27 November 2016


Who drew the first pictures of the ruins of Palmyra?

The prequel

Provinces and districts of Ottoman Syria (1696). Palmyra/Tadmor is not marked;
my red dot indicates its approximate location.

In the summer of 1678, sixteen intrepid Englishmen with 24 muleteers and servants departed from Aleppo to make the first attempt by Westerners to reach the fabled city of Palmyra (in Arabic, known as Tadmor).  It was not unusual for the foreign merchants of Aleppo, whose education had been broadly based on the Classics, to undertake “Voyages of Curiosity to visit the celebrated Remains of Antiquity in those Parts." Yet, throughout the 17th century, Palmyra wasn't even on the map, and only rumour spoke of it:
... being inform’d by the natives that the Ruins of the City of Tadmor were more considerable than they had yet seen, they were tempted to enterprise this hazardous and painful Voyage over the Desart”.  
The adventurers came from the British Levant Company, whose base at Aleppo was one of the main trading stations in the Mediterranean, managing commerce between Britain and the Ottoman Orient. So off they went, under the leadership of the learned Chaplin of Aleppo, Robert Huntington*. They reached the ruins of Palmyra on 23 July, but soon found themselves trapped and threatened by the local sheikh, Melkam.  To save their lives, they were forced to give up almost everything, even their clothes, before fleeing back to Aleppo empty-handed, shorn of their possessions, and with nearly no information about the city.

Palmyra ho! 

Lithograph said to be based on Halifax's on-the-spot sketch of Palmyra, 1691
A second attempt was made 13 years later (1691). This time the travellers had an Arab guide and a security guarantee given by the 'king of the Arabs', Assyne, whose camp on the Euphrates River was just two days' ride south of Aleppo. Though far from Palmyra, his authority reached into the desert and assured the travellers that, this time, the local sheikh would welcome them peacefully. Two of the merchants had been on the disastrous journey of 1678, and this was their second try: Timothy Lanoy, whose father was British Consul of Aleppo from 1659 to 1672, and Aaron Goodyear, who had been trading in Aleppo from as early as 1670 -- in other words, ‘Men of more than ordinary Birth and Education’, well-to-do merchants with an interest in antiquities and collecting. The expedition consisted of 30 men, all well-armed.  Their leader was the new Chaplin of Aleppo, the Reverend William Halifax. 

4 October 1691
As we rode into the town we took notice of a Castle almost half an hours distance from it, and so situated as to Command both the Pass into the hills ... and the City too. But we could easily perceive it was no Old Building, retaining no foot-steps of the exquisite Workmanship and Ingenuity of the Ancients.

Coming upon the city from the north, the men immediately climbed the hill to visit the castle (upper right on the above engraving).  Halifax was rather snobbish in declaring it not 'old': it was, in fact, built by the Mamluks in the thirteenth century. From the hilltop, they looked down upon virtually the entire city.  The company began their exploration of the site from the south, first visiting the Temple of Bel (far left), the greatest and, until 2015, best-preserved construction of Palmyra, built during the first century CE.  They found the few denizens of the city sheltered behind its walls:
The present inhabitants, as they are a poor, miserable, dirty people, so they have shut themselves up, to the Number of about Thirty or Forty Families, in little Hutts made of dirt [scarce enough for a Dog-kennel, or a Hog-sty], within the Walls of a spacious Court, which enclosed a most magnificent Heathen Temple.
Within the walls of the courtyard, too, they found the first Greek texts inscribed in stone, under which were incised the characters of an unknown language, "which I never saw till in Tadmor, nor understand what to make of it":

Inscription in Palmyrene (From W. Halifax, ‘A Relation of a Voyage from Aleppo to Palmyra in Syria …’, 1695)
Halifax correctly surmised that this strange script was Palmyra's “Native Language ... and the Matter it contains nothing else but what we have in the Greek.” And he was right: using the Greek as a crib, later scholars successfully deciphered the script, thus discovering the Palmyrene dialect of the West Aramaic Semitic family -- the first time that a dead language had ever been correctly decoded.

Over the next four days, the company made their way slowly back to their starting point, noting, discussing, and recording the main points of classical interest. They were constantly amazed by the grandiose size of Palmyra -- and even dared to compare it to Rome:
You have the prospect of such Magnificent Ruines, that if it be Lawful to frame a Conjecture of the Original Beauty of the place, by what is still remaining, I question somewhat whether any City in the World could have challenged Precedence over this in its Glory. 
After four days, they withdrew safely to Aleppo, not returning as they had come but riding east to the Euphrates and then following the river northwards (popping in on the way to visit King Assyne in his riverine encampment).  

Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

Halifax sent a report of his travels to Edward Bernard, an Orientalist and astronomer in Oxford, which he passed on to Dr. Thomas Smith, another passionate Orientalist and former Chaplin of the Levant Company in Constantinople, who arranged for the letter to be published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1695. In "A Relation of a Voyage from Aleppo to Palmyra in Syria", Halifax provided a thorough description of the visit, following their steps throughout the city.  He reported things in the order that he had seen them himself, walking through the streets and buildings of Palmyra, describing and clarifying each point -- almost providing a textual 'map'.

His report did include, however, an engraving nearly 70 cm (28") long, depicting a detailed 'View of the ruins of Palmyra alias Tadmor: taken on the Southern Side',** with English labels helpfully inserted. It captures nearly the whole city in a remarkable panorama of almost 180° .

This was unquestionably the first published image of Palmyra.  But -- and it's a big but --  who made the drawing?  There is no signature on the engraving, nor is the artist's name mentioned in the report.  And when was it drawn, and how? It is immensely detailed and, yet, the English had stayed but four days in the city.

Double Dutch

Indisputably, Halifax published the first official report of Palmyra ... but he wasn't actually the first to get the news into print: the earliest report of the discovery appeared in France (merde), briefly announced in a letter -- ‘Extrait d'Une Lettre de Mr. Cuper, à Mr. l'Abbé Nicaise’ -- in the Journal des Sçavans on 30 June 1692*** The writer, Monsieur Cuper, transmitted the information he had just received from Aleppo, to wit: some  English gentlemen had made the journey to Palmyra and had seen 400 marble or porphyry columns, temples still intact, tombs, and Greek and Latin inscriptions, of which he hoped soon to receive copies. The writer of the letter was the Dutchman Gisbert Cuper (1644-1716). 

Oracle of the World of Learning

Gisbert Cuper as Mayor of Deventer (c. 1675)
Cuper came from the city of Deventer in the northeastern Dutch province of Overijssel. At the age of 24, he was appointed professor of history and rhetoric at the local Athenaeum, and was made its Rector in 1672.  In 1674 he became the city's mayor, a position he held until appointed as one of the province's representatives in the States General (1681-1694), the Dutch Republic's highest governing body.  His motto: honesta suopte ingenio 'Rightminded by Nature'. 

What nature didn't provide, scholarship and letters did.

Writing letters was the most vital means of communication for members of the early modern scholarly community. Without letters (most often in Latin, the learned language of the time), and the accompanying reciprocal exchange of objects, drawings, books, and other gifts, there would have been little to hold such an extensive, geographically separated community together. Cuper established a network that served both his political and scholarly needs, keeping up a voluminous correspondance all over Europe (more than 5000 of his letters are still preserved in Dutch archives). Like many powerful politicians and merchants of the time, he had the means to contribute to the discovery and circulation of knowledge, either by becoming patron to younger or less pecunious researchers or by participating directly in the learned community.  Once he arrived at the States General in The Hague, Cuper was also able to mobilize diplomatic and consular networks for the satisfaction of his own antiquarian curiosity, corresponding with diplomats, representatives of merchant communities, and their entourage abroad, to transfer scholarly information and objects.

That's how this 'oracle of the world of learning' knew about the discovery of Palmyra, even before the news had reached England. 

The Dutch Connection 

Gisbert Cuper (painted between 1681-1689)
Cuper was a scholarly link between East and West, as is attested by his voluminous correspondence with Jacob Colyer, Dutch Ambassador in Constantinople, and his brother-in- law, Daniel Jan de Hochepied, Consul in Smyrna [today, Izmir]. Colyer and De Hochepied inhabited the cradle of civilization in which Cuper, as an antiquarian scholar, took so much interest.

With the aid of another Dutch Consul, Coenraad Calckberner, in Aleppo, Cuper was able to furnish European scholars with new material for the study of the ancient past. Before Calckberner even arrived in Aleppo (probably when he was about to leave Amsterdam), Cuper wrote urging the new Consul to gather copies of all the inscriptions that were found in the region of Aleppo, to buy ancient coins for him and to deliver pictures of ancient statues and reliefs. 

In July 1692, Calckberner came up trumps. He wrote a letter saying that he would be sending Cuper some rare ancient coins, plus a copy of the travel report written by a minister [Halifax] in the company of the first Europeans who had visited Palmyra -- undoubtedly the source for Cuper's scoop in the Journal des Sçavans -- and a painting depicting those ancient ruins, which the painter was still working on.  The promised items, including the painting (below), were shipped to Cuper on 3 April 1693.

Cuper intended to publish a complete account of the expedition to Palmyra, together with a historical commentary, after having translated the original manuscript from English into Latin -- as few continental European scholars of the time could read English.  Thomas Smith himself was aware of this project: he announced in Philosophical Transactions of 1695, that the accounts published in that volume were meant to be nothing more than "a not unpleasant appetizer until the well-known and very learned man, Cuper, shall publish additional material....".  Because this never happened, the reports in Philosophical Transactions remain the first published accounts of the journey to Palmyra. 

Yes, but the painting, you say.  What about the painting?  Who painted it?  How and where did he do it?  Did he travel to Pamyra with Halifax in 1691? Why was his name not given in the official report? 

So many questions ... and they do have answers. 

We'll elucidate the Mystery of who was the first to paint Palmyra in Part II of this post.  The solution could not be more timely.

* Among the vast number of manuscripts Huntington collected in Syria is an illustrated 12th-century manuscript on weaponry commissioned by Saladin for his own library. It is now one of the treasures of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

** The legend is erroneous, the view is not 'on the southern side' but from the north(east).

*** I have confirmed this date (online). There is some confusion about the date of the letter of July 1692 from Calckberner (referred to a little later); more of that in Part II. A report of Cuper's  French account was translated into English by John Ray in his Collection of Curious Travels and Voyages, printed in London in 1693; still beating the official report by two years.

Part II of this post: click here

Sources: - Gregorio Astengo, 'The rediscovery of Palmyra and its dissemination in Philosophical Transactions', Notes Rec R Soc Lond 2016 Sep 20, 70(3): 209–230, published online 2016 Mar 16.  
- A. J. Lake, The First Protestants in the Arab World: the contribution to Christian mission of the
English Aleppo chaplains ( 1597-1782 )
, diss. Australian College of Theology, 2015 (
- Bianca Chen, 'Digging for Antiquities with Diplomats: Gisbert Cuper (1644-1716) and his Social Capital', Republic of Letters, Vol. 1/1, May 2009.
- M. Keblusek-B.V. Noldus Double Agents: Cultural and Political Brokerage in Early Modern Europe, Brill, 2011.
- William Halifax, 'A Relation of a Voyage from Aleppo to Palmyra in Syria....' Philosophical Transactions,1695, 83-110, Downloaded from http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/


Top left: Map of Ottoman Syria , printed in Paris, 1696: Hubert Jaillot, Estats de l'empire du Grand Seigneur des Turcs, en Europe, en Asia, et en Afrique, divisé en tous ses Beglerbeglicz, ou gouvernments.

2nd left: Lithograph said to be based on William Halifax's on-the-spot sketch of Palmyra in 1691, published as Fig 28 in A.J. Lake diss. (see sources).  I have been unable to trace the original drawing.

Upper centre: Engraving, 'View of the ruins of Palmyra alias Tadmor: taken on the Southern Side',** published in Philosophical Transactions, 1695. Reprinted in Astengo (see sources), Fig. 1.

Middle centre: Inscription in the Palmyrene alphabet,  Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 217 (1695). Reprinted in Astengo (see sources), Fig. 2.

3rd left: Portrait of Gisbert Cuper as Mayor of Deventer, Gerard ter Borch, circa 1675; oil on copper. Historisch Museum Deventer.  Photo credit: Vereniging Rembrandt

4th left: Portrait of Gisbert Cuper,  Painted by Jan de Baen between 1681-1689. Collectie Historisch Museum Deventer. Photo credit: Stichting Jacob Campo Weyerman

Bottom centre: Oil painting, The Ruins of Palmyra, sent to Gisbert Cuper in 1693. Photo credit: Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive