Looking back at Syria: 19th Century Explorations

In 1809 John Lewis Burckhardt set out from England, with the blessings of the Africa Association,  to explore hinterlands of the Middle East, and ultimately to travel by camel caravan from Cairo to West Africa, in order to discover the course of the  Niger River.

Unlike most of the explorers of the 19th century, Burckhardt thoroughly prepared himself for this venture and,  as explained below, treated his years traveling in the Middle East as preparatory to the Niger river quest.

His documentation of the places visited, people and events is quite detailed, and – again unlike most explorers of the time – largely devoid of personal value judgements and ethnic slurs of the type common among 19th century explorers – see these two blogs:

Inventing Ethnicity; Imagining Agriculture: The ‘Tribes’ of Ham and the ‘Primitive’Crops of Africa
Ethnic Psudo-histories of Central Africa – Tribes of Ham Again 2

During the two years that Burckhardt spent in Syria he made a number of excursions to different locations around the country, writing detailed descriptions of local people, their economic activities, dress, food, and political machinations vis-a-vis local Ottoman Empire representatives and other political hopefuls.

These descriptions offer a view of life and politics in early 19th century Syria that provides an interesting background to contemporary events.

 1. Burckhardt’s preparations for his quest:

Burckhardt received his instructions [for travelling] on the 25th of January, 1809 [from the Association on the Western side of Africa, London], having diligently employed the interval in London and Cambridge in the study of the Arabic language, and of those branches of science which were most necessary in the situation wherein he was about to be placed.

He allowed his beard to grow and assumed the Oriental dress: he attended lectures on chemistry, astronomy, mineralogy, medicine and surgery, and in the intervals of his studies he exercised himself by long journeys on foot, bareheaded, in the heat of the sun, sleeping upon the ground, and living upon vegetables and water.

A sketch found among Burckhardt’s notes, possibly a portrait from his time in Aleppo in 1809. Source: Ms Add.293, f. 6 Cambridge Library

As an intimate knowledge of Arabic was the most important of all acquirements, our traveller was instructed to proceed in the first instance to Syria, where at the same time that he studied the language in one of its purest schools, he might acquire a habitude of Oriental manners at a distance from those countries which were to be the scene of his researches, and consequently without much risque of being afterwards recognised.

After a stay of two years in Syria, he was instructed to proceed to Cairo, from whence, accompanying the Fezzan caravan to Mourzouk by the same route traversed by Horneman [a former explorer who tried to reach the Niger River, and died in the process], he was directed to make that town the point of his departure for the interior countries.

Source: Introduction to: Travels in Nubia, by John Lewis Burckhardt; published by the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Part of Africa.  London, John Murray Albermarle Street, 1819.

The Hamareh (suk ali pasha) Damascus. Source: TIMEA

2.  Excerpts from Burckhardt’s travels in Syria:

Journal of a Tour from Damascus in the Countries of the Libanus, and Anti-Libanus.

September 25th. –(the town of Zahle (ﺔﻟﺤﺰ )* Took a walk through the town with Sheikh Hadj Farakh. There are eight or nine hundred houses, which daily increase, by fugitives from the oppressions of the Pashas of Damascus and of the neighbouring petty tyrants. Twenty-five years ago there were only two hundred houses at Zahle: it is now one of the principal towns in the territory of the Emir Beshir. It has its markets, which are supplied from Damascus and Beirout, and are visited by the neighbouring Fellahs, and the Arabs El Naim, and El Harb, and El Faddel, part of whom pass the winter months in the Bekaa, and exchange their butter against articles of dress, and tents, and horse and camel furniture.

* Curiously, all of the arabic words in the ebook which contains these excerpts are backwards.  However, if you paste the word to another page, the direction is correct.

The inhabitants, who may amount to five thousand, are all Catholic Greeks, with the exception only of four or five Turkish families. The Christians have a bishop, five churches and a monastery, the Turks have no mosque. The town belongs to the territory of the Druses….

Journal of an Excursion into the Haouran in the Autumn and Winter of 1810.

..We were apprised by some Felahs that a troop of Arabs Serdie had been for several days past plundering the passengers and villages in the neighbourhood. Afraid of being surprised, my companions halted and sewed their purses up in a camel’s pack saddle; I followed their example. I was informed that these flying parties of Arabs very rarely drive away the cattle of the Haouran people, but are satisfied with stripping them of cash, or any new piece of dress which they may have purchased at Damascus, always however giving them a piece of old clothing of the same kind in return…

..In approaching Ezra we met a troop of about eighty of the Pasha’s cavalry; they had, the preceding night, surprised the abovementioned mentioned party of Arabs Serdie in the village of Walgha, and had killed Aerar, their chief, and six others, whose heads they were carrying with them in a sack. They had also taken thirty-one mares, of which the greater number were of the best Arabian breeds. Afraid of being pursued by the friends of the slain they were hastening back to Damascus, where, as I afterwards heard, the Pasha presented them with the captured mares, and distributed eight purses, or about £200. amongst them…

Ezra is one of the principal villages of the Haouran; it contains about one hundred and fifty Turkish and Druse families, and about fifty of Greek Christians. It lies within the precincts of the Ledja, at half an hour from the arable ground: it has no spring water, but numerous cisterns. Its inhabitants make cotton stuffs, and a great number of millstones, the blocks for forming which, are brought from the interior of the Ledja; the stones are exported from hence, as well as from other villages in the Loehf, over the greater part of Syria, as far as Aleppo and Jerusalem. They vary in price…

Political Divisions of the Country to the Southward of Damascus; with Remarks On the Inhabitants of the Haouran.

Houran – volcanic plateau in southwestern Syria – northwestern Jordan. Source: Wikipedia

The Haouran is inhabited by Turks, Druses, Christians, and Arabs, and is visited in spring and summer by several Arab tribes from the desert. The whole country is under the government of the Pasha of Damascus, who generally sends a governor to Mezareib, intituled Agat el Haouran.

The Pasha appoints also the Sheikh of every village, who collects the Miri [a form of land ownership in the Ottoman Empire]* from both Turks and Christians. The Druses are not under the control of the Agat el Haouran, but correspond directly with the Pasha. They have a head Sheikh, whose office, though subject to the confirmation of the Pasha, has been hereditary from a remote period, in the family of Hamdan.

The head Sheikh of the Druses nominates the Sheikh of each village, and of these upwards of eight are his own relations: the others are members of the great Druse families. The Pasha constantly maintains a force in the Haouran of between five and six hundred men…

* Miri was agricultural land that was leased from the government on condition of use. Individuals could purchase a deed to cultivate this land and pay a tithe to the government plus an additional small tax. Ownership could be transferred only with the approval of the state. Miri rights could be transferred to heirs, and the land could be sub-let to tenants. If the owner died without an heir or the land was not cultivated for three years, the land would in theory revert to the government. – Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Hospitality to strangers is another characteristic common to the Arabs, and to the people of Haouran. A traveller may alight at any house he pleases; a mat will be immediately spread for him, coffee made, and a breakfast or dinner set before him. In entering a village it has often happened to me, that several persons presented themselves, each begging that I would lodge at his house; and this hospitality is not confined to the traveller himself, his horse or his camel is also fed…

Aleppo. Source: unknown

Appendix. No. II.

On the Political Division of Syria, and the recent Changes in the Govern­ment of Aleppo.

…the power of the Porte in this country has been so much upon the decline, particularly since the time of Djezzar Pasha of Akka, that a number of petty independent chiefs have sprung up, who defy their sovereign. Ba­djazze, Alexandretta, and Antakia have each an independent Aga. Aintab, to the north of Aleppo, Edlip and Shogre, on the way from Aleppo to Latikia, have their own chiefs, and it was but last year that the Pasha of Damascus succeeded in subduing Berber, a formidable rebel, who had fixed his seat at Tripoli, and had maintained himself there for the last six years.

The Pashas themselves follow the same practice; it is true that neither the Pasha of Damascus nor that of Akka has yet dared openly to erect the standard of rebellion; they enjoy all the benefits of the protection of the supreme government, but depend much more upon their own strength, than on the caprice of the Sultan, or on their intrigues in the seraglio for the continuance of their power.

The policy of the Porte is to flatter and load with honours those whom she cannot ruin, and to wait for some lucky accident by which she may regain her power; but, above all, to avoid a formal rupture, which would only serve to expose her own weakness and to familiarize the Pashas and their subjects with the ideas of rebellion…

Source: John Lewis Burckhardt – Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, London: 1822.


All of Burckhardt’s notes were compiled and edited by William Martin Leake, Acting Secretary of the African Association. and published after his death:

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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