Gender, and Power in Cairo

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pp. 155-182

The lives of female and male Mamluks were bound up with the successes and defeats of the households they entered usually as slaves. Although their intrinsic abilities no doubt allowed them to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them, ultimately their fortunes were linked to those of their household (bayt), its head, their patron, and, for men, the career path they followed within the bayt. How well or badly they did within the...

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7. The Architecture of Seclusion: In Search of the Historical Harem

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pp. 183-214

One of the most evocative and provocative images of the Orient is that of the woman of the harem. In the painting Odalisque with Slave by John Auguste Ingres, the odalisque is depicted reclining on a chaise, barebreasted, with her hands clasped behind her neck and with the flimsiest wisp of material draped over her hips. Here is the quintessential denizen of the harem in the Western imagination. In Western art and literature...

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8. Everyday Life in the Harem

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pp. 215-229

Unfortunately for historians of eighteenth-century Egypt, no one comparable to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu visited Cairo, was welcomed by elite women into their homes, or recorded descriptions of them and of the haramlik in a series of lively letters to her family and friends in England between 1716 and 1718. Lady Mary did all of this, writing from Istanbul where her husband, Edward Montagu, was the English ambassador to the Sublime...

IV. Gender, History, and the Harem

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pp. 231

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9. Changing the Subject: Gender and the History of the Mamluk Revival

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pp. 233-257

It would not be outlandish to call Nafisa al-Bayda, the wife of ‘Ali Bey al-Kabir and the widow of Murad Bey, the last Mamluk. Murad Bey and his partner, Ibrahim Bey, led the opposition to the French, who invaded the country in 1798, from their headquarters in Upper Egypt. After three years of resistance, Murad agreed to throw in his lot with the French, who were under siege by British and Ottoman forces, in a rapprochement brokered by...

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10. Epilogue

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pp. 258-270

European male travelers to Egypt in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries connected the harem and veiling to the almost complete subjugation of women under Islam. European male travelers routinely degraded Egyptian harem women in their writings as submissive, not particularly beautiful, rather simple-minded, childlike, and bored with their confinement. For these travelers, who knew very little about Islam and had almost certainly...

Notes, Glossary, Bibliography, Index

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pp. 271


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pp. 273-301


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pp. 303-310


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pp. 311-325


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pp. 327-331

Back Flap, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780815651703
E-ISBN-10: 0815651708
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815632931
Print-ISBN-10: 0815632932

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 6 charts and 12 black & white
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Women -- Egypt -- Cairo -- Social conditions -- 18th century.
  • Mamelukes -- Social conditions -- 18th century.
  • Harems -- Egypt -- Cairo -- History -- 18th century.
  • Households -- Egypt -- Cairo -- History -- 18th century.
  • Cairo (Egypt) -- Social life and customs -- 18th century.
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