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Article first published in the London Review of Books on 16 February 2017.
Aleppo Observed: Ottoman Syria through the Eyes of Two Scottish Doctors, Alexander and Patrick Russell by Maurits H. van den Boogert
Arcadian Library, 254 pp, £120.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 958856 5
The fighting that began in Aleppo on 19 July 2012 lasted four years, five months and three days, killing more than thirty thousand people – almost three times the number killed in the siege of Sarajevo twenty years earlier. Most of the tens of thousands of buildings and apartments which were destroyed lay in the modern residential areas in the east of the city, but fighting in the winter of 2012-13 and a bomb in 2014 destroyed almost every shop in the historic souk, damaged the ancient citadel, eviscerated the city’s largest ‘khan’ or trading courtyard, blew up two medieval seminaries, and brought down the 11th-century minaret of the great mosque.
But the worst of the damage has been to the life of the city, and it is for this – the human dimension rather than the buildings – that Aleppo was chiefly famous. The old city, which achieved its current form by the mid-16th century, largely presents windowless walls to the street; and these are not, like the walls of Kabul, made of warm, sagging, straw-flecked mud: they are rigid blocks of grey-white stone. Foreigners have consistently perceived this aspect of the city as – in the words of the French gem-hunter Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in 1640 – ‘not very handsome’, or, in the words of Bartholomew Plaisted in 1752, ‘very disagreeable to Europeans’. In 1898, Baedeker simply told tourists that they ‘present an unpleasing exterior’. The ‘two Scottish doctors’, Alexander and Patrick Russell, explained in 1792 that it was particularly the height of the walls which made the streets appear so ‘gloomy’: ‘little better than alleys winding among the melancholy walls of nunneries’. The people of Aleppo, on the other hand, were consistently captivating; ‘the gentlest, the least kenniving, and the most accommodating in this vast Empire’, as a 17th-century French diplomat put it. And it is the people who form the heart of the Russell brothers’ account.
The city, which Alexander Russell first saw in 1740, was already well known in the West. It was two hundred years since a permanent Venetian consulate had been established there, and 150 since the third English consul, John Eldred (who sailed to Aleppo on the Tiger, like the man the witch in Macbeth plans to kill), observed that it had been described so often it was hardly worth saying anything more about it. For Ralph Fitch, in 1594, Aleppo must have seemed one of the least exotic places he had seen in journeys that had already taken him to Fallujah, Baghdad, Basra, Hormuz (where he was arrested as a spy), Goa (where he was imprisoned), Agra (where he met the Great Mogul), Allahabad, Varanasi, Bihar, Chittagong, Burma and Malacca. The rooms the Russells stayed in – under the soaring domes of the 16th-century Khan al-Jumruk, in the very centre of the souk – had housed John Verney’s cricket bats at the time of the English Civil War.
Alexander Russell had read many of these earlier accounts of the city – Ross Burns, in his excellent summary of Aleppo’s long history, counts 17 separate accounts produced in the late 17th century alone – and he didn’t think the previous descriptions were outdated; he uses the 1574 account of the German doctor Leonhard Rauwolff almost as though he were a contemporary (although he notes that there were fewer wooden locks than Rauwolff had seen in the gates). But he points out that most of his contemporaries and predecessors – like most expats today – could hardly be bothered to learn conversational Arabic, let alone read and write it, had ‘little or no social intercourse with the Turks’, and lived a secluded life within their warehouse offices, from which they ventured for prolonged and extravagant feasts and drinking bouts with fellow foreigners, interrupted by expeditions for sport and picnics in the surrounding countryside. Russell was resolved to attempt something new: a complete ‘natural history’ that would include
“a Description of the City and its Environs; of the Seasons, Agriculture, and Gardens … the Manners and Customs of the Mohammedans; of the interior of the Turkish Harem; and a Sketch of the Government of the City … an Account of the European Inhabitants; of the native Christians and Jews; and of the present State of Arab Literature in Syria … of indigenous Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Insects, and Plants; Meteorological Observations; with an Account of the Epidemical Diseases at Aleppo … [and] of the Plague”.
Alexander Russell remained in the city, recording such things, for 13 years, and then handed his medical practice and research over to his brother Patrick, who stayed a further 18 years. Alexander’s first edition of the Natural History of Aleppo was published after his return to London in 1756, and Patrick’s very different second edition almost forty years later, in 1794. Their combined work still represents the most comprehensive and compelling account of the city written in any foreign language (its only rival is Jean Sauvaget’s Alep, written in French in 1941).
Their intellectual ambition is overwhelming. Alexander apologises in the second chapter for the fact that ‘many [birds] must no doubt have escaped my notice,’ before listing 109 of them (107 of which were native to Aleppo) – each catalogued by its Latin Linnaean name and, in the case of the hunting falcons, their Arabic names. Maurits van den Boogert, the author of Aleppo Observed, establishes that Alexander Russell was the first European to record the existence of the little brown bittern, or sulwa (beautifully shown with its neck croquet-stick-straight), and the first to provide a scientific description of the little pintailed grouse. And although van den Boogert is more disparaging of the Russells’ ichthyology – ‘based almost exclusively on what they were served at the consular table, and possibly what they observed in the stalls of the fish market’ – he cannot fail to be impressed by their catalogue of more than seven hundred Syrian plants, two of which, a sage and a milk-vetch, are now named the Phlomis Russeliana and the Astragalus Russelii.
And so the book continues, examining agricultural techniques, providing a comprehensive description of Aleppan clothing, horse furniture and every step of the massage in the hamam (through to the rough sponge and the deliberate clicking of each finger at the finale), and laying the foundation for the Russells’ comprehensive census of plague deaths in the city, achieved by paying informers to record the exact number of Muslim, Christian and Jewish funerals (the population was then about 80 per cent Sunni Muslim, 15 per cent Christian and 5 per cent Jewish).
For a reader with less appetite for Enlightenment encyclopedias, the spice comes from the hundreds of meals the Russells ate in different Aleppan houses. These allowed them to develop a keen taste, not only for the 141 local recipes they transcribed (‘exclusive of Khushafs, creams and confections’), but also for Aleppan manners. And it is these years of feasting that give verisimilitude to their accounts of political business, childish practical jokes, and the exact sequence for serving guests (‘the first page, carrying a large silk, or embroidered napkin, advances on the Divan, drops down on his knees, and, resting on his hams, spreads the napkin over the stranger’s robe, so as to prevent its being accidentally soiled. A second, in the same attitude, presents the sweetmeat in a chrystal cup, together with a small spoon with which the guest helps himself’), or the gymnastic contortions required for the proper serving of coffee (‘he does not kneel, but stooping gently forward, first lowering, then quickly advancing the hand, delivers the cup … The moment the coffee is finished … [he] is ready to receive the empty cup, which he catches as it were between both hands, the left palm turned up’).
They formed close friendships with a succession of Ottoman governors and senior officials – preferring the ‘somewhat prolix’ monologues of these magnificent figures, who had risen from comparatively humble backgrounds, and fought in the most far-flung corners of the empire, to the literary quotations of the mullahs. Their relationships with politicians allowed them to observe how consistently the removal of a grand vizier led to reckless outbursts of court gossip and speculation, which reverted to bland circumspection as soon as the new vizier was in place. But their closest friend was a cleric who was also a judge and the head of the local family of the prophet, with whom they collected medieval Arabic documents.
They analyse the blend of prejudice and toleration in the Ottoman attitude to the Jewish population, and disagree with the suggestion that Christians are suffering under the Ottoman yoke (‘they often complain of being the partial objects of petty tyranny, when in reality the Turks of similar rank are equal sufferers’). They chide the English merchants for their long dinner parties and their lack of interest in local culture, and they mock the Christian missionaries (‘the conversion of the Turks and Jews being an enterprise too seriously hazardous to be ever attempted, the pious labours of the missionaries are confined solely to the Christian natives’).
They are scathing about the limitations of Aleppan doctors, who ignored 17th century discoveries about the circulation of the blood, relied almost exclusively on early medieval textbooks, stuck rotting sheeps’ tails to people’s heads, flung impressive-sounding names around, and invented ‘new bones unknown in the European skeleton’. But they also observe that the refusal of Arab doctors to follow modern Western medical science probably ‘saved them the fruitless labour of wading through the ingenious and exploded theories’ fashionable in Europe (including, although they don’t concede it, the bleeding and blistering that the Russells inflicted on their own patients).
This wonderful book – which was courteously reviewed by Dr Johnson, and on their return to London enabled both brothers to join the Royal Society and advise the Privy Council – was almost entirely forgotten by 1800. Nineteenth and 20th-century readers, who continued to read the description of the Ottoman Empire by the Russells’ contemporary Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and later accounts by Sir Richard Burton or Gertrude Bell, ignored the Russells. A new imperial readership expected ‘serious’ writers like Burckhardt (who was sent to Aleppo in 1809 to study how to disguise himself as a Muslim) to provide a detailed account of political rivalries (Burckhardt’s magisterial account of the monthly tussles between the janissaries and the descendants of the prophet is unreadable). Or, at the very least, to focus, like Cardinal Newman’s brother who was studying Arabic in Aleppo in 1831, on the contrast between Christianity and Islam. Ethnographic detail was increasingly fed to a popular audience only as the background to an adventure story in which a narrator like Sir Alexander Burnes, or later Sir Richard Burton, gained their knowledge of Central Asia or Arabia by travelling in disguise and evading murderous emirs and roadside bandits with the nerves of a soldier and the cunning of an intelligence officer.
Meanwhile, less learned and less official travel writers began to describe the culture of Aleppo with the self-regarding swagger of a militia officer stationed in an English provincial town. In 1816, James Silk Buckingham (a future MP) devotes the first few thousand words of his account to the complaint that he has not been treated as a gentleman by the English consul. In 1850, another naval tourist and future MP jokes about being ‘unable to procure lodgings in the convent’, comments cheerfully on the looks and dress of the local women, and disparagingly on the shabbiness of a local garden, which he has hired for a drinking party. Extracts from all these accounts are printed by Philip Mansel in his stylish and affectionate history of Aleppo alongside those of later Victorian visitors, who are focused on an eternal round of consular picnics and drinking parties, punctuated by sardonic observations on the ersatz taste and slovenliness of Ottoman officials. (Gertrude Bell makes an exception for her friend the pasha, married to ‘a pleasant little lady from Brixton’.)
But the Russells, living in an earlier age when the communities of Asia were not primarily regarded as potential imperial subjects or Christian converts, wrote little about politics or Islam. They acquired their knowledge not in disguise but through long medical practice. And nothing in their account allowed the reader to revel in European vigour, courage and panache, or sneer at Ottoman decadence. (‘I wish,’ Alexander Russell remarks, ‘I could say that those who profess Christianity were better than their neighbours.’) And their knowledge built on 31 years of experience undermined all the claims to insight made by latecomers who had acquired it at a brisk cavalry gallop – or indeed by a visiting war reporter or an official locked, for a short tour, in a heavily secured international compound.
Even their visits to the harems fail to match the predictable fantasies of the European reader. Their access was unique – only made possible because they were doctors, and trusted long-term residents – but they don’t draw attention to this. Instead, they insist on the limits of their knowledge before describing each stage of a typical visit, beginning with their entry behind the slave – ‘Dirb, Dirb, al Hakeem Gia-y. Way! Way! the doctor is coming’ – and their first sight of their veiled patient, proferring her ‘naked wrist … for examination’. Having briskly rejected the wrist (the Russells were convinced that the pulse was a useless and ‘vulgar’ means of diagnosis), they proceed to question the patient on her case-history, and, if necessary, examine her:
“She then describes her complaints and, if it be necessary to look at the tongue, the veil is for that purpose removed, while the assistants keep the rest of the face, and especially the crown of the head, carefully covered. The women do not hesitate to expose the neck, the bosom, or the stomach, when the case requires those parts to be inspected, but never without extreme reluctance consent to uncover the head”.
Finally they describe their exit – continually interrupted by other members of the harem shouting medical questions from behind curtains, or by servants asking for prescriptions at the door, and then infuriating the chaperone by refusing to clear out of the way. Throughout this comedy there is no hint of anything out of order in their repeated access to other men’s naked wives. Contrast the impudent tone of Lieutenant Vernon, who visited ten years after the Russells left:
“My respected relation the Consul had amply participated of the sweets of Aleppo; and after some visits to Aleppo, from his consulship at Tripoly, became celebrated for his gallantry; for the Turks once on hearing of his arrival, exclaimed, Voilà! encore Monsieur V.: il a baisé une moitié de notres femmes; et il a retourné pour baiser l’autre. So much for harems!”
By the time van den Boogert and Janet Starkey, who produced a monograph on The Natural History of Aleppo in 2013, began to rediscover the brothers, they had been out of print since 1794, the only surviving portrait of Alexander had been lost, and all Patrick’s papers destroyed. So van den Boogert and Starkey did not only need to analyse mid-18th-century botany, ornithology, epidemiology, ichthyology, Orientalism and medicine, and master the literature on Enlightenment scholarly societies, Scottish freemasonry, the politics of the Ottoman Empire, and the fortunes and governance structure of the Russells’ employer (the Levant Company); they also had to labour to re-establish the simplest facts, such as the name of Alexander’s wife.
Van den Boogert’s research has been revived in a beautiful and costly volume of the Arcadian Library. Aleppo Observed is more than a foot high, weighs more than a kilo, and the elegant font runs between margins three inches wide. It includes fine reproductions of the Russells’ handwritten letters, engravings of Dutch 17th-century travel books, 18th-century Danish maps of the citadel, Italian florilegiums, 19th-century watercolours of English authors ‘in Syrian costume’, and a splendid double-page illustration of an Aleppan eel. And, alongside Starkey’s work, it not only provides invaluable context, but provides a strong incentive to reread the original.
Despite all the careful scholarship, however, reading the Natural History of Alepporemains an overwhelming and disorienting experience. At the heart of the work lie the continual arguments between the Ottoman physicians and the Edinburgh doctors (the latter sometimes turbaned and sometimes in wigs), each circling back to Avicenna’s 12th-century Arabic translation of works by Galen, written when Syria and Britain were both part of the Roman Empire. And each encounter suggests another cultural paradox. Why, for example, when both Britain and Aleppo had been for four hundred years part of the same empire, sharing, at least among the elite, a single diet (including imported olive oil and fish paste in Carlisle) and identical courtyard buildings and bath-houses, had all those features been preserved in Aleppo, but abandoned in Britain?
The differences in culture were not simply a product of different climates. Wealthy Londoners could, like the Romans, have imported olive oil, just as they imported wine; and they could have constructed a good bath-house (after all, Russians and Scandinavians in much harsher climates enjoyed their own version of nudity and heat). But they didn’t. As the Russells note, the Ottomans could have eaten the abundantly available local beef, fish and game of Aleppo, but they didn’t. There was no geographical reason why tattooing was restricted to women among the Bedouin, and sailors among the English. The Ottomans, who were fastidious about their clothes from their three layers of furred gowns to their yellow leather boots, could have been as susceptible to fashion as the British. Instead their fashions changed so little that a bride’s trousseau could retain its value for forty years.
And why exactly did these two brothers devote so much affection and curiosity to such questions, when so many of their fellow expatriates couldn’t be bothered to learn a word of Arabic? And what – to emphasise an issue van den Boogert underplays – of their Scottishness? How did being born shortly after the Act of Union, living through the Jacobite rebellions and the extinction of Gaelic and Highland dress, shape their perspective on Ottoman statehood, the Arab nation, Islam, or traditional dress? Why would two such energetic Enlightenment scholars from Edinburgh University – who knew Adam Smith and William Robertson – choose on their return from the East to establish their intellectual life in London, rather than the Athens of the North? And why – when Dr Johnson’s contemporary portrait of Scotland is neurotic about the loss of authenticity and tradition – does their account of Aleppo seem so uninterested in historical change, or loss?