Gallery 1 – The Erotic Rubaiyat?

Gallery 1A – Orientalist Art & Eroticism.

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Peter de Polnay said that in his youth he was not allowed to read The Rubaiyat because it was “too sexy for a boy”. Such a claim clearly has nothing to do with FitzGerald’s verses themselves, which are sexually innocuous, and must instead arise from the widely accepted view of the orient as being sexually hedonistic, the ‘oriental’ Rubaiyat being tarred with the same brush, as it were. Probably nothing has contributed to this reputation more than the concept of the harem, plus, perhaps, the related eastern idea that in Paradise, after death, a righteous man will be attended by a bevy of beautiful houris – a harem after death (see A Note on Houris below). It was the harem, of course, that led to a variety of erotic paintings by Ingres – notably his “Little Bather, or inside a Harem” of 1828 (Fig.1), his “Odalisque with a Slave” of 1842 (Fig.2), and that famous near-overdose of naked female flesh, his “Turkish Bath” of 1859-1863 (Fig.3). The very notion of an odalisque – a concubine or slave girl in a harem – was the source of inspiration for many an artist. Delacroix (Fig.4), Chassériau (Fig.5) and Renoir (Fig.6) were three of the more famous names who were tempted in this direction. Chassériau also painted an erotically charged “Harem Interior” in 1850 (Fig.7), rivalled later for its eroticism by Gérôme’s “Pool in a Harem” of c.1876 (Fig.8). Gérôme brings us to another source of western male fascination – the oriental slave market – graphically depicted in his painting bearing precisely that title, “The Slave Market”, painted in about 1866 (Fig.9). (Gérôme was clearly fascinated by this theme and depicted it again, albeit in a different historical context, in “Selling Slaves in Rome”, painted in about 1884 (Fig.10), a painting which arguably uses historical context as a good excuse for pandering to male fantasy!) All the artists mentioned thus far are French, and indeed oriental eroticism does seem to be dominated by French artists. But not exclusively so – the Italian Giulio Rosati (1858-1917) also pandered to male fantasy in his harem-related paintings “Inspection of the New Arrivals” (Fig.11) and “Choosing the Favourite” (Fig.12).  In Germany, Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) painted “The Harem” (Fig.13); in America, Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) painted “An Eastern Beauty” (Fig.14) and “Summer Evening” (Fig.15), not to mention “An Odalisque” (Fig.16); and in Britain, Joseph Douglas painted yet another “Odalisque” in about 1921 (Fig.17). It is interesting that the American and British paintings are erotically more reserved than their French and Italian counterparts!

Also in Gallery 1A is  Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting “The Tepidarium” of 1881 (Fig.18), mentioned in the text (and note 45h) as an example of Roman decadence being used, like Oriental exoticism, as an excuse for depicting the female nude – cf  Gérôme’s painting “Selling Slaves in Rome”, mentioned above.

De Nouÿ’s painting Khosru’s Dream (Fig.19) is described in the Note on Houris below.

Also included in Gallery 1A is a rare piece of homoerotic orientalist art, mentioned in note 45g – Gérôme’s painting “The Snake Charmer” of 1880 (Fig.20). The snake charmer is a naked young boy who performs before an all-male audience.

[In addition to the sources cited in note 45, Lynne Thornton’s book Women as portrayed in Orientalist Painting (1994) is of great interest in that it puts orientalist eroticism into perspective. We tend to forget that orientalist artists also painted women spinning, tending children, preparing tea, or listening to music. Nor are all pictures of harem interiors necessarily erotic, as Thornton’s book shows: there are paintings of harem women smoking, listening to fortune tellers, picking flowers, or simply chatting. But of course it is the erotic element of orientalist art that concerns us here, for it is this that probably led, in a roundabout way, to the “too sexy for a boy” reputation of The Rubaiyat.]

Gallery 1B – Pulp Orientalist Eroticism.

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In more modern times, if on a lesser artistic front, the covers of the 1930’s American pulp-fiction magazine, Oriental Stories, serve again to typify the western view of the orient as exotic and erotic. The slightest whiff of the orient, it seems, gives a wonderful excuse for artists – usually male – to depict scantily clad and naked women!

Gallery 1C – Erotic Rubaiyat Illustrations.

It is against this general background, then, that erotic illustrations for FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat should be seen.

Folder 1 – Elihu Vedder:

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The trend to eroticism started cautiously with Elihu Vedder and the very first illustrated version of FitzGerald, first published in a huge and impressive volume in 1884. True, the depiction of Eve naked in the Garden of Eden has Biblical sanction and a long artistic history independent of erotic oriental fancies (Fig. 3). But the presence of naked women in some of his other illustrations, albeit in a relatively prim classical style, seems to have no real justification beyond ‘oriental licence’ (Fig.1, Fig.2 and Fig.4.) Note that Vedder illustrated FitzGerald’s 3rd edition, but re-numbered some of FitzGerald’s verses to link them by common theme for his illustrations. Fortunately, the publishers (Houghton, Mifflin & Co. of Boston, USA) made it clear what he had done! However, the re-numbering only affects one of the illustrations reproduced here, namely, Fig. 2, where the verses numbered 46, 47 and 48 in the illustration are verses 40, 41 and 42 in FitzGerald’s 3rd edition.

An account of the genesis and publication of Vedder’s Rubaiyat can be found in Regina Soria, Elihu Vedder – American Visionary Artist in Rome (1836-1923) (1970), chapter 12. Soria reveals that Vedder’s publisher initially found the nudes disturbing enough to want them draped, a request to which Vedder refused to accede, and which was eventually dropped (p.185.) Vedder gives his own account of his Rubaiyat in his somewhat rambling autobiography, aptly entitled The Digressions of V (1910), p.231 & p.403-8. For more on Vedder and his paintings, see Gallery 3H.

Folder 2 – Ronald Balfour:

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Balfour illustrated FitzGerald’s first edition for Constable and Co in 1920. This edition is peppered with topless and naked women in art deco style, both as illustrations to particular verses (Figs. 1-3), and as general page decoration (Figs. 4-5). More overtly erotic than Vedder, it has to be said that they have more of the appearance of 1920’s flappers than oriental beauties (on the possible significance of which see the biographical note on Balfour in Appendix 20b.) All the same, they are very effective, even though one is left wondering why all those women had shed so much clothing in the name of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat! [In Balfour’s case, the answer may simply be that he liked drawing naked women! For his “paper harem”, see Appendix 20b.]

It is not always obvious how the illustrations relate to the verses on the opposite page! Fig. 1 faces verse 17 and thus presumably relates to “the Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep”; Fig.2 faces verse 59, though its only clear link to the Potter’s Shop of that verse is the row of pots shown at the base of the illustration; and Fig.3, which faces verse 75 in the book, appears to relate better to verse 74, with its line “the Moon of Heav’n is rising once again.” The foregoing are examples of Balfour’s 37 tipped-in plates referring to particular verses. Fig.4 and Fig.5, on the other hand, are examples of decorative line illustrations used on pages opposite verses where there is no tipped-in plate. Basically they avoid blank pages rather than illustrate the verses they appear opposite to, and they are in fact often used more than once. Thus Fig. 4 appears opposite verses 8, 66 and 74, whilst Fig. 5 appears opposite verses 28, 44 and 72. Fig. 6 is interesting, but appears only as an additional frontispiece in the limited edition of 50 folio copies which Constable and Co also issued in 1920. It clearly relates to the Edenic Snake of verse 58.

Balfour’s edition is now rare and expensive, despite the parallel American Dodd Mead & Co edition issued in 1920, and a reprint by Constable & Co in 1930 (the latter is Coumans # 84), so it is worth noting that the Japanese used Balfour’s illustrations to accompany a nice edition of The Rubaiyat – with parallel Japanese and English text – in 2005 (ISBN 4-8373-0430-3.) Note, though, that the Constable edition of 1920 used the text of FitzGerald’s 1st edition, whereas the Japanese edition used the text of FitzGerald’s 2nd edition. In addition, the illustrations in the Japanese edition no longer necessarily feature in association with the verses with which Balfour originally associated them. Nevertheless, it is a nice little volume.

This folder also contains the other work of Balfour mentioned in Appendix 20b:

Figs. 7 – 10 (browse here) are four of his chapter-heading decorations for Constance Bridges’ book Thin Air: a Himalayan Interlude (1930), the only other book ever illustrated by Balfour besides The Rubaiyat. They are of a very different nature to his Rubaiyat illustrations, though the naked man in Fig.10 [intended, I think, to represent David Wendell, whose naked body turned up in a shallow grave sometime after he had vanished “into thin air” (p.381-2)] is reminiscent of the naked man at the centre of Fig.11 [illustrating verse 31 of The Rubaiyat (“Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate”).]

Fig.12 & Fig.13 are two unpublished fashion or costume designs by Balfour, taken from Martin Steenson’s article in IBIS no.36 (fully cited in Appendix 20b.) These are certainly reminiscent of Fig.14 & Fig.15 from The Rubaiyat – the former illustrating verse 19 (“And this delightful Herb whose tender Green”); the latter being one of his decorative line illustrations, like Figs. 4 & 5, but clothed! Compare also Fig.2, which could easily be a topless costume design!

Folder 3 – Willy Pogany:

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Pogany’s illustrations have been used in numerous editions of The Rubaiyat since his first one appeared in 1909. As with Vedder and Balfour, it is not always easy to see why the young women he depicts need to be naked. Not that the end results are anything more than mildly erotic – Figs.1 & 2, for example, which come from the George G. Harrap edition first published in 1934 – though his illustrations to the David McKay edition published in 1942, are considerably more erotic as well as artistically more interesting. (Figs. 3 – 6, for example.) Both the Harrap and McKay editions used FitzGerald’s 4th edition.

In the Harrap edition:

Fig. 1 is the frontispiece, but it clearly illustrates verse 58 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (= verse 42 of the 1st), which is odd, because Pogany seems to make the Angel Shape female, whereas FitzGerald definitely indicates a male! [In the 1942 edition, however, Pogany’s Angel is male, though with a feminine (androgynous?) face.]

Fig. 2 illustrates verse 48 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (= verse 38 of his 1st) – the naked girl is drinking from the well of life.

In the McKay edition:

Fig. 3 illustrates verse 6 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (= verse 6 of his 1st), the Nightingale and Rose being clearly visible.

Fig. 4 illustrates verse 7 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (= verse 7 of his 1st), the “Winter-garment of Repentance” being flung aside by a naked girl.

Fig. 5 illustrates verse 14 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (= verse 13 of his 1st), the treasure of the Rose’s Purse being scattered over the garden by a topless girl.

Fig. 6 illustrates verse 21 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (= verse 20 of his 1st), showing a topless girl with “the Cup that clears Today of past Regrets and future Fears.”

Not all of Pogany’s illustrations contain mildly erotic elements, of course:

Fig.7, from the Harrap edition, illustrates verse 12 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (= verse 11 of his 1st), showing Omar and his Beloved, with the famous Book of Verses etc, underneath the Bough. Both are respectably clothed. [By the frontispiece of the McKay edition, however, Omar’s Beloved had gone topless.]

Fig.8, also from the Harrap edition, illustrates verse 31 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (= verse 31 of his 1st), is an unusual symbolic representation of “the Master-knot of Human Fate.”

Fig.9, from the McKay edition, illustrates verse 83 of FitzGerald’s 4th edition (not in his 1st), showing the Pots in “Shapes of all Sorts and Sizes, great and small.”

For Pogany’s illustrated Tannhäuser, see Gallery 7E, Fig.5 & Fig.6. For a useful monograph about the artist, see Willy Pogany Rediscovered, Selected and Edited by Jeff A. Menges (2009).

Folder 4 – John Yunge Bateman:

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Some of the more overtly erotic illustrations of The Rubaiyat are those by John Yunge Bateman, done for the Golden Cockerel Press edition published in 1958. Indeed, Brigid Peppin and Lucy Micklethwaite, in their Dictionary of British Book Illustrators: the Twentieth Century (1983), wrote of Bateman’s illustrations for The Rubaiyat that “he attempted to give a cultural veneer to ‘page three’ titillation” (p.31.) The illustrations accompanied the text of FitzGerald’s 1st edition.

Fig.1 is the title-page illustration, but clearly relates to verse 75. Note that in addition to the voluptuous leading lady turning down an empty glass, Bateman has pictured naked lady guests “star-scattered on the grass”, albeit with their backs to the viewer! The male guests, meanwhile, remain fully clothed (the one on the left wearing a turban to confirm the oriental nature of the scene!)

Fig.2 is the frontispiece and doesn’t seem to relate to any particular verse, with its nude black musician, who is more like the Abyssinian Maid in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan than anything in FitzGerald! The topless white girl is apparently the Daughter of the Vine of verse 40, since she is clutching a bunch of grapes in her left hand. Note also that the handles of the drinking-cup in the right foreground are in the form of naked women! The theme here is clearly wine, women and song.

Fig.3 directly illustrates verse 40 – the Daughter of the Vine is here again, and Old Barren Reason is exiting at the bottom left.

Fig.4, of course, illustrates verse 11, the Loaf of Bread, the Flask of Wine and the Book of Verse being clearly visible in the right foreground. But Bateman adds to FitzGerald by having Omar’s lady companion naked and playing a lute – the wine, women and song theme again.

This, too, is a rare illustrated edition of The Rubaiyat, though the publishers A.S. Barnes & Co. of New York and Thomas Yoseloff of London jointly produced reprints of it in 1965, 1967 and 1970, which are much more readily available.

For some biographical information about Bateman, including the story behind the Yoseloff reprints, see Appendix 20c. The other works by Bateman to which reference is made in that Appendix are included in this Folder as follows:

Fig.5 and Fig.6 are from The Rape of Lucrece (1948), p.43 & p.67 respectively.

Fig.7 and Fig.8 are from Venus and Adonis (1948), p.21 & p.31 respectively.

Fig.9 and Fig.10 are from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1958), p.129 & p.153 respectively. [The first relates to the great boar hunt in Book 8; the second to the story of Pygmalion in Book 10. Images courtesy of the John Rylands Library, Manchester.]

The similarities of all of these to Bateman’s illustrations for The Rubaiyat are immediately apparent.

Folder 5 – John Buckland Wright:

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Twenty years before the Bateman edition, the Golden Cockerel Press had published another version of FitzGerald’s first edition of The Rubaiyat, this one being illustrated by John Buckland Wright. The history of this version can most readily be traced through Anthony Reid’s book A Check-list of the Book Illustrations of John Buckland Wright (1968). The original edition of 1938 appeared in two forms – a run of 270 copies containing 8 engravings (this is A28b in Reid’s catalogue) and a smaller run of 30 copies (A28a) which contained the same 8 engravings, but with 5 extra engravings contained in a pocket inside the book. These extras were, in Reid’s words, “more erotic in tone than the others and rank among the artist’s best work” (p.51-3.) By way of explanation, each of the 8 mainstream engravings shows Omar and his beloved in a garden by a river, with a book of verse and a plentiful supply of wine. Fig.1 shows them arriving; Fig.2 shows them indulging in a kiss; and Fig.3 shows them slightly the worse for wear after all the wine. Fig.4 and Fig.5, in contrast, come from the five ‘extras’ and they tell their own story: not the sort of thing one leaves lying around when the vicar comes to call! But that was not the end of it. Reid tells us that Buckland Wright “had a particular fondness for this book and during 1941 he embellished one copy (now in the writer’s collection) with 71 original pen-drawings” (p.53; also p.21) One of these he reproduces in his plate VI – it shows Omar deep in concentration over a geometrical construction, oblivious to the presence of the naked girl in front of him! Nor is that the end of the story of the Buckland Wright edition. In 1944 the Dutch Resistance Movement issued a pirated version of the 1938 erotic edition, containing 11 of its plates and 42 of FitzGerald’s verses translated into Dutch. (This is A42 in Reid’s catalogue, p.59, with further comment on p.25.) Buckland Wright, incidentally, also illustrated a Golden Cockerel Press edition of Swinburne’s poem Laus Veneris (Appendix 16). It was published in 1948, and, not surprisingly, contained a number of mildly erotic woodcuts, one of which is shown in Fig.6. (For details, see A48 in Reid, p.63.) [For more information about Buckland Wright and Reid, see Appendix 26.]

Folder 6 – O’Brien:

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Our next erotic Rubaiyat is the Australian edition published by Gornall the Publisher, of Sydney, in about 1940 (though it is sometimes erroneously dated to the 1920s.) This used FitzGerald’s first edition and was illustrated by an artist named only as “O’Brien” on the cover. Its front cover (Fig.1) bears interesting comparison to the cover illustrations of Gallery 1B, and its illustration of verse 45 (“But leave the wise to wrangle, and with me…”) is positively orgiastic (Fig.2). The mildly erotic nature of the illustrations might lead one to suspect that the artist was a man, but in fact, the artist was a woman – the Australian illustrator Kathleen O’Brien, famous for the “Wanda” comic strip, which began during the Second World War. Fig.3 comes from the (Perth) Sunday Times of 18th July 1943, the signature at the top right of which matches that on the cover of Fig.1 and at the bottom of the illustration of Fig.2 (For some biographical details on O’Brien and her comic strip, see Appendix 20d.)

Folder 7 – Akbar Tajvidi:

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It is interesting that the western preoccupation with an erotic orient has actually filtered through to the orient itself. Thus in an illustrated edition of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat published in Teheran in 1955, many of the illustrations, by Akbar Tajvidi, feature topless or naked women, and, in one instance, a curvaceous young woman in a see-through negligee! Fig. 1 illustrates verse 1 – the rising Sun and the Sultan’s Turret being clearly shown. The opening word, “Awake!” is illustrated by a topless girl being awoken by an Omar-like figure. Fig. 2 illustrates verse 40, with Omar taking a topless – and green! – “Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.” Fig. 3 illustrates verse 48, with roses “along the River Brink”, and with “the Angel with his darker Draught” visible in the background. Why the main subject of the picture is a girl in a see-through negligee, though, is not clear. Fig.4 illustrates verse 51, the figure with the quill pen in the background representing “the Moving Finger”. Again, though, it is not clear why the main subject of the picture is a naked girl. Fig. 5 illustrates verse 57, “with Pitfall and with Gin” being represented by the thorn-bush through which Omar struggles, his “Fall to Sin” being represented by a naked girl as the source of his temptation. Finally, Fig.6 illustrates verse 58, with a lush Garden of Eden and a suitably naked Eve, but, oddly, with no sign of the Snake. [This edition is entitled The Quatrains of Abolfat’h Ghia’th-e-din Ebrahim Khayam of Nishabur, published by Tahrir Iran Co. “Kashani Bros.”, Tehran, no date given, but datable to 1955 from the Publisher’s Foreword and the “Few Words from the Painter”. It is in five languages in parallel – English, French, German, Persian and Arabic, the English verses being those of FitzGerald’s 1st edition. The parallel verses in the other four languages are not literal translations of FitzGerald, but verses in those languages which carry a similar sense, though FitzGerald takes priority, his portrait, along with that of Omar, being displayed in the front of the book.]

The illustrations of The Rubaiyat by Akbar Tajvidi are very similar in style to those by his brother Mohammad, for examples of which see Gallery 2G. For some biographical notes on the Tajvidis, see Appendix 20f.

Folder 8 – Vinod Bharadwaj:

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Fig.1 is another modern eastern illustration of Omar Khayyam, this time from the contemporary Indian artist, Vinod Bharadwaj.  This could easily be a John Yunge Bateman illustration in Moghul style! The painting would seem to relate to verse 11, with its flask of wine, its book of verse, and a “thou” half naked in the wilderness. It comes from the commercial website:

Fig.2, clearly related to it, at least in style, is entitled “Seduction in Monochrome”, and comes from the same website.


Other mildly erotic illustrations of The Rubaiyat can be found in Gallery 2A, Folder 1 (Edmund J. Sullivan) and Gallery 2B, Folder 1 (Gordon Ross).


Folder 9 – The Omar Khayyam Clubs:

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It is interesting that the Omar Khayyam Clubs of both England and America occasionally followed the erotic trail when designing the menu cards for their meetings. Fig.1, Fig.2 and Fig.3 relate to the English Club, dating from, respectively, 1893, 1894 and 1921; Fig.6 and Fig.7 to the American Club, dating from, respectively, 1914 and 1920. Not that eroticism ruled proceedings – far from it. Fig.4 (an English example dating from 1924) is a rather neat cartoon of FitzGerald eating and drinking with a pretty young girl aboard his boat “The Scandal” – ironic given that FitzGerald had such a disastrous marriage and preferred his time aboard ship to be in the company of ‘Posh’ Fletcher! Fig.5, another English example dating from 1927, is another representation of the famous verse 11, with its jug of wine, its book of verse, and, here at least, six thous beside me in the wilderness, one with a saxophone and one dishing out cigarettes! (This wonderful cartoon, incidentally, is by David Low, a member of the Omar Khayyam Club, destined to become most famous for his cartoons satirising Hitler, and for his creation of Colonel Blimp.)

Fig.7 is interesting in that it is actually by a woman – Dorothy S. Hughes – who designed a number of other menu cards for the American Club (Fig.8 and Fig.9 – these dating to 1919), both of these selections being an interesting blend of the 1920s ‘flapper’ and an Eastern dancing girl. Fig.10 shows us that in America, too, not all menu cards had erotic undertones. These examples date from 1919.

Sources for Folder 9: The Book of the Omar Khayyam Club 1892-1910 (1910) for Fig.1 (p.26) & Fig.2 (p.38);  The Second Book of the Omar Khayyam Club 1910-1929 (1931) for Fig.3 (p.77), Fig.4 (p.99) & Fig.5 (p.129), David Low being listed among the Members on p.169; Twenty Years of the Omar Khayyam Club of America (1921) for Fig.6 (p.55), Fig.7 (p.99), Fig.8 (p.16), Fig,9 (p.67) & Fig.10 (p.44).

As regards the erotic Rubaiyat, I would also remind readers of that bizarre work Life’s Echoes, written under the nom-de-plume ‘Tis True, and published in Paris in 1923, for which see note 19.

A Note on Houris.

Houris – “Companions in Paradise” – as one of the “Rewards for the Righteous” are not given any very detailed description in the Qur’an. They are “Companions with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes” (surahs 44.54 and 52.20) and “(Maidens) chaste, restraining their glances, whom no man or Jinn before them has touched” (surah 55.56). It is only via the hadiths (traditions based on interpretations or commentaries on the Qur’an) that the idea of houris as beautiful and voluptuous young women develops, basically as a male fantasy with ‘religious sanction’. Byron uses the word half a dozen times in his “Turkish Tales”, most notably in line 301 of The Siege of Corinth (1816):

Secure in Paradise to be
By Houris loved immortally.

Surprisingly the notion of the houri makes little appearance in western orientalist art, the only instance that I know of being that in Lecomte du Nouÿ’s painting Khosru’s Dream of 1874. The painting, inspired by an episode recounted in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, shows a eunuch lying on a terrace in a state of drugged stupefaction. “In the smoke coming from the bowl of his chibouk, the ethereal figure of the slave Zelide takes the form of a houri, that creature so divinely beautiful that all the faithful will find her kind in paradise.”(Lynne Thornton, op. cit., p.126.) The painting can be found in Gallery 1A (Fig.19), and the story, on which it is based, in Montesquieu’s Letter 53. (In brief, Khosru was the eunuch who wanted to marry the slave girl Zelide.) For houris in the Qur’an and the hadiths, see the article “Hur” in the (First) Encyclopaedia of Islam (1927), vol.2.