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Ileana Mihaila

The Turkish Side of Dora d’Istria


My paper is dedicated to the contributions about Turkish civilisation and culture of Elena Ghika, later known by her pen-name, Dora d’Istria. Born in Bucharest, Wallachia, January 22, 1828, she was the niece of the reigning prince of Wallachia Grigore IV Ghika (1822-1828). Although the Ghika were among the 18th century Greek families designated by the Sultan to rule over Wallachia or Moldavia, Grigore IV Ghika was the first Wallachian prince who had not been named by the Ottoman Empire, but elected by Wallachian nobles, although under Ottoman domination. Did that origin make her an Ottoman woman? She was part-Romanian, part-Greek, and her family had come centuries ago from Albania. But, most of all, she considered herself an Oriental woman, as she confessed: « j’ai touché le sol sacré de cet Orient où je suis née » (Les femmes en Orient, “La péninsule orientale”, t. I, Zurich: Meyer & Zeller, 1859, p.31). She dedicated a significant part of her studies about our part of the world, all written originally in French, but then published and translated in several European countries: France, Italy, Switzerland, etc.) to Turkish folklore (“La poésie populaire des Turcs orientaux “, in Revue des deux mondes, 1 Feb. 1873, republished as La poésie des ottomans, Paris: Maisonneuve, 1877). She also dedicated a chapter (“Les Turques”) of her most popular book, Les femmes en Orient. Her studies deserve our attention especially for her effort to present all the national communities of the Balkan Peninsula (Turkish, Serbs, Bulgarians, Albanians, Romanians, etc.) as a whole with its own tradition.

She represents an exceptional case for two important reasons, both equally important. First, she was a woman who became, by her own will and effort, a significant scholar specialised in Balkan culture and history, whose contributions were admitted and even prized by European media. She gave, by doing so, a significant example of professional career to many Romanian women with such aspirations. She always took great interest in feminine condition in all Balkan cultures, and the integration of Turkish realities is also significant. One must not forget that the common history of Romanians and Turkish did not imply an equally common knowledge. Turkish people were not allowed to have properties or commercial activities in the two Romanian provinces. And, on the other hand, even learning Turkish was forbidden to Romanians during the Phanariote (Greek) Rulers in Wallachia and Moldavia (18th- early 19th centuries), being strictly reserved to their male heirs. The fact that Dora d’Istria made such efforts to became a fair specialist in Ottoman culture makes her one of the first few Romanian followers of Dimitrie Cantemir. Her works in this field make her in a double perspective appear as a pioneer and a significant example of literary success, unjustly forgotten by the posterity.

Ask, September 2012

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