That Time When I Did An Audiobook (Part 3, Final)

For this third and final part of my account about doing an audiobook, I’d like to conclude with some practical tips that I learned. Parts One and Two can be found here and here, respectively, or you can just go to the main blog here and scroll around.

As I mentioned in Part Two of this post, my sound engineers turned out to be valuable sources of information, guidance, and tips about the whole process. They also, one way or another, become your lunch-buddies, since you both have to break at the same time and anything else would be super-awkward. So, I will repeat myself here: be nice to your sound engineer. They are good people.

At Audible HQ in Newark, the cafeteria is downstairs from the recording studios, though if you need a snack to avoid being grouchy, there is a well-stocked self-serve kitchen on the same floor as the studios, too. The cafeteria at Audible is, well, like the rest of Audible. It is spacious, buffet-style, mod, well-appointed, and has…ping-pong tables. Yes, that’s right. Those millennial Creatives lounging about sharing ideas on their devices that I mentioned in Part One? They come down here to blow off a little ping-pong steam over lunch. What this means in practical terms is that you should be prepared to receive an errant ping-pong ball in your meal at some point or, like I did, spend some precious lunch-time rooting around underfoot in an attempt to seem like a “good sport” and help the kids retrieve their lost ball. The food, by the way, was perfectly fine.

Audible's "Cafeteria/Hang Out Area", ping-pong tables not pictured.

Audible's "Cafeteria/Hang Out Area", ping-pong tables not pictured.

This discussion of eating is probably a good place to get to my list of practical tips, since the first thing I learned (the hard way, I’m sad to say) is that those microphones are very sensitive and they pick up absolutely every sound your body makes, not just your voice. So, keeping a handle on your stomach’s effusive declarations over the course of a day will be an extra chore you might not have reckoned with. And sometimes, a losing battle. But here are some others lessons:

Do what I didn’t do: practice reading. As I mentioned in Part Two, I discovered immediately that, no matter how well you know a text, it is simply in the nature of clumsy human speech to produce slurs, pauses and tics of all sorts that have to be recorded away, slowing down the process. But what I also discovered is that reading aloud requires a lot of air. I’m a fit person (for a medievalist), but I was surprised to find myself out of breath and sometimes straining to wheeze out a few final syllables at the end of a sentence before taking another breath. So my advice here is to practice pacing yourself and getting a good speech-to-breath rhythm, lest you pass out in mid-sentence and miss out on all the ping-pong at lunch. I’m told sitting upright and not slumping helps with this too—getting the most out of your diaphragm without resorting to wheezing.

Speed and rhythm are important, and you should spare some forethought for them too. The general rule of thumb is that you should read much slower than you think you should, or than you would say, reading a bed-time story. I am told I have a voice reminiscent of 30’s radio announcers: speedy and clipped. Say fellas, pour me another glass of cold, refreshing Moxie, won’t you? So it took some genuine, conscious restraint to reach a good pace (and pitch) for producing the audiobook.

That said, it’s important not to be slavish to one speed only. In my case, a non-fiction book, I was never in a position to produce different voices for different characters, as professional voice-actors do for works of fiction. But nevertheless non-fiction prose does vary in tone over the course of two hundred pages, and I learned that changing your reading pace is really one of the few ways you have to account for these changes in tone. So, sometimes in a narrative of, say, a battle, I would pick up the pace a bit to convey a sense of urgency or panic, or punctuate a paragraph with sudden silences to connote finality, drama, or whatever. You get the idea.

Perfect your pronunciation. This most commonly came into play with place-names.  Race for Paradise is something of a sprawling book, as its theatre stretches from Portugal to Iraq, meaning the text necessarily throws up place-names in a range of languages, some of which I know nothing about. In my case, Portuguese and Catalan place-names were a source of great mystery. However, thanks to my awesome sound engineer, I learned about a web-based pronunciation guide called Forvo, where native speakers record the pronunciation of various words and you can listen to them played back to you. You can even request words yourself (though don’t expect an instant result). I highly recommend this tool—it saved my skin a number of times, and makes me look like I know what I’m doing (which, I want to assure you all, I don’t).

A final tip, for writers, not necessarily for narrators: be aware of your visual biases. My sound engineer reminded me, in recounting her own career path, that the concept of audiobooks really began with Books for the Blind, a free service in the U.S. that provides audio recordings of books to the visually impaired. Most books are pretty straightforward, but some, especially non-fiction books like mine, contain plates or maps or charts that, in an ideal situation, are described orally for the visually-impaired listener. But this is not often done with commercial audiobooks: my book features a number of plates, for example, and I was never asked to describe them. I wish I had been, or had thought to insist. However, it does include a prose “walk-through” of a medieval map, one I wrote without thinking of my audience. I think it is a helpful passage for someone who can’t actually view the map in question, but not thoroughly so, since that was not my original intent. So in the future I plan to keep visually-impaired audiences in mind when I write such descriptions of figures or illustrations, and I encourage all writers to do the same. Otherwise a vital part of your book is lost to a vital part of your audience.

The final product, waiting to be injected into your ears.

The final product, waiting to be injected into your ears.

All in all, I was pleased with the final product. I do wish Audible had allowed me to retain my dedication in the audiobook, which are just a few words which mean quite a lot to me, but I was told this was not the usual policy (though it appears to be ok if you’re Neil Gaiman…). And (without fishing for compliments) I’m a bit embarrassed by the general sound of my voice and hearing myself drone on and on. Producing the audiobook also made me aware of some of the weak spots in my writing and organizational styles, flaws that I hope to avoid in future projects.

But I am proud of the book, and proud too of the audiobook. I'm a big fan of audiobooks, and so I’m thrilled to have done one myself. If you like to work in cubicles or on sofas, I think would be a great environment to work in. And if you are enthusiastic about your own work, have a creative spirit, and a good bit of humility, narrating your own audiobook will provide you with a new audience for your work and a new way to think about texts.

That Time When I Did an Audiobook (Part 2)

Continuing my previous post about doing an audiobook: To prepare for actually recording the audiobook of Race for Paradise, I did…pretty much nothing, to be perfectly honest. I did a little reading around on the web, where I found, for example, this and this of some use, but mostly I went in cold. I pretty much just assumed I’d be standing in front of a mic or sitting on a stool reading from my book or something. I’d do one bit of text one day, go home, and pick up where I left off.  How hard could it be, right?

I had a lot to learn. And it wasn’t until I showed up at Audible HQ that I really learned the ropes. Perhaps that’s an important lesson right there: for would-be narrators or voice actors, I think a good bit of the training happens “on the job”.

It's probably here that I should mention that Audible’s offices, I have to say, made me pause. I’m an academic, so I have practically no exposure to architectural trends in the corporate world, but this place seemed like a display-model of early 21st century “open” offices, in which variously recognizable types of Creatives™ lounged about on über-mod furniture with tablets doing…I’m not sure what. Creating? Sharing, no doubt. Or else they were engaged in constructive meetings in glass-lined conference rooms, everyone so meticulously dressed down it must have taken them hours longer than it does to dress up. Was this real, or was it a set from some millennial sit-com? Mostly I was just jealous.

Audible, Inc. HQ in Newark. I'm not making this up.

Audible, Inc. HQ in Newark. I'm not making this up.

After a brief check-in, I was led up to a sort of mezzanine, plied with beverages, and told to wait on a rather too comfortable red sofa. Mercifully, before me was a bank of good, solid, old-fashioned frayed and cluttered cubicles, with everyone (most of them producers of one kind or another, I found out) looking harried and distracted as was good and proper. I immediately felt relieved. Real work happens here. Soon enough, my (or just a) producer introduced herself and explained the routine—and then introduced me to my sound engineer. I later corresponded with my producer once or twice and waved as I passed each day that I visited, but I did not, I don’t think, speak with her again. This is another important lesson: you are not the center of the world, and these people are super-busy working on various aspects of many, many other projects. Just leave them alone, and be nice.

My true anchor in the process was my sound engineer (and I hope that is the right title; I mean the person in the booth recording with you). In fact, I worked with two over the course of my visits. These, in fact, are the people that matter the most in the process, as I hope you’ll see. A good sound engineer is key, and thankfully I had two really great ones. Naturally, because I’m an ass, I have absolutely no record of their names. And that’s another lesson: remember these names; write them down. These people are your heroes. They work really closely with you. They are, in fact, the only ones putting in the same long hours as you, longer, in fact, and so they deserve your thanks. Don’t be the guy—like I was—that forgets their names when you blog about them. Sorry guys!

The sound engineers that worked with me were both consummate professionals and also funny and interesting people in their own right. After Day One, I wanted to drive up to Newark to work with these people, even if they never shared space with me. For those of you not familiar with it, the lay-out of a sound-booth is like you might have seen on TV or in a film—you sit in a close, dark room in a not especially comfy chair (some narrators, I was told, prefer to stand). In front of you is a big microphone with a large circular pop filter intervening between you and it. Beyond the mike is a glass window, and on the other side of that window is the sound engineer in the sound booth, full of all the arcane sound equipment with sliders and dials and so on that you would expect.

A slightly idealized view of the studio experience. From's website.

A slightly idealized view of the studio experience. From's website.

The actual process of narrating was pretty straight-forward.  Although I brought along a copy of my book just in case, I was handed a tablet with the PDF of my book downloaded onto it, and it was from that text that I read, scrolling as I went: tablets make much less noise than books, and I could mark where I left off on any given day at the very word. Likewise, the engineer can easily flag any passages they may wish to revisit later. And so, at a signal from the engineer, you simply begin reading.

But, if you think about it for a second, reading is never simple. Do an experiment right now: read out loud a paragraph from something—this blog if you like. I’ll wait.

OK, how many times did you slur or stumble? At least once or twice, I’d imagine.  Look, I had written my book and read it numerous times backwards and forwards in the final stages of publishing the damn thing, and even then I was tongue-tripping and eliding my way through every page. Well fortunately, one of the jobs of the engineer is to spot these slurs or to react when you signal them and then without wasting time they allow you to re-narrate the problematic phrase, recording over the existing glitch. To do so, they rewind the tape (or rather the digital file) to the most recent pause and play it back in your headphones, allowing you to pick up the new narration and carry on as before. This was explained to me in person ahead of time, and I have to admit I didn’t really understand. Blah-blah technical blah-blah. My engineer saw my vacant look and said, “It's OK. You’ll see,” and she was right. It became instinctual to the point that I often never even had to look up at my engineer. On the best days, we recorded as two little symbiotes. Glitch, rewind, record; glitch, rewind, record. Your progress in a given day is largely determined by the number of corrections that your reading requires. Another lesson then: You will, I assure you, always make mistakes. You will also get better at it as you go. For the record, I finished one day earlier than estimated, as the number of glitches I made declined.

The sound engineer is also like the older kid at camp—they’ve been through it all before and have seen everything. So they are valuable sources of information and wisdom about how to do a good job. As I mentioned in Part One, my time narrating Race for Paradise was pretty limited, but I did pick up a few tips along the way. In my next and final installment on this subject, I’ll share the practical things I learned and reflect on the final results of this process.

We’ll also have lunch in the Audible cafeteria.

That Time When I Did an Audiobook (Part 1)

Last year, you will be amused to know, I had the experience of having my most recent book, Race for Paradise, made into an audiobook. Since this is not something that every historian does, though it does happen more and more now, I thought it might at the very least be amusing, and maybe even edifying, to share my experiences about the process. The short version is that it was great, but also a lot harder than you’d think. So perhaps you might also read this as a cautionary tale.

Audible HQ, 1 Washington Place, Newark, NJ

Audible HQ, 1 Washington Place, Newark, NJ

As for the longer version of the tale, well: I was first contacted by my editor at Oxford University Press, the rather magnificent human being known as Timothy Bent, who let me know that had bought the audiobook rights for my book, and that they would be contacting me about the details sometime soon. Just to provide some sense of timing, the print version came out in June 2014, and I was told in July by Audible that the book would be “entering production”. And then, crickets.

Nothing. Not a peep. By September, I admit I was curious to know what was going on, and, more importantly, had Ian McKellen been cast to read it or not? OUP helpfully reached out to Audible and that seemed to be what was needed to jump-start the process. I was put in touch with a producer at Audible who said I would be notified and given a better time-table once they had cast an actor/narrator. Unless, my OUP contact offered helpfully, I would be interested in narrating the book?

Suddenly, all was light. Since I happened to be on sabbatical, and since I foolishly thought it would be a lark, I agreed. At least I could pronounce all the Arabic names correctly, right? The producer explained that they would need a demo tape first before they could agree to me as a narrator, or otherwise I could submit an audio or video of me lecturing. I sent in a video of me lecturing on Ibn Battuta before a snoozing crowd at the Penn Museum, just so they could get a sense of my voice and its mellifluousness. I sat back and waited for their decision. Within a few hours, they had signed me up. Now, I mention this comically quick turn-around not because I think it reflects upon me or that lecture video, but because it reveals to me what was really going on in the producer’s mind—they really just needed to make sure I wasn’t an incoherent mumbler. And, mostly, I’m not. Honest. The producer then made clear to me some of the house rules:

·      I would not get paid.

·      I would have to do the recording in the studio in Newark, NJ. That’s about an hour and a half north of Philadelphia.
--Oh, oh.

·      I would record over a period of two weeks, 10am-4pm every other day. All day. About 35 hours total projected for a book like this.
--Oh, oh, oh.

·      But lunch was free, in the Audible cafeteria.

So, I gave it further thought. I don’t normally do uncompensated work like this (and nor, IMO, should anyone), since I view my time as very valuable, particularly when on sabbatical. But I saw it still as a way to help market the book, which indeed it is, and a very powerful one, too. And that is an indirect mode of compensation, right? RIGHT? But I confess I really did mostly just think it would be hysterical, an adventure to dine out on, or to blog about. Plus, hey, free lunch in Jersey. So I agreed to their terms.

As for the actual nitty-gritty of working in the studios, that indiscreet tell-all will appear in my next blog-post.  I’ve got another book to write. Watch this space.

Preserving Homs, Syria (Part 3, final): A Christian Warning from Ottoman Syria

In two previous posts, I've introduced a wonderfully odd illustrated manuscript in the collection of the Cambridge University Library called the Kitab tawarikh Hims, which turns out to be an Ottoman-era compendium of historical lore about Homs, Syria including many transcriptions of the city's monumental inscriptions (most of which no longer survive). I also introduced as much as we know about its author, a Greek Orthodox Christian priest and native of the city named Constantine ibn Dawud. This final post will be devoted to some features of Constantine's work that caught my eye, as someone who knows little about the modern Middle East, but who is fascinated by how people decide to write history.

Homs in 2013, from the shrine of Khalid ibn al-Walid 

Homs in 2013, from the shrine of Khalid ibn al-Walid 

A History Out of Fragments

One thing that is clear to see in Constantine's work is its hybridization of what scholars like to call different "discourses of history," or the way or ways an author writes a history: its framework and assumption about what "counts" as history, but also the conventions and even the technology behind how that history gets written (or represented or whatever). There is a lot going on in this book in that regard.

On the one hand, it looks like a fairly typical late medieval Syrian local history. That's certainly what I thought I was getting when I ordered the microfilm a million years ago. As with those local histories of Aleppo or Damascus, Constantine’s work begins with a descriptive overview of the city and its main points of interests. And like those authors, Constantine then proceeds to describe the city-walls, its towers, and gates, and includes a section on the magical properties of the city (which include things like talismans and sculptures not unlike the Bocca della Verità in Rome) and on its climate. Its illustrations are fascinating, but they are also solidly in the tradition of Christian manuscript illumination from Syria, particularly the ornamentation (for a sample, see previous posts).

But when we talk about "discourses of history" we are not really talking about what history-books look like so much as the ideas of history that lie behind the book. And what is revealing here is what is absent. This is not a traditional local history of Homs, despite all the trappings.  Had Constantine wanted to compose a local history and description of Homs for his patron, he had abundant, long-entrenched indigenous models of historical writing (Christian and Muslim) to follow. But he did not. Instead, he appears to have largely subscribed to an entirely different idea of his city’s history. To Constantine, the history of his city, with which he was so proud, was materially manifest—in its antiquities and standing in monuments. And not just any old pile of stones, but in objects that were considered, according to him, mustahaqq, “worthy” of noting.  This seems to mean most things with a date, that are aesthetically interesting, or that convey a sense of wonder, that are ʿajib. I think it likely that some of this attitude towards objects being the repository of history is market-driven, and is certainly consonant with the interests of his patron Bambino and his patrons, the various foreign explorers and scholars and collectors that travelled through the area, as we saw in the previous post on this manuscript.

But what is fascinating to consider is that I do not think Constantine was importing here some sort of foreign notion of history, so much as crafting his own. He seems to have written more than one of these collections of inscriptions, and it may be that this manuscript is the master from which other compilations, such as the one Burton mentions, were copied and excerpted. Burton himself says that Constantine compiled the book he saw “for his own use.” Constantine was not interested in selling his book, or even, I don’t think, in selling the objects it records, though he was eager to accompany explorers like Burton on their rambles, and in providing transcripts for foreign scholars. His pride in his work is evident in his description of his “precision” and “thoroughness”, concepts meant to provoke (in traditional fashion) his provincial patron’s gratitude as much as to align his methods with those in favor among Victorian Orientalists hailing from the metropole.

I should also maybe point out that Constantine is not interested in his city’s history because of any idea on his part of national identity. The first stirrings of a specifically Syrian nationalism were only just airing in Constantine’s day, and even then, so I gather, these were largely ideas about the distinctiveness of Syrian identity within an Ottoman context, not any idea of Syria existing as its own independent nation-state. Whatever the case, Constantine seems innocent of such notions. He takes great pride in his city’s history and antiquities, but it is as a Homsi that he does so, not as a Syrian. Constantine obliging identifies himself in his preface as “The Weak, the Sinning, the Errant Servant, Constantine ibn al-Khuri Dawud, Homsi in origin and home (al-himsi aslan wa-watanan), Christian in descent, Greek Orthodox in creed and in rite.” He uses here the word watan, which I have rendered as “home” to refer to Homs, his city, when in a few decades the word will become unthinkable in any other context except as nation, and synonymous with Syria. His identity as a Homsi seems elsewhere in play when, in describing his achievement in his book, he wistfully suggests that if geographers gave as much attention to other cities as he does to Homs, they would scarecely have need of dafatir iqlim ʿArabistan, the tax-rolls of the district of Arabistan, the vague term that the Ottomans had used for the Arab lands between Egypt and Iraq—and Constantine uses this terms despite the fact that the Ottomans had re-organized and officially renamed his province as Suriye some decades before, in the 1830’s.  So: Constantine sees himself as a Homsi and a Christian, but not as a Syrian.

Moreover, it is significant that Constantine, the priest from Homs, does not provide here, not entirely anyway, a Christian history of Homs, or a record only of inscriptions found in Christian buildings. For him, the shrine of the conqueror Khalid ibn al-Walid and the Sufi convent outside the walls are as important as features of his city as his own Monastery of St. Julian and the Greek Orthodox Church and those of the other denominations. He examines mosques as much as churches, Christian cemeteries as much as Muslim, and local festivals of both groups. His vision of history is thus one that is local, Homsi.

And it is important to take note of what is absent here. There is no narrative, none. At no place does Constantine provide even the slightest gesture of a historical overview for his patron, as I did for you readers in my first post about this. He mentions no dynasties, and cites no other authors except the random selections from old books that he includes largely, I think, because they are, like most of his inscriptions, dated. At most, in a brief aside about the Muslim conquest, he described the city passing from ayyam al-Nasara to ayyam al-Islam, “the Christian period to the Muslim period”. He is not synthesizing a narrative, not really anyway, out of the material objects he records with the plan to score political points.

Constantine's context

But, for all that, one has to admit, it is still partisan history. I think the key here is to recall Constantine’s immediate historical context. No Christian in Syria writing in the 1860’s would fail to be affected by what have come to be known simply as “The Events of 1860.” These were bloody massacres that swept Lebanon and Syria, in which the Christians of Syria were the target of gruesome reprisals in Damascus and elsewhere. Hama and Homs were left relatively unscathed by the events of 1860, but it left everyone, especially perhaps Christians and foreigners, shaken. Lelila Fawaz, in her study of the 1860 Massacres, specifically names, on the basis of consular records, Constantine's patron, Faddul Bambino, as one of the foreign diplomats shaken by the events and who firmly believed that another massacre of Christians was in the offing. It is thus entirely understandable that Constantine, a Syrian Christian perhaps in the direct employ of the jittery Bambino, provided the sort of vision of his city that he did. For Constantine, the Salubrious City of Homs is one that houses the evidence of the local history of Christians and Muslims. But in his view, Muslims of his day, such as the “ignorant” people and possesssors of “base intellect” that accosted him in his fieldwork, seem not to be aware of this rich history or to care for it.

And although he does not offer his own narrative, he still draws lessons from other peoples’ narratives, such as the long sections from old books that he copies verbatim into his work. He means to copy them like he does his inscriptions; but he uses them as narratives to drive home a point. These aren't just innocent quotations from cool old books for him. Thus, he follows a long section copied from the early medieval Arabic chronicle by the Christian historian Said ibn Bitriq about the Muslim conquest of Syria and Palestine with an account of a much later Muslim ruler (the Mamluk sultan Baybars), and his campaigns into Syria to fight the Crusaders, in which the churches of native Christians were also destroyed, including some in Homs (though this was news to me, I admit!). It is only after copying these rather dramatic excerpts that he stops to introduce an “author’s note” of his own, noting how, when Constaninople was captured in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks, much the same sort of destruction and plunder took place, and that in that case, there was a group of Europeans living in Galata (he means here the Genoese colony of Constantinople) who assisted the Turks, but when the city was finally taken they fled for their lives:

But if you now compared these qualities on display among the kings of Europe today, with their differing opinions and the assistance they provide to the armies of Islam when they go to war, you would think these qualities had been inherited from their predecessors of old. For hope for victory cannot last so long as the house is divided; but if only these kings can find a unifying agreement, and be bound together with bonds of amity, then they can regain their mastery over the Protectors of the Prophet’s Household [the Ottomans].

Here, then, Constantine’s use of the past finally comes into resolution, and one can begin to connect the dots represented in all those carefully-transcribed inscriptions. In this one, candid statement, Constantine suggests at least one additional motive behind his desire to record the fragments of his city’s history. I think we cannot think of Constantine as merely the dutiful servant of his inscription-hungry patron, Bambino. Rather, I think we have here an Ottoman subject who is a partner in a relationship that involved the representative of a foreign government and the foreign travelers and scholars he assisted. This relationship centered on the place and purpose of local history in Ottoman lands as Europeans became more and more involved in the internal affairs and ultimate collapse of that Empire. Constantine was himself keen to highlight the rich and glorious history of his city, Homs; not as a part of some putative national history, and certainly not as a part of some official Ottoman history. Rather, he links it to Gibbon’s Great Debate, the struggle between, notice the scare-quotes, “Islam and the West”.  And this was a sectarian debate, made all the more shrill in Constantine’s context by the Events of 1860, so that medieval episodes of destruction that befell some of the Christian sites in his city are represented as presaging the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople--Homs and Constantinople being, what’s more, the twin hearts of his own Homsi, Greek-Orthodox identity. His sense of doom is personal.

His “author’s note” then, is not some wistful aside on the theme of la plus ça change, but rather should be seen in context—as an appeal and a warning to his anxious French consular patron that the bric-a-brac of history assembled in his book is rich, diverse, and under threat, just as he had been under threat from Muslims he considered to be uncomprehending and of base intellect, just as Homs had been under threat by Muslim invaders in the past. In addressing this argument to Bambino, Constantine was addressing it to an audience whom he knew grasped the value of this history and who had lived through spectacle of Muslim-on-Christian violence in 1860, a spectacle made all the worse, to Constantine, by the reluctance of the divided European powers to adopt a firm policy against the Ottomans. Constantine, like Bambino and so many other consular officials in Syria, undoubtedly thought a reprise of 1860 was in the offing. In that instance, Constantine wishes to say, history recommends that Europe’s powers form a united front against this Muslim threat, lest Ottoman Christians and all their noble antiquities fall as Constantinople did in 1453. 

Constantine’s book is thus both an antiquarian collection of data about Homs, ancient, medieval, and modern, but also an indication of how one provincial Syrian priest for his own purposes made use of the past of his venerable and salubrious city.

Preserving Homs, Syria (Part 2): The Antiquarian and the Pornographer

In my previous post, I introduced a curious manuscript now housed at the Cambridge University Library, called (for brevity's sake), the Kitab tawarikh Hims, which was a compilation of lore, description, and transcription of some of the monuments and antiquities of Homs, Syria. The manuscript was compiled in 1863, and reflects the Ottoman city just after the traumatic sectarian events of 1860 that flared in Syria (including what is now Lebanon). It was compiled by a native of Homs, a Melkite or Greek Orthodox priest named Constantine ibn Dawud al-Khuri.

The final pages of Constantine's book (CUL Add 338)

The final pages of Constantine's book (CUL Add 338)

The Man and His Patron

But what ever was Constantine doing in composing such a work? This post will be devoted to the author and will take a stab at what his motives might have been. Happily, Constantine is fairly forthright in what his primary motivation was, as he describes it in his introduction:

“What called me to compose this precious book…is when [His Excellency] Monsieur Faddul Bambino, Consul of the Most Honored State of France at Homs and Hama…commanded me to take under my supervision all of the inscriptions, ancient and modern, currently to be found in the Divinely-Protected Salubrious City of Homs, a city deserving of fame and renown is every location and town. [These inscriptions] are in every possible language and every known script, which I have clearly expressed [here], collecting them in their own special book in such a way that they are arranged by location and text.”

His book, then, was to be a sort of regional collection of inscriptions along the lines of the collections or corpora of inscriptions being compiled by French classicists and Orientalists at roughly the same time. But Constantine then went on [as was traditional] to describe the lengths he undertook to fulfill his patron’s request:

“I did not shirk from investigating and ferreting out details for this purpose, resorting sometimes to pestering and untruths to obtain what was requested. To that end I did not skip any of the locations of Homs or its streets, going so far as to examine with celerity the roads leading from it and every path leading in, to say nothing of the complete scrutiny I dispensed in stopping to verify the total accuracy of whatever inscriptions were found in churches and mosques. I would likewise contemplatively inspect the walls alongside any home or shop, and on this account I cast my wandering eyes about left and right like someone love-sick and giddy, or a lost new-comer, and when I should scrutinize a given inscription, I would stare at it with the gaze of a thirsty stag. And when I was opposed in this by various ignoramuses and fools, I would have to resort to various forms of maltreatment to brush them off, since, due to their base intellects they deluded themselves into thinking that [my interest in inscriptions] would lead to various forms of frightful ruin. May evil befall them and their petty delusions!”

The evidence from Constantine’s own account suggests the primary motive was one of patronage, that in composing the book, he was following the “command” of the French consul, Faddul Bambino. Now, while we know next to nothing about Constantine himself, it turns out that Bambino has left more of a trace in the record. His patronage of Constantine is entirely within what we know of his interests and character. Faddul Bambino was not, in fact, the French Consul at Hama. In Constantine’s day there was no French consul at Hama. However Constantine may have been led to describe him as such, Bambino was in fact merely a consular protegé resident in Hama, a Maronite Christian from Tripoli who was a commissioning agent for various French firms operating in the never-never land between Damascus and Aleppo. His family--the Bambini I suppose--had been associated with French diplomatic interests for some decades, serving as dragomans and the like, and were some of the few foreign landowners in the Orontes valley. In the 1860’s Faddul Bambino, was, however, recognized as the principal go-to guy for French interests in the area, and he appears often enough in official consular correspondence of the day, notably assisting a French Jesuit spy from Beirut in making contacts among the Bedouin tribes of central Syria and providing reports to the French consul in Beirut. However, the 1876 Baedeker to Palestine and Syria describes him as the French vice-consul and perhaps this reflects a formalization of his status.

In any case, Bambino was also, it turns out, something of a collector of antiquities. And here we are indebted to the testimony of none other than Sir Richard Francis Burton, famous Victorian explorer, pornographer, and translator of the Arabian Nights, who mentions in one of his communiqués to the Royal Asiatic Society that he had observed a few Greek inscriptions and a Palmyrene bust in Bambino’s homeMore tellingly, Burton heaps praise on the man in his own recollections of his travels in Syria, entitled Unexplored Syria, which was published in 1872, documenting his travels after being stationed as British Consul in Damascus in 1869, and mostly intended to cast his record of service in a good light and to scorn his superiors for having him ousted from the post. In this book, Burton attributes the good treatment he found among the natives of Hama to the ministration of his host, Bambino, “whose energy and savoir faire have given to the European name an importance before unknown to it in these regions”. Bambino’s nephew, Prosper Bey, accompanied Burton on a ramble across the Syrian plains east of Hama in a successful pursuit of inscriptions and ruins.

Sir Richard Francis Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton

And this is where things get curious. For in his travels through Syria, Burton also passed through Homs, where he made the acquaintance of none other than our own Constantine ibn Dawud, whom he describes as having been involved in making transcripts of certain important Hittite inscriptions in Hama, said transcripts being later deposited in the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut (now AUB), and subsequently published by a German Orientalist. Burton had hoped to take Constantine on another of his inscription-hunting rambles in the country outside Homs, but as he put it: “He proved himself…so ignorant, leading me a long way to see a Hebrew inscription which proved to be Kufi [i.e. Arabic]; so greedy of gain, and so untruthful a Graeculus esuriens [“hungry little Greek”], that I was compelled unwillingly to abandon the project.”

Elsewhere, Burton states:

“Hums is one of the most interesting towns in Syria, not only on account of its past history, but for its present remains; and being somewhat out of the reach of tourists, it is still a fair field for the collector. A certain Konstantin Khuri bin Daud, whose name has already been mentioned, possesses a book in which he has entered for his own use, more or less correctly, 398 inscriptions of sorts—at least that was the number he gave me—existing in and about Hums, chiefly Greek, a few Latin, and some flowery Cufic. According to him, the eastern regions between Hums and Palmyra abound in ruins…and for the small sum of five hundred piastres per month he volunteered, provided I would supply him with a guard, to bring back a rich store of 'written stones' and antikat.” Burton then goes on to complain that the Ottoman authorities have recently prohibited the export of all antiquities with the result that “interesting remains are left in the streets to be broken by boys; and foreigners are subject to all manner of annoyance.”

It is worth pointing out that the book mentioned by Burton is NOT the Cambridge MS, as it was deposited in Cambridge in 1867, according to a note left in the manuscript itself, some years before Burton ever visited Syria. His description is of a shorter work, which may well be the one known to exist in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, or a relative of it in any case. Who knows how many copies Constantine was churning out to sell to passing Orientalists? More on that later.

So, anyway, on the basis of all this testimony, it seems then that we have a pretty good idea of what Constantine was up to in his careful recording of his city’s inscriptions and monuments. Clearly, Constantine was working for Faddul Bambino in some way, or wished to portray himself as doing so. The testimony of his being commissioned to write his book by Bambino is not really clear evidence, as it was a common trope of Ottoman and medieval literary works for the author to grant the impetus to a patron rather than to the author himself. Suffice it to say that Constantine, the antiquarian country vicar, was plainly in the orbit of Bambino, the local antiquarian foreign dignitary, who himself had abundant connections to other foreign dignitaries, such as Burton. Constantine’s manuscript is a product of that relationship. As such, it reveals something about Constantine's place in the relationship between Ottoman Syria and Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century.  I'll hazard a few conclusions about all that in my next and final blog post on Homs, this curious manuscript, and its curious author.

Preserving Homs, Syria: An Ottoman Antiquarian and a Mysterious Book (Part 1)

Syria's ongoing civil war has come with unthinkable human costs in casualties, injuries, and displacement that the country has never witnessed before in its history.  With this death has come destruction to Syria's cities, towns, and infrastructure, particularly in the north, where the forces of Daesh (the Islamic State) hold the greatest amount of territory as of this writing. In 2011, the city of Homs was a major center for opposition forces; by 2014, following a truce, the opposition appears to have withdrawn and the city appears to be in the hands of pro-Assad groups. In those intervening three years, Homs was the target of a brutal artillery and bombing campaign by pro-Assad forces that has left the city, including its many ancient and medieval monuments, largely in ruins and, in some cases, utterly obliterated.

Unlike Damascus and Aleppo, however, which have received the lion's share of historical and art-historical scrutiny over the ages, Homs remains a poorly-known and poorly-documented city, despite its importance in Syria's long and enriching history. I thought, therefore, that I would call attention to a manuscript of a work compiled by an Ottoman-era native of Homs who took it upon himself to describe and in some cases transcribe his city's monumental past.

18th century original drawing of the castle of Hims by Cassas

18th century original drawing of the castle of Hims by Cassas

First, a few words about the city's history. Known to the Greeks and Romans as Emesa, to medieval Syrians as Hims, and to modern residents as Homs or Hommos, the city’s location on the Orontes River, at the intersection of important over-land routes, has meant that Homs was old when Alexander the Great first passed through the area. It has a rich and respectable history. The notable classes of ancient Homs, for example, produced a few Roman emperors, and the city was a center of Syrian Christianity from an early period, its cathedral housing an important shrine to St. John the Baptist, and its populace producing a few saints over the centuries. During the early Islamic period, the city was conquered by the warrior-hero Khalid ibn Walid, whose tomb-complex is an important extra-mural shrine even today. Homs was a significant Islamic city that later was home to generations of venerated scholarly families and sufi mystics; later in the Middle Ages, Homs was the center of its own Turkish fiefdom, often but not always ruled in tandem with its neighbor and rival, Hama. In the Ottoman period, Homs settled in to its role as a provincial town, remaining as it was before the current war, a vital transportation hub within central Syria. 

            It was the city’s “marginal centrality” that first attracted my attention to it in graduate school many, many years ago. While I was in the process of writing a master’s thesis on the medieval city, I first came upon the manuscript that is the subject of this post, CUL MS Add. 338. It seemed extremely promising for my purposes at the time: an Arabic chronicle listed as Kitab taʾrikh Hims (The History of Homs) in the Cambridge University Library Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts, and written by someone with the obviously Syrian Christian name of Constantine ibn Dawud. It bore all the hall-marks of a medieval local history, that particular genre for which Syrian cities like Aleppo and Damascus were famous amongst Islamic historians. Perhaps, I thought, this was Homs’s version of those rich chronicles, which had, like everything else about Homs, simply been overlooked. To my knowledge (and I think this is still true), no one has mentioned this work since it was given to Cambridge in 1867. Even if it was a late medieval work, I thought, it would undoubtedly preserve things about the earlier medieval past, as other examples of this genre always did.

            So I ordered a microfilm of it (remember microfilm?). Nearly a year later (I know, right?), when the film arrived, I realized I might as well forget about it.  The work was clearly dated to 1863, the author a late Ottoman Greek Orthodox priest from Homs. I had no use for Ottoman history. Modern history, I foolishly thought, was for weaklings. And I put the film away for years. It was only years later when I examined the film thoroughly that I realized what I had here, namely an antiquarian record of the city as its stood in the 1860’s, just after a violent explosion of sectarian violence that had catapulted Syria onto the world stage, however briefly. And this was moreover a city that has rapidly been lost to 20th-century growth, to say nothing of 21st-century bombardment. Constantine’s manuscript preserves, in grab-bag fashion, aspects of Homs that have since been totally effaced, but it’s not just useful as an antiquarian collection for Ottomanists, medievalists or even classicists to mine for data, which I'll highlight in this post.  It's also interesting for what it tells us about its author and his place in his world--something for a future post.

The Manuscript

            It turns out, that, importantly, the CUL Catalogue got the name of this book wrong. An honest mistake. The work is not, as it turns out, called the Kitab taʾrikh Hims, “The History of Homs”, from which we might expect a running narrative of the city’s history, but rather the Kitab tawarikh Hims, by which Constantine meant “The Dated Inscriptions [or matters of historical interest] of Homs.” But it is much more than just a collection of inscriptions, but a record of almost anything that Constantine could find in his city that had an inscription or date on it. The full title of the work provides some hint of what he thought he was up to: Kitab al-dalala al-usuliyya al-bahiyya fi tawarikh madinat Hims al-ʿadhiyya wa-fi baʿd al-umur al-jughrafiyya, or roughly put, “A Shining Elementary Guide-Book to the Matters of Historical Interest of the Salubrious City of Homs and to Certain Geographical Matters.”

            The book weighs in at some 500 folios—about 1100 pages, and is divided into twelve chapters on the following topics: a general description of the city, its inhabitants and their trades; on the churches of the city; on the Monastery of St. Julian (which is the monastery attached to the Greek Orthodox church there); on excerpts from certain ancient books found in these establishments; on the mosques of the city; on the public fountains of the city; on talismanic inscriptions; on the fine houses of the city; on noteworthy gravestones, Christian and Muslim; on the doors of houses and shops; on principal monuments like the citadel, the Tomb of Khalid, and the Mevlevi tekke, (a sufi meeting-house, now destroyed); and finally on the Orontes river, its canals, and its water-wheels. Each of these chapters Constantine further divides into sections devoted to various sub-topics, like the city-gates, the towers of the city-walls, caravanserais, peculiar local Muslim and Christian religious customs, miraculous icons adorning the churches, and various notes and asides.

            Along the way, Constantine provided occasional illustrations of the various architectural features of the city, which are really lovely examples of late Ottoman folk art, and very reminiscent of the sort of architectural ornaments one occasionally finds in medieval manuscripts, or folk art of his day.  So, by way of show-and-tell, here are some of them.  These are just photos from the microfilm, not digitized pages, so they are in grayscale, and not of great quality.  But they're all I've got:

A general view of the city, with the extramural Mevlevi tekke (right) and the mosque of Khalid (left) below.

A general view of the city, with the extramural Mevlevi tekke (right) and the mosque of Khalid (left) below.

A transcribed Greek inscription.

A transcribed Greek inscription.

Attempts at transcribed Greek and Arabic inscriptions.

Attempts at transcribed Greek and Arabic inscriptions.

A transcribed English inscription from a clock!

A transcribed English inscription from a clock!

The tomb of Mar Ilyan (Saint Elias).

The tomb of Mar Ilyan (Saint Elias).

There are abundant other illustrations, many of far more interesting inscriptions or buildings--they are just not well-photographed in the microfilm, so I didn't bother to share them.  If the manuscript ever gets properly digitized, I'll repost some of them in vivid color. I hope these give you some sense of the historical riches to be found in this book, and in Homs itself.  Stay tuned.

Ibn Battuta vs. Marco Polo

Now, this hardly counts as a new blog post, but I wanted to store here this video of a lecture I gave a few years ago because it is I hope of general interest, and because it also started me thinking about one of my current book projects, Travel Tips from the Middle Ages. And this lecture did attempt to distill some of the lessons learned from the rather remarkable globe-trotting of Ibn Battuta (d. 1377). It also pits him as a traveler and writer against Marco Polo (d. 1324), whose Travels I enjoy less and less as I continue to read it. Marco Polo, the merchant's son, is all about prices and commodities. Ibn Battuta, by contrast, an uptight Muslim judge (or qadi), is keen to spot (if only to condemn) local habits. He also, by the way, LOVED food and enjoyed pausing in his narrative to describe it to all his hungry readers/listeners. At any rate, I hope the lecture will encourage you to pick up some of Ibn Battuta's travel writings, which have been translated in full and in anthologies here and there. He is also the subject or inspiration of a good bit of quality modern travel writing, as with the books of Tim Mackintosh-Smith.

Obama on Crusade

A little background here: I originally wrote this piece in the wake of President Obama's comments at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015. But by the time I got around to actually writing it, the news cycle had moved on and I never published it. And my ground had already been better covered by people like Ta-Nehisi Coates here and, before the speech even occured, by the rather wonderful Matthew Gabriele here. But, hey. I tried. Here's my take:

President Obama’s comments on Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast amounted to a well-intentioned swipe at American exceptionalism and was directed toward the laudable goal of breaking the link between Islam and terrorism in the public’s mind. To do so, as commenters have since noted, he made explicit recourse to history. Yet in this, he has less to be proud.

In noting the tension between compassion and violence that religion can produce, he said, “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.”… an immediate warning-flag for any historian that a gross generalization is about to erupt. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Despite the totally uncontroversial nature of such a statement among historians, criticism came quickly, with some Christian groups finding such chiding offensive, even though the President was careful to distinguish these as “a tendency in us, a sinful tendency, that can pervert and distort our faith.” Yet that’s where the President was wrong, or, at least, not right enough. For the fact is that the Crusades, it turns out, were less perverse than anyone wants to believe.


While the medieval and early modern campaigns of Christian holy war we call the Crusades did indeed have their critics, the best and most recent research on crusading has shown just how mainstream, how imbued with genuine Christian piety, it was and how support for crusading, abroad or on the home front, was understood as fully consonant with proper Christian belief.  Far from a delusion of a perverse few—as terrorism is among Muslims—crusading was part of the warp and weft of medieval Christian society.

But that was then, and this is now. Religious traditions, all of them, are complex systems with complex histories. This is why academics—believers or not—insist on understanding religion in its own context. The fact that Medieval Christians and Muslims resorted to violence for reasons that contemporary Christians and Muslims find hard to grasp suggests that religions today are not the same as they were in the past--and that they will change in the future too. That should be comforting to both the President and those offended by his comparisons.

It is one thing to make recourse to history in the course of a debate; it is another to throw it under the bus to score points. The fact is, this desire to look back and declare some aspects of the Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish…) past as perverse or distorted, just like the desire to reclaim other aspects we find more palatable, is an easy way to avoid some hard truths. As a historian, I laud the President and his audience’s grappling with history in such a setting; yet one wonders whether the medieval past might have been better left out of the discussion, when there is no scarcity of contemporary American examples of violence undertaken in the name of God that might be used to chide us all.

Is Islamic history in danger of becoming irrelevant?

NOTE: I originally published this essay in august 2014 at the OUP Academic blog.  You can find the original here:


Recently the jihadist insurgent group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) underwent a re-branding of sorts when one of its leaders, known by the sobriquet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was proclaimed caliph by the group’s members. In keeping with the horizonless pretentions that such a title theoretically conveys, the group dropped their geographical focus and embraced a more universalist outlook, settling for the name of the ‘Islamic State’.

As a few observers have noted, the title of caliph comes freighted with a long and complicated history. That history begins in the seventh century AD, when the title was adopted to denote those leaders of the Muslim community who were recognized as the Prophet Muhammad’s “successors”— not prophets themselves of course, but men who were expected, in the Prophet’s absence, to know how to guide the community spiritually as well as politically. Later in the medieval period, classical Islamic political theory sought to carefully define the pool from which caliphs might be drawn and to stipulate specific criteria that a caliph must possess, such as lineage, probity, moral standing and so on. Save for his most ardent followers, Muslims have found al-Baghdadi — with his penchant for Rolex watches and theatrical career reinventions — sorely wanting in such caliphal credentials.

He’s not the only one of course. Over the span of Islamic history, the title of caliph has been adopted by numerous (and sometimes competing) dynasties, rebels, and pretenders. The last ruler to bear the title in any significant way was the Ottoman Abdülmecid II, who lost the title when he was exiled in 1924. And even then it was an honorific supported only by myths of Ottoman legitimacy. But it’s doubtful that al-Baghdadi gives the Ottomans much thought. For he is really tapping into a much more recent dream of reviving the caliphate embraced by various Islamist groups since the early 20th century, who saw it as a precondition for reviving the Muslim community or to combat Western imperialism. Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is thus a modern confection, despite its medieval trappings.

That an Islamic fundamentalist (to use a contested term of its own) like al-Baghdadi should make an appeal to the past to legitimate himself, and that he should do so without any thoughtful reference to Islamic history, is of course the most banal of observations to make about his activities, or about those of any fundamentalist. And perhaps that is the most interesting point about this episode. For the utterly commonplace nature of examples like al-Baghdadi’s clumsy claim to be caliph suggest that Islamic history today is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Caliph Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons .

Caliph Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Library of Congress. Public domain viaWikimedia Commons.

This is not because Islamic history has no bearing upon the present Islamic world, but because present-day agendas that make use of that history prefer to cherry-pick, deform, and obliterate the complicated bits to provide easy narratives for their own ends. Al-Baghdadi’s claim, for example, leaps over 1400 years of more nuanced Islamic history in which the institution of the caliphate shaped Muslim lives in diverse ways, and in which regional upstarts had little legitimate claim. But he is hardly alone in avoiding inconvenient truths — contemporary comment on Middle Eastern affairs routinely employs the same strategy.

We can see just such a history-shy approach in coverage of the sectarian conflicts between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, we are usually told, has its origins in a contest over religious authority in the seventh century between the partisans of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and those Muslims who believed the incumbent caliphs of the day were better guides and leaders for the community. And so Shi’ites and Sunnis, we are led to believe, have been fighting ever since. It is as if the past fourteen centuries of history, with its record of coexistence, migrations, imperial designs, and nation-building have no part in the matter, to say nothing of the past century or less of authoritarian regimes, identity-politics, and colonial mischief.

We see the inconvenient truths of Islamic history also being ignored in the widespread discourse of crusading and counter-crusading that occasionally infects comment on contemporary conflicts, as if holy war is the default mode for Muslims fighting non-Muslims or vice-versa. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can wrap himself in black robes and proclaim himself Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State, when seventh-century conflicts seem like thorough explanations for twenty-first century struggles, or when a terrorist and mass-murderer like the Norwegian Anders Breivik can see himself as a latter-day Knight Templar, then we are sadly living in a world in which the medieval is allowed to seep uncritically into the contemporary as a way to provide easy answers to very complicated problems.

But we should be wary of such easy answers. Syria and Iraq will not be saved by a caliph. And crusaders would have found the motivations of today’s empire-builders sickening. History properly appreciated should instead lead us to acknowledge the specificity, and indeed oddness, of our modern contexts and the complexity of our contemporary motivations. It should, one hopes, lead to that conclusion reached famously by Mark Twain: that history doesn’t repeat itself, even if sometimes it rhymes.