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Harem: The World Behind the Veil (1989)

by Alev Lytle Croutier

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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357855,191 (3.86)6
"I was born in a konak (old house), which once was the harem of a pasha," writes Alev Lytle Croutier. "People around me often whispered things about harems; my own grandmother and her sister had been brought up in one." Drawing on a host of firsthand accounts and memoirs, as well as her own family history, Croutier explores life in the world's harems, from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, focusing on the fabled Seraglio of Topkapi Palace as a paradigm for them all. We enter the slave markets and the lavish boudoirs of the sultanas; we witness the daily routines of the odalisques, and of the eunuchs who guarded the harem. Here, too, we learn of the labyrinthine political scheming among the sultan's wives, his favourites, and the valide sultana--the sultan's mother--whose power could eclipse that of the sultan himself. There were the harems of the sultans and the pashas, but there were also "middle-class" harems, the households in which ordinary men and women lived out ordinary--albeit polygamous--lives. Croutier reveals their marital customs, child-rearing practices, and superstitions. Finally, she shows how this Eastern institution invaded the European imagination--in the form of decoration, costume, and art--and how Western ideas, in turn, finally eroded a system that had seemed eternal. Juxtaposing a rich array of illustrations--Orientalist paintings, Turkish and Persian miniatures, family photographs, and even film stills--Croutier demystifies the Western erotic fantasy of "the world behind the veil." This revised and updated 25th anniversary edition of Harem includes a new introduction by the author, revisiting her subject in light of recent events in Turkey, and the world. AUTHOR: Alev Lytle Croutier is the author of 'Taking the Waters' (Abbeville) and three critically acclaimed novels, 'The Palace of Tears', 'Seven Houses', and 'Leyla: The Black Tulip'. Born in Turkey, Croutier studied at Oberlin College and founded the publishing company Mercury House. 125 illustrations… (more)
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» See also 6 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Nah... It was boring, but full of information. ( )
  soontobefree | May 1, 2017 |
Fascinating

This book is so interesting to read. I've always been interested in the topic, and as someone, who only ever read stories about harems, was immediately drawn to this book, since it's written by someone with first hand experience.

The book held up to what it promised. Extremely interesting insights into harem life, the history behind them, and the elements included. Absolutely fascinating. ( )
  katsmiao | Oct 23, 2015 |
Fascinating

This book is so interesting to read. I've always been interested in the topic, and as someone, who only ever read stories about harems, was immediately drawn to this book, since it's written by someone with first hand experience.

The book held up to what it promised. Extremely interesting insights into harem life, the history behind them, and the elements included. Absolutely fascinating. ( )
  katsmiao | Oct 23, 2015 |
Fascinating

This book is so interesting to read. I've always been interested in the topic, and as someone, who only ever read stories about harems, was immediately drawn to this book, since it's written by someone with first hand experience.

The book held up to what it promised. Extremely interesting insights into harem life, the history behind them, and the elements included. Absolutely fascinating. ( )
  katsmiao | Oct 23, 2015 |
Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier is a gratifying find among the many historical books written about the harem life of the Ottoman Empire. A harem was not a hidden, decadent enclave of the Sultan’s stunning concubines. It was simply where the women lived in the palace. All of the women lived there, including the Sultan’s own mother, known as the “Valide Sultan.” She was the most powerful figure in the empire after the Sultan himself. Croutier doesn’t exclusively cover the Turkish harem, or Seraglio as it is known, and addresses the topic of the harem in general. However, since Croutier is Turkish and has a personal linkage to this past, naturally the majority of her book covers the Ottoman harem.

Reading this book is like watching a documentary. Decorated with lush photography and paintings, it animates the women who lived in this time and place. Croutier covers all elements of the harem life: the baths that were a quotidian ritual, the poetry of the women’s voices, an emotional life as multifaceted as the gems adorning them, the princesses, high-ranking concubines, and the eunuchs who surrounded them. There is also mention of the ordinary harem of domestic households. This rich history is laid out like a damask tapestry. The author’s first person narrative makes the prose all the more alluring.

The harem life was not easy. It was an imprisoned life, a segregated complex of buildings populated mostly by foreign slaves. A Muslim Turk could not be a consort to the Sultan as slavery was forbidden in Islam. Women were kidnapped or sold into the slave market just as cattle were. In some ways, the Turks are still ashamed of such a history, and it was abolished in the early twentieth century. Even Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revolutionary leader and creator of the modern Turkish republic, had said: “Is it possible that, while one half of a community stays chained to the ground, the other half can rise to the skies?” Women could rarely leave the walls of the harem, but as oppressive as it could be, it was still a place of rich culture where a network of women turned to each other for comfort and enjoyed as much of its splendor as they could.

Researched extensively, Harem offers a rare glimpse into the fascinating yet misunderstood heritage of women in the Ottoman Empire. ( )
  yeldabmoers | Jan 28, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
"Harem: The World Behind the Veil" is presented as a history of the harem, but it focuses mostly on Ottoman Turkey and, in particular, on life as it was lived in the sultan's seraglio in Constantinople. The small section on ordinary harems is as interesting as the more exotic portion of the book.
added by NinieB | editNew York Times, Bertrice Small (pay site) (Jun 11, 1989)
 

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alev Lytle Croutierprimary authorall editionscalculated
Isaksson, BoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"I was born in a konak (old house), which once was the harem of a pasha," writes Alev Lytle Croutier. "People around me often whispered things about harems; my own grandmother and her sister had been brought up in one." Drawing on a host of firsthand accounts and memoirs, as well as her own family history, Croutier explores life in the world's harems, from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, focusing on the fabled Seraglio of Topkapi Palace as a paradigm for them all. We enter the slave markets and the lavish boudoirs of the sultanas; we witness the daily routines of the odalisques, and of the eunuchs who guarded the harem. Here, too, we learn of the labyrinthine political scheming among the sultan's wives, his favourites, and the valide sultana--the sultan's mother--whose power could eclipse that of the sultan himself. There were the harems of the sultans and the pashas, but there were also "middle-class" harems, the households in which ordinary men and women lived out ordinary--albeit polygamous--lives. Croutier reveals their marital customs, child-rearing practices, and superstitions. Finally, she shows how this Eastern institution invaded the European imagination--in the form of decoration, costume, and art--and how Western ideas, in turn, finally eroded a system that had seemed eternal. Juxtaposing a rich array of illustrations--Orientalist paintings, Turkish and Persian miniatures, family photographs, and even film stills--Croutier demystifies the Western erotic fantasy of "the world behind the veil." This revised and updated 25th anniversary edition of Harem includes a new introduction by the author, revisiting her subject in light of recent events in Turkey, and the world. AUTHOR: Alev Lytle Croutier is the author of 'Taking the Waters' (Abbeville) and three critically acclaimed novels, 'The Palace of Tears', 'Seven Houses', and 'Leyla: The Black Tulip'. Born in Turkey, Croutier studied at Oberlin College and founded the publishing company Mercury House. 125 illustrations

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