• Discovering Scheherazade: Representations of Oriental Women in the Travel Writing of Nineteenth-Century German Women

This article explores how three nineteenth-century writers, Ida Pfeiffer, Ida Hahn-Hahn, and Luise Mühlbach, represented women from the Orient in their travel narratives. Because European women travelers such as Pfeiffer, Hahn-Hahn, and Mühlbach had privileged access to female spaces in the Orient (harem and the Turkish bath), their accounts challenged the traditional image of the lascivious Oriental woman and, by doing so, confirmed the established Western idea of the beautiful Oriental woman. Hence, I argue that these writers used their travelogues not only to describe the appearance and habits of Ottoman women but also—in juxtaposition—to heighten the position of women in Western society. Furthermore, I claim that Eastern women were not passive subjects of Western constructs but cleverly manipulated their visitors’ impressions.


On 14 October 1843, Gräfin Ida Hahn-Hahn wrote from Damascus to her friend Emy Gräfin Schönburg-Wechselburg: “I am determined, if possible, to discover the Oriental beauties whom the Keepsakes reveal to us in such exquisite engravings, and whom the poets love to describe as creatures of grace with the eyes and motion of the gazelle” (Letters from the Orient 97). The interest Hahn-Hahn expressed reflects what the critic Ulrike Stamm later claimed: the topos of Oriental women “goes along with a meaning that is almost obsessively charged” (Der Orient der Frauen 249; “geht [. . .] mit einer fast obsessiv zu nennenden Bedeutungsaufladung einher”).1 It was not to visit the ancient pyramids in Giza or ride across deserts alone, but to discover and unveil the Oriental woman that European women traveled to the Middle East (249). As scholars on Orientalism such as Billie Melman, Reina Lewis, Meyda Yeğenoğlu, Lisa Lowe, and Stamm point out, Eastern women became the embodiment of the Orient as a whole, symbolizing the nexus between exoticism [End Page 97] and Orientalism. Stamm summarizes: “The idea of the Orient as a site of sensuality, beauty, and mystery becomes fully condensed in the figure of the Oriental woman.”2 Thus, Hahn-Hahn’s expressed determination to find beautiful women hints at a larger quest than the mere topos of discovery.

This article traces the journeys of three nineteenth-century German-speaking female travelers to the Middle East: the Austrian Ida Pfeiffer (1797–1858) and the Prussians Ida von Hahn-Hahn (1805–80) and Luise Mühlbach (1814–73). The selection of these writers was not arbitrary; their works were translated and reprinted in several editions—an indication of their popularity and possible contribution to Orientalist discourse.3 In contrast to Britain and France, neither Germany nor Austria was colonially invested in the Middle East, therefore Germany took a more scholarly or classical Sonderweg (separate path); the question arises, then, of how Pfeiffer’s, Hahn-Hahn’s, and Mühlbach’s travel narratives fit into this paradigm.4 This analysis does not intend to contrast German Orientalism against that of the British or the French; rather, I claim that the Orientalism common to German women of the time was manipulated, both directly by the European writers and indirectly by the women those writers studied in the Orient.

Although this article does not seek to confute Said’s theory of Orientalism, it will build on it and trace the complexities at work when generating reinvented images of Oriental women through the eyes and pens of German women. It focuses on Oriental women in distinct Orientalist situations in order to explore how German female travel writers might have either undermined or confirmed the oversimplified, male-generated concepts of the era. I argue that this was done not merely to rectify these notions but also to augment the social esteem of women at home.5 Traditionally excluded from specific all-male institutions such as parliament, universities, or the military, female Europeans had an advantage over their male counterparts when traveling in the Orient: they could access places exclusive to women. They dropped in at private harems, Turkish baths, and semipublic female slave markets, all distinct Orientalist spaces inaccessible to European male voyeurism and desire.6 How, then, did Pfeiffer, Hahn-Hahn, and Mühlbach capitalize on their advantage over European men in representing Oriental women?

Jean August Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1816), Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Pool in a Harem (c. 1876), and the figure of the beautiful Scheherazade in Arthur Boyd Houghton’s “The King Shahryar Pardons [End Page 98] Scheherazade” (date not known) all represent an Orientalism that had long produced picturesque and lascivious images of Oriental women.7 Female Europeans who traveled to the Middle East in the nineteenth century tended to write in opposition to this. Pfeiffer and Hahn-Hahn were no exception, and Mühlbach, who went to Egypt almost thirty years later, offered an already modified portrayal of the clichéd Oriental woman. Because it is in the nature of autobiographical travel writing to be read as eyewitness accounts that readers could interpret as authentic, the authors’ descriptions of and experiences with Eastern women were theoretically more truthful than those depicted in paintings and stories. As this article demonstrates, however, this was not the case, nor could it be. Their texts possessed a more compelling validity than may have been justified.

On a self-reflective note, it is appropriate to confront the problem of scholarly writing about the Orient. The idea of the Oriental woman as pars pro toto epitomized the dynamic relationship between the East and the West, and these nineteenth-century travel narratives offer a glimpse into the complex history of Orientalist discourse that has, up to the present, generated cultural differences between Western and Eastern cultures.8 Consequently, anyone from the West writing critically about the Middle East risks confirming stereotypes. Melman points out such a paradox: “Ironically the critics of Orientalism and ethnocentric scholarship carry on the very tradition which they condemn. For these critics write out gender and class” (5). With the focus on Oriental women, the risk of reinforcing traditional images is relatively high. Even if this article cannot fully avoid such analytical shortcomings, it tries to counteract them by addressing the specific circumstances of observing and observed women. By drawing on postcolonial Orientalist as well as feminist theories—for example, the intersectionality of social classifiers such as gender, class, religion, and race—it acknowledges the complexity embedded in cross-cultural encounters. Including the voices of women from or intimately familiar with the Ottoman cultures, it will also broaden the scope of representations about Oriental cultures in order to put Hahn-Hahn’s, Pfeiffer’s, and Mühlbach’s travel narratives into perspective.

Travel Writing

Pfeiffer, Hahn-Hahn, and Mühlbach visited the Middle East between 1842 and 1870: Pfeiffer in 1842 and again in 1847, Hahn-Hahn in 1843–44, and Mühlbach in 1870. Each was unmarried at the time she set out [End Page 99] on her journey. Pfeiffer and Hahn-Hahn were divorced, while Mühlbach was widowed. In this respect, they no longer fit the bourgeois ideal of a married woman under male protection and supervision. Lacking income from a husband, Pfeiffer and Mühlbach wrote partly out of pecuniary considerations, publishing in order to support themselves, while the aristocratic Hahn-Hahn received a modest pension after her divorce, giving her relative economic independence, although she was still in need of money (see Habinger 8).

Pfeiffer, who was a neophyte travel writer, needed some initial encouragement from her publisher and friends to turn her diary into a travel account. The first of her five narratives was published as Reise einer Wienerin ins Heilige Land (1846, Visit to the Holy Land [1852]), three years after her journey to the Middle East that was originally conceived as a pilgrimage. In contrast, Hahn-Hahn and Mühlbach—already successful authors—had plans to publish their epistolary accounts before they even set out. Hahn-Hahn’s three-volume work Orientalische Briefe appeared shortly after her return in 1844 (Letters from the Orient or Travels in Turkey, the Holy Land and Egypt [1845]). Mühlbach’s two-volume Reisebriefe aus Ägypten (Letters from Egypt) was published in 1871.

Official reports and scientific works of the nineteenth century were generally the domain of male travel accounts and were not readily available to female travelers and travel writers (Stamm, Der Orient der Frauen 48–49). These women rarely traveled for official political, economic, or scientific purposes, but rather as private individuals. Their publications often appeared in the form of letters, journals, diaries, or personal travelogues, which were considered acceptably feminine forms of travel writing at the time. And while letters and diaries lacked the weight of official documents, female travelers took advantage of “their” genres by, as Hahn-Hahn said, writing spontaneously, without mitigation, and thus, more truthfully.9 It was not only by their access to specifically female Orientalist spaces such as the harem, but also by the very nature of the genres in which Hahn-Hahn, Mühlbach, and to a lesser degree Pfeiffer, wrote, that these authors were able to claim a more authentic image of Oriental women than their male counterparts.

The Veil

Among Europeans, the veiled women of the Orient evoked a special mystery. With Antoine Galland’s seminal translation of Alf Laylawa-Layla as [End Page 100] Les Mille et Une Nuits: Contes Arabes (12 volumes published between 1704 and 1717), commonly known as The Arabian Nights in English, tales of such women had swiftly become an integral part of European literary tradition and had set the tone for female Oriental stereotypes and a sexuality hidden behind the opaqueness of the veil (Melman 63–65). In contrast to writers like Mary Wortley Montague, who resided in Turkey from 1716 to 1718 and described the social advantages of veiling (Melman 104), later women travelers like Pfeiffer and Hahn-Hahn did not find the culture of veiling fascinating; instead, they described it as one of the most vexing aspects of the Orient and reacted to it with either anxiety or pity.

According to Melman, the custom of veiling changed in function over time from private to public use. While white muslin draped over the nose and the mouth was used to enhance a woman’s attractiveness in the private sphere of the harem, by the middle of the nineteenth century nontransparent veils became desexualized garments, allowing women to move freely and autonomously in public (120–21). Despite the assurance of propriety a veil guaranteed in public, Pfeiffer refused to wear one when walking the streets, and Hahn-Hahn only for safety reasons.

Pfeiffer depicts her refusal as a matter of practicality. In the streets of Baghdad, she accepted wearing an isar—a long scarf—and a small fez with a bashlo—a small scarf wrapped around the fez—but she did not want to wear the face shield made of horse hair, “under which the bearer is nearly suffocated” (A Woman’s Journey 245). With the same practicality, she pities the women of Baghdad who, in addition to handling the long garment, “were often obliged to carry a child, or some other load, or perhaps even wash linen in the river” (245). To her own relief, she could actually walk around freely and unmolested, for though she partly violated the public dress code for women when walking the streets of Baghdad, it was her race and religion—she was perceived as a white Christian—that provided her the necessary immunity from veiling or stigmatization.

Paradoxically, while Pfeiffer was wary of the dangers of exposing her face unveiled, veiled women, as Alev Lytle Croutier points out, actually felt free and safe to walk in public because talking to a covered woman was taboo for men (79). They could thus see without being seen (77). For Muslim women to walk with male company was considered improper in public areas, as Hahn-Hahn observed (Letters from the Orient 47). European women were thus doubly disadvantaged by feeling exposed to [End Page 101] the Oriental male gaze and by their need to explore the Middle East in company of either a guide or other female or male European travelers. Historically, within Middle Eastern social codes veiling had desexualized public spaces, whereas in the European imagination veiling made Oriental women highly sexualized. It suggests that European women might have feared the sexualization of their bodies and therefore the loss of their reputation had they veiled themselves. Pfeiffer’s practical approach to veiling and lack of cultural understanding, however, seems to exclude such an assumption. Instead, she subjugates Oriental women to her sense of pity, which augments her own position as a free and unhindered observer.

Despite the fact that Hahn-Hahn wore a veil in Constantinople to avoid being stoned (Letters from the Orient 47–48), she normally traveled unveiled. Nevertheless, she struggled with the sight of covered female bodies and depicts them in macabre terms. They seemed to her like “ghost-like figures; they were enveloped [. . .] like corpses” (Letters from the Orient 107). Her abhorrence can partly be explained by childhood memories, since her father frequently staged theater performances, and Hahn-Hahn was often bewildered by the masked participants: “I was there among the uncanny, mysterious figures veiled up to their eyes.”10 Although Hahn-Hahn does not associate veiled women with the literary tradition of the Arabian Nights, she instead evokes images of the gothic novel through associations with ghosts. Yet for Hahn-Hahn, as for Pfeiffer, Oriental women in public spaces became desexualized, and she connected them with death and the uncanny. Hahn-Hahn further compares them to Western women in terms of beauty:

Our women, I know, are not the most beautiful in the world; but you cannot walk about here for a couple of days without being satisfied that, ill-looking as our countrywomen may be, they are much better looking than these muffled figures, and render the streets much gayer by their appearance.

Hahn-Hahn’s negative comparison of Western women with veiled Oriental women effectively elevates the image of European women. Further, she blames Oriental men for the tradition of veiling. She observes in Constantinople that “the Turk [. . .] allows her, like an unsubstantial shadow, to glide unendangered by him, and his courtesy ceases with this permission” (47). Rather than pointing out the advantages of veiling for Oriental women, she thus describes them as victims of male rudeness [End Page 102] and impropriety. Her abhorrence of the veil therefore does not come as a surprise. She rejects the idea less for practical than for psychological reasons, and as a Western aristocrat she considers herself entitled to travel unveiled, unless for safety purposes. Thus neither Pfeiffer nor Hahn-Hahn generally makes use of the veil as a way of blending in or as a form of disguise; instead, their rejection of the veil demonstrates their difficulty in comprehending its purpose within Oriental society, perhaps even an unconscious fear of becoming a sexualized object. The veiled Oriental woman thus becomes the negative foil against which they strive to establish perceived independence.

In contrast to Hahn-Hahn and Pfeiffer, Mühlbach linked veiling to the private realm of the harem. She lamented that Oriental women were captives—if not actually as slaves, then as veiled women of a harem—and she was glad not to be one of them, “not locked up behind the high gates of the garden, not in the garden of the harem, where the ladies of the house wrapped in their long veils walk up and down quite lonely.”11 The European garden—an open, social space populated by faces visible to the viewer—is, by implication, contrasted to the walled harem garden. The veil, functioning as an extension of the harem walls, symbolizes in Mühlbach’s text a double enclosure and solidifies the idea of Oriental female subjugation.

The Harem

It was the moral behavior of Oriental women, and not their veiled beauty, that seemed to be the true underlying topos that served to evoke most prominently the cultural differences between East and West in the texts by nineteenth-century European women. And in these texts, it was often the harem that functioned as the moral environment. For Stamm, the harem was more than a space of freedom versus confinement and power versus helplessness; instead, themes such as love, sexuality, intrigue and malice, and boredom and excess run under the surface of every narrative (Der Orient der Frauen 285).

It is important to note that the stereotypical images of the Oriental harem harbored by nineteenth-century European women were anachronistic. In her text, Hahn-Hahn refers to stories of intrigues, mass killings of women in the harem, and infanticide, stories that date back to the sixteenth century. According to Croutier, Mehemed the Conqueror (1432–81) “decreed” in the laws of inheritance “that the sultanate pass to [End Page 103] the oldest living male member of the family” and not from father to son (37).12 This decree, issued in the middle of the fifteenth century in Constantinople, resulted in such excesses as the assassination of Mehemed III’s nineteen brothers in 1595 and women conspiring for their sons to become heir of the land (33–36).13 In the seventeenth century this led to the seclusion of the princes in so-called golden cages, where they lived in total isolation for their personal protection. However, by the time Pfeiffer and Hahn-Hahn visited the Middle East during the Tanzimat reform era of reorganization and westernization (1839–76), the princes were no longer kept locked up, and the sultan’s harem had also become much smaller. By the time Mühlbach visited Cairo in the second half of the nineteenth century, only the wealthy elite of the Ottoman Empire could afford to practice polygamy, and the tradition was officially abolished during the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 (Lewis 97, 101).

Nevertheless, both Pfeiffer and Hahn-Hahn refer to this past of intrigue and murder in their writings. On her visit to the viceroy of Persia in Tabris, Pfeiffer remarks on the princess’s precarious rank as the first lady; she held it only because none of the other women had yet borne a son to challenge her position. Pfeiffer connects this piece of information to the larger issue of infanticide of other women’s children to secure the succession of one’s own son to the sultanate. “In consequence of this custom,” she writes, “the children are unfortunately liable to the danger of being poisoned; for any woman who has a child excites the envy of all those who are childless; and this is more particularly the case when the child is a boy” (A Woman’s Journey 296). The princess left her daughter with the grandfather when she traveled to Tabris “in order to secure her from her rivals” (296). References to instances like these had for a long time perpetuated the myths of the harem not only as a site of mystery and sensuality but also as one of fascination and fear. Rather than challenge it, Pfeiffer keeps alive the sensationalism of these myths.

Hahn-Hahn, equally biased, admits that she harbors certain apprehensions about the harem based on its history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to which she refers in great detail (Letters from the Orient 36–37). As late as 1843, she still sensationalized the stories of intrigue and murder and identified boredom as the universal source for intrigue affecting both the harem of Rifát Pasha and European society: “And then, besides, they have at their command that succedaneum of all ladies who lack an interest in life—that succedaneum which European [End Page 104] society avails itself of, as readily as the Turkish harem:—I mean Intrigue” (64–65). Undoubtedly, there lies a critique of both cultures embedded in this comparison about intrigues among European and Oriental women. Hahn-Hahn perceived the lack of opportunity and intellectual stimulation, rather than competition for male attention and favors, as the real cause of immoral behavior in both women in the harem and those in Europe.14

Mühlbach, in contrast, takes a lighter tone about the topos of intrigue. The women who live behind bars and veils, she comments, know “how to tell of wonderful things, of intrigues, which the Egyptian women carry out in Cairo often with good fortune, often to their misfortune” (Reisebriefe 2: 199).15 Although it echoes Pfeiffer’s and Hahn-Hahn’s observations, this statement functions more as an aside or footnote than an important statement per se. It serves, in fact, as an introduction to an entertaining tale about a woman who juggled four husbands at different places at the same time. Mühlbach’s lighthearted tone thus minimizes any strong moral voice.

In sharp contrast to the impressions of Pfeiffer, Hahn-Hahn, and Mühlbach, women who grew up in actual harems did not write about them as places of intrigue, boredom, and endless leisure; rather, they described such daily activities as prayer, needlework, visits, childcare, and later, when women’s education became more recognized, learning foreign languages and reading literature (Haidar qtd. in Lewis 16). Women like Emily Said-Ruete, who grew up in the harem of the Sultan of Sansibar in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the author Alev Lytle Croutier, whose grandmother lived in a Turkish harem, vividly describe those aspects of women’s lives.16 European visitors to these sites almost never saw how women actually occupied themselves, as their access to the harem remained restricted (Lewis 15). Ruete was well aware of the warped ideas about the life in a harem that European female visitors took home: “Foreign ladies even, supposing they have actually entered a harem either at Constantinople or Cairo, have never seen the inside of a real harem at all, but only its outside, represented by the state rooms decorated and furnished in European style” (Memoirs 51). She offers an insider view to rectify the distorted image of the harem by describing daily routines, such as the morning routine:

Meanwhile the gentlemen call upon each other and send word to the ladies whom they wish to visit in the evening. The older women, [End Page 105] who take no pleasure in all this lively stir, retire to their rooms, alone or in company, to take up some fancy work, to embroider their veils, shirts, or drawers with gold thread, or cambric shirts for their husbands and sons with red and white silk—an art which requires considerable skill. Others again read novels, visit the sick in their rooms, or employ themselves with their own private affairs.

Guest impressions were often hampered not only by a lack of access to the actual rooms of the harem, and thus a lack of insight into their daily occupations, but also, as Hahn-Hahn indicates, by the language barrier. Oriental women were selective about the kinds of information they gave to their visitors, and while they possessed some knowledge about women’s lives in the West, they tended to be as misinformed as their Western visitors were about them. At least, this is how Hahn-Hahn conveys it to her readers in a letter to her brother Ferdinand:

The conversation was principally directed to external matters, for questions which they would not answer, but which interested me the most—for instance, in what relation the favourite slave stood to the wife—they avoided whenever our interpreter referred to them. They spoke, upon the other hand, of things which in Europe are regarded as criminal and abominable, as of everyday occurrence; and it was then I learnt that women who have had one or two confinements, and have grown weary of childbearing, think it no sin to destroy their unborn offspring!


Hahn-Hahn’s standoffish position is interesting here; since she claims not to have known about abortion in Europe, it is as if she were learning about it for the first time. This striking example of competition for cultural superiority reveals how, by the time of Hahn-Hahn’s visit, Oriental women were well aware of the Orientalizing mechanisms that Europeans employed in their assessment of the Oriental culture. The Oriental women, as Ruete also indicates, withheld information to protect their privacy. Moreover, in order to sensationalize European women’s behavior, they used strategies similar to those used by the European women who deplored their culture. Considering that Hahn-Hahn, as previous examples have shown, usually tended to represent her persona in a position of cultural and moral superiority, it is interesting that she includes in the letter to her brother such apparent refusal of open communication by Oriental [End Page 106] women, as it reveals her cultural and linguistic limitations as a visitor. Yet her tone is highly condescending, thus keeping her narrative voice empowered rather than victimized by her hosts’ refusal to confer knowledge. Somewhat ironically, the depiction of the harem reveals the discrepancy between the actual, disempowering situation and the author’s reempowered, discursive representation of it.


In many cases, female European visitors did not make much use of rhetorical components such as comparisons, metaphors, or analogies in order to explain and describe Oriental culture; instead, they appealed to their audience through an imagined set of shared moral values. To do so, they focused on sites such as the harem and the hammam (Turkish bath)—places that, for Pfeiffer, were lacking morality and decorum (“sitten-und anstandslos” [Eine Frauenfahrt 3: 125]). Overstepping the bounds of propriety herself, she sneaked into one of the side chambers at a hammam: “I saw enough, in a few minutes, to fill me with disgust and commiseration for these poor creatures; from slothfulness and the want of education, morality appeared to be so degraded as to profane the very name of humanity” (A Woman’s Journey 249). Like Hahn-Hahn, Pfeiffer blames the perceived decline of moral standards on idleness and a lack of education, but she neglects to describe what she actually saw—expressing all the more by this silence. She speaks with equal indignation about her visit to the hammam: “I was not less grieved by a visit to a public female bath” (249). In this space she encountered, according to her description, nudity and open mutual grooming that strongly offended her sense of female propriety. In her writings, Pfeiffer deplores the moral future of the young in the bath: “Poor children! How are they to acquire a respect for modesty when they are so early exposed to the influence of such pernicious example” (249).

Hahn-Hahn’s and Pfeiffer’s negative reactions to the harem and hammam do not merely undermine existing stereotypical ideas about such emblematic sites of Oriental beauty and culture; they also betray the authors’ own biases toward sexuality and decency, and those of their imagined audiences. Christian codes of behavior and values acted as barriers to understanding the significance of the Oriental bathing ritual. Furthermore, the contrast between the position of the individual European visitor and the women in the harem and Turkish baths suggests that these [End Page 107] travel narratives are as much about asserting individuality as they are about gender, an assertion that may have inhibited the authors from perceiving such spaces beyond the Orientalist narrative.

As Melman points out, class played as much a role as religion in the way European women related to the women in the hammam. By the nineteenth century, Western middle-class women became proponents of hygiene and, as such, symbols of purity and morality, since cleanliness had become culturally and spiritually linked to purity and godliness.17 Although female travelers understood that the frequent ablutions of Islamic society were functions of religion, women’s cleansing rituals in the hammam took on a different significance in their narratives. Melman summarizes: “In the orientalist context cleanliness in women was a symbol of impurity and disorder. The hammam [. . .] had been identified as the locus sensualis of the imaginary Orient. The public bath had become the ne plus ultra of luxury, indolence and sexual deviance” (131). From this perspective, it is not surprising that bourgeois European women travelers like Pfeiffer could not but denigrate the civilized status of the Orient, on the one hand, and elevate Europe’s sense of morality, on the other.

Compared with Hahn-Hahn’s and Pfeiffer’s sensationalized observations about women in the harem and the Turkish bath, Mühlbach’s later text is much more sympathetic. This was not surprising, considering that her sojourn in Egypt was only made possible because of an invitation from the Turkish viceroy of Egypt, Khedive Ismail Pasha (1830–95), who, she believed, knew of her status as a successful writer and expected her to write a book about his grandfather and founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali (see Lausch-Jäger 79). By the time Mühlbach visited the khedive or vice-sultan in Cairo in the 1870s, westernization in Egypt had become clearly noticeable, epitomized during the opening of the Suez Canal by the French empress Eugénie in 1869.18

Mühlbach was in a similar situation to Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of a British diplomat who, 150 years before Mühlbach’s time, resided with her husband as a guest of the Turkish court and enjoyed the privileges of the sultanate. It allowed Montague to depict life in the Orient quite positively (Montague). Mühlbach treated life in Cairo with equal favorability, and she could assume that the educated at the khedive’s court would read her published letters. Those letters thus tended to be more diplomatic in tone than Pfeiffer’s and Hahn-Hahn’s texts.

Mühlbach was also much more cautious in her judgments than Pfeiffer [End Page 108] or Hahn-Hahn: “I don’t want to be too indiscreet,” she writes, “and therefore don’t dare to say too much about the princesses’ appearances.”19 Yet her description fully adheres to the stereotypical ideal of the Oriental woman: “[. . .] they are young and beautiful, their dark eyes sparkle and glow in a way only the eyes of Oriental women do.”20 Their dress, however, places them outside this conventional image, for as Mühlbach says: “The ladies were dressed according to the latest French fashion” (2: 46–47).21 With this sartorial reference, the author breaks from the ahistorical, stereotypical image of Oriental women wearing Turkish trousers, tight spencers, and a fez or veil and instead links them to modernity and Western society. The passage suggests that her references to harems and the veil were made simply for the sake of conventional accounts about the Orient, since they don’t seem to play much of a role anymore.


Just as the harem and Turkish bath were perceived as highly erotic sites in nineteenth-century European culture, so too was the slave market. Although travel writers generally disapproved of slavery, a visit to a slave market was usually a planned part of any trip, since the exotic beauty of the slaves had become legendary in the European mind. Female travelers were as curious as males, and their visits to and writings about slave markets provided a convenient opportunity for them to challenge the idea of feminine beauty as a commodity.

In a gleeful letter to her brother Ferdinand, sent from Constantinople in 1843, Hahn-Hahn wrote about her visit to a slave market: “I honestly confess, that in the whole proceeding, nothing so shocked me as the creatures’ hideousness; and that the majestic king vulture at Schönbrunn inspired me with more compassion for his captivity, than I feel for the slavery of these my fellow mortals” (Letters from the Orient 43). The figure of the king vulture at Schönbrunn accentuates the author’s attempt to obliterate the idea of the beautiful Oriental woman and to make this image appear less than human. Hahn-Hahn compares the slaves not only to a vulture but also to the inanimate and uncanny, such as corpses or ghosts: “They give out no signs of life: they stare at us with the same unconscious gaze as they fix upon each other” (43), and like phantoms they are clad in a white garment, “a coarse grey garment envelopes the figure” (43). She thus is unable to interpret their behavior and appearance as a result of inhuman circumstances; instead, she depicts them, as she did [End Page 109] with veiled women, in gothic or—in Stamm’s view—mythic terms (“Die hässliche Orientalin” 155).

Similar to her strategy of establishing superiority over European male readers in her observations about the harem, Hahn-Hahn refuses to portray female slaves as sexualized objects and chooses to indict the slaves for their appearance rather than blaming the slaves’ traders or previous owners. By referring to an animal associated with death and decay—the vulture at Schönbrunn—Hahn-Hahn doubly exploits the image of the Oriental female slave as being both animal-like and a woman lacking beauty, and thus a social outcast. Moreover, she implicitly elevates her own status in terms of gender, race, and class, both as a white and as a free woman, and discursively increases the already existing hierarchy between herself and the slave in this particular place of human trafficking.

Pfeiffer’s response to women at the slave market is also quite striking. She challenges their eroticized status, however, in a different manner than Hahn-Hahn, for her reaction is based on pity instead of humiliation. “I entered it with a beating heart,” she writes, “and already before I had even seen them, pitied the poor slaves. How glad, therefore, was I, when I found them not half so forlorn and neglected as we Europeans are accustomed to imagine” (Visit to the Holy Land 55). By referring to “we Europeans,” she creates a community of readers who share biases, which Pfeiffer, as an eyewitness, then feels authorized to modify. Moreover, her visceral anxiety before the anticipated visit is not so much evoked by images of sexualized Oriental women; rather, it is inextricably linked to European ideas of American plantation slavery as a system of terrible neglect and exploitation. In contrast to Hahn-Hahn, she does not attack the idea of the beautiful Oriental slave as sexually attractive and available, nor does she elevate it. Instead, her visit to the slave market finds her relativizing the European concept of slavery.

Implicit in the depictions of the slave markets as spaces of extreme power asymmetries is, of course, the juxtaposition between the free woman and the woman in bondage. In contrast to the enslaved women at the market, these free women travelers found themselves in a dominant position, which Hahn-Hahn exploits racially and to which Pfeiffer reacts morally. Considering the intersecting modalities of race and gender, race overrides gender in Hahn-Hahn’s case; for Pfeiffer, neither plays a significant role. Rather, she foregrounds class, since she associates Oriental slaves with those who were exploited in the Americas and suffered from poverty and neglect.

In truth, regulated by Islamic laws and conventions, the life of female [End Page 110] slaves in the Ottoman Empire differed considerably from that of their counterparts in the Americas, and even from that of servants in Europe. According to Islamic law, Muslim women could not be enslaved; consequently, female slaves had to be obtained from elsewhere. The most desired female slaves usually came from the Caucasus: Georgia, Circassia, or Abkhasia. Black slaves tended to be bought from Sudan and Abyssinia—today’s Ethiopia. Poor peasants often sold their daughters into slavery for a chance at a better future in the sultan’s or some other wealthy person’s harem (Lewis 132).

Not all female slaves became concubines; only the most beautiful and refined were chosen as odalisques and then received training by eunuchs or older women (Croutier 30–33). Women in the elite harems would often display their jewelry on their slaves, which must have confused European visitors as to who was the master and who was the servant (Melman 155). Female slaves led more a life of adopted daughters than exploited servants. As Demetra Vaka Brown emphasizes in her 1909 travel narrative: “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 [. . .] Slaves always fare better than if they stayed at home” (Haremlik 119).22 European travelers like Hahn-Hahn and Pfeiffer hence struggled with the idea of the odalisques’ assertiveness, well-groomed appearance, and almost-equal social status with their owners within Islamic society.23 None of them understood the functions of slavery in the Ottoman Empire at the time of their visits, and both Hahn-Hahn and Pfeiffer discursively instrumentalized the scenes at the slave market to either debunk the image of the beautiful slave or, under the impression of plantation slavery in the Americas, to evoke pity that would question the moral status of the culture. By the time Mühlbach visited Egypt in 1870, the slave trade had diminished due to the westernization of the Ottoman Empire, and she therefore does not mention a visit to a slave market.


All three authors set out to meet the legendary, beautiful Oriental woman in the flesh. They encountered women of the Ottoman Empire in a number of different settings, and these visits reemerged in their travel narratives as spaces in which cultural codes and values clash. The veil was perceived as either impractical or ghostlike, or as female subjugation. The [End Page 111] harem, the Turkish bath, and the slave market were sites in which Oriental women were held captive, lacked mental and physical stimulation, and were fostered to immoral behavior. And while Pfeiffer and Hahn-Hahn deconstructed the concept of the prurient Oriental woman, they did not reconstruct this image positively, as one based on empathy. Instead, they re-created her in essentialist terms as unattractive and, perhaps, less than human—especially in Hahn-Hahn’s text. With atavistic references to intrigues and infanticide, Pfeiffer and Hahn-Hahn shoehorned Oriental women into an ahistorical image. Mühlbach’s later travel account, by contrast, demonstrates how the cut-and-dried image of the Oriental woman was a historical one and, consequentially, was contingent on developments of the cultures in which it was embedded. With increased westernization in the Ottoman Empire, Middle Eastern women became more like Western women.

In fact, Middle Eastern women often knew more about Western cultures than travelers like Hahn-Hahn and Pfeiffer realized. Resistance in the form of spatial concealment and intellectual reticence—keeping some places off-limits and selectively disclosing information—demonstrates the refusal of Eastern women to become subject to Western constructs of their culture. It also points to European women’s limited access to and information about the harem, the veiling culture, and Oriental traditions of slavery. And although European female travelers like Pfeiffer, Hahn-Hahn, and Mühlbach expressed an awareness of this information deficit, they nevertheless perceived their experiences as sufficient to denigrate their occupants’ social positions while elevating their own by presenting themselves as eyewitnesses and knowledge providers for a European audience. Hence, the Orientalism of German women, as represented in various spatial realms of the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, was not just an expansion of an already-existing Oriental discourse but must be read as a highly manipulative affair in which all females involved—both visitors and visited—either protected or augmented their social and cultural validities.

Ulrike Brisson

Ulrike Brisson received her PhD in comparative literature from Pennsylvania State University. Currently, she is teaching at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Her research and publications focus on travel writing and German-language pedagogy. She has published articles about travel writing and a translation titled Ein Jahr unterwegs: Eine Amerikanerin bereist die Alte Welt (2008), and she coedited the essay collection Not So Innocent Abroad: The Politics of Travel and Travel Writing (2009).


Many keen eyes and minds helped in the writing of this article. My sincere thanks go to my supportive Women in German colleagues from New England, to the anonymous reviewers, to helpful Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger and Liz Ametsbichler, to my dear colleagues and friends [End Page 112] David Dollenmayer and Joseph Lawrence, as well as to my patient editor Daniel Tennant.


2. “In der Figur der Orientalin verdichtet sich dann vollends die Auffassung des Orients als eines Bereichs von Sinnlichkeit, Schönheit und Geheimnis” (Der Orient der Frauen 239).

4. See Kontje (2) and Said (17–19). Although Zantop does not dispute Germany’s Sonderweg, she identifies “a constructed sense of exclusivity and moral superiority,” or finger pointing, because of Germany’s colonial abstention (8).

5. In discussing two of Hahn-Hahn’s publications (Gräfin Faustine and Orientalische Briefe), O’Brien addresses Hahn-Hahn’s claim to authorship and to European women’s dominant position in relation to an Oriental Other (41–42).

6. It is important to distinguish between space, place, and site. According to Massey, space is “constructed out of the multiplicity of social relations across spatial scales,” such as global telecommunication networks, the workplace, a community or a household (4). “Place” refers to “a particular articulation of those relations” (5); in this case, “place” refers, for example, to the “Schubra Garten” that Mühlbach visited during her stay in Cairo and where she catches a glimpse of veiled women (1: 230–31). “Site,” from Latin situs, is a place where a structure or group of structures were, are, or will be located or where an event or scene took, takes, or will take place; “the place or setting of something” (The Free Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

7. Images of the paintings by Ingres and Gérôme and illustrations of Scheherazade are available online.

8. Roberts and Gabr demonstrate that Orientalism works both ways: in postcolonial terms, not only from the center to the margins but from the margins to the centers as well. Roberts finds that educated Ottoman women actively engaged in the construction of their images when they employed European painters (such as Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann) to control the portrayals of themselves or when they helped British women publish their travel accounts (14–15). In his book review about the [End Page 113] M.-Shafik-Gabr collection of Oriental paintings, which was published in the recent edition of Masterpieces of Orientalist Art (2012), Irwin notes the revived popularity of Orientalist paintings among modern wealthy Arab art collectors as valuable documents of a past era (“Local Color” 12).

9. See Hahn-Hahn’s letter to her mother written from Dresden after her return in June 1844 (Letters from the Orient 1).

10. “[. . .] ich war da zwischen den unheimlichen, fabelhaften, vermummten Gestalten, mit Gesichtern ohne Augen” (Schöder).

11. “[. . .] daß man nicht hinter der hohen Pforte des Gartens eingeschlossen ist, nicht in dem Harims-Garten, wo sie einsam auf und niederwallen, verhüllt mit ihren langen Schleiern, die Damen des Harims!” (Reisebriefe aus Ägypten 1: 232).

12. There are variations of spelling Mehemed, such as Mehemet or Mehemmed. For consistency, I will use Mehemed. Although fratricide existed before Mehemed II, he officially sanctioned it in order to avoid continuous battle among the princes for the succession to the throne. The wording in his law code (kânûnâme) is the following: “The learned in the law have in general declared, that whosoever amongst my illustrious children and descendants shall hereafter wield a scepter, may cause his brothers to be put to death, in order to provide for the peace of mankind; and they are to govern themselves accordingly” (“Royal Fratricide” 507). See also Inalcik 59, 69.

13. An exact date of this decree is not available. According to Inalcik, Mehemed II had his brother killed in 1444 when Mehemed ascended to the throne, and it was the first time of legal fratricide. The decree should thus have been issued around this time (Inalcik 59).

14. Other nineteenth-century travelers such as Duff Gordon or Lady Stanhope wrote of boredom and the language barrier as common aspects of their visits to harems. See Hodgson 118.

15. “[. . .] wunderbare Dinge zu erzählen von den Intriguen, welche in Kairo von den ägyptischen Frauen oft mit sehr großem Glück, oft zu ihrem Unglück ausgeführt werden.”

16. Emily Ruete née Prinzessin Salme von Oman und Sansibar (1844–1924) was the daughter of the sultan of Zanzibar and Oman and a Circassian odalisque. She grew up in his harem but inherited several estates after his and her mother’s death, and so lived at various locations. She became pregnant by the German merchant Rudolph Heinrich Ruete and escaped to Hamburg, where they married and lived a relatively secluded life with three children. Her husband died in an accident in 1870, causing economic difficulties so that she had to support herself by publishing Leben im Sultanspalast: Memoiren aus dem 19. Jahrhundert. She visited Zanzibar twice (1885 (1888) and lived in the Middle East from 1889 until 1914. She returned to Germany in 1920 and died in Jena in 1924 (see Tiedemann). Alev Lytle Croutier, born in Izmir, Turkey, in 1945, is a writer who lives in San Francisco. Her paternal grandmother, Zehra Banitçu, was a member of the sultan’s harem in Macedonia. In her book Harem: The World behind the Veil she traces her family history and re-creates harem life and culture during the late Ottoman Empire. [End Page 114]

17. This is a reference to the English proverb “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

18. It was one of Mühlbach’s friends who participated in the opening ceremony of the Suez Canal and managed to obtain the invitation for her from the Khedive. See Lausch-Jäger 79.

19. “Ich möchte mich nicht einer Indiskretion schuldig machen, und wage daher nicht, zuviel von dem Äußeren der Prinzessinnen zu erzählen” (2: 46).

20. “[. . .] sie sind jung und schön, die schwarzen Augen flammen und glühen, wie’s nur die Augen der Orientalinnen tun”(2: 46).

21. “Die Damen waren gekleidet nach der neuesten französischen Mode.”

22. Demetra Vaka Brown (1877–1946) was Greek and grew up among the Greek community in Constantinople/Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire. Through her lifelong Muslim Turkish friend Djimla, she gained insight into life in the harem. As a young woman she immigrated to the United States, where she married the American writer Kenneth Brown. They lived from the income of their publications. Her books testify to her strong identification with the Ottoman culture and to her ambivalence toward its transition into a modern Turkish republic (Lewis 24–36).

23. Slaves, in contrast to slavery in the Americas, were viewed as human beings, and Islamic law constrained slave owners from abusing their subjects. Slaves had the right to claim resale if they were unhappy and felt mistreated by their current owners. Zilfi claims that the slaves’ assertiveness, observed by Europeans, was in part the result of foreign intervention after the 1840s when the escaped slaves were given asylum (107).

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