In The Tarot Cafe, a manhwa by Park Sang-sun set in contemporary UK, Pamela, an owner of a Tarot cafe, receives a string of supernatural visitors. One of them is an immortal Ottoman sultan, who tells her the story of his young male lover and his jealous wife who set out to destroy her rival. I remembered the gorgeous illustrations of an Arabian-nights style garden, where the two lovers, one handsome, the other pretty, met, when I started my research for a PhD on the subject of early modern ‘homoerotics of orientalism’. Stories of the many ‘sodomites’ of the Ottoman empire are abundant in early modern European discourse on the Ottomans and other Muslims, but were they actually used only as a prejudiced fantasy?
Queer Islamic history is a sensitive and deeply political topic. Many Muslim countries are socially conservative, and in their academic traditions, Janet Afray argues, ‘even speaking about the pervasive homoeroticism of the region’s pre-modern culture [has] been labelled ‘Orientalism’. Orientalism is a key concept in which queer Muslim past is framed. Indeed, the most detailed study of English and Scottish mentions of ‘sodomy’ among Muslims in the early modern period frames it as a prejudice, constructed to represent the Ottomans as inferior and akin to ‘savage’ Native Americans in the age of Ottoman military might. I would like to propose that there was a much more nuanced process at work – some aspects of Ottoman intimate lives were sensationalized and sexual depravity was often a focus of the curiosity of early modern Europeans. However, more often than not, there was a considerable amount of overlap between European representations of Ottoman love between men and Ottoman anxieties about the subject.
Sensationalised sexual depravity of the Ottomans, especially the elites and the sultans, was a popular trope in early modern European discourses on the Turks. However, it was often most pronounced in books not written by eyewitnesses. For example, Michael Baudier’s General history of the harem and of the court of the Grand Turk provided one of the most detailed descriptions of ‘disorder and corruption in the Othoman Court’. Baudier argued that ‘the Sultans Serrail is full of such Boyes, chosen out of the most beautifull of the East, and vowed to his vnnaturall pleasures’. He also painted a colourful picture of a court where ‘the great Men kill or poyson one another for such subjects, Families are in combustion, Wiues make away their Husbands, and Husbands their Wiues’. However, jealous wives, instead of killing their competitors, turn to seek pleasure from each other instead: ‘The Turkish Ladies detesting these damnable affections of their husbands, haue also abandoned themselues by their example or for reuenge, to another disorder’.
Ottaviano Bon went even further in imagining the harem as a hotbed of female homoeroticism. According to him, ‘it is not lawful for any one to bring ought in unto’ the women of the harem ‘with which they may commit the deeds of beastly and unnatural uncleannesse; so that if they have a will to eat radishes, cucumbers, gourds, or such like meats, they are sent in unto them sliced, to deprive them of the means of playing the wantons.’ James Barclay told a story of a sultan stricken by lust for ‘a young youth wantonly glancing his effeminate eyes’ and the youths former lover, ‘souldier that abused the boy, loue ouercomming his allegiance’ who ‘ventured himself to rescue his Catamite, & with a drawn sword resisted the Princes ministers’. It is possible to argue that these accounts, especially Baudier’s, reflected the realities of Ottoman homosociality to a certain degree and thus branding them ‘orientalism’ would require a lengthy discussion of the term and its usage. But the point I want to make here is slightly different: early modern Anglophone discourse on Ottoman ‘sodomy’ was not homogenous, and such detailed accounts were primarily available in either compendiums, such as Baudier’s or Barclay’s, or disputed works, such as Bon’s, rather than in eyewitness accounts. Eyewitness accounts tended to be more concise on the subject, which they only mentioned in quite specific contexts; moreover, those contexts betrayed anxieties which often overlapped with Ottomans’ own concerns about male love for boys.
Travellers taught their eyes to see certain things, and their accounts often followed patterns set out by instructions for travel. As such, English and Scottish men (and until the early 18th century they were always men) wrote about sodomy quite sparsely. However, what they did write often showed quite specific concerns, widespread in early modern Ottoman society itself. For example, some travellers identified homosocial spaces, such as coffee houses and public baths, as full of potential for same-sex activity. George Sandys stated that ‘many of the Coffa-men keeping beautifull boyes, who serue as stales to procure them customers’. These words are reminiscent of the laments of the Ottoman religious scholar Ahmad al-Rumi al-Aqhisari, who stressed that consuming coffee and attending coffee houses ‘necessarily forces one to observe these forbidden behaviours during gatherings, to mingle with the fools and the vile, to receive it from the hands of beardless youths, to touch their hands and to commit acts of disobedience’. Similarly, bathhouses caused concerns among both European and Ottoman observers. John Bulwer’s Anthropometamorphosis associated bath houses with a variety of ‘unnatural’ sexual behaviours. As Khaled El-Rouayheb demonstrates, the Egyptian scholar ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Munawi ‘urged the owner of a bath not to employ beardless boys, and not to allow them to strip in the bathhouse, since such practices lead to improprieties’.
Aspects of Muslim devotion itself were associated with homoerotic behaviours both by European observers and Ottoman religious scholars. Paul Rycaut, the English Consul in Smyrna in the 1660s and 1670s, observed that the members of the Bektashi Sufi order ‘are a most licentious sort of people, much given to Sodomy, for which the ignorant and loose sort of Janizaries are willingly their Disciples’. At the first glance it looks to be a blanket statement aiming to discredit several homosocial institutions of the Ottoman Empire. However, these same institutions caused concern among the Ottomans, as well. For example, the 17th century Meccan judge Ahmad al-Murshidi wrote of Sufi orders that ‘they have outdone the people of Lot by adding the beating of drums to fornication’. Mustafa Ali, the author of A Table of Delicacies, ‘held that a large proportion of Egyptian cavalrymen, jundis, were pederasts’.
The latter remark might have been connected to another common ground between European observers and Ottoman Turks – a tendency to ‘Other’ certain societies based on climate and customs. A number of Ottoman Turks wrote of Arabs in a way almost identical to European travellers. For example, Evliya Celebi, who was quite lenient towards homoeroticism elsewhere in his writings, sometimes directly stating that he kissed boys, condemned similar relationships in his description of Egypt. He described the local coffee houses as ‘a special bazaar of filth […] day and night a thousand boy dancers prance about with coquettish gestures, catching the hearts of lovers in the traps of their flowing locks’. He also described local Arabs as more licentious and prone to bestiality with crocodiles due to the hot climate of the land. These latter remarks are very similar to European descriptions of the Ottoman Empire as a whole. For instance, Francis Osborne argued that the Turks kept concubines in order to prevent ‘sodomy and bestiality, sins infesting these hot countries’ and Robert Burton stated that ‘all hote and Southerne Countries are prone to lust’ and even the ‘all the beauties their countries can afford […] cannot keep them from adultery, incest, Sodomy, and such prodigious lustes’. Connecting sexuality and climate was a legacy of Ancient Greek humoral conceptualisation of human difference, integral both to Muslim and Christian medieval worldviews.
The views outlined above are but a part of much more complex emotional ecologies of male love and intercourse in early modern Islamic empires, which cannot be adequately covered in such a short blogpost. Instead, my goal today is to show the overlaps and similarities between anxieties and concerns caused by same-sex relationships among Muslims and European travellers. Although European travellers did have some sensationalised notions of ‘scandalous’ things happening behind closed doors in harems, a large part of the specific concerns they had were not that different from the anxieties of Muslims themselves. Instead of a completely fictionalised and sexualised ‘Orient’, they represented something that actually happened, and they often did it in a way which would have been familiar to local inhabitants themselves.
Nailya Shamguonva is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, working on Anglophone conceptualisations of sexual diversity in the Ottoman empire in the early modern period. She is a passionate supporter of LGBTQ+ rights and an avid fantasy reader. She tweets @nailyas_
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