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Rory Stewart

  • 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.

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[*] Aleppo: A History by Ross Burns (Routledge, 340 pp., £113.95, September 2016, 978 0 415 73721 0).

[†] Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City by Philip Mansel (I.B. Tauris, 224 pp., £17.99, February 2016, 978 1 7845 3461 5).