‘The Christian travellers most familiar with oriental life have passed very opposite judgements on the nature and effect of the harem system. Lady Mary Montagu, who visited the harems of the great officers of the Turkish empire, has left gorgeous pictures of what she saw. She describes the harems as glittering with splendor and inhabited by lovely girls magnificently attired, leading a gay and happy life.
Harriet Martineau, who visited some harems of the higher class in Cairo and Damascus in 1847, gives a very different picture. In a harem at Cairo she found 20 women, some slaves, nearly all young, some good-looking, but none handsome. Some were black, Nubians or Abyssinians, and the rest Circassians with very light complexions. She saw no trace of intellect in these women, except in a homely old one. Their ignorance she describes as fearful, and their grossness as revolting.
At Damascus she saw the seven wives of three men in one harem, with a crowd of attendants. Of the seven, two had been the wives of the head of the household, who was dead; three were the wives of his eldest son, aged 22; and the remaining two were the wives of his second son, aged 15. Of the five younger, three were sisters, children of different mothers in the same harem. They smoked, drank coffee and sherbet, sang to the accompaniment of a tambourine, danced in an indecent manner, and all the while romping, kissing, and screaming went on among old and young. She pronounces them the most studiously depressed and corrupted women she ever saw.’
– Ripley. G., Dana. C.A., Ed. (1879) The American Cyclopædia – A Popular Dictionary Of General Knowledge New York, United States: D. Appleton and Company (Entrance: “Harem” [between “Hare Lip” and “Harfleur”], written by Parke Godwin).