Santa Barbara City College

721 Cliff Dr., Santa Barbara, CA 93109




~ Fourth Annual IQSA Conference ~

"Harem: Perception and Reality of Life in Ottoman and Qajar Courts"

Conference Site: SBCC West Campus, Fé Bland Forum, Business/Communications Building

Conference Date: Friday July 23 and Saturday July 24, 2004

Registration: July 23 9:00 am to 9:45

Conference Start: July 23 10:00 am

Conference End: July 24 5:00 pm







A Look at the History of Persian Dance: Qajar Royal Court Dance as Reflected in Visual Arts

Raisa I. Amirbekyan, Caucasian Center for Iranian Studies, Yerevan, Armenia

The aim of this paper is to analyze the phenomenon of dance in the royal court and harem of the Qajars as reflected in visual arts. Information about Qajar court dance as an important aspect of Persian society and culture is found in many historical documents, written sources, travel accounts, diaries, and periodicals. A rich body of art objects of Qajar and 'Orientalistic' art illustrating dancing and dancers has also survived. It includes oil paintings, miniatures, lacqerworks, extravagant decorative objects, drawings, engravings, lithographs, cartoons, and photographs. Art objects supplement historical sources both through representations of actual persons and situations, and by mirroring the imaginations and stereotypes connected with dance that characterized the Qajar era.

Traditional Persian values continued to be the predominant art style in Qajar time and dance as an art form acquired new expression, significance, and value in the Qajar era. Yet, creative components of new styles of dance were also introduced trough historical turbulence, principal changes in royal court life, and through correctives shaking the social norms and ethics of Qajar society. These changes co-existed side by side with traditional elements of Iranian aesthetics rooted deeply in Persian history. In the Qajar era dance corresponds to the new social and cultural context, and for this reason dance gained popularity both among the people and the court. At the court, this important component of cultural life was usually performed during different kinds of royal rituals like coronations, marriage celebrations, and ceremonies of Norouz.

Historical sources of the Qajar period mention several famous female and male dancers. Undoubtedly some of these great masters became the models or sources of inspiration in the creation process of the well-known artists of the royal 'naqqashkhaneh', students of Art Academy, European travelers, and unknown artisans from 'karkhanes' (workshops) of the bazaars. Some of these famous dancers were known by the names of: Arus, Akhtar-zangi, Zahra-ye-Ahad, Galin, Gohar, Munes, Gazal and Maral, and Ghamar-e-Saleki.

National self-expression for Iranians is closely connected with poetry, recitation and dance, which are considered the highest arts. The art of Persian classical dance is dainty, subtle, and full of symbolism and meaning. It is expressed primarily with the upper body: the face, head, torso, and hands. Secrets of this art were passed on through a traditional chain of transmission of knowledge and choreographic skills through generations of dancers from teacher to student. The phenomenon of 'bazi' (skilled play) is the basis for traditional Persian folkloric dance. Qajar court dance became the most important model of national self-expression in this period of Iran's history incorporating all aspects of Persian culture and tradition and rendering them in the various styles of dance. Qajar royal court dance as reflected in visual arts is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon and appropriate material for Qajar cultural history scholarship.


Polygyny, the Harem and the Hijab in the Koran, the Sunna and under Islamic Rule

Rosina Fawzia Al-Rawi, University of Jerusalem

The practice of seclusion of women is not unique to the Islamic world. In the context of Islam, however, the veil, seclusion, polygyny and ultimately harems have their source and origin in the Koran, the life of the Prophet of Islam and the practice of his followers and religious and political heirs. There is much that is misunderstood about each of these concepts. This paper will attempt to shed light on Koranic sources, on the example of the prophet of Islam and subsequent practice in the Islamic world. Prevalent misconceptions that harems are gilded cages for nubile women kept for the pleasure of wanton Muslim rulers and men in general will be examined in light of what is known on both the rationale for harems in the history of Islamic countries and in light of the life and time of the Prophet of Islam himself.


The Shah, the Skirt, and the Ballet: A Ménage a Trois, or Just Ill-Founded Gossip?

R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram

One of the most distinctive visual aspects of the later Qajar harem is the so-called "ballet" skirt worn by the court women. In most discussions of women's court dress it is stated as simple fact that this style of skirt resulted from Nasir al-Din Shah's fascination with the dancers of the ballet on his 1873 European tour and an order after his return that the women of the harem were to dress in emulation of these admired dancers. This etiology is generally simply asserted with no discussion and no citation of sources. The story embodies a number of questionable elements. It assumes an Orientalist, "master of the harem," view of Nasir al-Din Shah's relationship with the women of the court that may be more related to Western fantasy than actual court relations; it is imbued with an old-fashioned diffusionism that presumes anything "new" in a non-Western society must have been "borrowed" rather than looking for patterns of development and change within the culture itself; and it bears a suspicious resemblance to other stories of his experience of Europe that sought to mark the "otherness" of the Shah and which are unlikely to be factual.

This paper will interrogate the assumptions of the "ballet" theory and ask whether the development of this dress style is not actually consistent with trends in women's court dress that were in place before Nasir al-Din Shah's first European trip and continued thereafter; contrast this dress style with actual ballet costume of the early 1870s; and look at the substance of the relationship between Nasir al-Din Shah and the women of the court. The paper will draw on iconographic and documentary sources, the dates of some of which seem to have been overlooked in the general acceptance of the "ballet" theory. The paper will also address the issue of the utility of such stories as a means to undermine the credibility of a nonwestern ruler.


The Harem in the Orientalist's Mind

Alev Lytle Croutier



Portraits, Portrayals and Potraying: Images and Image Creation of Ottoman and Persian Rulers of the 19th century

M.M. Eskandari-Qajar, Santa Barbara City College (SBCC)

This paper focuses on the royal masters of the harems, both Ottoman and Persian, as they had themselves portrayed in official portraits (and self-portraits in the case of Nasser-ed-Din Shah), but also, for purposes of clarification and juxtaposition, as they were portrayed by others. The "others" in question here are European image-makers, both literally and figuratively speaking. The reason for my focus on these portrayers is to unveil the mechanisms by which the West furthered its project of control and ultimately of destruction of these two empires, their rulers and their age-old institutions in the name of progress, modernity and Western civilization.


To Veil or not to Veil? Reasons and Reasonings for Seclusion in the Islamic World

Tania Kamal-Eldin, University of California at San Diego (UCSD)

Acclaimed producer of documentary films "Hollywood Harems" and "Covered," Tania Kamal-Eldin will discuss the rationale behind the idea of seclusion in the harem and the adoption of the veil by women in the Islamic world. Views of the harem and the veil by the non-Muslim world will also be explored with a closer look at how Hollywood became the modern-day equivalent of 19th century orientalist paintings and novels.


The Harems of Fath Ali Shah and Nasser-ed-Din Shah

Niloufar Kasra, Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies (IICHS), Tehran

Not presenting. Paper published in IQSA Journal, Qajar Studies, Vol. IV, 2004 available at the conference.


Beautiful but Bunk: The Harem in Art

Lydia Susan Khan, University of Houston

It is difficult, if not impossible to discern when and where, exactly, Orientalism- the idea that �they are different than we� and the implicit understanding that �they are inferior to us-� was born. Surely, Edward Said's work in the past thirty years has attempted to define and explain this social phenomenon so that sociologists, political scientists and historians can debate and argue with a shared understanding and a working vocabulary. Long before Said, however, artists explored Orientalism with paint, not words. Today, those paintings of the 19th and early 20th century still speak more succinctly to a careful observer than thick books full of words.

This paper will look at Orientalist art depicting both Ottoman and Persian court harems and will discuss the construction of reality of the images that art projects and presents.


Dancers and Dance (Lecture and Performance)

Alexandra King, University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB)



Persian Ballet at the Qajar Court (Performance)

Alaleh Mohajerani

The phrase, "Persian Ballet at the Qajar Court," refers to the pure form of today's Persian classical dance, whose seeds were sown during the Qajar dynasty. Many Qajar kings, especially Fath 'Ali Shah, devoted a great deal of their royal treasury to the arts, not excluding dance. The argument is that Persian dance during the Qajar Era, was a respected court ceremony, and can therefore be coined an elevated art, a ballet if you will, rather than the lower "roo-hozi" dances of the common "motrebs." The dances we will perform will incorporate different elements of this classical style, including finger cymbals, veil dancing, and the miming of "bazak."


The Institution of Marriage at the time of Fath Ali Shah and Nasser-ed-Din Shah Qajar

Guity Nashat, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)

Not presenting. Paper published in IQSA Journal, Qajar Studies, Vol. IV, 2004 available at the conference.


Origins and Evolution of Iranian Classic (urban) Music from the Qajar Period

Bahram Osqueezadeh, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)



Towards a Cultural History of Social Construction: The mediating position of Roma (Gypsy) professional entertainers in 19th century Ottoman Empire in negotiating aristocratic and urban contexts.

Sonia Tamar Seeman, University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB)

How do societies govern individuals? What is the role of cultural performance and practices in challenging as well as inculcating social order? What is the role of professional mediators in negotiating such imposed structures? This paper inquires into the structuring of Ottoman society through inscriptions of public/exterior and private/interior areas as types of social spaces. Through such inscriptions, human beings were subjected to political and social governance. Yet economic and political developments in 19th century Ottoman Turkey also opened new opportunities for agents to challenge such social inscriptions. In particular, I focus on the increasing role of Roma professional entertainers and how these professional services challenged the effective control of Ottoman administrative structuring of society in a period in which an emergent merchant class increasingly participated in cultural performances, By such preliminary investigations, I intend to push inquiry into the role of cultural practices in articulating and challenging dominant processes of social structuring.


Structure of the Ottoman Harem

Nadine Dawson

The Ottoman harem, far from being a gilded prison depriving its female occupants of their freedom in exchange for a life of idleness, should be considered "a model of female governance in a male dominated world." While it is true that women had no role in the urban public life and political arena, their role and presence was undeniable in the household and its most spectacular manifestation, the harem of the Sultan. Ottoman history records well the influence and importance of the harem on the empire, and yet the perception remains that the harem was a world that disconnected its inhabitants from life and the harem itself from the life of the empire.

While not corresponding to Western ideals of conjugal life of rulers and elites as well as modern-day notions of the appropriate place and role of men and women in relation to each other, the harem, nevertheless, was a unique and innovative solution to this age-old question.



The Harem through the Lens of Nasser-ed-Din Shah Qajar: A Personal and Pictorial Record

M. Reza Tahmasbpour, University of Tehran

From its inception, Islam, and later Islamic tradition, did not allow depiction of women. Therefore, very few portraits of famous women and wives of kings and aristocrats are available during much of Iran's history under Islam.With the help of photography, however, there was no need for a skilled portraitist to draw portraits of women. As a result the most important impediment to the availability of pictorial artworks of women disappeared.

The emergence and development of photography in Iran, as well as the discovery of its useful and functional applications were mostly due to the interest, attention, and support Nasser-ed-Din Shah Qajar paid to this newly developed art and technique. Actually, because of his great emphasis on this technique and its different aspects, Nasser-ed-Din Shah can be referred to as the founder of many branches of photography in Iran. Documentary photography, innovated at the early years of Nasser-ed-Din Shah's monarchy (after 1850) under his support, was developing by depicting travels, hunting, and other subjects of the king's interest.

He delegated photographers to the places that he was not able to go himself. A summary note was usually written to the photographs taken in these occasions, which included the subject, time and place of the travels, hunting, etc. "Pictorial Reports" is the term which is applied to such photographs. The pictorial reports of this kind included the following subjects: The king's travels inside and outside the country, taking photographs from different states of Iran, photographs donated to the king by authorities, pictures of ancient buildings and locations, photographs served for people identification, official affairs of the court, pictures of the penal and political prisoners and convicts, ceremonial festivities, military forces, people's daily life, their jobs, and so on.

The shah reserved the privilege of taking photographs of his harem obviously for himself. Though many of these pictures were originally intended exclusively for the pleasure of and for viewing by the shah only -- as he also developed the pictures himself in his photographic laboratory in the Golestan palace -- these surviving pictures of the inner sanctum of his court, the harem and harem life, provide us today both with an unparalleled historic record of an institution that was inscrutable to the outside world, and afford us also a window on the sometimes whimsical and always human element of the private world of a man as well as a king.

The precedent set by the shah of depicting women opened the door for women of aristocrat families to also have their portraits taken, and by the end of the Qajar period, photography and photographing had become a common practice among commoners as well. In a way it can be said that this disregard of the predominant religious injunction against photography of women by the Shah, afforded an opportunity for the Iranian woman to introduce herself to the society; on the other hand, the shah's break with tradition can also be seen as an attack on the predominant religious beliefs as well.

From the notes accompanying these pictures, we can see that the peak of the Shah�s activity in photography was from 1863 AD onward.