- The çengî:Descriptions of Professional Female Performers in French and Italian Accounts of Travel to the Middle East, 1550–1650
Aunique female musico-theatrical practice emerged in Ottoman society of the sixteenth century, which would fall out of favor in the late seventeenth century but endure in a modified form well into the modern era. At its origin was a musical instrument, a type of harp called the çeng, which lent its name to troupes of professional women musicians and dancers, the çengî, whose captivating performances caught the attention of European visitors to the Middle East. In lands under Ottoman control, because of the Islamic mandate that assigned women and men to separate spheres of devotional and social activity, women's skilled music-making took place in strictly circumscribed arenas. Although the authors of travel accounts do not mention it, the women of elite families doubtless made music in their residences, in the privacy of their own quarters. In the Seraglio, the highest class of concubines—the gedikiler or "privileged ones," chosen for their beauty and talent—performed for the Sultans, but this was also in private.1 The çengî, in contrast, were visible to outsiders and therefore we find them described in travel accounts penned by European diplomats, secretaries, and men of science. These companies, composed of non-Muslim women, were active in cities such as Constantinople and Cairo and remunerated for their music-making and dancing. Because the word çeng is similar to the Turkish word for gypsy, çingene, some visitors thought these women were gypsies. It is very unlikely though that the word for gypsy somehow derived from the name of the harp. It is possible that the performers' ethnicity was sometimes Roma, but probably they were Greek, Armenian or Jewish.2
There existed male counterparts to these female troupes, dancing boys, also sometimes called çengî but more often referred to as köçek. We know from the writings of the Ottoman traveler and musician Evliyâ Çelebi that by the later seventeenth century there were a dozen companies (kols) of boy dancers and mimes active in Constantinople, each numbering anywhere from 100 to several thousand. The boys hired out in small groups to perform what were apparently set choreographies, and they were a major attraction in the wine taverns of Galata, the city's European quarter and a famed pleasure spot.3 Gilles Fermanel, [End Page 148] a conseiller in the parlement of Normandy who visited Constantinople in the early 1630s, mentions these "cabarets" as being places where one could go to see entertainments in large rooms: "comedies, farces, et autres galanteries semblables." He reports that upon the occasion of the wedding of one of the Sultan's sisters, the cabarets remained open all night.4 Unlike the boys, the dancing women do not seem to have performed in taverns and coffee houses; rather, they were engaged for private gatherings. However, their companies mirrored the groups of dancing boys in that they too were gender specific and engaged in theatrical forms of gender bending. The female çengî drew the attention of European travelers to the Levant from at least as early as the first permanent French embassy to the Porte in the mid-1530s.
The signature instrument of the female dancers, the çeng, was a small, silk-strung square harp, held in the lap with the pegboard against the left knee.5 A medieval Iranian instrument, it had predecessors in antiquity and saw its heyday in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in the Levant and Central Asia, where both women and men played it. Individual Persian and Turkish male masters of the instrument received the formal title of Çengî. In the seventeenth century there were several prominent Çengî in Constantinople, musicians of local origin—a sign that by then the Ottomans had made the instrument their own (Feldman, Music 154). Like many musical instruments of the early modern period, the çeng was revived in the late twentieth century, albeit with newer designs and tuning mechanisms, so we now can get a sense of what early modern travelers heard (a sound clip is available on the Turkish Music Portal).
In early Iranian...