No one can remain indifferent to the tragedy going on in Syria. The unspeakable brutality, the heart-breaking suffering and the infuriating waste of human lives must disturb each and every one of us.
Of course, this is a blog dedicated to the study of medieval manuscript fragments; what can it have to do with the civil war raging in Syria? Powerless to affect what is occurring on the ground, I can only offer a glimpse into the past, hinting at what Damascus once was and what it may yet be.
It is not surprising to find glowing descriptions of Damascus in medieval Arabic literary works. There are several works titled fadāʾil dimashq or fadāʾil al-sham (fadāʾil=virtues). Medieval Muslim travelers also left us detailed descriptions extolling the virtues of Damascus (see Ibn Jubayr, for instances).
More surprising, perhaps, is finding Damascus extolled in medieval Jewish travel literature. Two famous medieval Jewish travelers visited Damascus in the second half of the 12th century. R. Petaḥya from Regensburg left us this account: (in my rather off hand translation from Hebrew):
Damascus is a good place among gardens, groves, high fountains from which water spring and very large pools. The water is very good and they have there various fruits. The Ishmaelites (i.e. the Arabs) say that if there is paradise on earth then Damascus is paradise and if paradise is in Heaven then Damascus faces it below on Earth
We indeed find the sentence attributed to the Ishmaelites in Arabic literary sources. For example, the famous traveler, Ibn Jubayr, writes: “ولله صدق القائلين عنها: إن كانت الجنة في الأرض فدمشق لا شك فيها، وإن كانت في السماء فهي بحيث تسامتها وتحاذيها” (“By Allah, they spoke truth who said: ‘if Paradise is on the earth then Damascus without doubt is in it. If it is in the sky, then it vies with it and shares its glory'” – Broadhurst’s translation).
The Jewish traveler, Benjamin from Tudela, who visited Damascus about a decade or more before Petaḥya, begins his longer description with similar themes (using Adler’s translation):
Two days’ journey brings one to Damascus, the great city, which is the commencement of the empire of Nur ed-din, the king of the Togarmim, called Turks. It is a fair city of large extent, surrounded by walls, with many gardens and plantations, extending over fifteen miles on each side, and no district richer in fruit can be seen in all the world.
Favorable descriptions of capital cities in travel literature might be simply part of genre conventions. More significant, however, is the fact that we find praises of Damascus in private letters written by Jews found in the Cairo geniza.
A delightful family letter (TS 13 J 24 1) describes the well being of a child left with his relatives in Damascus to a woman, probably his mother. The letter reports that “[the child] is well, rejoices with them (i.e. the other children), reads with them, wears [the same clothes] as them, plays with them. He is not a stranger. He is liked by all [the other children] and sleeps with them in the same bed…let your heart be at ease.” Later in the letter, the writer asks the addressee:
Tell Mukarram that if he seeks respectability (Ar. sutra), let him come to Damascus. For it will provide (Ar. tastur) any disgraced person. It is a good city.
In the end of the letter, the writer writes: “our livelihood in Damascus is good.” (there is an important scholarly debate on the various meanings of the root s-t-r in geniza documents – ranging from ‘respectability’ to ‘patronage’ or ‘cover from need’. However, this is not the occasion to explore this issue further).
A quite different virtue of Damascus is revealed in a beautiful letter (TS 18 J 3 4) of a paternal aunt or an older cousin to her niece or younger cousin (there is some doubt on the exact relationship). After the death of her son, the aunt is begging the younger woman (who was almost certainly the writer’s daughter in law) to come and join her in Damascus. After a page of heart warming declarations of affections (“Now listen to the advice I am telling you: get up and come and God will give you success. The robe that remains for me will be yours (it is difficult to decide whether the meaning is actual cloths, or in a metaphoric sense of “cover”). For I have no other relative remaining but you. You are like a child to me. Do not delay in coming”), the writer offers a different type of enticement to the now obviously unmarried relative:
Know that Damascus is famed in all other cities for its great excellence and (for having) good and religious Jews. If you come you will be happy. You will obtain what you want and I will obtain through you what I want. Even less than these words ought to convince those of sound mind.
(On this document see Med. Soc. 3:433 n.70 and Kraemer, “Women Speak,” 212 – my understanding differs slightly from theirs).
Finally, we also find the reference to Damascus as paradise in a third geniza letter (ENA 2556 7). A man sent a letter to a judge in Fustat asking him to help him get rid of his wife to whom he has already sent the bill of divorce but needs an official confirmation of its being received before being allowed to marry another woman (on this see Friedman, Polygyny, 241). The writer writes:
I have heard that she is in Fustat and the bill of divorce reached her, but you did not send me an answer. Do not neglect the small one (i.e. the writer’s child) and do not allow him to travel down to Alexandria. May God deal with her as she has acted. She separated me from my son. If there is Paradise, it is Damascus. I have heard that the son of R. Moses arrived at Jerusalem (Ar. al-quds). By the truth of your faith in God! do not listen to her, for she will come to Syria (bilād al-shām – could mean specifically Damascus)
Though many detail in the letter are obscure and the mention of Damascus is nothing if not abrupt, it seems like the writer was happy in Damascus and did not want his soon to be ex-wife to know of his whereabouts (did he send her a bill of divorce without providing her with her delayed marriage gift?). In any case, we see a reflection of the motif known from literary works in the everyday writings of Jews.
May we witness soon peace and prosperity return to Syria and may Damascus return to be a paradise of gardens, fruits and fountains here on earth.