Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Early Modern Aleppo

Aleppo, 1764
Antonio Neri is famous for  his 1612 book on making glass, [1] but in the late sixteenth century his father was also famous; Neri Neri, as he was called, was a graduate of  the esteemed 'Studio Fiorentino', head of the Florentine physicians and apothecaries guild, and royal physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’ Medici.  

In those days, one of the best connections a physician could have was a reliable associate who could procure the exotic herbs and remedies prepared in the Orient. To have such a contact in one's family was even better, but perhaps best of all was an older brother who was a merchant living in the fabled city of Aleppo, located in Syria at the very end of the Silk Road. The brother of Neri Neri was named Francesco or "Franco" [2] for short and Aleppo was no ordinary city; it was a sort of international crossroads for traders connecting north and south, east and west. It was where silk and cotton were traded for wool and metals, where gold and silver changed hands for rubies and lapis, and where exotic spices and medicinal preparations could be found and exported to places like Venice and  Florence. [3] In 1583, Englishman John Eldred passed through Aleppo and recorded this:
[W]e passed forward with camels three dayes more untill we came to Aleppo, where we arrived the 21 of May. This is the greatest place of traffique for a dry towne that is in all those parts: for hither resort Jews, Tartarians, Persians, Armenians, Egyptians, Indians, and many sorts of Christians, and enjoy freedome of their  consciences, and bring thither many kinds of rich merchandises. In the middest of this towne also standeth a goodly castle raised on high, with a garrison of foure or five hundred Janisaries [Sultan’s guard]. Within foure miles round about are goodly gardens and vineyards and trees, which beare goodly fruit neere unto the river side, which is but small; the walls are about three English miles in compasse, but the suburbs are almost as much more. The towne is greatly peopled. [4]
Aleppo has been in continuous occupation since prehistoric times; at least as far back as 5000 BCE, according to archaeologists. Stones were laid there before there was paper or written language or glass for that matter. There is a legend that the Arabic name for Aleppo, 'Halab' once meant "gave out milk" and was a reference to when Abraham gave milk from his white cows to travelers as they passed through the area. 

1563, when Franco Neri was still a young man of twenty-six, living in Aleppo, both he and his father were referenced in a couple of documents.  They are still held in the grand ducal archives in Florence, written in the reign of Cosimo I de' Medici. [5] This indicates, at the very least that the Neri family was in service to the leaders of Florence three full decades before Antonio Neri would make glass for Prince Don Antonio de' Medici.

In the sixteenth century the Christians in Aleppo lived in a tightly knit neighborhood that developed as a result of an Ottoman invasion around 1400. There were four churches standing side by side in the Jdeydeh quarter, only the old Maronite Church of Saint Elias was associated with the  Roman Catholic Church. If Franco Neri was in town when the above John Eldred passed through with his two companions, it is not impossible that they could have attended mass in the same church one Sunday in late May of 1583. 

Two decades later, the Emir (prince) of Aleppo, Fakhr-al-Din II forged an alliance with Tuscany, which apparently involved both economic and military provisions. He was attempting to break free of the Ottoman Empire and is considered by some to be the father of the Lebanese independence movement. He would go on to spend a number of years visiting Italy and Florence in particular, where he formed a friendship with then Grand Duke Cosimo II. 

Today, the beautiful, ancient city of Aleppo stands mostly deserted and partly demolished by war. Some news stories sight the determination and character of the current independence movement by quoting a poet, al-Mutanabbi, who lived in the mid tenth century. He spent the better part of a decade at the royal court of Aleppo, where it is said he did his best work. His most quoted lines are from a piece sometimes called "the poem that killed the poet." A legend tells that one night he was cornered by his enemies. Ready to flee, he was reminded of his own words by a servant, which caused him to stay and fight. The poem closes this way:

The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men. 
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen. [6]

[1] Neri, L’Arte Vetraria. (Firenze: Giunti, 1614).

[2] Registri Battesimali Firenze, reg. 10, f. 71v.  3 Feb., 1537, born to Jacopo Neri, barber [and surgeon] from dicomano, in the parish of San Ambrogio, Florence. (A couple of blocks from the Borgo Pinti childhood home of Antonio Neri.)

[3] Gian Pietro Vieusseux, Archivio storico italiano,  vol. 141, Issues 517-518 (Firenze, Leo S. Olschki, 1983), p. 370. “His correspondence also makes several references to the activity carried out by the Venetian court who had often had occasion to attend to solicit the interests of friends or acquaintances as Francesco Neri of Aleppo, the Capponi and Rinuccini [families].” 

[4] Richard Hakluyt, A selection of curious, rare and early voyages ..., (London: R. H. Evans, 1810)v. 2,  p. 403. “The voyage of M. John Eldred to Tripolis in Syria by sea, and from thence by land and river to Babylon and Balsara. 1583”

[5] Carteggio universale di Cosimo I de Medici /XI Archivio di Stato di Firenze Inventario XI (1560 – 1564) Mediceo del Principato Filze 489-499°, pp. 162, 206; /XII (1562-1565) Filze 500-514 p. 60.

[6] al-Mutanabbi (915-965 AD). He is thought to have spent nine years in Aleppo where he composed some of his best work,  See also 

Translated into German by Friedrich Dieterici, ed, tr. Mutanabbii carmina cum Commentario Wfthidii, (Berlin, 1858-1861), pp. 481-4. vv. 1-22, then into English by Nicholson, who wrote of Mutanabbi, “Although the verbal legerdemain which is so conspicuous in his poetry cannot be reproduced in another language, the lines translated below may be taken as a favorable and sufficiently characteristic specimen of his style.” Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (Unwin, 1907).p. 307. Subsequently Nicholson published the present version in Reynold A. Nicholson, Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1922), p. 80. 

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