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.