Conference article

“Encoded“ Communication with Ladies in a Turkish Harem, 17th-Century Style

Gerhard F. Strasser
Depts. of German and Comparative Literature, Penn State University

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Published in: Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Historical Cryptology HistoCrypt 2020

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 171:2, p. 1-17

NEALT Proceedings Series 44:2, p. 1-17

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Published: 2020-05-19

ISBN: 978-91-7929-827-2

ISSN: 1650-3686 (print), 1650-3740 (online)


The Duke August Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, preserves a treasured French-Turkish manuscript with an intriguing (translated) title: “Silent Letters, or a Method of Making Love in Turkey without Knowing How to Read or Write.“ This unusual piece was prepared in 1679 for Jacobus Colyer, the enterprising 22-year-old son of the Dutch representative to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. The first and longest of 3 parts consists of an extensive explanatory section in French in which the author details the Turkish system of sending messages (not only to ladies in the Sultan’s Harem), so-called Selams, “welcome greetings” or “peace wishes” that are remotely similar to the Oriental “language of flowers.” These messages are encoded according to a well-defined system. Without any extant “code books” beyond what the 1679 Wolfenbüttel and scarce later sources yield it becomes clear that the meaning of such encoded Selam messages was common knowledge among interested parties - in particular in the Sultan’s Harem. The following analysis will detail this system and also branch out to show how in 1688 this manuscript was adapted in two initially identical publications with totally different endings. Both of them include a reference to the “Langage müet”, an early sign language used at the Sultan’s court - de facto a second cryptological example associated with the Wolfenbüttel manuscript and an ingenious re-use of the same material for different audiences.


historical cryptology; French-Turkish encoded messages; Sultan’s Harem


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