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Tamerlane in Damascus

[An illustration by Rembrandt Harmensz depicting renowned historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun pleading with Tamerlane to hault any attacks targeting the city and people of Damascus.] [An illustration by Rembrandt Harmensz depicting renowned historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun pleading with Tamerlane to hault any attacks targeting the city and people of Damascus.]

In December of 1400, Timur left the rubble of Aleppo and Hama behind, making his way to the outskirts of the first city of Syria: Damascus. By this time, an Egyptian army under the command of the Mamluk Sultan himself had arrived in Syria, engaging in several skirmishes with Timur’s forces. Then, abruptly, it headed back to Cairo at the start of the new year, ostensibly to prevent a rival from taking control in the Sultan’s absence. Newly vulnerable, the Damascene population sent a delegation of scholars and notables, including a famous visitor to the city, historian Ibn Khaldun, to negotiate with Timur. The Mongol leader ordered the Damascene representatives to write down the names of the quarters, squares, and streets of the city, so that his emissaries could systematically demand tribute and obedience from residents. Before Timur left Syria for good in mid-March 1401, he let his troops loose in Damascus for three terrible days of plunder, rape, and ruin, finally setting the city on fire as he marched off with its finest youth and artisans in captivity.

In the wake of this horror, an obscure Damascene resident named al-Ghuzuli composed a sixty-five-verse poem mourning the destruction of his city. He inserted this poem toward the end of a chapter on the subject of al-ḥanīn il­­ā l-awṭān [longing for homelands] in an eclectic literary anthology (ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn ʿAlī b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Bahāʾī al-Ghuzūlī, Maṭāliʿ al-budūr fī manāzil al-surūr (Cairo: Maktabat al-Thaqāfa al-Dīniyya, 2000, 619-621). This poem, which belongs to a long-standing genre of Arabic elegies to cities, makes clear al-Ghuzuli’s attachment to Damascus. There is an elaborate topography, with the names for the quarters of Damascus and descriptions of buildings and mosques sprinkled throughout the poem. There are the repeated first-person lamentations for the city’s plight,

My grief is for those towers and their beauty
Engulfed by the disasters of late.
My grief is for the valley of Damascus and its gracefulness
When the gazelles have been replaced by bulls [(lined 4-5)].

The fate of other Syrian cities is also compared to that of Damascus,

Is not our bride [(i.e., Damascus)] as Hama is to you.
In terms of injury? For you two are sisters [(line 30)].
… 
My sorrow is for Aleppo before Hama
[Aleppo] was the first, and [Hama] was the second spot [(line 34)].

While al-Ghuzuli orients attention toward the suffering of other Syrian cities, establishing explicit kinship between them, he reserves for Damascus the pain of his personal loss,

And when I arrived at what happened in its quarters,
It was up to me to cry the tears of the owner.
Life was no longer easy in its courtyards,
And the house was my house, the time my time [(lines 52-53)].

Finally, at the end of the poem al-Ghuzuli assigns blame to the forces of sin and tyranny, suggesting that such forces might not be the preserve of Timur alone,

Do you think that God is supporting our Sultan,
Such that I can say I have thrived under the Sultan?
Oh Lord, the act of sin is the root of our affliction,
So forgive the passion for sin with pardon,
And wash with the water of security the face of our hope,
And by Your Grace keep away the advent of tyrants [(lines 62-64)].

In this elegy, the author not only identifies himself intimately with Damascus, but also aligns Damascus with other Syrian cities at odds with rulers whose obsession with power caused them to neglect one of their most important responsibilities: the protection of the people.

Over the past two decades, Syrian historians have taken up the story of Timur’s occupation of Damascus in order to commemorate the suffering endured by their ancestors, and to draw lessons from it for Syria’s contemporary struggles against foreign invaders, identified more or less explicitly as the United States and Israel [For examples, see Akram Hasan al-ʿUlabī, Tīmūrlank wa-ḥikāyatuhu maʿa Dimashq (Damascus: Dār al-Maʾmūn li-l-Turāth, 1987); Sulaymān al-Madanī, Tīmūrlank fī Dimashq (Damascus and Beirut: al-Manāra, 2000)]. The existence of such works is testimony to the continued resonance of these six-hundred-year-old events in the historical consciousness of Syrians, particularly Damascenes. As one of the authors explains, unlike Aleppo—whose notables led a doomed but heroic resistance— Damascus suffered the shame of capitulation in addition to the pain of violence in its encounter with Timur (al-ʿUlabī, 183). To this day, it is an insult reserved specifically for Syrians from Damascus to be called “Timur,” a reference to the mass rapes carried out against Damascene women by Timur’s army. Even more recently, the label has been turned on Bashar al-Asad, drawing a comparison between Timur’s alleged antipathy to Sunni Muslims and the Asad regime’s brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood (see Yahyā al-Būlīnī, “Tīmūrlank… Bashshār al-Asad… lā farq!Nūr Sūriyya (17 February 2012)).

Whether invoking the name Timur today conjures specters of conquest and occupation, illegitimacy and shame, or heresy and sectarianism, its power lies in a centuries-old collective memory of vulnerability. For al-Ghuzuli, as for many Muslims of his era, the geographical origins or sectarian stripe of a political regime were less important than its ability or willingness to protect its people. Al-Ghuzuli’s elegy was not simply an abject cry of longing for his beloved Damascus. It was a demand for protection. Protection takes many forms, but at the moment the persistent realities of hunger, displacement, and violence across lines of class and confession in Syrian society beg protection at the most basic level. From the rubble of Syrian towns and cities, let the cries of loss be heard for the demands they are, demands for protection, for succor, for care. It is not the first time in its history that Damascus (or Hama or Aleppo) has been destroyed, but it is worth repeating al-Ghuzuli’s final prayer that it be the last:

Wash with the water of security the face of our hope,
and by your grace keep away the advent of tyrants.

 

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