The Levant Unveiled: Western Travelers' Reports on Ottoman Female Bathing Culture.
Weinstein, Molly L.
- Tisch Library Undergraduate Research Award Winner, 2014. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, western European travelers began venturing to the Ottoman Empire on a more frequent basis. This increase in Oriental travel yielded a new collection of travel narratives. A topic of particular interest in the western travelogues was the Ottoman institution of the hammam, or bathhouse, and the ostensibl... read morey lewd behavior that took place within. Specifically, the behavior of Turkish females within the enclave of their all-female bathing quarters sparked the interest and imagination of early travelers. This study surveys the various references to Turkish female bathing culture within western European travel narratives from the mid sixteenth to mid eighteenth-century. It contends that the conjectural claims of female lesbian bathhouse activity made by early male writers reflected a strategic maneuver to reaffirm Christian values and to frame its adversary, Islam, as an amoral and illegitimate alternative; to assert western ethical and, consequentially, political superiority; and to expose domestic readers to a titillating and otherwise taboo subject matter while reinforcing their confidence in the propriety of their own sexual and cultural values and mores. Later reports on bathing culture by the British Ambassadress Lady Mary Wortley Montagu contradicted the earlier accounts, yet were equally deliberate. Montagu’s carefully crafted image of a modest and dignified female bathing scene fed into her broader idealized claims of Turkish female sovereignty, exposing an oft-overlooked strain of western gender insecurity and female malcontent. In both cases, the collective preoccupation with Turkish bathing ritual and sexual activity is emblematic of a western fascination with the alien and of a willingness to contort and exploit the foreign to satisfy domestically rooted demands for cultural reinforcement and political justification.read less