In 1931, the aviation pioneers Charles and Anne Lindbergh flew from Maine in in north-westerly direction over Canada, Alaska, and the Kurile Islands to reach the Orient, i.e. Japan and China. Anne wrote a book about it that became famous: North to the Orient (1935). For most European travellers, the Orient was Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. In academic circles the name has fallen into disuse. Nowadays that latter area is no longer called Orient, but Near East, Middle East, Islamic world, Islamic world, Islamicate world, le monde arabo-musulman, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and the like. However, some googling shows that the name Orient still survives in popular use.
The Orient seems to have been the part of the world that stretches from the Turkish border to Japan. Its southern borders are the Sahel and the Indian Ocean. In the Russian Empire, the Islamic territories belonged to the Orient; the Russian parts did not. Tibet is part of it; Mongolia is perhaps a case of doubt.
There always was something problematic about the name. To begin with, the Turkish border, which is apparently important for the definition, shifted quite a bit in recent centuries. Around 1800, modern Greece, Cyprus, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and parts of Romania still belonged to the Ottoman Empire and thus to the Orient. Nowadays they are in Europe and in part even belong to the European Union. And does modern Turkey belong to the Orient? On entering the country one has the strong feeling it does not. The true nature of the word Orient is already evident there: it is not a geographical concept, but rather a feeling.
Moreover, Orient has something to do with Islam: Israel is not Orient, is it? And with old and old-fashioned: Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo one can hardly call Orient. And with exotic: camels, turbans, water pipes, strange smells, music, and clothing; narrow alleys in old cities where a Westerner would never find his way without a guide; luxurious palaces where cruel despots rule at their whim of the moment, surrounded by harem slaves. The Orient is incomprehensible, or if you prefer: mysterious. In the 19th century, to the very prudish Europe the Orient was also sensuous and erotic. The mood changed in the 20th century: nowadays Europe considers the Islamic world as prudish and itself as sexually liberated.
Everyone fills in the Orient as he wants; the most important thing is: the Orient is different from ‘our’ world.
Just some random quotes:
“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. (Rudyard Kipling)
“The average Oriental regards the European traveller as fair game, and feels justified in pressing upon him with a perpetual demand for bakshish (baḳshīsh), which simply means ‘a gift’.” (Karl Baedeker, Egypt and the Sûdân. Handbook for travellers, Leipzig/London/New York 1914).
“In the Orient, friendship is a rarity, and selflessness most of all.” (Karl Baedeker, Ägypten, 1928).
“Tea, like a steady, introverted and reserved hermit with charming temperament that inspires people like a spring breeze, originates from the mysterious orient five thousand years ago.”
“In the Orient, the stomach is the seat of the soul. That is why spices in Arabia have been beloved ingredients in fine cuisine and drinks for centuries.”
“Its political system was apparently seeped through with the kind of Oriental cruelty that was characteristic of the East – notably, the Ottoman and Chinese empires.”
“There’s a touch of smoky Oriental cruelty in Ms Marlohe’s eyes that reminds us of Eva Green in Casino Royale.”
“‘Monsoon’ Coffee Mug. Part of our ‘The Mysterious Orient’ collection, our mug depicts the sudden downpours that are the hallmark of the monsoon season …”
“The oriental ritual is deeply cleansing, detoxifying and pleasant for the body. The skin will become silky-smooth and muscular tensions are eased. The entire treatment is accompanied by the scents of Moroccan Atlas cedar, cinnamon and eucalyptus.”
The Orient, then, is apparently a large but vague area, about which all conceivable nonsense can be claimed.
Sometimes the word only indicates a vague origin somewhere in the East. Many Chinese, Indonesian and Thai restaurants have something with Orient in their name, as do carpet shops. The Orient Express drove to Constantinople, present-day Istanbul. Cookbooks and restaurants offer Oriental cuisine. Martial arts are usually called Asian and come from the Far East: Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia. Those who are injured in practising them can take advantage of oriental medicine. Oriental or oriental art objects, furniture and lamps are widely available. Interestingly enough, in Arabic belly dance is called raqṣ sharqī, ‘oriental dance’: a case of a western designation adopted in the ‘Orient’. Oriental philosophy and wisdom have been at home in the area between Japan and India, with an offshoot to Gibran Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931, Lebanon/USA), who on his own spread a lot of oriental wisdom in The Prophet and several other writings.
What did the Europeans do with their Orient?
– Fight it, as long as there was a strong hostile force in the East: Arabs, Ottoman Turks.
– Forget and/or deny that almost everything worthwhile in European culture, the Bible and Christianity included, originated from there.
– Trade with it: on the Silk Road and by sea after the European discovery of the major shipping routes. East India Companies, Tea clippers.
– Conquering and controlling it, especially from ± 1800–1950.
– Fantasise and dream about it.
Orientalism and Oriental Studies: the concepts.
The sword of Islam.
Orientalising the Dutch East Indies, or: Pimp your princes. Dutch colonial rulers imitating Javanese princes.
Dreaming of the Orient. Orientalist painting.