Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the empire.
Montagu to Lady Mar, 1 April 1717
I allow you to laugh at me for the sensual declaration that I had rather be a rich effendi with all his ignorance than Sir Isaac Newton with all his knowledge.
Montagu to Abbe Conti, Constantinople, 19 May 1718.
Historical narratives, like the imperial chronicles, have been dominated by men where either women remain absent, or appear in marginal references unless they are the subject matter themselves and seemingly liable to objectification. In their own times, several women had been travelling to distant lands though, proportionately, left fewer writings for posterity. Amongst some notable names we read about include known queens and scholars such as Queen Sheba of Yemen/Ethiopia (tenth century BC), Queen Cleopatra (69–30 BC), Rabia Basri (731–801), Fatima al-Fihri (800–880) Gulbadan Begum (1523–1603) and Nawab Sikandar Jahan Begum (1817–1868). Colonialism enabled a fair number of European women to visit and write about non-European communities. In cases of the Ottomans, Safawids, Mughals, East Asians and Africans these literary, religious and biographical writings offer ample evidence of interaction across the cultural boundaries. Women like Gertrude Bell (1868–1926), who explored and mapped Syria and Mesopotamia, Freya Stark (1893–1993), who travelled within the Muslim World and wrote about the Middle East and Afghanistan, and Alexandrine Tinne (1835–1869), who was the first European woman to cross the Sahara, socialised with Muslims in their own ways playing vital roles in contemporary developments while stipulating a multi-layered bonhomie.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762), English writer and poet, is amongst the earliest European women to engage with Muslims. Her travels across the three continents, encounters with the Turks in the Balkans, Adrianople, Constantinople and further south contextualise her mostly positive views of Muslims. She was born in Holme Pierrepont Hall in Nottinghamshire soon after the English Civil War, the Great Fire of London and the widespread fatalities caused by the plague, particularly in London. The first child of Evelyn Pierrepont, the Duke of Hull-Upon-Kingston, (d. 1726) who was to become Lord Dorchester, and Mary Fielding (d. 1692), Mary Montagu was the eldest among three siblings raised by her paternal grandmother until she was nine. Following her mother’s death, when she was just four, Mary spent the next few years in Wiltshire with her grandmother and compensated for her unhappiness there by reading avariciously. Taken into her father’s care and not enamoured of her governess, she turned to learning Latin and writing poetry – largely male domains – and by 1695 had already written a short novel and two collections of poetry. Moving between Wiltshire and Nottinghamshire, Montagu refused to marry Clotworthy Skeffington, her father’s choice for a suitor, and instead opted for eloping with Edward Wortley Montagu and married this aristocrat-entrepreneur in 1712 in Salisbury. In 1713, Montagu gave birth to a son, moved to London, and soon became a socialite known for her beauty, sense of independence, literary genius and sociability. Her circles included King George I, the Hanoverian king of England, Lady Walpole, Lord and Lady Hervey, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, Mary Astell, John Gay, Abbe Antonio Conti and Alexander Pope. In 1715, Mary Montagu contracted smallpox but survived, though the epidemic did leave its scars without diminishing her physical charms, self-confidence and social mobility. The following year, her husband was appointed as the British Ambassador to Constantinople and she accompanied him to the Near East passing through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Serbia before reaching Adrianople and then the Ottoman metropolis. While still in Constantinople, she gave birth to a daughter in January 1718 and returned to London later in the year, following the inoculation of her son.