For anyone who watches current news footage from Aleppo, it is hard to imagine what this ancient city once was. For centuries it was a peaceful, vibrant, multi-cultural centre with a strong relationship with the West based on trade and tourism. These unique items from the Library’s Research Collections reflect the cultural intersections between East and West once nurtured in Aleppo.
Located at the end of the silk-road, but with easy access to Mediterranean ports, Aleppo thrived under the Ottoman Empire from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The Ottomans fostered an international outlook and Aleppo played host to some of the oldest consulates in the world: Venice opened its consulate in 1548, France in 1560, England in 1583 and the Netherlands in 1607. By 1600 Aleppo possessed the largest souks in the Middle East, and merchants could trade anything from spices to racehorses. Residents of early modern Aleppo also enjoyed freedom of conscience to practice their own religions, something that was denied to many Europeans; it was home to thriving communities of Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians.
With the establishment of the Levant Company, a trade company, in 1592, British and Irish manuscript and book buyers found that they now had access to one of the world’s most exciting new markets. Syrian manuscripts were prized and purchased on behalf of private clients by the merchants or chaplains of the Levant Company and transported back to Europe on company ships. Arabic manuscripts helped to revolutionise European science and philosophy. Many who came into contact with these texts had taught themselves Arabic via the Quran. Arabic scientific and religious texts became an important part of European university library collections and were used extensively in research.
Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656), purchased many Syrian biblical manuscripts through the offices of fellow academics travelling to Aleppo (such as those from the universities of Oxford and Leiden), and also a Levant Company agent, Thomas Davies. The Syriac Orthodox church can claim to be the most ancient of all Christian denominations with some of the oldest surviving liturgy in Christianity. Syriac biblical manuscripts were of particular interest to Ussher for use in his research into the early Christian church and evolution of the bible. Some of the manuscripts acquired for him from Church patriarchs date from the 7th, 10th and 12th centuries (a book of Moses was bought from a churchman called ‘Jesu Jab’ a Nestorian from Emite and Zert). On Ussher’s behalf, Davies also commissioned a Maronite scribe called ‘Joseph from Aleppo’ to travel to the monasteries of Mount Lebanon to make copies.
Many other scholars sought information from the inhabitants of Aleppo itself. In 1618 three comets appeared in the sky and astronomer John Bainbridge (1582-1643) avidly observed and documented their appearance in England, but he was also interested in how they appeared to other parts of the world. One of his commonplace books contains descriptions and illustrations from an unknown correspondent of the November 1618 comet as it appeared in the sky above Aleppo. Bainbridge’s subsequent paper on the subject from the following year earned him the position of Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University.
A Protestant chaplaincy was established in Aleppo to support the merchant and diplomatic community there. One of the chaplains, Robert Huntington (1637-1701) later became Provost of Trinity College Dublin from 1683-1692. Famous for establishing a long correspondence with Samaritan scholars, he also purchased many manuscripts for both himself and for Narcissus Marsh.
One of these manuscripts, a book of Anaphorai, had been copied previously in Qozhaya, Mount Lebanon in 1553 by a scribe called Hanna from Ehdin. This volume is of particular interest as its binding may be original.
Many of the other chaplains in Aleppo supplemented their income by publishing travel journals of their annual Easter trips from Aleppo to the Holy Land. Henry Maundrel (1665-1701), chaplain from 1695 to 1701, published his Journal of a Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem in 1697 which became incredibly popular and was re-printed seven times before 1749, and translated into 3 additional languages by the end of the eighteenth century.
Aleppo attained such fame in the seventeenth century that it became a feature of popular culture. Shakespeare refers to Aleppo twice: in 1603, as part of Othello’s suicide speech (Act V Scene 2 line 342), and also in Macbeth written in 1609 (Act I Scene 3 Line 9). The witches refer to ‘Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger’ which would have been understood by a contemporary audience in much the same way as we might say ‘he’s on business in Dubai’.
I. Bcheiry, Catalogue of Syriac Manuscripts in Trinity College, Dublin Patrimoine Syriaque 1 (Parole de l’Orient: Kaslik, 2005)
Philip Mansel, Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City, (London 2016)
Elizabeth-Ann Boran, The Correspondence of James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh (Dublin, 2015)