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Volume 33, Number 1January/February 1982

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The Russells of Aleppo

Written by John M. Munro
Photographed by Katrina Thomas

Travel writers are a curious breed. Though they profess to tell of foreign peoples and places, they frequently provide much closer insights into their own backgrounds.

There are, however, refreshing exceptions, and among them are the brothers Russell - Alexander and Patrick - whose weighty treatise, entitled The Natural History of Aleppo, stands as a monument of objectivity at a time when Europeans had little interest in, and less understanding of, the Muslim faith and the lands where it was practiced.

The Natural History of Aleppo was the result of the Russells' long residence in the city. Alexander was there from 1740 to 1753 and Patrick from 1750 to 1768 while they were physicians with the Levant Company, a firm of British traders operating in the Ottoman Empire. Its main factory was in Constantinople (today's Istanbul) with depots at Smyrna (modern Izmir) and Aleppo (in today's Syria); Aleppo, in fact, was the main entrepot for the silk trade between England and Iran.

Generally speaking, a tour of duty with the Levant Company in the Ottoman Empire was unpleasant. As one example, foreigners in a lawsuit were not permitted to introduce evidence against an Ottoman subject. In addition, they had to tolerate restrictions on their movements and until the 19th century even European ambassadors were introduced formally to the Sultan as "naked and hungry barbarians," who had ventured "to rub the brow of the Sublime Porte."

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that European attitudes were frequently hostile. Henry Maundrell, for example, who was appointed chaplain to the Levant Company in Aleppo in 1695, and later wrote A Journey From Aleppo to Jerusalem in 1697 (See Aramco World, July-August 1964), reveals little sympathy for Oriental ways as well as an almost total ignorance of the Islamic faith.

The Russells, however, were different. Possibly because they were physicians rather than traders, they approached their material as dispassionate, empirical investigators and tried to view their subject systematically and scientifically, rather than emotionally.

The Russells' account—which appeared in two volumes - was begun by Alexander shortly after his arrival in 1740, and bears his name as an author. Volume I is devoted to a description of the city and its inhabitants and Volume II is concerned mainly with natural history, monuments, culture, customs and - because they were physicians - common diseases. It included a vivid description of the effects of smallpox and - even more interesting - a suggestion that the Arabs, rather than the Turks or Edward Jenner, discovered vaccination against this most virulent and infectious disease (See Aramco World, July-August 1980).

This suggestion was originally put forth by Patrick in a letter to Alexander in 1767, by which time Alexander had returned to London. In this letter Patrick related that he had been describing vaccination to some Turks in 1757 when a Bedouin woman, who had overheard him, suddenly said that "the practice was well known to the Arabs."

Intrigued by this, Russell went on, he tried to trace the origins of vaccination and found that Arabs "70 years old and upwards" remembered it as "a common custom of their ancestors and made little doubt of its being of as ancient a date as the disease itself."

Pursuing the subject, Russell discovered that Bedouins who had settled in cities no longer practiced vaccination, but that Bedouins in "the adjacent desert" still did. He also discovered, by questioning Arabs who came to Aleppo in caravans, that vaccination was known throughout the Arab world. It would appear, he wrote, that inoculation has "from time immemorial been a practice among the different Arab tribes with which they were conversant; comprehending, besides those in the numerous encampments on the banks of the Euphrates, and the Tigris below Bagdad, other tribes in the vicinity of Bassora, and in the desert."

Furthermore, he continued, "a native of Mecca, whom I had occasion to converse with this summer, assured me, that he himself had been inoculated in that city." Apparently the custom was also well established in trfe Arabian Peninsula, in Armenia and in Georgia, and Arabs generally took the "operation" for granted.

From all of these things Russell concluded that the practice was of long standing in the Arab world and that it was only surprising that it had not reached the West earlier.

The same spirit of dispassionate observation infuses their opinions of non-medical subjects. In describing the city of Aleppo, for example, the Russells are at once objective and enthusiastic. They write that "in situation, magnitude, population and opulence, it is much inferior to Constantinople and Cairo, nor can it presume to emulate the courtly splendour of either of those cities." But, they add, the air was salubrious, the buildings elegant and the streets neat and convenient, thus making Aleppo superior to the two more famous centers.

They do not fail either to point out that Aleppo is very picturesque. "The mosques, the minarets, and numerous cupolas form a splendid spectacle, and the flat roofs of the houses which are situated on the hills, rising one behind another, present a succession of hanging terraces, interspersed with cypress and poplar trees."

Unlike many observers, who saw only the exteriors of the houses of Aleppo - not especially impressive - the Russells penetrated the unadorned facades and latticed windows to find an opulent and orderly world and to describe it enthusiastically. They dwell, for example, upon the water-cooled pavements of the more splendid houses, describe the reception halls, typically domed and supported by arches of varicolored marble, and containing niches which housed china bowls, decorative silver utensils or pieces of crystal. They describe the gaily decorated walls and ceilings - "painted in lively colors intermixed with gilding and richly varnished" - and the courtyard arbors, "formed of slight latticed frames, covered by the vine, the rose or the jasmine."

They include too descriptions of such familiar institutions as the coffee house, as well as such spectacles as puppet shows and public story-tellers. The former, say the Russells, were less like dramas than pageants, interspersed with satire relating to local government officials and their policies, with the story-tellers sometimes breaking off in the middle of their stories, leaving listeners to speculate upon the probable outcome until the next day.

In their observations of daily Aleppan life, the authors pay scrupulous attention to detail, noting, for example, how the different classes of society could be readily distinguished by their different dress: the grand seigneur in his three-furred garment; the less prominent clad in "a camelot gown with large sleeves; laced down the seams with narrow gold lace," the very poor dressed in single garments made from fox-skins.

They also go into great detail about the clothes worn by women. Their trousers, we are told, are made of "silk or India stuff, and pursed at the ankle with a riband." Their "shift is of fine silk gauze, hanging down to the feet, under the kunbaz and over the Gintian [trousers]. Their Cinctures are three inches broad, richly embroidered, and fastened before by a large gilt clasp, set with pearls or precious stones."

That the Russells were able to describe the Aleppan ladies' dress in such detail was, no doubt, partly due to the fact that as physicians they had access to places where other men did not, as for example the baths and the women's quarters. In this regard the Russells - unlike most writers then and since - clearly pointed out that the erotic visions imagined by westerners were almost totally at variance with eastern reality.

In describing the harem, for example, the Russells calmly point out that the Aleppan women enjoyed much greater freedom than is generally supposed in the West, and, more to the point, that their confinement was often self-imposed, in accordance with "their notion of female honour and delicacy.

The Russells' impartial treatment extends to Islam in general. They point out, for example, that while Muslims might criticize Christians and Jews, they rarely mistreated them:

Notwithstanding the contemptuous light in which the Turks view all other religions, they permit liberty of conscience in their dominions, and tolerate the public exercise of the Christian and Jewish religions, with their respective rites and ceremonies. The different monks dressed in their respective habits, go freely about their functions, and, at funeral processions, elevate the cross, the moment they get without the city gate.

On the other hand, the Russells also noted that little attention was given to science or scientific investigation. Reflecting their 18th-century, empirical training, the Russells note that the educated classes in Aleppo grow up "strangers to experiment" and rely instead on "what is found in books, and almost every fact, and every opinion for which they can produce written authority, is held to be true." Thus, "of the faculties given them by nature, memory alone is exercised; the others rust from inaction."

The Russells were also critical of the local Ottoman administration. Yet even here they took pains to be fair, pointing out that the Ottomans were really no different from the European aristocracy. In other words, the Turks, in the Russells' eyes, were probably no better and no worse than other human beings. The authors did not view them from the vantage point of a supposedly superior civilization. They saw them as people whose ways were different from those of the West, but not necessarily the worse for that - a lack of prejudice which makes their narrative refreshingly different from those of other travelers, who often seem to have been more intent on seeing a reflection of their own preconceived ideas in the places they visited.

In The Natural History of Aleppo, therefore, the Russells left what appears to be a historically accurate picture of that city as it was in the 18th century. While some readers may find the Russells' account occasionally prosaic and at times inelegantly written, it provides both an important record of a bygone age and a good example of the impartial inquiry typical of the European Enlightenment.

John Munro, a regular contributor to Aramco World, teaches English at the American University of Beirut.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the January/February 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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