The term Circassian Beauty refers to the romanticized portrayal of women from The Caucasus: breathtakingly beautiful and feminine, slender-waisted and pale-skinned, with rosy cheeks and lustrous, big blue eyes. She embodies ideals of womanly purity and virtue, but also sexuality; she is alluringly exotic, yet familiar. A mainstay of Orientalism, the Circassian Beauty not only signified an idealized representation of womanhood in the European imagination, but — more significantly — a device through which ideas about the Near East were projected.
In western literature and art, the Circassian Beauty will typically be a nubile slave girl on the auction block, ultimately destined for the sultan's harem; she will likely be portrayed as the most beautiful girl in the palace, who nevertheless dreams of someday escaping her Gilded Cage. Some theorists have suggested that the image of the enslaved Circassian played into transgressive fantasies of a white-passing woman as a sexual object, subjected to the whims of her master. Her predicament would simultaneously disgust, horrify, fascinate and titillate the audience, who could safely experience the thrill of the situation by projecting onto an eroticized Other.
The trope takes a somewhat different (though no less orientalist) form in Russian Literature, where the Caucasus is more likely to feature as a setting. In the romantic imagination, the Caucasus was an untamed land on the edge of civilization, where men could find adventure and freedom (think of it as the American Old West); it was a perilously enticing frontier, home to exotic customs, fierce mountain clans, marauding raiders, and of course, bewitchingly beautiful women. In these stories, the Circassian Beauty appears as a member of a rugged yet noble mountaineer clan, and often the protagonist's ill-fated Love Interest.
The allure of the Circassian Beauty reached far beyond popular literature, however; it too exerted its influence on the Enlightenment-era "science" of racial classification. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the most influential taxonomists of the period, first used "Caucasian" to describe the "white" variety of man. Blumenbach declared the peoples of the Caucasus (specifically Georgians) as the "most beautiful of mankind" and theorized they were most primordial, uncorrupted form of humanity, from which the lesser, more degenerate races derived.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, so-called "Circassian Beauties" would become a staple of sideshow attractions across America - local performers billed as Sex Slaves freed from the eastern markets and the purest form of the white race, identifiable by their "exotic" Afro-like hairstyles which in truth bore little resemblance to anything out of the Caucasus. In a cruel twist of irony, this coincided with the very real oppression of actual Circassians, who were massacred and forcibly exiled by Imperial Russia in a genocide beginning in 1864.
Beyond these falsehoods, fantasies, and fabrications, there is a degree of truth behind the Circassian mystique. Caucasians were targeted as a prized commodity in the eastern slave trade, where they were sold into the harems of Sultans, Shahs, and other wealthy men. Many notable consorts of Ottoman Sultans had their roots in the Caucasus, including several valide sultans (queen mothers).
Today, the Circassian Beauty is largely a discredited, Forgotten Trope — the product of bygone orientalist fantasies and refuted scientific theories. Nevertheless, the legacy of the trope persists through racial terminology, which despite discreditation by modern science, has not faded from popular usage.
Note that in context of the trope, "Circassian" may refer either to the people also known as the Adyghe, or more broadly, to indigenous Caucasian highlanders. This latter category includes the Adyghe as well as peoples such as Georgians, Chechens, Ossets, and Avars. In English, "Circassian" was originally a catch-all term for "mountaineer" or highlander" (equivalent to Russian gorets), a definition that did not begin to narrow until around the mid-nineteenth century.
Additionally, although the trope is almost Always Female, Circassian men have also been subject to the stereotype.
- As early as 1782 the label "Circassian" was used to advertise beauty products, ranging from lotion to hair dye to medicinal creams. Companies falsely claimed that their manufactured goods were actually used by the women of Circassia, renowned worldwide for their beauty.
- Invoked in Lawrence of Arabia, when Lawrence is taken captive by Ottoman forces and interrogated by the sadistic Turkish bey. "You have blue eyes... Are you Circassian?" asks the bey in one of the film's most infamous scenes. The significance of this question is likely to be missed by most modern audiences, but as scholar Charles E. King observes, "it points unmistakably toward the homoerotic" and subtly sets up Lawrence's rape while imprisoned, noting that "the bey's question concerning his captive's ethnic origins follows a well-worn cultural groove — the equation of Circassians, and often Caucasus peoples in general, with sex."
- The 1851 story The Circassian Slave by Maturin Murray Ballou tells the tale of Komel, a beautiful and idealistic Adyghe woman who is sold into slavery, a scheme cooked up by one of her fellow countrymen after she rejects his advances. Komel follows the trope to the letter; in Constantinople, she is taken to the slave market and sold to the palace. She becomes the Sultan's favorite, but resists his affections to stay true to her lover, Aphiz. Komel eventually manages to escape with his help, and the couple earns their happy ending by the final chapter.
- In Leo Tolstoy's The Cossacks, the romantically-minded soldier Olyenin fantasizes about falling in love with a Circassian slave girl, "a maiden of graceful form, with long braids of hair and deep submissive eyes" who is "lovely but uncultivated, wild and rough". When he snaps out of his reverie, he exclaims "What rubbish!" — acknowledging the absurdity of the idea — before slipping into dreams of highlander girls once again.
- The fourth canto of Lord Byron's Don Juan describes a slave auction, where the highest bids are for a Circassian, ultimately sold to the Sultan.
Some went off dearly; fifteen hundred dollarsFor one Circassian, a sweet girl, were given,Warranted virgin. Beauty's brightest coloursHad decked her out in all the hues of heaven.Her sale sent home some disappointed bawlers,Who bade on till the hundreds reached the eleven,But when the offer went beyond, they knew'Twas for the Sultan, and at once withdrew.
- Played for Laughs in Richard Garnett's poem "The Fair Circassian", in which the eponymous lady refuses to be wooed by any vizier with a beard. "Burning" with desire, they comply with her wishes; she then uses the trimmings to make a rope, allowing her to escape from the seraglio. The Sultan executes the complicit viziers, and the poet warns the reader to "beware the wily plans" of beautiful Circassians.
- A Hero of Our Time: Bela is a Circassian princess and the target of affections of both the main character, Pechorin, and a brooding Circassian daredevil named Kazbich. Their rivalry over her eventually costs Bela her life.
- While it likely predated the eighteenth century, Voltaire's 1734 Letters on the English may have first helped popularize the trope in western Europe. In his eleventh letter, the author primarily discusses Circassian inoculation practices against smallpox, but also takes a paragraph to extol the beauty, virtue, and sexual talents of their maidens.
- In the narrative poem "A Prisoner of the Caucasus" by Alexander Pushkin, a compassionate and pretty Circassian girl falls for the captive Russian protagonist and frees him from captivity. Because he initially rejected her affections, she drowns herself in a river afterwards.
- A Night In the Moorish Harem has Circassian harem girl Anna, who is described as very tall and slender despite being 19-years old, with skin as white as alabaster and hair being of the palest blonde. She used to be a princess that was taken captive during one of the Caucasian campaigns, sold to slavery and ended up on the titular harem in Morocco.
- Magnificent Century: Kösem: Rasa Hatun, later called Mahfiruze, is described by another character as a "Circassian beauty". As the actual origin of her historical basis is unknown, her Circassian roots are an invention of the series, albeit a believable one considering harem demographics.
- Samuel Jackson Pratt's 1781 play The Fair Circassian features an attempted coup by the brother of the Persian King, of which the affections of the Circassian Lady Almeida are key. In contrast to most western depictions, Almeida is not a slave, but fits the trope in all other respects: she is gorgeous, ladylike, virtuous, and an object of desire, forced into marriage by the play's antagonist.
- Circassia in Europa Universalis IV has a national idea called "Adyghe Beauty", which decreases presitge decay for the country.
- P.T. Barnum promoted alleged "Circassian Beauties" as part of his circus sideshows in the 1860s. These women, billed as rescued sex slaves, sported a distinctively big, frizzy hairstyle. The girls in these exhibits were not, in fact, actually from the Caucasus, but rather local performers whose hair had been teased to achieve an "exotic" look; Barnum had accomplished this by washing their hair in beer and letting them dry before styling, presumably as a reference to Circassian fur hats.
- Ivan the Terrible was reportedly so enamored by the beauty of Qochenay, the daughter of a Kabardian prince, he decided to marry her immediately. As Maria Temryukovna, she was renowned for her beauty, but otherwise deeply disliked as a foreign Tsaritsa.