The First Consuls

This is from Charles Glass’s ‘Tribes with Flags’:

“The consular tradition in Aleppo, and the world, began in 1517, when the Ottoman sultan Selim I granted Venice, and then England and France, the right to maintain diplomats in Aleppo. On the silk Route between China and the Mediterranean, Aleppo had resdent merchants from al over the world. John Eldred, an English trader, wrote in 1583, “This is the greatest place of traffique for a dry towne that is in all these parts: for hither resort Jewes, Tartarians, Persians, Aemenians, Egyptians, Indians, and many sorts of Christians, and injoy freedome of their consciences and bring hither many kinds of rich merchandises.” The Ottomans had to face the task of ruling many foreigners, with their different languages and customs, withn the context of their loosely governed empire. their solution was to govern the foereigners as they did the natives – leaving each community in charge of its own affairs. At first, the consuls supervised the activities of their own traders, who resided in the European quarter of the walled city. The English consul was employed directy by the Levant Company, which had a Royal Charter to conduct trade with the Orient. when a consul died, a new one was elected from among his peers. Each foreign community was called a ‘factory’ or a ‘nation.’

“After Constantinople and Cairo, Georges [Antaki] explained, “Aleppo was the most important city in the Ottoman Empire. the Venetians had a school in aleppo in the 17th and 18th centuries to train dragomen.” The dragoman, a corruption of the Arabic turjuman, translator, translated Arabic, Turkish and other local languages for the European consuls. The post became institutionalised, but later a dragoman was any native who accompanied Europeans through the Levant. Some dragomen rose to become consuls themselves, and by the twentieth century, most of Aleppo’s consuls were Syrians who in the seventeenth century would have been dragomen.

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