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(part 2 of 2) (part one posted from another account due to word count limitation)
There is one exception however, for he shows some admiration for Druzes (a sect that lives mostly in Mount Lebanon and the southern Hauran mountains). He speaks of their bravery, though confuses that sometimes with brutality. Still, the book, unfortunately and suspiciously, is silent or provides too little information about other Sects or any other group of people in that land. And that, in my opinion, is a major flaw that I could not overlook.
This doesn't mean that he did not have an opinion about the other inhabitants of Syria; because he did. It was more of prejudice and prejudgment against Arabs and Muslims, collectively. Take pages 168 and 169 for example. He said that Busrah declined after the Arab conquest and it became desolate. Yet in a few lines on page 169, the stated it remained the seat of a Bishop until the 13th century (600 years after the Arab conquest), and populous too. Which would not make any sense in light of his earlier statements.
The fact that his interaction with the natives was limited to mullateers and servants, or formal visits to sheikhs, limited his ability to understand the culture, but also betrayed his looking down on the inhabitants of this land.
Another clear example of this, is his description between pages 228 and 233, of a huge crowd attacking him and his friends. He blames the attack on them being Muslims. Then moves on. No word on why they were attacked, not even speculation. As if his explanation was sufficient. It is surprising, then, that living amongst Muslims for five years, wasn't filled with such personal attacks on his safety. In my opinion, this is plain prejudice and racism.
His opinion of Christians in this land is not much better than that of Muslims. See examples in page 279, and 287.
With him spending five years in this land without true interaction with the people, and mainly focusing on topography and maps (dotted with the hobby, or the cover, of looking for Latin/Roman inscriptions), I cannot help but suspect that he may have been an intelligence officer of some sort, mapping the land and its geography/topography, but with willful disdain for the people and intentional detachments from them.
The above criticism, should not overshadow the fact that I enjoyed reading both volumes of the book. I understand that the times were different, but I also believe that objectivity should be universal.
For those of you, readers, who scan the reviews for the first few lines and the last few lines: very good book. Read it!
(part 1 of 2) (part 2 to be posted from my friend's account, due to word count limit)
The book, in its two volumes, spans more than 800 pages.
This book, volume 2, is more than 400 pages; though pages 134 and 135 (page numbers as in the original text) are missing!
The author's geographic observations about the country are of great detail, so as to please the reader.
It would be a very interesting project and adventure to retrace his steps, in today's Syria, and see how the conditions of these villages, towns and cities are nowadays.
It, however, pained me to compare his description of the abundant water of the Barada River then and its surrounding Evergreen forests, to the drying rivulet that it is now with the surrounding cement villages of these days.
The author was a witness to a far more beautiful country, the country of my great-grandfather and his time.
However, as interesting as this reading was, I have a few negative but objective remarks about the text.
The book in its entirety was supposed to talk about the five years spent in Damascus by the author. But most of the narriative is about his excursions outside Damascus. His personal anecdotes are for the most part with no historical value, his main focus was about the topography of the land/Syria, and about correcting the maps done by his predecessors in exploring this part of the world.
Another main concern of the author was to transcribe any archaeological inscription he may encounter, but with the predetermined prejudice to ignore any Arabic inscription, and focus on Latin inscriptions, regardless of their historical value. In page 179, he mentions "a beautiful Arabic inscription". But no attempt at translating it, ..none. For one who translates Latin inscriptions with fervor, even one about a house erected by nobody in memory of his nobody's father, it is weird that no attempt was made in soliciting translation of Arabic inscriptions, in this Arabic land!
His emphasis on Roman and Latin inscriptions, while providing very little about the history of the lands and its people, past and contemporary, is counterproductive, since it does not place these inscriptions within a historical context that might otherwise have given them value.
His record became a mere description of stones, old Roman roads, and a scant mention of the presence of people here and there, as if they never really existed (more on that later).
And while this topography and semi-archaeological interests are valid in and by themselves, his premise to document his five years spent in and around Damascus, is heavily overshadowed by the fact that his description of the people of the land is almost absent. By reading the 800 pages, you come out with a sense that he did not want to have any encounter with these people, amongst whom he spent five years. There are some personal reflections about the collective behavior of the ethnic and religious groups he met, mostly with prejudice and probably even racial disdain, but no description of their way of life, their daily customs, or any hint of him getting close enough to anyone of the natives to know what they think about, their sufferings, or their hopes and dreams.