Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A visit to the hareem of Saïd Pacha

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Having been fortunate in obtaining an introduction to some Egyptian hareems, and, among others, to that of the Viceroy, during the course of last winter, it has struck me that a short account of it might be acceptable to some of my untravelled countrywomen. I will, however, ask them to accompany me first through the mysterious recesses of a private hareem at Cairo, a visit to which is really far more interesting than to the royal one, where the number of European ladies who have been admitted has modified many of the Eastern peculiarities.

We drove through a porte-cochère into a large open court, on one side of which hung a curtain, similar to those at the entrance of Roman Catholic churches. As soon as we had got out of the carriage, a tall black man appeared, handed us up the steps, and let the curtain drop behind us. At this moment, three or four female slaves arrived, with large glass lanterns, and ushered us up a long staircase into a passage; on either hand were small rooms, in which were other slaves, some embroidering, others smoking, or crouched asleep on the ground. This passage led into a magnificent marble hall, the centre of which was lighted by a lofty dome, and the four sides formed alcoves, round each of which ran a low divan. Here the slaves disencumbered us of our wraps, and we proceeded through more passages and staircases, some of them open to the air, then through several large rooms, with only the usual divan for furniture; most of them were entered by a low step, down one or two of which I slipped. I began to think we should never reach the enchanted spot, when signs of habitation, in the shape of a multitude of red and yellow slippers, showed themselves. Two more rooms, and a heavy damask was pushed aside, and we entered a large apartment, at the further end of which was a divan, on which sat two ladies, both young, and one very handsome. They were the two married daughters of Nateef Pacha; the tallest and handsomest was the widow of Shereef Pacha’s eldest son, the richest proprietor, not of the royal family, in all Egypt. She had lost her husband a few months ago, and on his death had returned to her father’s house. They both rose at our entrance, shook hands with us, put their hands to their foreheads, and finally made us sit down by them. As I had come unannounced, they were in their home négligé, which I was very glad of. The widow was in a dress of deep red Broussa gauze, and her sister in a pink and white print. For coiffure they wore a Stamboul crape handkerchief, covering the top of the head and part of the forehead: the ends are brought back and tied in front; the hair is cut short, and is either braided or hangs down to the ears. One slave girl had a long plait down the back, but that is no longer the fashion—in fact, they cut off nearly all their hair for the convenience of the bath, and almost all the braids are false.

After a few inquiries had been made as to who I was, how many children I had, and what I thought of Eastern manners, the widow began showing us her dress, which she said was a new stuff just come from Stamboul. I told her I had been there, and had seen the material; I did not say that it was four years ago. By this time cigarettes and chafing-dishes had been brought us, and the room, large as it was, seemed more than half filled with slaves, standing, sitting, or crouching in different positions on the ground, or on the low divan which ran down the two sides of the room. A table on which stood some candelabra with lights, and a sort of sideboard over which hung a large mirror, completed the furniture. On either side of the mirror was a cupboard, in the doors of which were inserted panels of carved wood. The walls were glazed white, and round the top ran a border, painted with all sorts of impossible trees, houses, and flowers. A nice little boy, about five years old, who was running about, soon became very friendly: he was the son of the younger sister, a fat little girl, who was also brought in to see us. The boy was dressed in a white blouse, full white trousers, and the usual crimson tarboosh; the girl in a blue jacket and trousers, but her tarboosh was embroidered in gold and pearls. Her nurse returned again with her in a few minutes, carrying over her head a blue silk parasol, which her mother, the widow, took and gazed at with almost as much pride as at her child. I asked how long the boy would be allowed to be present when they received female visitors, and was told till he was eight years old, after which a woman would be considered immodest who permitted him to see her face unveiled.

Coffee was now brought on a silver plateau; the slave who carried it had thrown over her shoulder a scarlet cloth, richly embroidered in gold. Another bore what in a church would be called a censer, in the centre of which a coffee-pot rested on live ashes; the beautiful little cups were filled and offered us in their exquisite filagree holders. The Turks have no sets of things, each cup and holder is different: the handsomest is offered to the most honourable guest, and the simplest to the lady of the house. Coffee over, a tall, thin slave, who had been pointed out as the buffoon of the hareem, approached and began examining my bracelets. I had put on all the ornaments I could, and I now proceeded to take them off. Just as I was doing this, everybody started up, and a short, stout, but still young-looking woman, the wife of Nateef Pacha, entered the room. She was dressed in the same style as her daughters, except her head-dress, which consisted of a tarboosh, round which was rolled a stripe of white muslin. I was duly presented, my history again related, and we re-seated ourselves as before, except that the two younger ladies quitted the high divan and took their places on the lower, out of deference to their mother. The examination of my things then proceeded, and was not discontinued till every person present had fingered or tried them on. Madame C—— then told them that I was very desirous of seeing some of their gala attire, and the slaves were immediately despatched for some specimens. They returned with piles of most gorgeous dresses, which, after I had looked at them, were put on a very pretty slave, that I might see how they were worn; and the delight of the girl, as she walked up and down the room, looking over her shoulder at us, was most amusing. All the dresses were en suite, and consisted of a pair of very full trousers, joined together half way up the leg, a robe called a yebek, with tight sleeves, and either opening half-way down the chest and then buttoning to the waist, or closed from the throat; the skirt is divided into three parts, the back hanging down so as to form a long train, the two front ones coming off into points which, as they showed me, they tuck into the scarf: this is twisted as a belt round the waist when they sit down, and held between their ankles when they walk; and as they shuffle along, never raising their feet from the ground, the ends do not drop down, as they would infallibly do with us. A polka jacket completes the costume. The embroidery on the dresses was literally sumptuous; what I most admired was a dove-coloured watered silk with a deep embroidery of wheat-ears in pure gold, the finest jeweller’s gold laid on in solid pieces for the leaves and ears, the stalks in gold thread. Another was a yellow satin embroidered all over in coloured silks. A third was of crimson satin, embroidered in gold; the materials of this one cost two hundred and forty pounds. But they prized most the last new fashion, an amber Broussa gauze, trimmed with rows of black velvet. Madame Nateef Pacha told us these dresses did not cost in the end so much as they seemed to do, because the silks cleaned, and the gold, being solid, was washed with soap and water.

Next were brought towels and pillow-cases, with deep embroideries, also of pure gold, so that they washed like any common muslin. The widow said she used to embroider, but that she had ceased to do so; her father was very rich, and her father-in-law was richer still, so she did not see why she should trouble herself. Then came the jewels, tiaras, aigrettes, rings, earrings, all of diamonds, mostly set as flowers; one or two were in cases, but the greater part were thrown pell-mell on trays, and wanted cleaning sadly. The said bracelets were not much worn by Turkish or Arab ladies. We now recommenced smoking; sherbet was handed round in gold goblets, each slave bearing on her arm a muslin napkin, with the usual gold embroidery, for us to wipe our lips on.

Madame Nateef Pacha next entertained us with a minute account of the late fire at Alexandria; it is quite marvellous how the events of the outer world are so well known in these apparently hermetically-sealed retreats. She then wished us good night, and we tried to leave also, but this was not consented to by the younger ladies, who, returning to their former posts on the more elevated divan, and exclaiming, “Now, let us be comfortable,” began chewing gum mastic, of which they insisted on our also partaking; so we sat and chatted a little longer, and at last succeeded in getting away.

My visits to Ingee Hanum, the Vice-queen, were paid at Alexandria; I was presented to her by the wife of one of the consul-generals. We entered the palace under a lofty gateway, and alighting, traversed a large open courtyard, some vast stone halls, and ascended a wide marble stair-case of several flights, the last of which conducted us into an immense and very lofty room, somewhat in the shape of a cross, and, like most eastern apartments, with a profusion of windows. A large semi-circular window was filled with a divan, beside which, in a white and gold arm-chair, sat the Vice-queen, a lovely woman, very tall and thin, with splendid dark eyes and eyebrows, and a fair, and almost colourless complexion; her slightest movement was grace itself. The second wife was sitting near her, together with an elderly woman, whose face bore the remains of great beauty, and who had been one of Mehemet Ali’s wives, all of whom Saïd Pacha treats with great respect; also a younger lady in deep mourning, the widow of Mehemet Ali Pacha, and her three little girls, one of about two years old, the brightest-looking, chattering little thing I ever saw; another princess whose name I forget, and two European ladies.

Ingee Hanum rose at our entrance, shook hands with Madame R——, and saluted me in the usual Oriental style; I was then introduced to the other ladies.

Saïd Pacha’s second wife is the mother of his only son, Tooloom Pacha; she is rather good-looking, but coarse in comparison with the Vice-queen. The European ladies took their leave soon after our arrival, but not before one of them had told us that she had brought her little boy, aged seven years, to see her Highness, but the eunuchs voted him too old to be admitted, in spite of his tears at the sentence of exclusion.

After the first ceremonies were over, I was at leisure to observe my royal hosts. Ingee Hanum wore the usual yebek, but no jacket on account of the heat; it was made of grey barege, broché, with coloured silks, and open nearly to the waist, showing a habit-shirt of cambric, with a small turned-down collar; round her throat was carelessly tied, à la sailor, a rose-coloured ribbon. My friend told her she was sorry she had not on the particularly becoming dress she was wearing when she had seen her a day or two before, to which she answered, with great naïveté, that she had unluckily torn it down the back. The second wife was dressed in a crimson twilled yebek, buttoned to the throat, with an embroidered collar and sleeves. They both wore the usual Stamboul coiffure, with a profusion of diamonds wreathed around. These tiaras seem to be never left off, except in deep mourning; for on a subsequent visit we found her Highness with her face tied up with a white handkerchief, which, surmounted by the diamonds, had the most ludicrous appearance. The Vice-queen had on a purple enamelled bracelet and a Syrian ring, from which were suspended five large pear-shaped diamonds.

The usual ceremonies of coffee and chibouques were duly observed, the only apparent etiquette being that her Highness’s chafing-dish was placed straight before her and ours a little on one side away from her. The cupholder that was presented to me was of gold filagree with a black enamel band, studded with diamonds, a round one alternating with a crescent. Her Highness’s was of plain black enamel with a single circlet of diamonds. Her chibouques, in the same way, were of cherry and jasmine sticks, with amber mouth-pieces, and a narrow row of diamonds; mine were covered with gold-thread, and the diamond border was at least an inch and a half wide.

Nothing could be prettier than seeing the slaves gliding noiselessly about through the spacious apartments; there were no two dressed alike, and their number seemed infinite. One was attired in a Garibaldi shirt, with full white trousers; two or three had gold watches and chains suspended to their girdles. Several little episodes occurred interesting to European eyes. Once, Tooloom Pacha came in with a letter, which he gave the Vice-queen and read to or with her, leaning his head on her shoulder. He is an intelligent-looking boy, with bright eyes, but his features are rather coarse, like his mother’s. He speaks English perfectly, and without the slightest accent. Again a tall eunuch came in with a message, or bearing patterns of brocades for her Highness’s inspection.

One by one the visitors glided out of the room, and Madame R—— and I were left alone with the two Princesses and their attendants. Ingee Hanum interested us much by giving us a sketch of her early history. The conversation began by the usual inquiries of how I liked Egypt, its scenery, buildings, &c. On my speaking of Mehemet Ali’s mosque at Cairo, she said she had never seen it; that she had the Viceroy’s permission, but that there had always been something to prevent her going. Santa Sofia, its original, having been mentioned, led to Stamboul; and when she found that I had been there, and had spent a day in the hareem of a Pacha whose name both ladies knew well, she was most minute in her inquiries. No European could have asked more questions about the manners of the Turkish ladies, or have appeared more interested in the answers. She then observed that she sometimes wondered whether she had ever been at Stamboul, that her recollections of her infancy were so few and yet so vivid. Here she paused for a moment, her hands clasped, her lips slightly parted, and her beautiful eyes gazing before her with an earnestness of expression, and yet a beseeching look, which recalled the Beatrice Cenci. She spoke again after a few moments, but almost without changing her attitude, telling us that the only thing she remembered before coming to Egypt was, that she was one day playing with some other children in a cemetery, when all at once a man on horseback appeared, caught her up, and rode off at full speed. The next thing she recollects was being taken one night on board a vessel, and then finding herself in the palace of Mehemet Ali’s aunt in Egypt. She had never been able to recall in the least her parents or her home; all she remembered was that cemetery. And again that never-to-be forgotten look came over her. I felt afraid of breathing lest I should break the spell.

She subsequently learnt that the horseman was a slave-dealer whom the princess had employed, on the death of her own child, to obtain the most beautiful Circassian girl he could for her to adopt; her father wished to sell her, but her mother refused, and he, tempted by the price, agreed that the slave-dealer should carry her off as if by force.

On hearing this, kind as her protectress was, she took a great dislike to her, regarding her as the cause of her having been torn from her family. To her great joy, she was taken two or three years afterwards on a visit to Mehemet Ali’s hareem, and the then Vice-queen took such a fancy to her, that she asked her aunt to give her up to her: “to hear was to obey” in such a case, and though broken-hearted at parting with her favourite, the Princess was obliged to submit. Mehemet Ali also took a great fancy to the young stranger, and desired she should be brought up as the wife of his son Saïd, the present Viceroy.

We remained with the Vice-queen till sunset, the usual hour for retiring. She rose on our departure, shook hands, desired her compliments to my husband, and pressed me warmly to come and see her again, not only during my present stay, but whenever I came to Egypt.