27 May 2009

Bathhouse lesbians of Constantinople

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1520/1521-1592) was the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand’s ambassador to the Sublime Porte during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Busbecq spent 8 years in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul. He is best known for the 4 long letters, originally in Latin, he sent to his friend Nicolas Michault that were later published as a book, The Turkish Letters*.

Busbecq’s letters are collections of his personal experiences as well as hearsay accounts of topics as diverse as the internal strifes of the Ottoman Palace, the lives of the ordinary Turks, the menagerie Busbecq kept at his house and the frequent epidemics of the plague that killed more than one of Busbecq’s friends. This paragraph is from his 3rd letter dated 1 June 1560.

The great mass of women use the public baths for females, and assemble there in large numbers. Among them are found many girls of exquisite beauty, who have been brought together from different quarters of the globe by various chances of fortune; so cases occur of women falling in love with one another at these baths, in much the same fashion as young men fall in love with maidens in our own country. Thus you see a Turk's precautions are sometimes of no avail, and when he has succeeded in keeping his wives from a male lover, he is still in danger from a female rival!

OttomanWomen2
16th century Istanbul woman [and her slave?] on the way to the bathhouse. From Asırlar Boyunca Istanbul [Istanbul Throughout the Centuries] by Haluk Şehsuvaroğlu. Undated (ca. 1955).

One gets the impression from Busbecq’s account that lesbianism was unheard of in Europe at that time. And one wonders how Busbecq knew about the “girls of exquisite beauty”, for men would not have been allowed in womens’ bathhouses and the women would not have ventured outdoors without covering their faces.

OttomanWomen1
Istanbul women at a spring outing (ibid.)


*An 1881 version featuring the English translations of Busbecq’s letters along with information on his life by Forster and Daniell is available at the Internet Archive.

1 comment:

John said...

I'm sure he just heard about it from a friend.