The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter XI

In and About Damascus

(1870)

Though old as history itself, thou art fresh as breath of spring, blooming as thine own rosebud, as fragrant as thine own orange flower, O Damascus, Pearl of the East!

When I nighted and day’d in Damascus town,

Time sware such another he ne’er should view;

And careless we slept under wing of night,

Till dappled morn ‘gan her smiles renew,

And dewdrops on branch in their beauty hung

Like pearls to be dropt when the zephyr blew,

And the lake was the page where birds read and wrote,

And the clouds set points to what breezes roll.

Alf Laylah wa Laylah (Burton’s “Arabian Nights”).

During the first weeks at Damascus my only work was to find a suitable house and to settle down in it. Our predecessor in the Consulate had lived in a large house in the city itself, and as soon as he retired he let it to a wealthy Jew. In any case it would not have suited us, nor would any house within the city walls; for though some of them were quite beautiful — indeed, marble palaces gorgeously decorated and furnished after the manner of oriental houses — yet there is always a certain sense of imprisonment about Damascus, as the windows of the houses are all barred and latticed, and the gates of the city are shut at sunset. This would not have suited our wild-cat proclivities; we should have felt as though we were confined in a cage. So after a search of many days we took a house in the environs, about a quarter of an hour from Damascus, high up the hill. Just beyond it was the desert sand, and in the background a saffron-hued mountain known as the Camomile Mountain; and camomile was the scent which pervaded our village and all Damascus. Our house was in the suburb of Salahíyyeh, and we had good air and light, beautiful views, fresh water, quiet, and above all liberty. In five minutes we could gallop out over the mountains, and there was no locking us up at sunset. Here we pitched our tent.

I should like to describe our house at Salahíyyeh once more, though I have described it before, and Frederick Leighton once drew a sketch of it, so that it is pretty well known. Our house faced the road and the opposite gardens, and it was flanked on one side by the Mosque and on the other by the Hammám (Turkish Bath), and there were gardens at the back. On the other side of the road were apricot trees, whose varying beauty of bud and leaf and flower and fruit can be better imagined than described. Among these apricot orchards I had a capital stable for twelve horses, and a good room attached to it for any number of saises, or grooms, and beyond that again was a little garden, through which the river wended its way. So much for the exterior. Now to come indoors. As one entered, first of all came the courtyard, boldly painted in broad stripes of red and white and blue, after the manner of all the courtyards in Damascus. Here too splashed the fountain, and all around were orange, lemon, and jessamine trees. Two steps took one to the líwán, a raised room open one side to the court, and spread with carpets, divans, and Eastern stuffs. It was here, in the summer, I was wont to receive. On the right side of the court was a dining-room, and on the left a cool sitting-room, when it was too hot to live upstairs. All the rest of the space below was left to the servants and offices. Upstairs the rooms ran around two sides of the courtyard. A long terrace occupied the other two sides, joining the rooms at either end. This terrace formed a pleasant housetop in the cool evenings. We spread it with mats and divans, and used to sit among the flowers and shrubs, and look over Damascus and sniff the desert air beyond.

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The Burtons’ House Salahíyyeh, Damascus.
From a sketch by the late Lord Leighton

Of course this house was not the Consulate, which was in the city, close to the Serai, or Government House.

I think the charm of our house lay chiefly in the gardens around it. We made a beautiful arbour in the garden opposite — a garden of roses and jessamine; and we made it by lifting up overladen vines and citrons, and the branches of lemon and orange trees, and supporting them on a framework, so that no sun could penetrate their luxuriant leafage. We put a divan in this arbour, which overlooked the rushing river; and that and the housetop were our favourite places to smoke on cool summer evenings.

By this time you will probably have discovered my love for animals, and as soon as I had arranged our house at Damascus the first thing I did was to indulge in my hobby of collecting a menagerie. First of all we bought some horses, three-quarter-breds and half-breds. Thorough-bred Arabs, especially mares, were too dear for our stable, and would have made us an object of suspicion. In the East, where there are official hands not clean of bribes, an Arab mare is a favourite bribe, and I had many such offers before I had been at Damascus long; but I refused them all. Richard always gave me entire command of the stable, and so it was my domain. Living in solitude as I did very much, I discovered how companionable horses could be. There was no speech between us, but I knew everything they said and thought and felt, and they knew everything I said to them. I did not confine my purchases entirely to horses. I bought a camel and a snow-white donkey, which latter is the most honourable mount for grand visiting. I also picked up a splendid Persian cat in the bazaars, and I had brought over with me a young pet St. Bernard dog, two brindle bull-terriers and two of the Yarborough breed, and I added later a Kurdish pup. I bought three milk goats for the house, and I had presents of a pet lamb and a nimr (leopard), which became the idol of the house. The domestic hen-yard was duly stocked with all kinds of fowls, turkeys, geese, ducks, and guinea-fowls, and in the garden and on the terrace and the housetop I kept my pigeons. This collection was my delight. I cannot say that they were a happy family. After a time I trained them into living together in something like harmony, but it took a very long time. I added to my family also from time to time half-famished dogs which I had rescued from the streets, or ill-treated and broken-down donkeys, which I purchased from some cruel master. In the course of time it became a truly wonderful gathering.

The animals in the East seem to me to be almost more intelligent than those at home. They certainly have a way of showing their likes and dislikes very strongly. When I first came to Damascus, fond though I was of animals, I found that most of them shied at me. I do not think that they had been accustomed to an Englishwoman at close quarters. For instance, I went for a walk one day, and met a small boy leading a donkey laden with radishes, as high as a small tree. I suppose that I was strange-looking, for at the sight of me the donkey kicked up his heels and threw all the radishes about for a hundred yards around. The poor little boy set up a howl. I ran to help him, but the more I tried the more the donkey ran away, and at last I understood by signs that the donkey was shying at me, so I threw the boy a coin and retreated, and sent another boy to help him. We called to an old man riding a shabby-looking horse, but the moment the horse saw me it did exactly the same thing, and nearly flung the old man off. My sides ached with laughing. Fancy being so queer that the animals take fright at one!

I think before I go further I ought to give some general idea of the city of Damascus as it appeared to me. I have already said that my first sight of the city was one of disappointment; but when I got to know it better its charm grew upon me, and I shall never till I die like any place so well. Damascus, as I suppose every one knows, is the largest town in Syria. In shape it is rather like a boy’s kite, with a very long tail. The tail of the kite is the Maydán, the poorest part of Damascus, but rich in ruined mosques and hammáms, and houses which at first sight look as though they are in decay. But when we got to know these houses better, we found that marble courts, inlaid chambers, arabesque ceilings, often lay behind the muddy exteriors. The city itself is divided into three quarters: the Jewish in the southern part, the Moslem in the northern and western, and the Christian in the eastern. The Moslem quarter is clean, the Christian quarter dirty, and the Jewish simply filthy. I often had to gallop through it holding my handkerchief to my mouth, and the kawwasses running as though they had been pursued by devils. Everywhere in Damascus, but especially in this quarter, the labyrinthine streets are piled with heaps of offal, wild dogs are gorged with carrion, and dead dogs are lying about. One must never judge Damascus, however, by externals: every house has a mean aspect in the way of entrance and approach. This is done purposely to deceive the Government, and not to betray what may be within in times of looting. You often approach through a mean doorway into a dirty passage; you then enter a second court, and you behold a marvellous transformation. You find the house thoroughly cleaned and perfumed, paved courts with marble fountains and goldfish, orange and jessamine trees, furniture inlaid with gold and ebony and mother-o’-pearl, and stained-glass windows. In the interior of one of the most beautiful houses I saw in Damascus the show-room was very magnificent, upholstered in velvet and gold, and with divans inlaid with marble, mother-o’-pearl, ebony, and walnut, and there were tesselated marble floors and pavements and fountains; but en revanche, God knows where they sleep at all. One of the ladies I went to call on first in her house was a very young and pretty bride, only a fortnight married. She was gaudily dressed, with about £2,000 worth of diamonds on her head and neck, but the stones were so badly set they looked like rubbish. She rolled from side to side in her walk, which is a habit very chic.

Notwithstanding her internal grandeur, Damascus is but a wreck of her former splendour, albeit a beautiful wreck. Ichabod! her glory has departed; not even the innumerable domes and minarets of her multitudinous mosques can reinstate her.

I think I ought to touch on the bazaars, as they form such an integral part of the life of Damascus. Many of them were very beautiful, all huddled together in a labyrinth of streets, and containing almost everything which one could want. I used to love to go with my Arab maid and wander through them. There was the saddlery bazaar, where one could buy magnificent trappings for one’s Arab steeds, saddle-cloths embossed with gold, bridles of scarlet silk, a single rein which makes you look as if you were managing a horse by a single thread, and bridles of silver and ivory. There was a shoemaker’s bazaar. How different from a shoeshop in England! The stalls were gorgeous with lemon-coloured slippers, stiff red shoes, scarlet boots with tops and tassels and hangings, which form part of the Bedawi dress. There was a marqueterie bazaar, where one found many lovely things inlaid with choice woods, mother-o’-pearl, and steel. And there was the gold and silver bazaar, where the smiths sat round in little pens, hammering at their anvils. Here one could pick up some most beautiful barbarous and antique ornaments, filigree coffee-cup holders, raki cups of silver inlaid with gold, and many other beautiful things too numerous to mention. There was another bazaar where they sold attar and sandal-wood oil; and yet another where one could buy rich Eastern stuffs and silks, the most beautiful things, which would make a fine smoking suit for one’s husband, or a sortie de bal for oneself. Here also you can buy izárs to walk about the bazaars incognita. They are mostly brilliantly hued and beautifully worked in gold. There was also the divan, where one bought beautiful stuffs, gaudy Persian rugs, and prayer-carpets for furnishing the house. There was the bazaar where one bought henna, wherewith to stain the hands, the feet, and the finger-nails. And last, but by no means least, there was the pipe or narghíleh bazaar, which contained the most beautiful pipe-sticks I ever saw, and the most lovely narghílehs, which were made in exquisite shapes and of great length in the tube. The longer the narbish, or tube, the higher your rank, and the greater compliment you pay to your guest. I used to order mine to be all dark chocolate and gold, and to measure from four to six yards in length, and I never had less than twelve narghílehs in the house at once, one of which I kept for my own particular smoking, and a silver mouthpiece which I kept in my pocket for use when visiting. I cannot hope in a short space to exhaust the treasures of these gorgeous bazaars. I can only say in conclusion that there were also the bazaars for sweetmeats, most delectable; for coffee, of which one never tastes the like out of Damascus; and every kind of bric-à-brac.

No account of Damascus, not even a bird’s-eye-view, would be complete without some mention of the great Mosque, whither I was wont now and again to repair. When I went, I of course took off my boots at the entrance, and put on my lemon-coloured slippers, and I was always careful to be as respectful and as reverent as if I were in my own church, and to never forget to leave a trifle for the poor, and to give a substantial tip when I went out. The Mosque was a magnificent building, with a ceiling of beautiful arabesques; the floor of limestone like marble, covered with mats and prayer-carpets. One of the most beautiful domes had windows of delicately carved wood, whose interstices were filled with crystal. There was a large paved court with a marble dome and fountain; and there were three minarets, which it was possible to ascend and from them to look down upon Damascus. It was up one of these minarets that the Duchesse de Persigny ascended, and when prayer was called she refused to come down. The Shaykh sent all kinds of emissaries and entreaties, to whom she replied: “Dites au Shaykh que je suis la Duchesse de Persigny, que je me trouve fort bien ici, et que je ne descendrai que quand cela me plaira.” She did not please for three-quarters of an hour. She also visited cafés which Moslem women do not visit, and shocked the kawwasses so much that they begged the French Consul not to send them to guard her, as they were losing their reputation! But to return to our muttons. This superb Mosque has alternately served as a place of worship for many creeds: for the Pagans as a temple, for the Christians as a cathedral, and for the Moslems as a mosque. Like Damascus, it has had its vicissitudes, and it has been taken captive by Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Assyrians, and Turks.

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The Court of the Great Mosque, Damascus.

The Hammám, or Turkish Bath, is another feature of Damascus, and was one of my favourite haunts. I first went to the Hammám out of curiosity, and was warmly welcomed by the native women; but I was rather shocked. They squat naked on the floor, and, despoiled of their dress and hair and make-up, are, most of them, truly hideous. Their skins are like parchment, and baggy; their heads as bald as billiard-balls. What little hair they have is dyed an orange red with henna. They look like the witches in Macbeth, or at least as if they had been called up from out of the lower regions. They sit chatting with little bundles of sweets and narghílehs before them. An average Englishwoman would look like an houri amongst them; and their customs were beastly, to use the mildest term. The Hammám was entered by a large hall, lit by a skylight, with a huge marble tank in the centre and four little fountains, and all around raised divans covered with cushions. Here one wraps oneself in silk and woollen sheets, and after that proceeds to pass through the six marble rooms. The first is the cold room, the next warmer, the third warmer still, until you come to the sudarium, the hottest room of all. First they lather you, then they wash you with a lif and soap, then they douche you with tubs of hot water, then they shampoo you with fresh layers of soap, and then douche again. They give you iced sherbet, and tie towels dipped in cold water round your head, which prevent you fainting and make you perspire. They scrub your feet with pumice-stone, and move you back through all the rooms gradually, douche you with water, and shampoo you with towels. You now return to the large hall where you first undressed, wrap in woollen shawls, and recline on a divan. The place is all strewn with flowers, incense is burned around, and a cup of hot coffee is handed and a narghíleh placed in your mouth. A woman advances and kneads you as though you were bread, until you fall asleep under the process, as though mesmerized. When you wake up, you find music and dancing, the girls chasing one another, eating sweetmeats, and enjoying all sorts of fun. Moslem women go through a good deal more of the performance than I have described. For instance, they have their hair hennaed and their eyebrows plucked. You can also have your hands and feet hennaed, and, if you like it, be tattooed. The whole operation takes about four hours. It is often said by the ignorant that people can get as good a hammám in London or Paris as in the East. I have tried all, and they bear about as much relation to one another as a puddle of dirty water does to a pellucid lake. And the pellucid lake is in the East.

Then the harems. I often spent an evening in them, and I found them very pleasant; only at first the women used to ask me such a lot of inconvenient questions that I became quite confused. They were always puzzled because I had no children. One cannot generalize on the subject of harems; they differ in degree just as much as families in London. A first-class harem at Constantinople is one thing, at Damascus one of the same rank is another, while those of the middle and lower classes are different still. As a rule I met with nothing but courtesy in the harems, and much hospitality, cordiality, and refinement. I only twice met with bad manners, and that was in a middle-class harem. Twice only the conversation displeased me, and that was amongst the lower class. One of the first harems I visited in Damascus was that of the famous Abd el Kadir (of whom more anon), which of course was one of the best class. He had five wives: one of them was very pretty. I asked them how they could bear to live together and pet each other’s children. I told them that in England, if a woman thought her husband had another wife or mistress, she would be ready to kill her and strangle the children if they were not her own. They all laughed heartily at me, and seemed to think it a great joke. I am afraid that Abd el Kadir was a bit of a Tartar in his harem, for they were very prim and pious.

So much for the city of Damascus.

In the environs there were many beautiful little roads, leading through gardens and orchards, with bubbling water, and under the shady fig and vine, pomegranate and walnut. You emerged from these shady avenues on to the soft yellow sand of the desert, where you could gallop as hard as you pleased. There were no boundary-lines, no sign-posts, nothing to check one’s spirits or one’s energy. The breath of the desert is liberty.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:33