Wednesday, 27 October 2021




In 1870 Luise Mühlbach (1814-1873), best known as the author of historical novels, received an invitation from the Khedive (Sultan) Ismail Pascha of Egypt to visit Cairo. She published an account of her journey in the form of letters, Reisebriefe aus Aegypten. Here is her description of the Khedive’s harem:


…We got out of the carriage. Four large, ugly eunuchs stood by the door. They grasped [Mühlbach and her daughter] our upper arms and escorted us through the courtyard to the wing of the castle which housed the apartments of the princesses.

          We stopped at a large glass door which led directly into the castle. The door was opened from the inside; the eunuchs remained outside, and we entered a salon of great length and width. The floor was covered with carpets and there were divans all around the walls. A group of some twenty girls advanced from the back, all dressed in airy gowns, some with their heads covered with turbans, others with small gold-embroidered caps, and others again wearing silver ribbons which hung down in back looping around their hair. Four of these girls walked toward us smiling, took us, like the eunuchs, by the upper arms and led us through the salon to a wide carpeted staircase. We mounted the stairs led by them, and at the top encountered yet another giant salon furnished with carpets and divans.

          There the slave girls conducted us to three ladies resting on silk-covered divans. Then a young lady approached us. To my great surprise she addressed me in German and explained that she was our translator and had been asked to mediate the conversation between myself and the princesses. She was the governess of the young princesses, a woman of Swiss descent and able to speak French and German.

          The slave girls released our arms, and led by the translator, we approach the princesses. They rose from the divan and shook hands with us. Then one of the ladies indicated that we should take our seat beside her on the divan. She moved the cushion on which her arm was resting a little closer to me and indicated that I should make myself comfortable, which meant folding under one leg, sliding onto the divan and leaning on the cushion where her beautiful arm, adorned with bangles was resting. An easy chair was offered to my daughter, and after she had sat down, one of the slaves rolled the chair up to the princesses, so that she faced them.

          As we began our conversation, I gave some attention to the beautiful women, and indeed, the princesses were worth looking at. I sat beside the mother of Prince Mohamed Wawfik. Although the heir apparent was already 18 years old, his mother was still a beautiful and youthful-looking woman. In the Orient women marry young and the ladies of the harem knew how to cultivate and preserve their charms. I don’t want to be accused of indiscretion and therefore dare not say too much of the appearance of the princesses. They are young and beautiful, their black eyes have a fiery glow, as only oriental eyes do, their purple lips are always ready to smile and reveal two rows of excellent teeth. Their figures are not svelte, but of a fullness, which is popular in the Orient. The ladies greeted me by putting their hands first on their knees, then on their hearts and then against their forehead.


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