Syria: through writers’ eyes


Syria: through writers’ eyes


With an introduction by Ross Burns, an epilogue by Peter Clark and ten original woodcuts by Mungo McCosh.

For centuries, visitors have responded to Syria with fascination. In these pages you will eavesdrop on William Dalrymple musing on Byzantine hermits, hear Robin Fedden on Crusader Castles, follow T. E. Lawrence through Aleppo and read the thoughts of Edward Gibbon, Hester Stanhope and Gertrude Bell amongst the ruins of Palmyra. Poet, travel writer and antiquarian book dealer Marius Kociejowski has poured his long experience and continued absorption with Syria into this wide-ranging but exquisitely discriminating collection.

Including: T.E. Lawrence, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Isabel Burton, Edward Gibbon, Gertrude Bell, Ibn Battuta, Freya Stark, James Elroy Flecker, Ross Burns, Hester Stanhope.

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Syria: through writers' eyes
Written and edited by: Marius Kociejowski
ISBN: 978-0907871-84-2
Format: 272pp demi pb
Place: Syria

Extract from Introduction

THIS BOOK comprises, for the greater part, the writings of foreign visitors to Syria. It is a view of the country as seen not just by English people but also by those of other nationalities – American, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swiss and early Arab and Persian travellers. Their writings span roughly six centuries. The book is characterised both by the sins of omission – there are some notable absences – and the virtues of commission; it is to be hoped there will be a few surprises. Its structure is based on the most likely itinerary of a traveller going to Syria for the first time. It will take him from Damascus, through the Syrian Desert to Palmyra and from there to Aleppo, with a swing north-west to Saint Simeon and the Dead Cities, and then south through the fertile crescent which includes Hama and Homs and the Crusader Castles, and, finally, south from there into the Jebel Druze and onwards to Bosra. Afterwards, the reader will have to make his own way home. The aim is that he be given some additional historical and literary weight to what he sees. The most abstract section, in a sense, because there is so little for an untrained eye, is that devoted to the Syrian Desert. It is, in some respects, the most vital: the desert was not just the conduit for trade over many centuries but also the area that helped define the personality of the Syrian people.

Syria, for all its woes, has been blessed with a sympathetic literature.

C F Volney, in the preface to his Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie (1787), states, ‘I have endeavoured to maintain the spirit with which I conducted my researches into facts; that is, an impartial love of truth. I have restrained myself from indulging any sallies of the imagination, though I am no stranger to the power of such illusion over the generality of readers; but I am of opinion that travels belong to the department of history, and not that of romance. I have not therefore described countries as more beautiful than they appeared to me. I have not represented their inhabitants more virtuous, not more wicked than I found them, and I have perhaps been enabled to see them such as they really are, since I have never received from them either benefits or injuries.’ The same holds true for all the writers presented here. They would appear to be innocent of the charges of Orientalism that are so often levelled at anyone writing from a foreign perspective. Those who make the accusations are, by and large, those who are paid to do so. Academe is its own life support system. It is to be wondered if Orientalism is not the province of a small handful of people, artists in particular, who, within a very short historical period, sought not the Orient of reality but the Orient inside themselves. At least some of them ought to be treated with indulgence. The truly pernicious tends to come under smarter guises. I have been impressed in my readings by the spirit of enquiry that typifies even the most obscure writers. A number of these lesser works are appalling, true, but they are so mainly out of blighted innocence or, in some instances, because the writers themselves would have been just as appalling at home. Occidentalism is just as much their problem. Others I simply chose to ignore. They have been mostly ignored in any case, and to set them up in order to knock them down again, as being characteristic of the worst in human nature, or as supporting some thesis on people’s inability to step outside their own culture, arguments which, after all, could be turned against the Arabs themselves, seems to me to serve but little purpose.

‘Syria is history,’ a Phoenician from Aleppo tells me, adding that this is where my focus should be, and while I could not agree with him more there comes a point when an undertaking such as this would burst at the seams if one were to include more than even a fraction of that country’s history. What, for example, would one do with the Crusades alone? What could one say about them that would not make my Syrian acquaintance wince? There is no area of the country that has not been steeped in blood, and in this respect it is always worth recalling the words of the poet al- Ma’arri: ‘Take care where you walk because you walk upon the dead.’ There are several excellent histories of Syria, whereas this is the first collection of its kind. It is, as the title says, a perspective of the country as seen through writers’ eyes. This said, the majority of the pieces at the very least reflect history and do so without losing the immediacy that comes of direct experience. After all, when considering the observations of Volney or della Valle or Raswan, are we not looking at history as it is being made? My choices are, to an extent, random: I have sought to cater to various interests and tastes – the shopper is invited to share the carpet with the musicologist, the versifier and the lover of antiquities. Also important to me have been writers’ imaginative responses, which bespeak a truth beyond brute facts, although, sadly, the fiction and poetry inspired by Syria have been a bit on the lean side. Another criterion, almost too obvious to mention, is that the works chosen be pleasurable to read.

I am grateful to the following who have assisted me in my researches: Brigid Keenan, Gabriel Levin, Philip Mansel, Christopher Middleton, Alain Richert, Yasser Sagherie, Philippa Scott, Zahed Tajeddin and my publishers, Barnaby Rogerson and Rose Baring.