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.