European Travelers and Magic of the Orient

In the middle of the fifth Century BC, in his book “History” the Greek historian Herodotus attracted the attention of the Greeks to another world located on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean; a world full of charm and beauty, and said it is necessary to explore it and discover its details. These words left a great desire in the west towards the East which, with the passage of time, it became the symbol of magic, dreams, philosophy, veiled women, Arabian Nights, Scheherazade and Shehriar, and above all, charm and ecstasy. To explore this magic Orient and its geographical attractions many European travelers ventured into it during the last three hundred years to reveal some of its secrets.

These travelers came under various titles: orientalists, discoverers, archaeologists, and philosophers looking for common human heritage between the West and the East. Many of them documented their impressions and findings in poetry books, portraits and historical texts now filling book shops of Europe.

At the end of the 18th century, the French traveler Francois deVolney, said in his book “A Trip into Syria and Egypt”: “When we go to the East, we go to look for our roots and the roots of our sciences, arts, faiths and our destinies”. These words were highly appreciated by the head of the Russian Scientific Academy when he, in 1814, opened the Arabic language section in the educational institute saying: “From the East came all religions, all sciences and all philosophies. The East alone, place in Mt Lebanon looking at Beka’a valleyin the east and on the shore of the Mediterranean in the west, named Hammana: “God had granted this place more than anything a man can imagine. Ialways yearned to see the Garden of Eden, and here I am standing in it now”. In this oriental trip he admired Beirut and described it in his poetry book “Oriental Tales” saying:

“Mar Metri Quarter in al Ashrafieh of Beirutis the most beautiful and pleasant place an eye could enjoy”. During his stay in Damascus he described Damascene women: “The eye can hardly see beautiful women like in Damascus because women care for their beauty which rarely departs them. In their homes one can feel peace and safety far from caprice and desires which corrupt souls and bodies”. In fact the idea of the harem haunted the imagination of many European travelers who, when they think of the east feel as if they are sultans surrounded with beautiful women. This idea was inter preted in the portrait of the French painterJ.L.Jerome; “Bath of the Harem” which asserts that Eastern women won a lot of care gave these wonderful gifts to the whole world. There, we find the original source of enlightment. Who of us does not aspire to approach this wealth which is still inspiring human mind?.” The French archaeologist Andre Parrot asserted these words when, in the middle of the twentieth century, he discovered the ruins of Mari on the Euphrates with its frescoes and clay tablets, and gave his well known words “Every human has two homes, his own and Syria”.

In the 19th century the French diplomat and poet Alfonse de Lamartine described his visit to Lebanon and Syria speaking about and respect, contrary to the common idea that women of the East were objects for men and their desires.

At the start of the twentieth century five travelers came from Europe to Syria, lived with Bedouins in the desert in order to study their habits, traditions and ways of life. One of them was the English Lady Anne Blunt, kin of the English poet Lord Byron, who visited Damascus, Aleppo, AlRaqqa, Deir Ezzor and Palmyra. She walked along the old Roman road, admired the Arabian horse and documented her trip to Syria in a book titled “Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates”.

The British Miss Gertrude Bell” started her trip in Syria, then she went to Jerusalem where she learnt Arabic and then moved to Iraq and was appointed general director of antiquities in Baghdad Museum. On the evening of the 21st of July 1926 she died for 53 years. There is also Jane Digby, and English intellectual who came to Syria to buy horses because she was fond of cavalry and the desert where lived in tents for several years. Then she bought a house in Homs and when she died she was buried in Damascus where her tomb is visited every year by a delegate from the British Embassy in Damascus. It is enough to read “The Magnolia Tree” of the Syrian writer IlfatalIdelbi to understand the biography of this adventurous woman who adored the East.

One of these women also is Hester Stanhope, and English lady distinguished for her beauty and noble family who came to Syria obsessed with its history. She entered Damascus riding a horse, roamed its streets and loved Zenoubia in way that she always imagined herself in her place. She contacted many Damascene families, lived for a while in alNabk and then moved to Palmyra to live for long there. The first half of the 20th century witnessed the arrival of a French lady, Margad’Andurain, into Syria to live in Palmyra. She bought a large house there and changed it into a hotel, and gave it the name of Zenoubia. This hotel is still functioning in the historical city of Palmyra. d’Andurain was fond of horse riding, marksmanship, sword duel and polo. She used to go to Palmyra’s famous spring Afqa to swim disguised as a Roman woman or as a queen of the ancient times. In 1939 she sold the hotel and moved to live in France, in the Basque region, but at the end of WWII she returned to live in a luxurious house in alMaghrib. In her book: “Marga, Countess of Palmyra, Mary Cecil de Philhak, issued in 1995 by Belle Phone, we can read that Marga was a romantic woman fond of risks and adventures. In a statement to “ alMashrek” magazine in February 1907 Father Louis Sheikho summarized the magic which attracted many European travelers by these words: “It is normal for Europeans to follow the footsteps of their ancestors in the Arab Orient which knew the first ages of history, and which built the first house, and could worthily inherit the legacy of the Greeks and the Romans, and which witnessed the coexistence of various civilizations and religions whose principles still exist till these days. Those travelers were the first pioneers who were attracted to the Charm of the Orient. Now on the footsteps of the grandfathers and fathers tens of thousands of European tourists come every year to enjoy the wonders and beauty of this East and to explore its civilizations or to contribute to the revelation of its valuable treasures still buried underground.

 

Haifaa Mafalani

 

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