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three pairs of lovers with space



John Covel (1638-1722) was an English clergyman who was in Constantinople from 1670 to 1677 as Chaplain to the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and went on to spend his last thirty-four years as Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge. During his time in Turkey, he compiled a series of diaries, from which is taken the following account of young male dancers at the imperial festivities held by the “Grand Signor” (meaning the Sultan, Mehmed IV) in Adrianople in May 1675 in honour of the circumcision of his son Mustafa.

Dr. Covel’s diaries have never been published in full.  The nearest to that is the expurgated version of them published by the Hakluyt Society in 1893,[1] but this has the odd significant misreading, as well as being expurgated. The extracts presented here are taken from the original manuscript in the British Library.[2]


Folios 152-153

Dr. Covel by Claude Laudius Guynier, 1716

After these dances and sports were over, about midnight (as is said), began very excellent fireworks of all sorts, which continued towards morning, and then all retired to their repose. Now for the dances and sports. You must understand that from all parts of the Empire were summon’d all (his subjects), Jewes, greekes, Arabs, Armenians, Turkes, etc., that were any wayes excellent for any sports or entertainements of delight, and truely I doe not believe these Eastern Countreys can afford any thing more in that kind then what I have seen here. First, your dancers were for the most part young youths, very handsome generally; most greekes, yet some were Turkes, Armenians, and a few Jewes. The best were clothed very rich, either cloth of Gold, silver, or rich silk. They had on a just a corp, as we say, a Gestico coming to mid thigh, close button’d at the hands, and girt about them with rich girdles as their purse and fancy led them; under it (over the rest of their cloth’s) they had a petticoat, which was very large, and hang’d very full, down to their ankles, this was very rich, and of some pretty light merry colour; these clothes were given them by the G. Sr., or Sultana. Their heads are not shaven quite close, but very lovely locks are left round, which at other times they were up close and unseen, but now they let them down, and set them out to best advantage, sometimes disshevel’d all about their shoulders, sometimes braided and hanging at their back. They commonly wore over their hair a plain cap of silk (small, or scull fashion’d) or (which is more gentile) a fur’d sort of Cap, cal’d here a culpáck. There was a delicate lovely boy, about 10 yeares old, had as comely head of hair, long as most women. With him danc’t a lusty handsome man (about 25), both Turkes; they acceded all the roguish lascivious postures conceivable with that strange ingenuity of silent ribaldry, as I protest I believe Sardanapalus[3] and all the effeminate courts of the East never came near them. They pleased so extreamly, tht there was scarce an night but they acted in some place or other. I saw them severall times before the Sultana doe as much as anywhere else. The rest danc’d 4. 6, sometimes 8 in a company. It consists most in wriggling the body (a confounded wanton posture and speakes as much of the Eastern leachery as dumb signs can), slipping their steps round gently; setting and turning; […]

Musicians and dancers (The Surname-I Hümayun (Imperial Festival Book), ca. 1720)

Next there were many actors of little playes or enterludes, all in the most beastly brutish language possible, as I was sufficiently informed by my companions, and there actions fully confirmed it; it being a most common thing for the Buffoon or Tom fool to represent (as is abovesaid) the damnable act of buggery in the grossest manner possible, with men, boyes, & beasts, whereof in shew came in many, many; Lyons, Dogs, wolvebeares, Leopards, stages, & c., men being in their skins and acting upon all fours. The sight truelly always was pleasant, onely those beastly actions were horrible, and yet they were repeated almost every night; I saw this once before the G. Sr. himself with great and generall applause.


[1] "Dr. John Covel's Diary" (1670–1679), in Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant, edited, with an introduction and notes, by J. Theodore Bent (London, 1893).

[2] British Library Add Ms. 22912, folios 152-3.

[3] Sardanapalus was, according to an unhistorical account of ancient Greek origin, the last Assyrian King, and legendary for his decadence.




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