Geographies of Race: Constructions of Constantinople / Istanbul in the Western European Imaginary

Roland Betancourt and Ambereen Dadabhoy

[Print edition page number: 83]

As the only city in the world geographically situated upon two continents ​—​ Europe and Asia ​—​ Constantinople/Istanbul occupies a special place within the Western and Eastern imaginaries.[1] In fact, the city’s geographic location calls into question and puts pressure on notions of East and West precisely because it straddles the geographical and cultural meanings attached to those terms. Positioned at the crossroads, it is both within and without the epistemologies that construct and inform our understanding of cultures based on their affiliations with the terms “Western” and “Eastern.” Located in and out of such meaning making practices, Constantinople/Istanbul is a particularly striking case study for an investigation into the processes of premodern racial formation, by which we mean the historical, social, and cultural mechanisms that produce race as difference in order to construct and maintain a system of power and domination over those who occupy that different or Other identity.[2] These mechanisms of race, or discourses, as Stuart Hall labels them, produced race as a “floating signifier,” contingent upon[84] relations within the signifying field and upon structures of power and domination.[3] Thinking about race as a discourse explains the inconsistencies we might encounter in how racialized bodies are fabricated within racial regimes and race-making projects, the way, for example, groups are differently racialized at different historical moments, making racialization untenable. As a discourse, race and racial power often manifest through representation, which holds epistemic power over understanding and apprehending race. Examining the production and maintenance of race within Constantinople/Istanbul discloses the many ways that the assemblage of race in the premodern is deeply connected to the creation of imperial space and geography and to stubborn investments in strict constructions of East and West, the Orient and the Occident.[4]

Before we explore the contours of race-making within the Byzantine and Ottoman regimes that governed Constantinople/Istanbul, we feel it is both important and necessary to acknowledge the limitations of our study. All critical investigations have their limits, and ours, here, is bound by the archive we are utilizing. The Newberry Library has rich holdings in early modern printed books, many of which display a keen interest in the East and the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, in the early modern period, we have substantially more texts with which to develop our critiques. Archives hold valuable material, yet by virtue of being collections, they also get to determine what is valuable and what constitutes important knowledge. They are by their very nature places that produce knowledge according to the ideologies and biases that have guided and informed the materials in their collection. Archives are exclusive, exclusionary, and deeply implicated in Western discourses of race and empire.[5] Our reliance on the Newberry Library’s holdings means that our examination of premodern race in Constantinople/Istanbul is through the and epistemological frame of Western European writers. Any kind of resistance to those discourses and the cultural supremacy they may support must come from the critical methods we employ. Moreover, our study lacks a dialogic component where we can consider Byzantine and Ottoman racializing practices and views of European cultures. Thus, our work may be seen as supporting projects of European empire and domination, which offers a view of this geography. We offer these not to undermine our work or the important scholarship being undertaken in this collection, but rather as a provocation for further research and for archival alliances across cultures and languages which can help us more fully understand and analyze premodern racial formations.

We want to frame our study of Constantinople/Istanbul with the question of how geographies can be racialized. Unlike cartography, wherein physical is rendered legible through mapping technologies which simultaneously impose a visual regime of control (and conquest), our examination of geography is cultural in orientation. We consider space through the human experience of being in, occupying, and experiencing space. The term geography indicates both landscape and the built social environment of a locale, which is “the material setting for social relations ​—​ the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individuals.”[6] Access to and relations within these “material settings” are determined by identity and forms of marginalization. Exploring geography, then, requires attending to relations of power. As feminist geographer Gillian Rose demonstrates, “these notions of space, location, place, position, mapping and[85] landscape imply radically heterogeneous geometries. They are lived, experienced and felt. And they also articulate specific arguments about power and identity.”[7] Geography as lived experience, one affected by identity, privilege, and power exposes the ideological underpinnings of spaces in terms of what they are designed to do, for whom they are made, and who they exclude. Cultural Geographer David Delaney argues that “elements of the social (race, gender, and so on) are not simply reflected in spatial arrangements; rather, spatialities are regarded as constituting and/or reinforcing aspects of the social.”[8] By focusing on relations of power as inherent to spatial arrangements, we can also observe how spatial relations are racial relations, through their capacity to animate and reinforce social hierarchies and racial difference. In the context of Constantinople/Istanbul we argue that the city’s landscape, social and political locale, and its built environment are mobilized by European writers to create and bolster racial difference, often articulated through the division of East and West, thereby imbricating those terms within a racial matrix. In this chapter, we first examine the ambivalent representations of Byzantium and Constantinople and then turn to representations of Ottoman Istanbul. In doing so we seek to understand how Constantinople/Istanbul was variously racialized by Western onlookers, highlighting the ways that the city was either Othered or embraced by the West throughout its medieval and early modern history.

Oscillating Visions of Byzantium and Constantinople

By Roland Betancourt

Scholars have often remarked that the “Byzantine” Empire is a , given that the so-called Byzantines only referred to themselves as the “Romans” (ῥωµαῖοι). When they spoke of “Byzantium” or “Byzantines,” of which they did often, these terms referred instead to the empire’s capital, Constantinople, and its inhabitants. Byzantium (or, Byzantion) had been the city’s name before Constantine the Great established his capital for the Roman Empire there. Once a provincial colony and trading port, the city of Byzantion was understood as having a key tactical position at the southern tip of the Bosporus, the strait linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and at the juncture of the two main military highways of the empire. Constantine’s city was founded in 324 CE and dedicated on 11 May 330 CE.[9] The wearing down of Rome’s power and influence across the fifth and sixth centuries marked a consolidation of power for Constantinople as the “New Rome” ​—​ a title the Turks would inherit when the Ottomans conquered the city, and which nineteenth-century Russian would develop into the notion of Moscow as the “Third Rome.”[10] Yet, this was a fraught position for the West, which, while recognizing the relocation of the Roman capital, repeatedly sought to contest the religious, political, and cultural authority of Constantinople.[11] It is through this long history of imperial competition, religious cleaving, and processes of Othering that we[86] encounter a city that repeatedly presented an uneasy place in Western literature and thought.

In 800 CE, when Charlemagne (c. 742–814) took on the title of emperor, we can witness one of the most critical contestations of the Byzantines’ identity as Romans by Western actors. In the Life of Charlemagne (c. 830), written by his courtier, Einhard (c. 770–840), we are told that Charlemagne himself begrudged having “accepted the title of emperor and augustus,” but that the title also stirred the ire of the Byzantine Empire. There, Einhard praises Charlemagne’s character by describing how “he bore the animosity that the assumption of this title caused with great patience, for the Roman emperors were angry over it.”[12] In as much as Einhard dismisses the Byzantine emperors’ protestations here, he also slips into properly addressing them as the “Roman emperors.” It is as much a contestation as it is an attestation of the Byzantines’ imperial power and unique claim to the title.

In a sixteenth-century edition of the text, a copy of which is preserved at the Newberry Library, we can find a curious alteration to the Latin text of Einhard’s chronicle. There, the line has been changed from the “Roman emperors” to the “Constantinopolitan emperors” so as to negate the “Roman” authority and identity of these emperors.[13] This copy was published in Cologne by the printer Johannes Soter (c. 1519–1538) under the auspices of humanist Graf Hermann von Neuenahr (c. 1492–1530) in 1521.[14] Here, we can appreciate how the tensions regarding the identity of the Byzantines was as hotly contested by medieval European authors as it was by later historiographers and editors responsible for the preservation and transmissions of these texts across the early modern period.

A useful comparison to this case is the depiction of the Byzantines in Notker the Stammerer’s (d. 912) own Deeds of Charlemagne (883/4). There, depicting the proceedings of the embassy from Charlemagne to Constantinople, the reader is told what occurred when one of the diplomats broke with Byzantine customs at dinner. While it was customary, we are told, to eat only the top of any animal placed on the dinner plate, the Westerner turned over the fish that was covered in spices, which caused the outrage of all the Byzantine nobles at the table who demanded that the emperor put him to death immediately. But, before doing so, the emperor allowed him one petition. The clever envoy therefore asked for anyone who had witnessed him turn over the fish to be blinded. One by one, all the nobles, including the emperor and empress, swore they had seen nothing, thus absolving him of his guilt and death. There, Notker exclaims, “and so the clever Frank beat the empty-headed sons of Hellas in their own land and came home safe and sound.”[15] This curious event betrays a notable distaste for the Byzantines, staging their customs as foolish, arcane, and, ultimately, barbaric.[16] Here, the justification for the penalty of death is attributed to “the laws of the Greeks” (“legem Grecorum”) speaking of the Constantinopolitans precisely as “Greeks” or the “sons of Hellas,” rather than Romans.[17] This event precisely seeks to ostracize and Other the Byzantines as foolish Greeks, against “the clever Frank.”

In the Newberry’s holdings, we can find this text preserved in the early-nineteenth-century Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH), an edited series published in Prussia that sought to collect, edit, and publish primary sources from the European Middle[87] Ages.[18] This publishing project was largely built on nineteenth-century scholarly Romanticism and the burgeoning nationalisms of the era, which provide us with an interesting glimpse into the imperial dynamics and positionings of the period.[19]

But regarding the flip-flopping animosities toward Byzantium, there is no better embodiment of Western ambivalences than that provided by the mid-tenth century account of Liudprand, Bishop of Cremona (c. 920–972). Liudprand’s embassy to Constantinople captures the wonder and anxieties of Western authors. In his texts, Liudprand comments on the ostentatious marvels of the Byzantine court, recounting how he and his fellow envoys were received in the imperial palace by a series of automata, including chirping birds and roaring lions, and even a wondrous throne upon which the emperor sat that could fly up into the air, changing the emperor’s garb as it ascended.[20] Similarly, the description of Greek fire is shown as a particular military wonder of the Byzantines, demonstrating its common use and its undefeatable power. Liudprand explicitly describes this technology as a weapon against racialized foes when describing how the Byzantines “quickly burned all the Saracens’ ships, having spewed out Greek fire.”[21]

The description of these technological marvels and military prowess are nevertheless subverted by a generally dismissive approach to the empire. Repeatedly, for example, Liudprand deploys archaic names for the Byzantines, calling them by names like “the Achaeans” or “the kingdom of the Argives,” in order to contest their imperial authority and their identity as the Roman empire.[22] And, they are referred to as “the Greeks,” rather than as the “Romans,” a title which he instead uses to acclaim his patrons, the Ottonians, as the “august emperors of the Romans.”[23] In Liudprand’s text, there is a clear understanding of the Byzantines as Greeks, positioned against a Roman Western Europe.

More hostile descriptions of the Byzantines also occur in Liudprand’s text, particularly ones that seek to distance them as “monstrous” or as racialized Others. In one instance, describing the “Greek fashion” of the Emperor, Liudprand describes how Westerners perceived him “not [as] a man but some monster,” elucidating his distaste for Byzantine customs.[24] In an even more virulent instance, Liudprand describes his encounter with the Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (c. 912–969), describing him as follows: “he is a quite monstrous man, dwarfish, with a fat head . . . deformed by a short beard that is wide and thick and graying . . . in color quite like the Ethiopian whom you would not like to run into in the middle of the night.”[25] The so-called “monstrosity” is associated with vilifying ideations of disability, as he is called a “dwarf” (“pygmaeun”), and with the suggestion that he is ill-formed.

Notably, Liudprand labels him “in color an Ethiopian” (“colore Aethiopem”), while making a reference back to the Satires of Juvenal (c. 60–136) about encountering an Ethiopian in the dark.[26] This language not only demonstrates the ways Byzantine rulers could be racialized as Others in the eyes of Western medieval Europeans, but also the long and pernicious history of[88] race-thinking that medieval authors deployed. These racist prejudices had deep roots in the literature and art of antiquity, emerging here as a citation to the well-known Roman poet from the late-first and early-second centuries CE.[27]

The writings of Liudprand of Cremona continued to have an impact in the early modern period. In 1640, for example, they were handsomely transmitted by an edition of Liudprand’s collected works that was published in Antwerp by the printer Balthasar I Moretus (1574–1641) and compiled by the Jesuit scholar Jerónimo Román de la Higuera (1538–1611), featuring frontispieces after Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), a copy of which is preserved at the Newberry.[28]

The flux that the Byzantine Empire was subjected to meant that it could rapidly be Othered as an antagonist to Western forces or embraced as Christian kin, critical to Western interests. This is made clear in Crusader rhetoric around the Empire, as exemplified in an printed in Cologne in 1472, which combines two Crusader narratives from the twelfth century: the History of Jerusalem of Robert of Reims (c. 1055–1122) and the History of the Expedition to Jerusalem (Cat. No. 19) of Fulcher of Chartres (c. 1059–1127).[29] In Robert’s chronicle of the First Crusade, the Turks are described as “filthy” (“inmundis”) as he ventriloquizes the call of Pope Urban II (r. 1088–1099). Their corruption is articulated precisely through their crimes against Byzantine Christians, even though he constantly vilifies the Byzantines.[30] The city of Constantinople is staged in Robert’s account as a mere refuge for Christianity in the East, filled with relics that they “stole” from churches across the old Roman Empire and now serving as a safe house for them.[31] Such texts seamlessly move between oscillating visions of Byzantium, while also coming to validate the irreparable destruction and looting of Constantinople that occurred in the thirteenth-century during the Latin occupation of the city as part of the Fourth Crusade.

As a late-fifteenth-century compilation, this incunable also helps validate the many relics and objects stolen from Constantinople itself, which now filled the treasuries of Western European churches in this period.[32] Not surprisingly, this work was printed less than two decades after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Hence, its title, History of the Campaign Against the Turks, places an important emphasis on its attack against the Turks, seeming to collapse the distinction between the First Crusade’s attack on the Seljuk Turks and the modern Ottoman Turks.

The fall of Constantinople on 29 May 1453 certainly produced a distinct mark on the Western imaginary, forcing a certain reevaluation of the place of the Byzantine Empire in the West’s dealings with the Ottomans and the various Islamic powers that they often monolithically collapsed into one.[33] During this period, we begin to see a shift in how Constantinople is evaluated in the eyes of the West, and while a wholly positive view of the empire is never fully embraced, we begin to see a rosier depiction of history. This history often glosses over the violence committed against Constantinople by Western Europeans, including but not limited to the Fourth Crusade in the thirteenth century,[89] when the city was sacked, looted, and occupied by Latin Crusaders for nearly sixty years.

After 1453, a series of laments composed for the loss of the city also emerges in the Greek-speaking world, staging the brutality of the Turks against the piety, trauma, and destitution of the Greeks. These texts present an apocalyptic vision of the fall, presenting Mehmed II (1432–1481) and the Turks as lawless “dogs,” feasting on the corpses of the slaughtered Byzantines, and marking the arrival of the Antichrist.[34] The sensationalist depiction of Constantinople’s fall is perhaps best captured in the depiction of the siege in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) of Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514) (Cat. No. 17) (Figure 3.1), produced just a few decades after the conquest. There, the flowing fluids from the central gate of the city seem to allude to the line in the chronicle’s text above, describing how: “So much blood was spilled that it ran through the city in rivulets.”[35]


Woodcut depicting an intricate landscape of Constantinople.
Figure 3.1
Hartmann Schedel, “Constantinople” in Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg, 1493, Newberry Library, VAULT oversize Inc. 2084

These hyperbolic depictions of the conquest fueled the Western imaginary, joining with other trends in early modern apocalypticism, to engender a particular construction of the fallen Constantinople as a symbol of Islamic and Turkish hegemony in the East. In the Newberry’s collection, this fact is best articulated in On the Future Triumphs of the Christians over the Saracens (1485) by Giovanni Nanni (1437–1502), dedicated to Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1470–1484).[36] Better known as Annius of Viterbo, Nanni was an Italian Dominican, whose many forgeries of genealogies and left a long lasting mark on the humanistic interests of the period.[37] In this commentary on the Apocalypse, Nanni aims to prove the inevitable reconquest of the Holy Land from the so-called “Saracens.”[38]

Nanni’s commentary attributes the fall of Constantinople to the Byzantines’ schism with the Latin Church. He states that the city fell to the Muslims because of a rebellion against the Roman Church, due to “a separation from obedience to the Roman pontiff.”[39] The conquest of the city by Christian forces was not only seen as inevitable, but contiguous with the Second Coming of Christ. In the text, the Prophet Mohammad is described as the Antichrist with Islam as the manifestation of the Beast.[40] Nanni is thus able to enfold Constantinople into a Western, Christian history, while still attributing its demise to having turned its back on the Latin church. Nevertheless, we are told that when the Pope manages to institute a Christian emperor in Constantinople, the city will be recovered and along with it all of Asia Minor and even Egypt, culminating in the return of “all the schismatic churches” (“omnes ecclesias schismaticas”) to Rome.[90] In other words, what we find in this text is the sense that in the end times, Constantinople will finally, at last, be properly Western.

In the centuries after the fall of Constantinople, we see a clear shift from a dismissive yet apocalyptic approach to the conquest, which then fades into a growing desire to and distinguish the Byzantine Empire as a discrete category. This discrete category of the “Byzantine Empire” is often attributed to Hieronymus Wolf (1516–1580) in the mid-fifteenth century, whose work on Byzantine history helped to popularize the term “Byzantium” through the publication of his Corpus Historiae Byzantinae from 1557 to 1562.[41] While the term has a complex history that extends beyond Wolf, this broader moment marks an overall shift in the historiography of the empire, less as a rupture and more as a consolidation of scholarly interest. Critically, Wolf’s project was bankrolled by the German merchant Anton Fugger (1493–1560), who saw in Byzantium a stalwart model for defending against the Ottoman Turks. Fugger’s investments in Byzantium were motivated by a desire to learn from Byzantine history how to resist the advances of the Ottomans during his own time.[42] Therefore, Byzantium became an object lesson for mediating Western anxieties about their place in the world, their relationship to history, and their international relations with the Ottoman Empire.

During the seventeenth century, we witness this rise in a scholarly interest in Byzantium, which not only came to categorize it as distinct and different from the ancient and Western Roman Empire, but also sought to understand its historical rise and fall. At the Newberry, we can witness elements of this history across various seventeenth-century publications that provide us with early, synthetic summaries of what we might today refer to as Byzantine history. From Venice, we have Giacomo Fiorelli’s The Monarchy of the East (1679), which traces the history of the Roman empire, beginning with Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) in 330 to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 under the rule of Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449–1453).[43] From Paris, we have the multivolume History of Constantinople (1672–1674) by Louis Cousin (1627–1707), which traces the history of the empire from the reign of Justin to “the end of the empire.”[44] This work is predominantly a collection of Byzantine sources covering the range of the empire through Byzantine writers, including Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500–565), Anna Komnena (1083- c. 1153/54), Niketas Choniates (c. 1155–1217), and Doukas (c. 1400–1462).

Translations of Byzantine texts into modern languages, however, were even scarcer. One notable exception is the translation into English of Procopius of Caesarea’s sixth-century text on Emperor Justinian’s wars by Sir Henry Holcroft in 1653, published in London as The History of the Warres of Emperour Justinian.[45] There, a detailed etching with engraving by Thomas Cross (active 1642–1682) serves as the frontispiece for the volume (Figure 3.2). At the top of the image, two angels crown a sculpted bust of Justinian with a laurel[92] crown. Justinian wears a Western crown and vaguely Roman attire, and the inscription of his name on the bust’s pedestal is written in Latin. The architecture is similarly Western, depicting a vaguely neo-classical façade, decorated with a draped banner featuring a brief table of contents for the book. The book is here divided into the Persian wars, the Vandal wars, and the Gothic wars. Below this, an apparent depiction of these three foes is shown below, as if coming out of a sewer. The figure on the left, perhaps depicting the Persian enemies, is shown wearing a contemporaneous Ottoman turban and his eyes are downcast. Beside these figures, towering over the scene, is Justinian’s military general, Belisarius (c. 505–565), on the far left. He looks across the page to his fellow Byzantine general, Narses (d. 605/6). Both Belisarius and Narses are clearly labeled, and they stand upon the trampled implements of their enemies. The weapons are purposely shown as crude and “primitive,” a rustic mace and flimsy shield, to emphasize the subjugation of their enemies. The Byzantines are shown here as resolutely Western; they are illustrated as white Europeans and styled as heroic soldiers with muscular limbs and towering stature.


Cover page of "The History of the Warres of the Emperour Justinian". The title is framed by Roman soldiers, Persian men, and angels crowning a bust of Justinian.
Figure 3.2
Henry Holcroft, Frontispiece of The history of the warres of the Emperour Justinian, London, 1653, Nebwerry Library, Case Y 642 .P82

In Sir Henry Holcroft’s frontispiece, we find the clearest iteration of the Byzantine Empire appropriated as fully Western and Christian, a process that appears to have occurred through the act of translation into a modern European language and through the Othering of the Byzantine’s enemies. It is in such moments when Islamic adversaries are Othered that[94] we find the clearest embrace of Byzantium as a Western, European power. The development of this process is hardly linear nor static, demonstrating that Byzantium served as a floating signifier that Western writers used to position themselves against the Islamic world ​—​ and, at times, other Christian groups in the East.

As we have seen here, the image of the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople was in flux throughout the medieval and early modern period. The stereotypes about the Empire developed by Western authors during the Middle Ages persisted, yet they were also strategically modified to confront early modern Western anxieties around the Ottoman Turks. The fraught iterations of Byzantium in the early modern period similarly persisted in how Western visitors to Istanbul imagined, Othered, and racialized the Ottoman city itself, contouring how they defined and projected the empires that shared that city as its capital.

Erotic / Exotic Istanbul

By Ambereen Dadabhoy

In the late spring of 1453 the military forces of the Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II (1432–1481), successfully laid siege to and conquered the imperial seat of the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. While other Islamicate forces had attempted to capture the city, most notably the Umayyads in the latter part of the seventh century, Constantinople would remain under European, Christian control until the mid-fifteenth century. Mehmet’s rousing campaign against the city reverberated across Europe because it signaled the bellicose arrival of the Ottomans into what had hitherto been ambivalently thought of as a European geography. While the conquest made the Ottomans the legitimate rulers of Constantinople, which they renamed Istanbul, it was framed as an existential danger to European powers, since the city offered a portal to further westward Ottoman expansion.[46] The explanations and rationales generated by Europeans for the conquest resorted to forms of racializing, not only of the Ottomans but also of the geography in ways that indicated their Otherness (through religion, ritual, and custom) and the geography’s Europeanness. This seeming contradictory and incoherent strategy underscores the shifting and contingent ways that race was being formed in the period and also points to the availability of race as a discourse through which to impose difference. Racial awareness, then, was a commonplace thing, particularly in early modern English and European discourses about Constantinople/Istanbul, the East, and the Ottomans.

The narratives that circulated around Mehmet II’s conquest of Constantinople provide the initial racializing material through which subsequent narratives about the empire and its practices would further develop and expand. First-person accounts of the events following the capture of Constantinople fervently remark upon Ottoman “cruelty,” “barbarity,” “violence,” and “.” They scrupulously allege the “rapacious” and “savage” nature of the Ottoman forces, from the lowliest soldier to the sultan. As translated and rehearsed in multiple European printed books, the fall of Constantinople portended the fall of Western civilization, with menacing foreign hordes eager to despoil the beauty of the city and its citizens. We find one such narrative in the History of Mehmed the Conqueror by Kritovolous (d. 1570), a Greek resident of Imbros who became part of the new Ottoman administration, yet still bemoaned the fall of Constantinople:

When they had had enough of murder, and the City was reduced to slavery, some of the troops turned to the mansions of the mighty, [ . . . ] for plunder and spoil. Others went to the robbing[95] of churches, and others dispersed to the simple homes of the common people, stealing, robbing, plundering, killing, insulting, taking and enslaving men, women, and children, old and young, priests, monks ​—​ in short, every age and class.[47]

From the European perspective, the fall of the city augured the advent of savagery and barbarism into the heart of European culture and civilization. Indeed, Kritovoulos compares the loss of Constantinople to the loss of other great imperial cities from which Western Europe draws its cultural inheritance including Troy, Babylon, Carthage, Rome, and Jerusalem. Locating Constantinople within this imperial itinerary exposes the cultural and psychic effects of the conquest. It simultaneously highlights Constantinople’s elevated position within the European cultural imaginary as vital to European self-fashioning as Europe. Ottoman control of Constantinople endangered not only those living in the confines of the city and its environs, but also it imperiled all of Europe since they now held an imperial seat in that geography.[48]

Kritovoulos’s History was dedicated to and written for the Sultan; therefore, his lament on the fall of Constantinople, which does agonize over the rapine of the city’s fair youth, is mild in its reproach. Other European writers, particularly those far from the action in Constantinople/ Istanbul do not exhibit the same reticence. The early modern discourses I examine below ​—​ produced during or after a Western European diplomatic embassy to Istanbul ​—​ offer more strident critiques of both the city’s capture by Ottoman forces and of Ottoman cultural and imperial practices. These accounts “discover” Ottoman difference through their social, political, and religious Otherness. These differences are further racialized through Ottoman occupation of Constantinople/Istanbul, because the city’s prior “European” history renders their control illegitimate. Geography, thus, intersects with the process of race-making, underscoring the claim that “racial formation shape[s] space, give[s] meanings to places, and condition[s] experiences of embodied subjects emplaced in and moving through the material world.”[49] In fact, even as the Ottomans are being racialized as non-white and non-European in their relation to Constantinople, the European diplomatic envoys to the imperial capital are being racialized as white and European through their ability to mark the Ottomans as Other to this geography.[50] The physical geography of Constantinople/Istanbul symbolizes endangered white European identity and reflects the whiteness of these writers even as the city and its cultural inheritance are being mobilized by the Ottomans to legitimate their claims to a new identity, to being the new “Caesars of Rome.”[51]

The two travelogues* I explore from the Newberry’s collection of early printed books on the Ottoman Empire include Nicolas de Nicolay’s (1517–1583) The Navigations, Peregrinations and Voyages Made into Turkie (1585) and Sir Paul Rycaut’s (1629–1700) The Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1668).[52] These texts coalesce around their shared European ambassadorial[96] missions into the Ottoman Empire and their subsequent knowledge-making projects, which frame the Ottoman Empire, its people, and its culture as totally foreign and Other to their own European Christian cultures and identities. The epistemic power of these texts imposes a racial frame upon the Ottoman Empire and its geographies ​—​ including Constantinople/Istanbul ​—​ that tidily aligns with the Orientalism undergirding these projects. These texts, the publication of each almost a century apart, attest to the of both racial formation and Orientalism and the strategic ways these discourses intersect in order to advance relations of epistemic power in situations where material power is often lacking. Constantinople/Istanbul becomes an important site/sight in these texts precisely because of its imperial history ​—​ past and present ​—​ and because its physical and cultural geography animates the alterity upon which these texts insist. Indeed, early modern European travel writing itself mandates such forms of difference. It is a discourse that demands the production of Otherness while simultaneously exerting control over that Otherness so that it becomes less threatening and can be domesticated. As Mary Louise Pratt explains in Imperial Eyes, such texts “created the imperial order for Europeans ‘at home’ and gave them their place in it. [ . . . ] They created a sense of curiosity, excitement, adventure, and even moral fervor about European expansionism. They were, [ . . . ] a key instrument, in other words, in creating the ‘domestic subject’ of empire.” [53] These travelogues elevated the power of the home audience, allowing them to apprehend the Other while also creating in them a shared white identity crafted through opposition with that Other. Geography plays a crucial role within this calculus because land and territory are central to imperial projects, through physical control and domination and through epistemic domination, as we witness in discourses such as travelogues, which contain various techniques of knowledge production including maps and images of foreign people. These texts bring the Other home, which allows for both the home and the Other to be racialized.

Nicolas de Nicolay’s The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages Made into Turkey appeared in English translation in 1585, almost twenty years after its publication in French and almost thirty years after the actual embassy into the Ottoman Empire that Nicolay chronicles.[54] Traveling to the Ottoman Empire in order to effect a diplomatic and military alliance between Henry II and Sultan Süleyman, Nicolay (1517–1583) was employed by his monarch in this capacity because of his proven military, cartographic, espionage, and diplomatic skills.[55] His Navigations rehearses some of those immediate reasons for the embassy, but its primary interest lies in making Ottoman alterity legible to his domestic audience. Divided into four parts, the Navigations relates the voyage to Istanbul via the Eastern Mediterranean, the customs and habits of Ottoman imperial subjects, the administrative bureaucracy of the empire, and Islamic religious practice. Wide and capacious in its investigations, the Navigations provides one of the earliest, most comprehensive, and authoritative European accounts of the Ottoman Empire. Its popularity, as exhibited through several print runs and translation into many European languages, identifies the European appetite for material on the Ottoman Empire, while also signaling the text’s epistemic authority on the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, the signature feature of the Navigations are the woodcuts that accompany Nicolay’s[97] narrative. The images of the manifold subjects under Ottoman dominion display both the empire’s alterity and its power to incorporate Others into its imperial body politic. Because travelogues traffic in knowledge and truth claims, the Navigations’ accompanying images inscribe, stabilize, and render knowable ​—​ controllable ​—​ Ottoman imperial Otherness. The images operate as an easily digestible shorthand for cultural and human difference, performing important race-work by accessing the visual register upon which race functions and depends. In offering embodied, physical images of the Other, Nicolay’s depictions also consolidate white, European, Christian identity ​—​ because that difference is easily distinguishable from the subjects on view in his text.

While the entirety of the Navigations is of interest to students and scholars of early modern racial formation, I focus on the representation of two geographies designated in these texts as particularly Ottoman: the harem and the hammam. The word harem in Arabic contains a double meaning: that which is sacred and that which is forbidden. As spatially manifested through the architecture of Islamicate geographies, the harem is a restricted and intimate domestic space, separated from other public rooms of the home. In the Ottoman imperial context, the harem was the private quarters of the sultan, where he could remove himself from the public and bureaucratic spaces of the sarayı or palace. The double meaning that the word holds is crucial to the spatial logics under which it operates, which is why in Islamicate regimes, the places of intimate, familial, and political relations were labeled as harems. The domestic or imperial harem operates under a similar ontological premise: the harem is the most closed and intimate site within the home or imperial palace, entrance to its domains highly restricted because it is the site of familial or imperial reproduction and longevity. The harem then is simultaneously a geographic locale and an ideological site, wherein the family or dynasty ensures its futurity. The harem was also the women’s quarters, occupied by the sultan’s mother and his concubines, in addition to the enslaved people such as Black eunuchs meant to patrol and oversee the security and sanctity of this domain.[56]

The harem’s gendered and racialized habitus rendered it a particularly exotic geography for European travelers and audiences. It became the site par excellence through which to locate Ottoman alterity. No man who was not the sultan or one of the Black eunuchs in charge of the harem could gain access to its environs. No visitors, no matter how important the diplomatic mission that brought them to the empire, would have been able to see the living arrangements of the sultan. The harem’s proscribed status transformed it into a site of lurid European fantasy. George Sandys’s (1578–1644) Relation of a Journey (1610), for example, depicts the women of the harem in semi-pornographic detail (Cat. No. 10). They were a site/sight he could only have accessed in his dreams, yet his account, with its accompanying engraving purports to relate truth.[57] In such an imaginary, the harem was a place where all manner of sexual deviance was thought to be practiced with furious gusto, and where perceived or projected Ottoman sexual liberty further served to differentiate and demonize Ottoman cultural and religious mores from those of Christian Europe. Indeed, the fact that the sultan’s concubines were commonly enslaved women from Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and other such geographies was both a cause of lament, because of the physical and sexual danger posed by the Ottoman Empire, and a source of cultural and ethnic value because the fairness and desirability of these women reflected their own superiority. Whiteness subtended both of these contradictory responses. Similarly, the hammam, or the public bathhouse, aroused related[98] anxieties and animated parallel prurient interest. The public bath was another sex-segregated space and one of the few locales that Ottoman women could gather outside of their homes. The hammam offered women freedom from surveillance and so became another site/sight in the masculinist European imaginary wherein to fix Ottoman moral laxity and cultural lewdness. Ottoman women, then, functioned as symbols for Ottoman difference. Their social position and the mandates of the sex-segregated spaces they occupied helped the writers of European travelogues exhibit Ottoman tyranny while also ascribing to Ottoman women the empire’s gendered and racial Otherness.

When Nicolay turns his attention to the imperial palace and to its many and varied inhabitants, including the women in the harem, he is offering up one of the sites/sights necessary to any discursive representation of the Ottoman Empire. The woodcut of “The great lady and wife vnto the Turk” (Figure 3.3) precedes this chapter, presenting the image of the wife of Sultan Süleyman, Hurrem Sultan or Roxolana as she was popularly called in the West. The portrait offers for popular consumption the figure of a woman who would rarely be seen outside of the imperial family, whose public movements were deliberately curated affairs of state, and whose power resided in guarding and controlling her image. In fact, the semblance of the image of the “The great lady and wife” to the actual Hurrem is quite doubtful; what is not doubtful is the European hunger for such images and knowledge about Ottoman women and their condition. Nicolay’s rehearsal of the site/sight of the harem performs the same ideological work as his woodcut. It activates the early modern European appetite for the exotic and erotic East, while also conjuring the discourse of whiteness to racialize the Ottomans as non-white both somatically and culturally. In the manner of Orientalist discourses, Nicolay’s harem description relates an already familiar narrative to his readers, of vulnerable white European women and of the boundless material and sexual excess of the Ottoman Empire:

whithin which do dwell the wiues & concubines of the great Turk, which in number are aboue 200. being the most part daughters of Christians, [ . . . ] presented vnto the great Turke, who keepeth them within this Sarail, wel apparrelled, nourished & entertained vnder streight keeping of the Eunuches, and euery ten of them haue a Matrone, too instruct, gouerne, and teach them too woorke all sorts of needle woorkes. The captaine of this Sarail called Capiangassi, is also an Eunuch or a gelded man, [ . . . ] he hath vnder him fortie Eunuches, which supply the common seruice of these Dames, of whiche the great Lorde taketh his pleasure when hee thinketh good: and if it so come too passe that any of them be gotten with childe, he causeth her to be separated from the other.[58]


Woodcut depicting a woman wearing a crown, an intricate dress, and a large necklace.
Figure 3.3
Nicolas de Nicolay, “Grand Dame Turque” (98r), Les navigations pérégrinations et voyages, faicts en la Turquie, Antwerp, 1576, Newberry Library, Wing ZP 5465 .S587

While Nicolay notes that the harem was a place of instruction for its occupants, where they were educated in various domestic arts, its primary function as the site of dynastic futurity is obscured by his emphasis on the geographic origins of the concubines in the sultan’s harem. As Leslie P. Peirce points out, “by the mid-fifteenth century, legal marriage had lapsed” within the Ottoman imperial household as a way to ensure dynastic lineage.[59] In its place was the widespread practice of concubinage and the elevated status granted to the mothers of the sultan’s children. The anonymous concubines we encounter in Nicolay’s narrative point to this practice, but their situation provokes anxiety in his text because it signals the military and regional power of the Ottoman Empire to acquire and incorporate Others into its imperial political body. In fact, the women’s incorporation signals an erasure of their ethnic and racial status since any children[99] they might give birth to will be Ottoman subjects and might one day rule the empire.

The political realities of the harem and its organization are elided; however, in favor of the shocking and spectacularly Other site/sight that the harem offers: a location of sexual excess and a space where one finds the exotic, unusual, and prodigious, such as the eunuchs that patrol its limits and grant access into its erotic domains. The “gelded men” favored by the Ottomans to control sexuality within the harem symbolize the sexual perversion that structures European representations of the Ottoman Empire and its geographies.[60] Near the end of his description, Nicolay admits that he has not himself observed the sites/sights through which he has titillated his audience; however, by befriending a eunuch, Zafer Aga, a “former Ragusan,” he is able to have his curiosity appeased and his eye-witness authority confirmed: Zafer Aga “satisfie[d] my mind, caused to be be clothed two publique Turkish women, with very rich apparrell, which hee sent for the Bezestan whereas there is too be solde of all sortes, by the which I made the draughtes and protractes heere represented vnto you.”[61] These Turkish sex workers are substitutes for the women in the harem ​—​ they are the ones Nicolay can access and through whom his entire description is sanctioned (Figure 3.4).


Engraving of a young woman in a layered jacket and dress. She wears her hair down and her head is covered by a cylindrical  hat.
Figure 3.4
Nicolas de Nicolay, “Fille de Ioye Turque” (270r), Les navigations pérégrinations et voyages, faicts en la Turquie, Antwerp, 1576, Newberry Library, Wing ZP 5465 .S587

Whatever discretion Nicolay exhibits in his relation of the harem disappears when his narrative arrives at the sex-segregated space of the hammam. Framed as a religious observance, the Islamic injunction to perform ablutions before prayers, the practice of bathing  still manages to find censure with Nicolay because his Christian religious position cannot allow any Islamic practice to have spiritual value: “And principally for, the obseruing of their law which commādeth y • no Muselmans shall enter into their Mosques▪ without they be first wel washed and purified, these brutish Barbarians esteeming of the outward washing, and not that which inwardly toucheth the soule.”[62] For Nicolay, such cleansing practices are further evidence of Islam’s fixation on the body and not the soul: from his perspective, a clean body and an unclean soul is a sign of Islamic spiritual bankruptcy and a racializing discourse which positions Islam as foul and dirty in contrast with the pristine and white truth of Christianity.

Nicolay advances this claim by meticulously detailing the “deviant” sexual practices that he believes Ottoman women indulge in at the hammam. He points out that Ottoman women are usually confined to their homes; therefore, visits to the hammam offer them freedom from the domestic and patriarchal spheres:

principalest reason is, to haue good occasion and honest excuse too goe abroade out of their houses, within the whiche they are continually closed vppe for the greate ielousie of theyr husbandes, or rather for the obseruing of the ancient custome of their ancetors, whiche after that sorte kepte theyr wiues & daughters closed vp in the backsides of their houses, which they cal Ginaises: so as the Turky women being shut vp without permission to go abroad, nor to appeare in the streets openly, except it be going to the bathes, wherto they ne•erthelesse goe with their faces couered too bring their Ielous husbands out of suspition, which continually so keepe them vnder subiection and closed in.[63]

Ottoman masculine tyranny, provocatively linked here to Greek social practice through Nicolay’s reference to the gynaeceum, sutures women’s confinement to this geography, naturalizing it through patriarchal lineage and custom. Like the sultan who pens up his concubines, Ottoman men, too, exhibit irrational “jealousy and suspicion” of their wives. While the narrative seems sympathetic to Ottoman women[101] and their “imprisoned” condition, Nicolay suggests that the fears of Ottoman men are well-founded, since Ottoman women are given to all manner of “unnatural” and “degenerate” sexuality:

somtimes they do go. 10. or 12. of them together, & somtimes more in a company aswel Turks as Grecians, & do familiarly wash one another, wherby it cōmeth to passe that amōgst the womē of Leuā, ther is very great amity proceding only through the frequentatiō & resort to y • bathes: yea & somtimes become so feruētly in loue the one of the other as if it were with men, in such sort that perceiuing some maidē, or woman▪ of excellēt beauty, they wil not ceasse vntil they haue found means to bath with thē, & to handle & gr•pe them euery where at their pleasures, so ful they are of luxuriousnes & feminine wantonnes.[64]

Same-sex desire, presented as “luxuriousnes & feminine wantonnes,” is another sign of Ottoman difference, which is particularly gendered. Nicolay presents his readers with aggressive and dangerous Ottoman women who embody irreligious and immoral sexuality. The site/sight of the hammam represents sexual inversion. By appropriating the masculine role and by cuckolding their husbands, Ottoman women usurp their social location within the patriarchal regime. Their hypersexuality destabilizes that regime by effeminizing Ottoman men. Thus, while Ottoman men seek to confine their women to sex-segregated spaces, those same locales endanger the stability of patriarchal rule. The site/sight Nicolay conjures performs race-work by rendering Ottoman women and their (imagined) desires as monstrous Others.[65] Thus, Nicolay’s descriptions of the sex-segregated spaces of the harem and the hammam establish Ottoman difference within the imbricating formations of race, gender, and religion. Their alterity resides primarily in cultural practices but simultaneously in Nicolay’s ability to fabricate their difference and locate it geographically. In this way, the Navigations actively participates in Orientalist discourse.

Almost a century later, Sir Paul Rycaut (1629–1700) traveled to the Ottoman Empire as the secretary to the Earl of Winchelsea on an ambassadorial mission from Charles II to Mehmet IV. Rycaut spent five years in Istanbul on that embassy and then more time in the Ottoman Empire as the general consul for the Levant Company.[66] By the time of the publication of The Present State of the Ottoman Empire in 1668, Rycaut was quite familiar with the social, cultural, political, and bureaucratic milieu of the Ottoman Empire, yet his text betrays a cultural akin to what we find in Nicolay.[67] Indeed, building on the tradition of writing about the Ottoman Empire from travelogues like Nicolay’s and histories like Richard Knolles’s (1545–1610) The Generall Historie of the Turkes (1603), Rycaut traverses familiar ground. The innovation of his text is in the virulent tropes of difference it harnesses to represent Ottoman Otherness.[68] Rycaut’s depictions of the harem illustrate how this site/sight conjures difference by harnessing and establishing racialized tropes of Ottoman identity. His account of the harem differs in significant ways from his predecessor’s through its focus on the lives of historical Ottoman women. Writing in the latter half of the[103] seventeenth century, Rycaut narrates the realities of imperial life under the so-called “sultanate of women,” a period of political upheaval in the empire when the mothers of the reigning sultan exerted an outsized influence over their sons and therefore over official imperial policy.[69] The shadow rule of women was met with deep criticism in elite Ottoman political circles and led to the murder of the sultan’s mother Kösem in 1651 by his concubine, Turhan, and her allies.[70] Rycaut presents this intrigue in his book; however, it operates in service of his larger claims about the misrule practiced by this woman-led shadow government:

For in the time of Sultan Mahomet, the present Grand Signior, when the whole government of the Empire rested in the hands of one Mulki Kadin, a young audacious woman, by the extraordinary favour and love of the Queen Mother (who, as it was divulged, exercised an unnatural kind of carnality with the said Queen) so that nothing was left to the counsel and order of the Visier and grave Seniors, but was first to receive approbation and authority from her; the black Eunuchs and Negroes gave laws to all, and the cabinet councels were held in the secret appartments of the women; and there were proscriptions made, Officers discharged, or ordained as were most proper to advance the interest of this Feminine Government.[71]

Rycaut’s “feminine government” is both gendered and racialized: its deviance lies in the same-sex desire he attributes to the valide sultan (queen mother) and the concubine, Mulki. Moreover, the power that the Black eunuchs exert over administrators in the palace serves as another source of agitation for Rycaut. Political power in the hands of women and Black men can only be suspect and illegitimate.[72] Thus, the remedy for this unnatural rule was the restoration of power into appropriately masculine hands. At the same time, however, Rycaut emphasizes how even this action served to undermine the power of the sultan:

But at length, the souldiery (not used to the tyranny of women) no longer supporting this kind of servitude, in a moment resolved on a remedy, and in great tumults came to the Seraglio, where commanding the Grand Signior himself to the Kiosch, or banquetting-house, demanded without further prologue the heads of the favourite Eunuchs; there was no argument or Rhetorick to be opposed to this unreasonable multitude.[73]

The sultan’s power is eroded on all sides: from his mother on the one hand, and from his subordinates on the other. Rycaut’s narrative signals the deterioration in the masculine power of the sultan.

The decline of the empire as embodied by the effeminate figure of the sultan is ironically reiterated through Rycaut’s relation of the degenerate sexuality to be found in the harem, which includes same-sex desire between men as well as the deeply ritualized sexual escapades between the sultan and his concubines. Taken together, these enslaved people represent the racial and cultural alterity of the empire, particularly as it seeks to incorporate Others into itself, but they are also sites/sights in themselves, spectacles of human difference. Before arriving at the doors of the imperial harem filled with beautiful enslaved Christian women, Rycaut pauses on the other important inhabitants of the harem that includes the beautiful youths also captured and enslaved from the empire’s Christian territories, and the dwarves, mutes, and eunuchs who function as oddities and objects of interest for his domestic[104] audience. About the enslaved youths, Rycaut points out how the sex-segregated living arrangements of the imperial palace contribute to same- sex desire, which is not confined to desire between the youths only, but also implicates the sultan:

The Grand Signiors themselves have also been slaves to this inordinate passion. For Sultan Morat became so enamoured of an Armenian Boy called Musa as betrayed him, though otherwise a discreet Prince, to a thousand follies; and at another time preferred a youth for his beauty only from the Novitiate of Galata, to be one of the Pages of his Haz-Oda or Chamber of his Royal Presence, and in a short time made him Silahtar Aga or Sword-bearer, one of the greatest Offices in the Seraglio. And this present Sultan became so enamoured of a Canstantinopolitan youth, one of the Pol, called Kulogli, or Son of a slave, that he made him his chief Favourite, never could content himself without his Company, Clothed him like himself, made him ride by his side, commanded all to present and honour him, in the same manner as if he had made him Companion of the Empire.[74]

Rycaut’s account of Ottoman sultans’ passion for Christian youth points to the desirability of white men and the depravity of the sultan. The usurpation of rank effected by the sultan’s desire indicates disorder within the imperial political body, just as the same-sex desire suggests disorder from . The sultans’ desire, which is not confined to one particular sultan, demonstrates inherited “degeneracy.” By politicizing the sexual practices of Islamicate regimes, Rycaut participates in a long Orientalist tradition that accuses Muslims of sodomy and other same-sex acts in an effort to delegitimize their religion as well as their political regimes.[75] In this case, sex acts, religion, and race corroborate Ottoman Otherness.

Rycaut further mobilizes sexual and racial difference when he finally arrives at the site/sight of the women’s quarters of the harem. Knowing full well that his exegesis upon the empire and its composition would be incomplete without a rehearsal of the “delights” of the harem, Rycaut, tongue-in-cheek notes that he has brought his readers to “the door,” and that it would violate his readers’ expectations if he did “not introduce [them] into those apartments, where the Grand Signiors Mistresses are lodged: And though I ingenuously confess my acquaintance there (as all other my conversation with Women in Turky [sic]) is but strange and unfamiliar; yet not to be guilty of this discourtesie.”[76] Rycaut admits his ignorance on the matter of Ottoman women and especially on the occupants of the sultan’s harem; however, his lack of knowledge does not stop him from contributing to knowledge about the Ottoman Empire and its customs. Indeed, he needs no first-hand knowledge on this subject because, as Edward Said records:

Every writer on the Orient (and this is true even of Homer) assumes some Oriental precedent, some previous knowledge of the Orient, to which he refers and on which he relies. Additionally, each work on the Orient affiliates itself with other works, with audiences, with institutions, with the Orient itself. The ensemble of relationships between works, audiences, and some particular aspects of the Orient therefore constitutes an analyzable formation.[77]

Rycaut depends on the citationality of European discourses on the harem to construct his own narrative.[105] The harem functions as a necessary trope to articulate the authenticity and veracity of his narrative. Rehearsing this narrative proves Rycaut’s epistemic power; therefore, it becomes a requisite trope of European travel and diplomatic writing about the Ottoman Empire.

Rycaut’s harem is prefaced with the acknowledgment that these women are enslaved, stolen from their homelands to serve at the erotic pleasure of the sultan. Within this reminder, Rycaut raises the racial dimension of Ottoman concubinage:

here an army of Virgins make it the only study and business of their life to obtain the single nod of invitation to the Bed of their great Master. The Reader then must know that this Assembly of fair Women (for it is probable there is no other in the Seraglio) are commonly prizes of the Sword, taken at Sea and at Land, as far fetched as the Turk commands, or the wandering Tartar makes his excursions, composed almost of as many Nations as there are Countries of the world; none of which are esteemed worthy of this Preferment, unless beautiful and undoubted Virgins.[78]

As Kim F. Hall argues, “fair” is a racially freighted term, indicating moral and aesthetic qualities that coalesce around whiteness and the desirable body of the white woman. Fairness secures futurity because dynastic discourses demand fair women to ensure the generation of the community. In early modern texts fairness is often made visible through tropes of blackness.[79] We observe this process in the troped harem through its emphasis on the beauty of enslaved white European Christian women and the presence of Black eunuchs. Rycaut’s focus here is on the reach of Ottoman sexual tyranny: the women who populate the sultan’s seraglio are taken from far and wide “at Sea and a Land,” suggesting total Ottoman control of the geography surrounding their empire.

Both Rycaut and Nicolay evoke feminine Ottoman geographies for their readers to satisfy the prurient curiosity about these forbidden spaces, which simultaneously exert discursive control over the subjects and places about which they are writing. These texts display a form of early modern Orientalism by attempting to fix the gendered and racial Otherness of the Ottoman Empire in its sex-segregated spaces. While Nicolay’s Navigations contains a more neutral or documentary tone, Rycaut’s Present State makes no such attempts. Difference as demonization marks Rycaut’s ideological investment in his ethnographic study of the Ottoman Empire. We might attribute the shift in tone and aim between Nicolay and Rycaut as one of historical contingency and material power. Nicolay’s visit to Istanbul was during the reign of Sultan Süleyman, called “the Magnificent” in Europe, while Rycaut was writing during a period when Europeans foresaw (or hoped for) the decline of Ottoman imperial power. Tethered to the many cultural and religious differences of the Ottoman Empire, Rycaut’s focus on women and other marginalized identities underscores its imminent demise, while Nicolay’s text makes no such claims.

The Istanbul represented in early modern European and English travel writing (itself a problematic generic label, given the diplomatic purposes of the texts I have investigated) produce a geography firmly ensconced in familiar notions of the “East.” It exhibits the traits and stereotypes that popularly circulated about Ottoman culture: its violence and barbarism on the one hand, and its luxurious carnality on the other. These texts find the East as they expected to encounter it. In other words, the Istanbul of these texts corroborates their popular belief, and that confirmation supports the epistemological power of their representations. While buttressing the authority of these writers to make knowledge about the Ottoman Other, these discourses also function as racializing projects wherein they construct racial difference in non-white Others and racial normativity and hegemony[106] in their target audiences. Within such processes of racial formation, geography becomes an important arena through which to exert power. Texts about foreign, non-European geographies are always texts that engage in race-making and in promoting the interests of imperial domination. Geography is the ground upon which these discourses construct identity and difference. Because of its own unstable geographic position, straddling both Asia and Europe, Constantinople/Istanbul is a slippery geography, escaping attempts to fix its identity as Western or Eastern. It is precisely because of its fluidity that the discourses charted above perform extraordinary race-work in order to ensure that the city remains Other to the white European self.

  1. We use Constantinople/Istanbul here to signal the dual cultures and empires that we are discussing. When we move to specific Byzantine and Ottoman regimes, we will use Constantinople or Istanbul, as appropriate. 
  2. We follow the groundbreaking work of Omi and Winant here, with their development and theorizing of the theory of racial formation: “We define racial formation as the sociohistorical process by which racial identities are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed.” Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed., (London: Routledge, 2014), 109. 
  3. Stuart Hall, “Race, the Floating Signifier: What More Is There to Say about “Race?” eds. Stuart Gilroy and Paul Gilmore, Selected Writings on Race and Difference (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 359–73. 
  4. In Habeas Viscus, Alexander G. Weheliye notes that racial assemblages are the “conglomerate of sociopolitical relations that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans,” Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 3. 
  5. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–14,; Kim F. Hall, “I Can’t Love This the Way You Want Me To: Archival Blackness,” postmedieval 11, no. 2 (2020): 171–79
  6. Tim Cresswell, “Defining Place,” Place: A Short Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Ltd, 2004), 7. 
  7. Gillian Rose, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 140–41. 
  8. David Delaney. “The Space that Race Makes.” The Professional Geographer 54, no. 1 (2002): 7,
  9. Cyril Mango, “Constantinople,” Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. Alexander Kazhdan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). 
  10. On the lands of Rum, see Cemal Kafadar, “A Rome of One’s Own: Reflections on Cultural Geography and Identity in the Lands of Rum,” Muqarnas 24 (2007): 7–26, On Third Rome, see Dimitri Strémooukhoff, “Moscow the Third Rome: Sources of the Doctrine,” Speculum 28, no. 1 (1953): 84–101,; Robert Lee Wolff, “The Three Romes: The Migration of an Ideology and the Making of an Autocrat,” Daedalus 88 (1959): 291–311,; Donald Ostrowski, “‘Moscow the Third Rome’ as Historical Ghost,” in Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557): Perspectives on Late Byzantine Art and Culture, ed. Sarah T. Brooks (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006), 170–79. On contemporary Russian politics and Byzantium, see Theodore Christou, “The Byzantine History of Putin’s Russian Empire,” The Conversation, March 15, 2018,
  11. For the most overarching study of Byzantium and the West in the early Middle Ages, see Michael McCormick, “Byzantium and the West, 700–900,” chap. 14 in The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2, ed. Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 349–80. 
  12. “Imperatoris et augusti nomen accepit . . . Invidiam tamen suscepti nominis, Romanis imperatoribus super hoc indignantibus, magna tulit patientia.” Einhard, Vita Karoli, 28, trans. Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Courtier: The Complete Einhard (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1998), 33–34. 
  13. “Constantinopolitanis imperatoribus.” Vita et gesta Karoli Magni, Chicago, Newberry Library, Case E 5.C37122, p. 33. 
  14. On this sixteenth-century Humanist, see Charles G. Nauert, Jr., “Graf Hermann von Neuenahr and the Limits of Humanism in Cologne,” Historica Reflections 15, no. 1 (1988): 65–79. 
  15. “Tum sapiens ille Francigena, vanissima Hellade in suis sedibus exsusperata, victor et sanus in patrium suam reversus est.” Notker the Stammerer, De gestis Karoli, 2.6, trans. David Ganz, Two Lives of Charlemagne (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 152–53. 
  16. On this event, see Patricia Skinner, Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 77. 
  17. Notker the Stammerer, De gestis Karoli, 2.6, trans. Ganz, Two Lives, 153. 
  18. Monachi sangallensis De gestis Karoli imperatoris libri duo, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, vol. 2 (Hanover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1829), 750. 
  19. See William Miller Thomas Gamble, “The Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Its Antecedents and Motives,” The Catholic Historical Review 10, n. 2 (1924): 202–33,
  20. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, 6.4–5, trans. Paolo Squatriti, The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona (Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 197–98. 
  21. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, 5.16, trans. Squatriti, Complete Works, 181. 
  22. “Ottones Romanorum invictissimos imperatores augustos.” Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, 5.16, trans. Squatriti, Complete Works, 119 and 123. 
  23. Liudprand of Cremona, Embassy, trans. Squatriti, Complete Works, 238. 
  24. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, 5.16, trans. Squatriti, Complete Works, 119. 
  25. “hominem satis monstruosum, pygmaeum, capite pinguem . . . barba curta, lata, spissa et semicana foedatum . . . colore Aethiopem, cui per mediam nolis occurrere noctem.” Liudprand of Cremona, Embassy, 3, trans. Squatriti, Complete Works, 240. 
  26. Juvenal, Satires, 6, ed. and trans. Susanna Morton Braund, Juvenal and Persius, Loeb Classical Library 91 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 290–91. 
  27. On race in antiquity, see Denise Eileen McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and its Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Frank M. Snowden Jr., Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), and Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983). See also Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, 3 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987–2006). 
  28. Luitprandi Subdiaconi Toletani Ticinensis Diaconi tandem Cremonensis Episcopi Opera quae extant: Chronicon et adversaria nunc primum in lucem exeunt, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, vol. 2 (Hanover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1829), 136. On the frontispiece after Rubens, see Nils Büttner, “Rubens’s Legacy in Book Design,” Gateways to the Book: Frontispieces and Title Pages in Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 422–48. 
  29. Robert of Reims, Hystoria de Itinere [con]tra turchos (Cologne: Printer of Dares Johannes Solidi, ca. 1472), Chicago, Newberry Library, Inc. 998. 
  30. See Robert of Reims, Historia Hierosolymitana, trans. Carol Sweetenham, Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade (London: Routledge, 2005). 
  31. Cf. Robert of Reims, Historia Hierosolymitana, 20, trans. Sweetenham, History of the First Crusade, 101–2. 
  32. On the loot of Byzantine relics and reliquaries, see Holger A. Klein, “Eastern Objects and Western Desires: Relics and Reliquaries between Byzantium and the West,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004): 283–314,
  33. On this matter, see Nancy Bisaha, Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). 
  34. On the “Lament for Constantinople” (Ανακάληµα της Κωνσταντινόπολης) and for a translation, see Eleni Kefala, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2020), 27–70. 
  35. “tanta sanguinis effusion facta, ut rivi cruoris per urbem currerent.” Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum (Augsburg: Johann Schönsperger, 1497), Chicago, Newberry Library, Inc. 1786, plate 249. 
  36. Giovanni Nanni, Tractatus de futuris Christianoru[m] triumphis in Sarcenos Magistri Johannis Viterbiensis (Nuremberg: Peter Wagner, ca. 1485), Chicago, Newberry Library, Inc. 2227. 
  37. On Giovanni Nanni, see Giuseppe Marcocci, The Globe on Paper: Writing Histories of the World in Renaissance Europe and the Americas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 31–32. See also Roberto Weiss, “Traccia per una biografia di Annio da Viterbo,” Italia medioevale e umanistica 5 (1962): 425–41. 
  38. On the usage of the term, see Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, “The Depoliticized Saracen and Muslim Erasure,” Literature Compass 16, no. 9–10 (2019): e12548,
  39. “schismata ab obediential romani pontifices.” Nanni, Tractatus de futuris, Newberry Library, Inc. 2227. 
  40. For an overview of the text, see Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol. 4 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934), 263–67.
  41. On Hieronymus Wolf, see Diether Roderich Reinsch, “Hieronymus Wolf as Editor and Translator of Byzantine Texts,” in The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture Since 1500, eds. Przemysław Marciniak and Dion C. Smythe, 43–53 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2017). See also Anthony Grafton, “Western Humanists and Byzantine Historians,” in The Invention of Byzantium in Early Modern Europe, eds. Nathanael Aschenbrenner and Jake Ransohoff (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2021), 71–104. 
  42. See Hans-Georg Beck, “Hieronomus Wolf,” in Ideen und Realitäten in Byzanz: gesammelte Aufsaetze, 169–93 (London: Variorum, 1972). 
  43. Giacomo Fiorelli, La monarchia d’Oriente del padre maestro Giacomo Fiorelli . . . comincia da Costantino ‘l Grande nell’ anno CCCXXX e termina in Costantino Paleologo nell’ anno MCCCCLIII. Alla sacra cesarea maesta’ di Leopoldo Avstriaco avgvsto (Venice: D. Milocco, 1679), Chicago, Newberry Library, folio F 325.301. 
  44. Louis Cousin, Histoire de Constantinople, depuis le régne de l’ancien Justin, jusqu’à la fin de l’empire (Paris: Chez Damien Foucault, 1672–1674), Chicago, Newberry Library, F 325.21. 
  45. Procopius, The history of the warres of the Emperour Justinian, trans. Henry Holcroft (London: H. Moseley, 1653), Chicago, Newberry Library, Case Y 642.P82. 
  46. Pinar Emiralioğlu points out that the Ottomans commonly slipped between Constantinople and Istanbul when they referred to the city. Pinar Emiralioğlu, Geographical Knowledge and Imperial Culture in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (London: Routledge, 2016), 1. 
  47. Michael Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror. By Kritovoulos, trans. Charles T. Riggs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 72. 
  48. It might seem that we are being quite flexible with our use of Europe and European, but in these premodern texts, we encounter this precise framing of this geography. For example, Kritovoulos points out that when Mehmet travels to Bursa he is going out of Europe (Byzantium) and into Asia. The boundaries between East and West; Europe and Asia are drawn along cultural lines as much as they are geographic. 
  49. Delaney, “Space that Race Makes,” 7. 
  50. Delaney, 7. 
  51. Jerry Brotton, Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 90. 
  52. Nicolas de Nicolay, The Navigations, Peregrinations and Voyages, Made into Turky, by Nicholas Nicholay Dualphinois, Lord of Arfeuile, Chamberlain and Geographer in Ordinary to the King of France: Containing Sundry Singularities Which the Author Hath There Seen and Observed: Divided into Four Books, with Divers Fair and Memorable Histories, Which Happend in Our Time in Collection of Voyages and Travels, ed. Thomas Osborne, (T. Osborne, 1747), 10920 v. 7. Paul Rycaut, The history of the present state of the Ottoman Empire: containing the maxims of the Turkish polity, the most material points of the Mahometan religion, their sects and heresies, their convents and religious votaries: their military discipline, with an exact computation of their forces both by sea and land: illustrated with divers pieces of sculpture representing the variety of habits amongst the Turks: in three books (London: Printed for R. Clavell, J. Robinson and A. Churchill., 1686), Chicago, Newberry Library. F 59 .764. The editions cited in this essay were accessed from Early English Books Online, Nicolas de Nicolay, The nauigations, peregrinations and voyages, made into turkie by nicholas nicholay daulphinois, lord of arfeuile, chamberlaine and geographer ordinarie to the king of fraunce conteining sundry singularities which the author hath there seene and obserued: Deuided into foure bookes, with threescore figures, naturally set forth as well of men as women, according to the diuersitie of nations, their port, intreatie, apparrell, lawes, religion and maner of liuing, aswel in time of warre as peace: With diuers faire and memorable histories, happened in our time. translated out of the french by T. washington the younger (London, At the cost of John Stell] by Thomas Dawson, 1585), (accessed December 10, 2021). 
  53. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 2007), 3. 
  54. The Navigations provide a rich resource into early modern European construction of cultural, racial, and religious difference beyond that of Christian and Muslim. Kaplan and Katz’s essay in this volume, Fashioning Racial Materiality in Nicolas de Nicolay’s Representations of Jews (pp.–pp.), explores The Navigations’ representation of Jewish identity. 
  55. Marcus Keller, “Nicolas de Nicolay’s ‘Navigations’ and the Domestic Politics of Travel Writing,” L’Esprit Créateur 48, no. 1 (2008): 18–31,
  56. Leslie P. Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); for an analysis of queer and racialized labor within the Ottoman harem, see Abdulhamit Arvas, “Early Modern Eunuchs and the Transing of Gender and Race” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 19, no. 4 (2019): 116–36.
  57. For more on Sandys’ depiction of women in the harem, see George Sandys, Richard Field, and William Barrett, A Relation of a Iourney Begun an. Dom. 1610: Foure Bookes, Containing a Description of the Turkish Empire of Aegypt, of the Holy Land, of the Remote Parts of Italy and Ilands Adioyning. (London: Printed for W. Barrett, 1615), Chicago, Newberry Library LC: 20011267. 
  58. Nicolay, Nauigations, trans. Washington, 189. 
  59. Pierce, Imperial Harem, 29. 
  60. Jane Hathaway, The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Harem: From African Slave to Power-Broker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2018. 
  61. Nicolay, Nauigations, trans. Washington, 197. 
  62. Nicolay, Nauigations, trans. Washington, 204. 
  63. Nicolay, Nauigations, trans. Washington, 206
  64. Nicolay, Nauigations, Trans. Washington, 207. 
  65. Hall, Things of Darkness, 153–60. 
  66. Linda T. Darling, “Ottoman Politics through British Eyes: Paul Rycaut’s The Present State of the Ottoman Empire,” Journal of World History 5, no. 1 (1994): 71–73,
  67. Rycaut, History, Newberry Library 57–290. The edition cited in this essay was accessed from Early English Books Online, Sir Paul Rycaut, 1628–1700, The present state of the ottoman empire containing the maxims of the turkish politie, the most material points of the mahometan religion, their sects and heresies, their convents and religious votaries, their military discipline . . . : Illustrated with divers pieces of sculpture, representing the variety of habits amongst the turks, in three books / by paul rycaut esq . . . (London, Printed for John Starkey and Henry Brome .., 1668), (accessed December 10, 2021). 
  68. Richard Knolles, The Generall Historie of the Turkes, from the First Beginning Ofthat Nation to the Rising of the Othoman Familie: With All the Notable Expeditions of the Christian Princes Against Them (London: Printed by A. Islip, 1603), Chicago, Newberry Library Case F 59 .463. 
  69. Pierce, Imperial Harem, 65. 
  70. Pierce, 24. 
  71. Rycaut, History, 10–11. 
  72. As observed in the catalogue entry in this volume on Jean Racine’s 1672 play Bajazet (Cat. No. 34), women and Black eunuchs were cause for much sexual and political anxiety in the early modern European imaginary. 
  73. Rycaut, History, 11. 
  74. Rycaut, 33 
  75. Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1980), 144. For more on Islamic, Moorish, or Ottoman sexuality, see Ian Smith, “The Queer Moor: Bodies, Borders, and Barbary Inns,” in A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, ed. Jyotsna G. Singh, 190–204, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 60 (Oxford: Wiley–Blackwell, 2009); Abdulhamit Arvas, “Leander in the Ottoman Mediterranean: The Homoerotics of Abduction in the Global Renaissance,” English Literary Renaissance 51, no. 1 (2021): 31–62,
  76. Rycaut, History, 38. 
  77. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 20. 
  78. Rycaut, History, 38–39. 
  79. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 3–24. 


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