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W hen was the last time you heard the term bashi-bazouk being flung around? Rather like ‘pirate’, ‘buccaneer’, and ‘bootlegger’ it seems to be a colloquialism that has faded ever so slightly in popular society, more suited to the children’s books of the early 20th century. If you are familiar with Hergé’s comic series The Adventures of Tintin, you will undoubtedly recall bashi-bazouk as a favourite interjection of Captain Haddock. Like a lot of Haddock’s vocabulary, the term is hardly offensive but provides a good context to some of the idiosyncratic sayings of the time. In which case, are you familiar with who the bashi-bazouks actually were?
The word bashi-bazouk literally means ‘damaged head’ meaning leaderless or without discipline. ‘Irregulars’ in the Ottoman army, they hailed from lands across the Ottoman empire, from Egypt to the Balkans. The strain on the Ottoman feudal system caused by the Empire's wide expanse, required heavier reliance on these irregular soldiers. Of particular service to the Ottoman empire were bashi-bazouks recruited from Albania and the Circassia. These soldiers were known as Arnauts, whose ethnonym derived from the Greek term Arvanites, and it is they who pervade the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme. Arnauts were first used in a serious military context by Muhammad Ali Pasha, today largely regarded as the founder of modern Egypt. Initially serving as Ottoman governor of Egypt from 1805 to 1848, Muhammad Ali needed to consolidate his grip on power following the French withdrawal of Egypt by ousting the Mamelukes, the former ruling oligarchy.
During the height of their existence, bashi-bazouks were feared as brutal, merciless and unpredictable – contemporary reports on their crimes and offenses even travelled as far as America ("Atrocities in Macedonia: Bashi-Bazouks Celebrate a 'Carnival of Vengeance,'" New York Times, May 16, 1903; "Bashi Bazouks Spread Terror in Bulgaria," New York Times, July 1, 1903). When Carl Haag visited Egypt with his friend and fellow artist Frederick Goodall in 1858, they carried a pistol for protection, given the fear of being confronted by these ‘bandits’ when they explored on horseback by day.
It was Gérôme more than any other artist who documented the Arnaut’s lavish dress which consisted of a long, white kilt, gold-worked cloak, crimson velvet gold laced jacket and waistcoat, with silver mounted pistols and daggers. In Arnaut of Cairo, the guard stands alert with two whippets and wearing a ‘fustanelle’, a skirt with hundreds of knife edge pleats made out of white cotton, and a silk shirt and turban. There is definitely an element of grace in his costume but also authority: a rifle lays casually behind the guards soldier. This effect of grandeur is also achieved with the leading Arnaut in Gérôme’s landmark work of 1857 Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert.
So were these “picturesque pillagers” really men of terror, or had they merely become a living record of times past? Frankly, by the time the likes of Gérôme came into contact with them they were rarely seen on the streets of Cairo. As ever in the canon of Orientalist Art, one has to assume that artistic license was used a lot of the time, particularly in the settings where Arnaut’s or bashi-bazouks feature. In Paul Joanowitch’s The Resting Sentinel, an Arnaut sits outside a coffee shop in Cairo and smokes an Ottoman chibouk pipe. He gazes at the viewer as if to say he has not a care in the world for anything. Incidentally, Gérôme painted many works of Arnaut’s relaxing, playing chess, or simply dancing and merry-making. These details give flavour to the observations of Paul Lenoir, who accompanied Gérôme on two tours of Egypt. Lenoir referred to bashi-basouks as “soldiers of ornament” and “opera-comique sentinels” who had become nothing more than “indispensable furniture of the door of a mosque or of the entrance to a palace.”
The costume, unruly behaviour and romantic backstory of bashi-bazouks were too irresistible for the Orientalist painters not to depict, however their true role in Ottoman society will always be difficult to judge. Nevertheless, we as the viewers still have a lot of fun along the way as we admire their extraordinary individuality.