Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Renaissance man

“Renaissance Emir” is a book about Fakhr ad-Din (1572-1635), a Druze Emir of Kurdish descent ruling the territory today known as Lebanon. He is a significant figure in Lebanese history, at least among groups who lay claim to a specific Lebanese identity. Fakhr ad-Din also play a role in European Renaissance history, since he spent several years as an exile in Florence (ruled by the illustrious Medici family) and southern Italy (then under Spanish tutelage). The Emir, who was in conflict with the Ottoman Sultans of Constantinople (his nominal overlords), hoped to receive military aid from the Christian powers. To that end, he lobbied the papacy in Rome for a new crusade against the infidel, with the purpose of recapturing Jerusalem. T J Gorton's book deals with this colorful character, his impressions of Europe, the constant intrigues at the Medici court surrounding his exile in Florence, and his perennial conflicts with the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Gorton even attempts to unpack the curious Druze religion, an esoteric breakaway sect from the equally secretive Shia Muslim Ismailis. The Druze still exist, and play a significant political role in Lebanon and Syria. There is also a small Druze minority in Israel.

While Fakhr ad-Din wasn't a “modernizer” or “reformer” in the strict sense, he clearly admired the ordered, lawful and “republican” government of the Florence city-state. Back home, the Emir built Italianate castles, attempted to introduce Western agricultural methods and favored Catholic missionary orders such as Jesuits and Franciscans. He also built expensive new roads and market-places, which sounds trivial but was unheard of in the stagnant and corrupt backwater of the Ottoman Levant. Fakhr ad-Din was tolerant to most religious groups within his domains (which at their greatest extension included Lebanon and parts of Syria and Palestine), but clearly favored the Maronites, who were in communion with Rome. (The Druze-Maronite unity came to a tragic end in the 19th century and today, the two communities are adversaries.)

Christian nations during the 17th century were generally intolerant in matters of religion. Florence was a notable exception. The Tuscan dukedom extended asylum to both Muslims and Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, and, of course, to Fakhr ad-Din himself when he was forced to temporarily leave Lebanon due to Ottoman military pressure. While the Emir constantly pretended to be interested in converting to the Christian faith, and according to legend died with the Lorraine cross on his chest, there is no evidence that he ever strayed from the Druze religion. Organized almost like a secret society, the Druze are allowed to dissimulate and mimic the traditions of other religions. This explains the peculiar fact that Fakhr ad-Din, while being an “infidel” by Muslim standards, nevertheless lived as a Muslim during his stay in Christian Florence, eating only halal food, observing Ramadan and meticulously secluding his women, all the while calling on the pope to organize a crusade to liberate the Holy Grave from the Turks. He even claimed to be a literal descendant of Godfrey of Bouillon, the first ruler of the crusader states!

In the end, the Ottoman Empire proved too strong for the seditious Emir. Fakhr ad-Din was captured by a punitive expedition, sent to Constantinople and strangled on the Sultan's orders. Despite this sad end, he nevertheless looks like the posthumous victor. The Ottoman Empire, despite its “great power” status, was in a decrepit position already during the Emir's lifetime. In Florence, the Druze leader and his entourage gasped at such seemingly trivial things as banks, the rule of law (taxes and punishments for crimes weren't arbitrary!) or publicly funded education. Suggesting, of course, that such things are far from trivial, after all. As a parting gift, the Emir was given one of Galileo's telescopes…

“Renaissance Emir” is in the grey zone between the scholarly and the popularized. I assume that it's mostly intended for a more popular audience. (It even includes a joke on p. 86. Can you spot it?) I admit that T J Gorton's description of “The Father of Lebanon” wasn't the most interesting book I've read, but at least it confirmed what I long suspected. It really was necessary to stop the Ottomans from ever conquering Italy!

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