The Ottoman Empire and Return of the Jedi

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Spring 2015


In Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Jabba’s sail barge, palace, and lifestyle share many similarities with the historical Ottoman Empire, demonstrating that the latter was a source for the former. First, piracy. Barbary corsairs pirated and pillaged their way across the Mediterranean Sea, striking fear into European sailors and coastal cities. Jabba’s Sail Barge is similar to a Barbary corsair ship in both shape and color, while also sporting its own corsair-like crew. During the sequence at the Pit of Carkoon, pirate imagery is present through Luke’s walking the plank and swashbuckling. Another historical link between Jabba’s court and the Ottoman Empire is architecture. Jabba’s Palace resembles the famous Hagia Sophia with its pointed, domed main tower surrounded by minarets. The insides of both structures are similar, as well—both buildings having arching doorways with inscriptions along the arches. Moreover, just as the Ottomans converted the Hagia Sophia from a church to a mosque, so Jabba converted a B’omarr monastery into his palace. Finally, one must consider the Orientalist harem fantasy presented in Jabba’s Palace versus the actual harem of the historical Ottoman Empire. Traditionally, European painters often exploited the harem solely for its erotic and exotic potential, ignoring the serious political realities underlying this Ottoman institution. In the actual Ottoman harem, slave girls were expected to sing, dance, sew, and entertain the Sultan. Star Wars features Oola, a Twi’lek slave girl of Jabba the Hutt, also entertaining her master through her dancing, and accompanied by music and singing. But whereas Oola is mistreated and ultimately executed by Jabba, Ottoman slave girls could actually receive salaries and gifts, and even earn some relative power and security (like Suleiman’s favorite, Roxolena). What makes Twi’leks such as Oola especially interesting is their similarity to the Circassian beauties (from the Northern Caucasus) prized as slave girls in the Ottoman Empire. Both Twi’leks and Circassians were seen as the most beautiful race of women and both peoples were also known to be skilled in dancing and music. The red Twi’leks, or Lethans, are especially similar to the Circassian beauties of history in terms of their prized rarity. One of the rumors about the Ottoman harem concerned a trapdoor the sultan was said to use in disposing of disobedient slave girls. This trapdoor is clearly the original source for the scene where Jabba drops Oola into the rancor pit through a trapdoor. However, the more likely explanation behind the Ottoman trapdoor is that it was used by the Sultan to fish. Finally, we can consider the existence of harem eunuchs in Star Wars. Bib Fortuna, another Twi’lek (white in color), acts much like an Ottoman eunuch in that he procures slave girls for Jabba (such as Oola) and even holds Leia to Jabba at times when she is a slave (the Ottoman eunuch could enforce discipline in the harem). And just as the eunuchs protected the harem and controlled who went in or out, so too does Bib Fortuna try to prevent R2-D2, C-3PO, and Luke from entering Jabba’s court. Return of the Jedi, then, is a thorough example of how the West often perceives the East in a distorted, Orientalist way. Given increased globalization and conflict in the Middle East, this is an important lesson for Western movie audiences to learn.

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