Medieval Misconceptions: Harem Harlots

You are a sibyl.

A seer.


What you divine now, as you gaze into the future, is the trumpeting of false history. 

A fallacious history of your own nation, written by those of another with an imperialist agenda to perpetuate. It is an ignorant history constructed by aristocrats who impose the values of their own nation onto every nation, and judge all according to one.

Far into the future, you watch as Western history transforms the women of your nation into willing whores, sexualized sylphs – a purposeful construction which sells their smut to entertain their men – while canonizing their women, who feel superior by comparison. The caricatures created by this history entertain their children – who grow up to pass the historical sludge on to to their children.


And the twisted image of your nation lives on in perpetuity…


There’s always been a cult-like myth about the idea of a harem.

These myths come from the Western world – showcased in Western art and in the Hollywood ‘Orientalizing‘ of characters from the ‘Middle East.’ Such images are invariably of half-naked women wearing “I Dream of Jeanie” silk and gossamer fabrics through which curvaceous bodies can be seen.

i-dream-of-jeanieThese fantasy Harem girls dance like nymphs in seductive motions bordering on vulgarity. Their large bedroom eyes with sooty, foot-long lashes generally end up wooing some White Western hero who has gallantly rescued her from a tyrannical Arab Sheik.

Make no mistake about it, peops – this over-sexualization of harem women exists only in Western minds and movies. 🙄

This perverted myth of harem women originated in the minds and works of early Orientalist scholars. One of the most famous is the early 1700’s French translation of the “One Thousand and One Nights,” followed by many different English versions which titillated Western minds and became hugely popular.

In addition to the typical images of exotic nude women laying seductively around a pool in Turkish hamams (or rather, the Western imagination of what a hamam might be like), Orientalist scholars also depicted harem women as helpless captives, or ravenous harlots feeding on their master Sultan.

medieval-manUnfortunately for harems, scholars were Western male travelers to the Ottoman Empire. As documented in renown author and lecturer Asli Sancar’s book Ottoman Women: Myth & Reality: “Foreign men were never permitted to enter an Ottoman harem, so there were no eye-witness reports to contradict the myth.”

As Sancar details in her book on the subject: “The Western male’s traditional polarized images of women [i.e. historical Madonna/Whore depictions] combined with the ‘exotic’ appearance of oriental females, made a strong case for the myth of the harem. Male travelers cited other male writers, whose information was often based on hearsay or their own fantasies.

It wasn’t until the wife of a British ambassador, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, was invited inside a harem that the myth was finally challenged.


Take a peek inside the harem!

9 thoughts on “Medieval Misconceptions: Harem Harlots

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  6. Well, somewhat off-topic, and yet pretty close: about how outsiders who have no clue judge things they don’t understand.

    I had a discussion the other day, about how harvesting herbs during full moon is actually a very logical thing to do, since the flow of the juices is on its peak and the properties of the plants are much stronger… and how wise women-healers who knew their stuff were depicted as witches and Satan-worshippers… and now we’re “re-discovering” the medicinal value of plants. So many years and valuable science lost!

    • Hey, Eleni. This is really interesting, and definitely on-topic. It’s all about mistaken impressions, ignorance and a rush to judgement. I feel for all those poor women-healers. (And, just fyi, I’d rather have my herbs harvested during full moon than the way they’re manufactured today!) You know, this still happens in some parts of the world. For example, women psychics who are ousted from their community when people notice that things they predict actually happen. And even today, here in the U.S., Wiccas practice their religion beneath a cloud of suspicion from society. Historically, women have long been the scapegoats for fear & ignorance. I often wonder if there’s a parallel world where just the opposite is true – that women are the ones who rule nations, write history, and create societal mores…sigh. A woman can dream, right? 😉

  7. I cannot wait until next Monday…P.S “Male travelers cited other male writers, whose information was often based on hearsay or their own fantasies”, well ha ha har when they turned up and found it their dreams would not be realised!

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