Ottoman

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.