Tag Archives: Simon Winchester

Topkapi and Other Harems

topkapi harem

News Editor

Simon Winchester … where have we heard that name before? Ah yes, he wrote The Professor and the Madman, a surpassingly fascinating dual biography of…. but that’s another story. What we’re looking at today is Winchester’s recent review of The East, the West, and Sex, by Richard Bernstein, in “Books of the Times” from The New York Times Sunday last.

One of the Bernstein’s claims – and who could deny it? – is that the person most responsible for creating the reputation enjoyed (or suffered) by certain parts of the world today, was Sir Richard Burton. Not the actor, but the explorer, the one whose wife burned his journals and manuscripts when he died, rather than let everybody find out what her husband got up to in his travels. Winchester says:

Tales of the odalisque, the harem, the seraglio, the concubine, the geisha and the Kama Sutra have all become combined in the past century or so into a sweetly perfumed mélange of exoticism and eroticism…

It was that sex-as-an-art-form thing. Young men from the West have always been dispatched to the East with a nod and a wink, the result of the racist, colonialist mindset that fantasized the entire Orient as a conscience-free zone. There’s a whole other side to the mystique, as any feminist will tell you, and as Winchester also points out. Imagine an entire wasted lifetime with no options but to hang with a bunch of other women around a fancy indoor swimming pool, waiting for a sultanic booty call.

On the other hand, we did get some fantastic architecture out of it. For instance, the harem complex at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Kevin Dolgin, in The Third Tower Up from the Road, notes the differences between this edifice and the typical strongholds of European kings, with the Turkish version being kind of a castle “lite,” featuring

elegant courtyards dotted with small white buildings boasting gilded roofs; every door carved with flowing designs; window grates so delicate they seem to be made of wooden lace.

If you go there, Dolgin recommends shunning any kind of group tour. Get one of those top-notch, specially certified harem guides, and brace yourself for sensory overload.

SOURCE: ” Lands of Erotic Fantasy and Their Complex Reality ” 06/07/09
photo courtesy of Allie_Caulfield, used under this Creative Commons license