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Literature of Syria

Portret of Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi in the city of Aleppo

As one of the centres of Arabic culture, Syria has made an important contribution to medieval Arabic literature. It has produced many writers, including the highly influential poet Abu Tammam, the poet, philosopher and prose writer Abu al-Ala al-Maarri, and the all-round scholar Bar Hebraeus or Ibn al-Ibri.

The history of the country was narrated by Aleppin and Damascene chroniclers. For instance, much of what is known about the Crusades is derived from the writings of chroniclers such as Ibn al-Qalanisi (ca. 1073-1160), the Persian Imad al-Din al-Isfahani (1125-1201), Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad (born in Mosul, 1145-1234), Kurdish Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233), and Abu Shama (1203-1267). An exceptional figure was Emir Usama ibn Munqidh (1095-1188), both an ambassador and a writer, who knew Nureddin, Saladin and many other rulers personally. The 11th century Syrian philosopher, poet and writer Abu al-Ala al-Maarri propounded remarkably sceptical views of religion, rejecting dogmatism and the monopoly of truth in religion.

Abu Tammam

Born in Damascus as the son of a Christian innkeeper, Abu Tammam (circa 805-circa 845) converted to Islam, changed his name and invented a fictitious Arab genealogy for himself. He worked in Damascus as a weaver and in Cairo as a water seller, but soon began to study poetry. His reputation was established after he found favour with caliph al-Mutaṣim. This enabled him to travel, and on his return from Iran he began compiling his main work, the Hamasa (Exhortation). This collection of poems deals with contemporary events of historical significance. While his command and purity of language are generally recognized, his excessive use of poetical devices is not appreciated by all critics.

al-Maarri

This highly original, pessimistic, blind poet, who was suspected of heresy more than once, spent almost his whole life in a village south of Aleppo, Maarrat al-Numan. In 1008, three years after the death of his father, al-Maarri (973-1058) went to Baghdad. However, despite his phenomenal memory, erudition and skills, he failed to earn a decent living there. He returned to his hometown, a bitter man for the rest of his life. Saqt al-Zand (Spark from the Fire-stick, a collection of his early poems) and Luzum ma la yalzam (Self-Composed Compulsion, later work) are al-Maarri’s best known poetry works. The Risalat al-Ghufran (The Epistle of Forgiveness, an ironical prose vision of life in Paradise) is one of his most important works. Al-Maarri was known for his skepticism of religion.

Bar Hebraeus

Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286) was born in Armenia as Abu al-Faraj ibn Harun al-Malati. His father, a Jewish convert to Christianity, urged him to pursue a scholarly career. Abu al-Faraj studied medicine with his father and rhetoric and theology in Antakya (Antioch) and Tripoli. Although he was consecrated bishop when he was twenty years old, his episcopal duties did not keep him from compiling, rearranging and translating collections of classical philosophical and theological Arabic texts. He also wrote treatises on grammar, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, theology and history. Among his chief works are an encyclopaedia of philosophy, Ḥewath ḥekhmetha (The Cream of Wisdom), in which he commented, in the Aristotelian tradition, on every branch of human knowledge. He wrote mostly in Syriac, but also in Arabic, the lingua franca of the time. The variety, extent and erudition of his writings are remarkable. Moreover, Bar Hebraeus’ political and religious tact enhanced the cultural exchange between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Adab

Adab, meaning ‘literature’ in Arabic, encompasses more than belles-lettres as it is understood in the West. One of the disciplines of Adab is historiography. Several Syrian chroniclers are worth mentioning. The Damascene teacher and philologist Abu Shama (1203-1267) wrote the Kitab al-rawdatayn (Book of the Two Gardens, a compilation of earlier Islamic sources on the Crusades interspersed with his own remarks). Dhayl Tarikh Dimashq (Supplement on the History of Damascus) by Ibn al-Qalanisi (1070-1160), a politician and son of a well-known Damascene family, is an account of the First Crusade from a Muslim perspective, and therefore an important source for historians. Usama ibn Munqidh (1095-1188), a poet of noble descent, has written several anthologies. Nowadays he is best-known for his Kitab al-Itibar (translated in English as The Book of Contemplation). From a literary point of view this autobiographical book is clearly the most interesting of the three. His description of the crusaders (with whom he had had frequent encounters on and off the battlefield) as villainous and utterly stupid, is vivid and amusing.

Another chronicler, Ibn Kathir (1300-1373, born in Bosra), was one of the best known historians and traditionists of Syria under the (Bahri) Mamluks. At the end of his life he was awarded a professorship in Koranic exegesis at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He wrote one of the principal works on the history of the Mamluk period, al-Bidaya wa-al-Nihaya (Beginning and End) and is still widely read.

Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641-1731) was a mystic poet and prose writer. He belonged to an old Damascene family. At an early age he showed interest in mysticism and spent seven years in isolation in his house, studying Ibn al-Arabi and others. One of his early poems was of such virtuosity, that his authorship was doubted; he vindicated himself by writing a commentary on it. Abd al-Ghani travelled extensively and wrote more than 200 books. His works are not restricted to mysticism and poetry, but include (mystical) travel accounts and treatises on a wide variety of subjects, such as correspondence, prophecy, the interpretation of dreams, and the question of the lawfulness of the use of tobacco. Although he was an original thinker, his travel accounts are considered by many to be the most important of his writings.

Of less noble descent and also less productive was Ahmad al-Budayri al-Hallaq, a Damascene barber (hallaq). His diary, spanning a period from 1741 until 1762, provides useful information on daily life in 18th century Damascus. In the 19th century, when Ottoman censorship in Syria (and Lebanon) increasingly began to stifle writers and intellectuals – especially in contrast with the more liberal climate in Egypt – many migrated to Egypt and, in smaller numbers, to America.

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