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the city of Homs was a major center for opposition forces; by 2014, following a truce, the opposition appears to have withdrawn and the city appears to be in the hands of pro-Assad groups.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.