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Volume 15, Number 4July/August 1964

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The Journey Of Henry Maundrell

For more than two and a half centuries a brief account of a brief trip through the Middle East has survived as a minor travel classic...

Written by Daniel Howell

At precisely three o'clock in the afternoon, on Friday February 26, 1697, the Reverend Henry Maundrell and fourteen companions mounted their horses and rode out of the city of Aleppo to begin what was to be an 83-day Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was not an exceptional undertaking; agents from the English Levant Company's office in Syria, to which Maundrell was assigned as chaplain, frequently made such trips at that time of year. But this pilgrimage was to be different, for it was to inspire the eventual publication of a small book of lasting importance, a book which today, 267 years later, remains a minor classic in the overcrowded archives of travel writing, A Journey From Aleppo to Jerusalem At Easter A.D. 1697.

The book, published and republished over the years and translated into at least three languages, began as merely a diary in which Maundrell recorded his observations as he rode across Syria to Latakia, down the Syrian and Lebanese coasts and inland to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and then returned to Aleppo, visiting such places as Damascus, Baalbek and Tripoli. Maundrell had intended to circulate it among friends and perhaps win a measure of favor with his clerical superiors.

At that time, however, there was in England a surprising degree of interest in the Middle East and an equivalent lack of accurate information about it. Travelers were by no means rare but their published accounts tended to relate personal adventures or to express reactions and opinions rather than to provide information about what is surely one of the most scenically arresting and historically important regions of the world. Many of the previous travelers had shown a greater gift for poetry than for reporting with the result that the Middle East was seen through an unreal and frequently fanciful haze. Thus when Maundrell's diary, crammed with precise, factual information, began to circulate among his friends they quickly realized that here at last was one of the first factual accounts of the antiquities of the Middle East. Its impact was such that he was persuaded to prepare it for publication.

It is easy today to see just why Maundrell's book has retained a rather surprising measure of popularity during more than two and a half centuries; for Maundrell, unlike most of his contemporaries and indeed unlike many of the more famous travel writers of today, was basically a fine reporter, detached, cool and observant, with a passion for precise detail. As his small party made its way over mountains and plains, through rain and snow, suffering at first from the cold, later from the heat, Maundrell carefully recorded meticulous descriptions of castles, mosques, churches, fortresses, aqueducts, wells, rivers, mountains, plains and trails, each complete with measurements, directions, distances, colors, textures and weights. In describing the remains of an ancient castle in Tartus, for example, he wrote:

"On one side, it is wash'd by the sea; on the others, it is fortified by a double wall of course marble, built after the rustick manner. Between the two walls is a ditch; as likewise is another encompassing the outermost wall. You enter this fortress on the north side, over an old drawbridge, which lands you in a spacious room, now for the most part uncover'd, but anciently well arch'd over, being the church belonging to the castle. On one side it resembles a church; and in witness of its being such, shews at this day several holy emblems carv'd upon its walls, as that of a dove descending, over the place where stood the altar; and in another place, that of the holy-lamb. But on the side which fronts outward, it has the face of a castle, being built with port-holes for artillery, instead of windows. Round the castle, on the south and east sides, stood anciently the city. It had a good wall and ditch encompassing it, of which there are still to be seen considerable remains. But for other buildings, there is nothing now left in it, except a church, which stands about a furlong eastward from the castle. It is one hundred and thirty foot in length, in breadth ninety three, and in height sixty one."

This is the disciplined prose of excellent reporting, free of emotion, free of generalities, yet highly evocative, a quality that is evident on page after page. In commenting on the plains of Kefteen he described them as being of:

"...a vast compass: extending to the southward beyond the reach of the eye, and in most places very fruitful and well cultivated. At our first descent into them... we counted twenty-four villages, or places at a distance resembling villages, within our view from one station. The soil is of a reddish colour, very loose and hollow; and you see hardly a stone in it. Whereas on its west side there runs along for many miles together a high ridge of hills, discovering nothing but vast naked rocks, without the least sign of mould, or any useful production: which yields an appearance, as if nature had, as it were, in kindness to the husband-man, purged the whole plain of these stones, and piled them all up together in that one mountain."

The quality is evident too in his comments on Damascus. Of the houses there he wrote:

"Here you find generally a large square court, beautified with variety of fragrant trees, and marble fountains, and compass'd round with splendid apartments and duans (divans). The duans are floor'd and adorn'd on the sides, with variety of marble, mixt in Mosaick knots and mazes. The ceilings and traves (cross beams) are, after the Turkish manner, richly painted and guilded. They have generally artificial fountains springing up before them in marble basons; and, as for carpets and cushions, are furnish'd out to the height of luxury."

And of the famous Umayyad Mosque:

"...we had three short views of it, looking in at three several gates. Its gates are vastly large, and cover'd with brass, stampt all over with Arab characters... On the north side of the church is a spacious court, which I could not conjecture to be less than one hundred and fifty yards long, and eighty or one hundred broad. The court is pav'd all over, and enclosed on the south side by the church, on the other three sides by a double cloister, supported by two rows of granite pillars of the Corinthian order, exceeding lofty and beautiful."

Whether describing a castle near Baniyas as "built in the figure of an equilateral triangle having one of its angles pointing towards the sea," or carefully counting the "thirteen small arches" of the bridge over the Orontes ('Asi) River in Shoggle (Jisresh Shughur), Maundrell never varied from the pattern of precision, as if determined to invest every paragraph with pertinent information. Even in such briefly mentioned sites as that of the gate at which St. Paul was let down in a basket while fleeing Damascus, Maundrell explains that the gate was walled up then, "by reason of its vicinity to the east gate which renders it of little use."

This determination is particularly clear in his comment on the terraced slopes of Lebanon:

"Libanus is in this part free from rocks, and only rises and falls with small, easy unevennesses, for several hours riding; but is perfectly barren and desolate. The ground, where not conceal'd by the snow, appear'd to be cover'd with a sort of white slates thin and smooth. The chief benefit it serves for, is, that by its exceeding height, it proves a conservatory for abundance of snow, which thawing in the heat of summer, affords supplies of water to the rivers and fountains in the valleys below."

or in his description of the Dead Sea as:

"...enclos'd on the east and west with exceeding high at mountains; on the north it is bounded with the plain of Jericho, on which side also it receives the waters of Jordan; on the south it is open, and extends beyond the reach of the eye."

It could be said of course that Maundrell carried this tight, uncompromising approach too far. If in fact he merited criticism at all it would be that his writing was too disciplined, too impersonal. Throughout the book, for example, he never once identified any of the 14 bachelors who were with him beyond the impersonal, "we." It would not, on the other hand, be fair to say that Maundrell lacked either humor or wit. It is spare and restrained, to be sure, but nonetheless penetrating. In describing one of their camps he wrote:

"We were sufficiently instructed by experience, what the holy Psalmist means by the dew of Hermon, our tents being as wet with it, as if it had rain'd all night."

Another example occurs in his description of a meeting with an Emir who demanded "caphars," a kind of tax, from the party:

"...we arriv'd in one third of an hour at the emir's tents, who came out in person to take his duties of us. We paid him two caphars... and besides the caphars, whatever else he was pleas'd to demand. He eased us in a very courteous manner of some of our coats, which now (the heat both of the climate and season encreasing upon us) began to grow not only superfluous, but burdensom."

Nor was Maundrell's approach, even if admirably objective, totally without glimpses of him as a minister and as a man.

Such references as the Cedars of Lebanon being "remarkable as well for their own age and largeness, as for those frequent allusions made to them in the word of God," are clearly those of a man of God, as are his descriptions of Tyre as a city magnificent at a distance but lacking the glory "which the prophet Ezekiel describes" and whose fishermen he calls:

"...poor wretches, harbouring themselves in the vaults, and subsisting chiefly upon fishing; who seem to be preserv'd in this place by Divine Providence, as a visible argument, hozv God has fulfill'd his word concerning Tyre, viz. That it should be as the top of a rock, a place for fishers to dry their nets on."

In view of Maundrell's situation at the time of the pilgrimage it would have been extraordinary had certain unfavorable reactions not been reflected in his writing, for he was subject to numerous internal and external pressures. He was, for one thing, still affected to some degree by an unsuitable romantic attachment in England, the results of which had played a large part in his decision to accept the chaplain's post in Aleppo. He was, furthermore, a man in doubtful health (who was to succumb and die even before the book was published) and yet subject to the rigors of riding up to 10 hours a day in frequently inclement weather and over difficult terrain. He was a Protestant in a land openly hostile to and contemptuous of Christians, and in which the outlook of other Christians was completely different from his own.

These circumstances are reflected in an irritation toward the language and customs of those countries he visited.

For all that, Maundrell's criticisms are not significant. That there are traces of his own prejudices and the outlook of an Englishman of the 17th century is clear, but even they are marked with restraint or with irony and in sum add to, rather than detract from, the work as a whole, giving to it an essential ingredient of feeling that only heightens the impact of reality.

Despite the passage of many years A Journey From Aleppo to Jerusalem retains fresh appeal. Modern readers can find in it even now the qualities that have kept it alive for so long, qualities that were succinctly summed up by a subsequent traveler to the Middle East who relied heavily on Maundrell's work. It is, wrote that traveler, "a good and plain account of what we need to know."

David Howell, who spent four years in the Middle East with the British Council, annotated, and wrote the introduction for, a new edition of the Maundrell book published in March by Khayats of Beirut for its Oriental Reprint Series.

This article appeared on pages 14-23 of the July/August 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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