Thursday 13 August 2015


In 1869, the novelist Luise Mühlbach and her 17-year old daughter travelled to Egypt on the invitation of the Khedive and obtained permission to visit his harem. Mühlbach enjoyed great popularity both in Europe and in America as the author of some twenty historical novels, which were translated into English and French. She wrote articles about her journey to Egypt for German papers and also published a book of “travel letters” in 1870.

We were received by a group of some twenty young women [slaves] in delicate dresses, some wearing turbans on their heads, others small gold-embroidered caps or silver bands to tie back their hair. Four of them advanced smiling, took us by the upper arms and led us through the entrance hall, up a broad carpeted staircase, and into a huge hall furnished with carpets and settees. There, the slaves led us to three ladies reclining on the silk-covered settees.
A young Swiss woman, who was the governess of the royal children, acted as Mühlbach’s interpreter. The princesses (as the wives of the Khedive were styled) asked the visitor to take a seat beside them.
One of them moved the pillow on which her arm was resting and signaled to me to make myself comfortable, meaning to tuck one foot under, slide along the sofa, and rest my arm on the pillow. My daughter was given an upholstered chair to sit on.
The women of the harem know how to create and maintain a charming appearance, Mühlbach thought. They looked young and beautiful. Their black eyes were hot and fiery, the unique quality of oriental eyes. Their red lips were always ready to smile, showing two rows of splendid teeth. They are not slim, but rather luscious and full-bodied, as is popular with orientals. They wore dressed in the newest French fashion in glorious embroidered silk, and their hands, arms, and ears glittered with rich jewelry.
The princesses were intrigued by the blonde hair of Mühlbach’s daughter.
Over coffee served in golden cups decorated with diamonds, they made conversation with my daughter, praised her figure, asked her if she was married and were very surprised that she was still single at the age of seventeen. I told them that in Europe it was rare for young women of seventeen to take up the yoke of marriage. I added that this was obviously different in the orient, since the ladies all looked young and blossoming, although I knew that one of them had an adult son. They laughed and nodded and told me that they did marry rather young. The mother of the crown prince said she gave birth to her son when she was barely fourteen.

To be continued.

(Source: Reisebriefe aus Aegypten. My translation)

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