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Circassia, home of the world’s most beautiful women

Добавлено: 13.04.19
Автор: admin
Рубрика: Культура / Статьи
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I first heard of Circassia when working in Jordan, which has a small Circassian population. The Circassians I met there were Muslims and some of them wore the hijab, so I was intrigued by their light hair, blue-grey eyes and extremely pale skin.
I decided to look them up, and found that Circassians are an ethnic group originally from the North Caucasus. They were expelled from the region in the 1860s by Tsar Alexander II (he of liberal, serfdom-abolishing fame) in a terrible act of ethnic cleansing. Many hundreds of thousands were killed or deported to the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, where most settled in Turkey, and others made their way to the Balkans and elsewhere in the Middle East. It was the descendants of these refugees whom I met in Jordan.
But before and even after the genocide, Circassians held an unusual place in the collective imagination of Europeans, North Americans and Turks. Circassian women were considered by many writers and travellers to be simply the most beautiful women in the world. They had been traded as slaves since the late medieval period, and many ended up in the harems of Ottoman and Persian rulers. A number of Circassians even became the wives or favoured consorts of the Ottoman sultans. Nor was their appeal limited to the Middle East; Cosimo de’ Medici had an illegitimate son by a slave woman purchased in Venice, Maddalena, who was said to be a Circassian.

American, British and Russian travellers to the Caucasus thought that Circassian women had inherited ‘the lineaments of the face of the ancient Greek’. This was the ultimate compliment, given that European elites were brought up to revere classical models of beauty.
Circassian women were admired for their translucent pale complexions, regular features, eyes of a light grey, green or blue colour, and abundant hair which was often blonde or auburn. They were also believed to be particularly slender, boasting small waists, good posture, and an elegant demeanour. The American traveller and writer Maturin Murray Ballou (1820-95) enthusiastically described a Circassian woman who possessed a ‘form of ravishing loveliness, large and lustrous eyes, and every belonging that might go to make up a Venus’. And it wasn’t just men who got enthusiastic; Florence Nightingale wrote in her travel journal that Circassian women were ‘the most graceful and the most sensual-looking creatures I ever saw’.

Circassian woman, 1870s-80s

Circassian men were likewise considered by some Westerners to be particularly handsome. When two Circassian leaders arrived in Scotland in 1862 on diplomatic business, the Dundee Advertiser reported that:
The Chiefs are two remarkable looking men. Their imposing bearing, their romantic dress…and their natural dignity of mien, stamp them as very superior…Raven haired, black-bearded, broad-browed, with wide springing eyebrows of sooty black…these bronzed and armed children of the mountains tend to put us out of love with our own specimens of men, and suggest thoughts not complimentary to the types of manhood with which, in this country, they are surrounded.
As the nineteenth century wore on, pseudoscientific racial theories increasingly saw Circassians labelled as the most desirable members of the ‘white race’. It was the German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who first came up with the idea of the ‘Caucasian race’, which he named after the geographical area in which the Circassians lived before their ethnic cleansing. Blumenbach believed that Circassians mostly closely resembled what God had intended humanity to look like; they were ‘the purest and most beautiful whites’.
But admiration for Circassian women was not confined to literary and scientific observations. Their reputation as the most beautiful women in the world gave the Western fashion and beauty industry an excellent marketing opportunity. So in London in 1772, a type of liquid rouge was being sold under the name ‘Bloom of Circassia’. The advertisement claims that Circassian women actually achieved much of their beauty from a version of this cosmetic, which was extracted from a vegetable native to their country. Prospective customers are promised that the product will ‘instantly [give] a Rosy Hue to the Cheeks’, and a ‘lively and animated Bloom of Rural Beauty’. What was more, unlike other rouges, it wouldn’t come off even if rubbed by a handkerchief.

Bloom of Circassia was so popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that it even provided fodder for literary parody:
Come, faded Belles, who would their Youth renew,
And learn the wonders of Olympian dew;
Restore the Roses that begin to faint,
Not think celestial washes, vulgar Paint:
Your former Features, Airs, and Arts assume,
Circassian Virtues, with Circassian Bloom.
– George Crabbe, 1785
North American cosmetics producers also muscled in on the Circassian brand. If you visited New York in 1802, you could purchase the exotically-named ‘Balm of Mecca’, an ointment whose recipe was supposedly procured from the Circassian women in the Sultan’s harem. The advertisement for the product argued that:
Any lady must be as great an Infidel as the Grand Sultan himself, who, after receiving such authority can doubt that her skin will become as superlatively smooth, soft, white and delicate, as that of the lovely Fatima [one of Prophet Muhammad’s wives], whatever may have been its feel or its appearance before. What fair one but must yield implicit faith, when she has the honour of the Countess De — fairly pledged, that all sebacious impurities will be at once removed by this wonder-working nostrum. And above all, who but must long for an article, from the seraglio of the Grand Turk, which produces a near resemblance to the Georgian and Circassian beauties?
The word ‘Circassian’ was used in many other products over the nineteenth century, ranging from skin lotion to eyedrops to hair dye. Today, Circassian women might not exercise the same fascination for Westerners, but the marketing strategy of including ‘exotic’ or ‘secret’ ingredients in beauty products remains effective; I’m reminded of the popularity of ‘Moroccan argan oil’ in modern haircare products.

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