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Volume 38, Number 1January/February 1987

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The Swedish Connection

Written by Philip Mansel
Photographs courtesy of National Swedish Art Museums

In the past, distant countries were sometimes more closely connected than we imagine today. Even areas as geographically remote from each other as Scandinavia and the Middle East were linked. Not only did occasional Arab travelers - such as Ibn Fadlan in the 10th century - visit Viking trading posts in Russia, but Vikings themselves traveled in the Middle East and traded there.

Much later, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Sweden again had contacts with Islamic lands. One of the most interesting results of these contacts is a collection of 40 drawings of Istanbul, Jerusalem, Palmyra and other sites by a Swedish officer named Cornelius Loos.

The story of how these drawings came into existence is rooted in the complex political situation of Sweden in the late 17th century. Beginning in 1657, Sweden had diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire - since both Sweden and the Ottoman Empire bordered Russia, they had political as well as commercial interests in common.

When the warrior king Charles XII came to the Swedish throne in 1697, he found himself facing the powerful Russia of Peter the Great, intent on obtaining control of the Baltic. The two nations went to war in 1700 and in 1709 Russia's victory at the battle of Poltava in the Ukraine forced the Swedish king to flee to Bender on the Dnestr river not far from Odessa - now in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, but then an important Turkish town.

The Ottoman Sultan, Ahmet III, welcomed his vanquished ally and treated him hospitably. So for four years - from 1709 to 1713 - Sweden was ruled from a small town in Ottoman Bessarabia, a thousand miles from Stockholm. Even in the 18th century, communications were not so bad as to make government by courier impossible.

Charles XII, however, was a very active monarch and found that time hung heavy on his hands. He later referred to "our lazy dog-days in Turkey." His thoughts, perhaps because of his interest in Biblical history - he had commissioned a new Swedish translation of the Bible - turned to the historical monuments of the Middle East. So he chose three officers and charged them to go "to Jerusalem and Egypt to examine the rarities and monuments there and make drawings of them," as the Chancellery log-book puts it.

The three men he selected were Captain Cornelius Loos, Captain Conrad Sparre and Lieutenant Hans Gyllenskiep. Loos, although only 24, commanded the expedition. He was a trained military engineer and therefore knew how to make accurate plans, and had already been working with the king on a book illustrating infantry and cavalry drills.

The three men left Bender in January 1710. Three weeks later they reached Istanbul, where they spent six weeks, then sailed for Alexandria on a Turkish man-of-war. They landed at Alexandria on May 21, 1710, and set off to visit the Pyramids and other sites in Egypt. They then took a ship to Acre and traveled overland to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Gaza, Galilee, Nazareth, Damascus, Baalbek, Tripoli and Aleppo. They were among the first Europeans to visit the magnificent ruins of Palmyra, and finally returned to Bender on June 28, 1711.

Captain Loos made sketches throughout the trip and back at Bender made finished drawings for the king. A list made in 1736 shows that he handed over more than 300 drawings, plans and views of towns and ruins throughout Egypt, Palestine and Syria. In addition, he copied a great number of inscriptions and collected over 500 antique medals, engraved gems, "heathen figures" and other curiosities. The expedition also collected botanical specimens, made paintings of male and female Turkish costume and constructed a model of the Temple of Saint Helena in Jerusalem. The king was so pleased and interested that he kept the drawings in a chest in his bedroom to study at leisure.

But two years later disaster struck. The King of Sweden and the Ottoman sultan fell out over the best strategy to use against the Russians. This disagreement led to an attack by the local Turkish garrison on the king's residence in January 1713. Charles XII was taken captive, and during the siege fire spread to his personal apartments. Three chests containing the drawings of Captain Loos were burned. The king's plan to publish them in a luxury edition had to be abandoned, and so the world lost what would have undoubtedly been one of the most elaborate and important books on the subject ever produced. Today, only 40 of the original 300 drawings survive.

Those surviving drawings nevertheless present a fascinating record of the Middle East. Their great documentary advantage over other contemporary work stems from the fact that Loos approached his task as an engineer. Unlike "Orientalist" painters, he made no attempt to create charming illusions or an exotic atmosphere. His extreme matter-of-factness gives his drawings great documentary authority. Loos' views of Aya Sofia in Istanbul were in fact used to help in its restoration in the 1950's and the drawings of Palmyra show many temples and ruins which no longer exist.

Only rarely did Loos take liberties with the truth. By questioning Loos' two companions, the king was able to discover that the expedition had never gone to the site of Troy, although Loos had produced some drawings of it, which he had based on the sketches of other travelers. When Loos apologized to the king, Charles said, "Oh, this is nothing! You travelers take many such privileges."

The Loos expedition was not the only one that Charles XII sent to the Middle East. He also dispatched Michael Eneman, the embassy chaplain in Istanbul, and Henrik Benzelius, a young student writing a thesis on Alexandria. Eneman traveled in Egypt and Syria between 1711 and 1713, collecting oriental manuscripts and seeking information about commercial prospects. His travel diary and report on the antiquities of Istanbul have been published and a picture of the Great Mosque in Makkah, which he brought back, is now in the library of the Uppsala University. Benzelius was a fine scholar of oriental languages and traveled widely in Egypt and Syria before taking up a post at Lund University. The death of Charles XII in 1718 did not mean an end to Sweden's interest in the Middle East. Indeed, the 18th century saw a constant stream of Swedish scholars and travelers between Sweden and Istanbul, where Sweden acquired its first permanent embassy abroad in 1757. In Sweden, as in other European countries in the 18th century, there was a fashion for Turkish clothes, music, divans and kiosks. This fashion reached its peak during the reign of Gustavus III, who ruled between 1771 and 1792.

Gustavus was dedicated to restoring Sweden's greatness and resisting the power of Russia - as was the Ottoman empire. He had a Turkish-style divan in his exquisite pavili«n at Haga, and a Turkish kiosk and a guardhouse in the shape of a Turkish tent in its park.

From 1788 to 1790, in a last attempt to restrict the growing power of Russia, Gustavus III fought Catherine the Great in alliance with the Ottomans. Although this alliance did not halt the expansion of the Russian Empire, this last flowering of Swedish-Ottoman friendship led to the production of the magnificent three-volume Tableau General de I'Empire Othoman by Mouradgea d'Ohsson, published between 1787 and 1820.

D'Ohsson, of Armenian descent, was Swedish minister in Istanbul and his detailed work provides the best description of the political and religious structure of the Ottoman Empire - and thus of half the Middle East before it had begun to be affected by modernization. Like Loos' drawings, it demonstrates that Europe and the Middle East, though remaining widely differing worlds, have always been joined by cultural, commercial and politicalties.

Philip Mansel is a writer specializing in the history of the monarchies of Europe and the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the January/February 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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