Mark Twain in Damascus

Some more from Charles Glass, in his ‘Tribes with Flags’. I knew Train travelled to Britain, but I had no idea he had done the Grand Tour to the Middle East as well:

This is Twain on Damascus in 1867:

“She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble into ruin. she is a type of immortality. She saw the foundations of Baalbek and Thebes and Ephesus laid; she saw these villages grow into mighty cities and amaze the world with their grandeur – and she has lived to see them desolate, deserted, and given over to the owls and the bats. She saw the Israelitish empire exalted, and she saw it annihilated. She saw Greece rise and flourish two thousand years and die. In her old age she saw Rome built; she saw it overshadow the world with its power; she saw it perish. The few hundreds of years of Genoese and Venetian might and splendour were, to grave old Damascus, only a trifling and scintillation hardly worth remembering. Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.

When Mark Twain approached the city from the west with his party of american Protestant pilgrims, with whom he was touring Europe, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, he stopped on a hill, probably Mount Kassioun, and recalled an earlier visitor who came to the same hilltop and gazed at the oasis below:

“As the glare of day mellowed into twilight we looked down upon a picture which is celebrated all over the world. I think I have read about 400 times that when Mohammed was a simple camel driver he reached this point and looked down upon Damascus for the first time, and then made a certain renowned remark. He said man could enter only one paradise; he preferred to go to the one above. So he sat down there and feasted his eyes upon the earthly paradise of Damascus and then went away without entering the gates. They have erected a tower on the hill to mark the spot where he stood. ”

Unlike the Prophet Mohammed, Mark Twain went down the hill and entered the city. He regretted it. ‘If I were to go to Damascus again… I would camp on Mohammad’s hill about a week and then go away. There is no need to go inside the walls. The prophet was wise without knowing it when he decided not to go down into the paradise of Damascus.’ The city he saw was filthy, with narrow streets and an unwelcoming population that seemed to him to hate even the sight of Christians. I was only 7 years earlier that angry mobs, following Christian-Druze fighting in Mount Lebanon, massacred thousands of Damascene Christian. Twain thought, wrongly, that the massacres had been caried out by the Turks, whom he hoped to see vanquished by the Russians. “How they hate a Christian in Damascus!” – and pretty much all over Turkeydom as well,” he wrote. “And how they will pay for it when Russia turns her guns upon them again!” He neglected to mention that a respected and brave Muslim who had fought against the French in Algeria, Abdel Qader al-Jezairi, tried to stop the mob and offered refuge to hundreds of Christians in his home.

6 thoughts on “Mark Twain in Damascus

    • It’w what the great writers do, and he was a former riverboat captain so I’m sure he was exposed to more variations of English than most.

      On Sat, Apr 13, 2013 at 2:54 AM, texthistory


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