Steve Tamari, associate professor of historical studies at SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences, just returned from the second of three conferences scheduled in nearly as many weeks. Tamari’s research focuses on ethnic and territorial identity before nationalism specializes in Ottoman Syria during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, a region called Bilad al-Sham, a main topic at all three of the conferences.
Bilad al-Sham, as explained by Tamari, is the area of the Middle East that marks the boundaries of geographical Syria.
“The northern borders are basically Anatolia, modern day Turkey. Different markers are used by different people, but generally it’s considered the Taurus Mountains, which are the mountains of central Anatolia. So, anything from modern Turkey south to the Arabian desert,” said Tamari. “There’s what we call the Syrian Desert, which is really an extension of the Arabian desert, the modern day countries of southern Jordan, southern Palestine, Israel, the Sinai. All of that is the geographical boundary. In the east, the Euphrates river, Mesopotamia, Iraq. The Euphrates is the [boundary] al-Nabulusi uses. It marks the border between geographical Syria and Mesopotamia, Iraq; in the west, the Mediterranean sea. [Bilad al-Sham] encompasses the modern day countries of The Arab Republic of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan.”
The first conference Tamari attended was an international conference in Amman, Jordan. Tamari stated that it was the 9th conference of the Council for the History of Bilad al-Sham. The international council dates back to the early 1970’s, according to Tamari, but only meets occasionally. Because Tamari was invited, all of his expenses were paid by the council. Tamari stated that the conference, this year, focused on agriculture of the region. Tamari stated that he wrote about the first conference on his blog.
Tamari stated that for all three conferences his focus is on the writings of a Muslim scholar, Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi.
“I focus on a writer, Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi, who died in 1731. He lived 90 years. He was very active in the 17th Century as well as the early 18th century,” stated Tamari.
Tamari went on to explain that al-Nabulusi travelled a great deal around Bilad al-Sham, and that it was a fairly common practice for Muslim scholars of the period to go on pilgrimages and write about their travels. Tamari stated there is a long legacy of great travel writers in the region. In his research, Tamari suggests that al-Nabulusi reveals a strong attachment to Bilad al-Sham.
“I’m focusing on how his travels within this territory of greater Syria reveal an attachment to that land, recognize it as a distinct unit to which he feels a certain attachment,” said Tamari. “I’m not going so far as to say this is pre-modern Syrian nationalism, but I am saying that Syrian national identity, or attachment to greater Syria, is not an invention of the late 19th, early 20th Century as a result of encounters with the West. I am interested in the continuities in Syrian and Arab identities between pre-modern and modern times.”
Tamari said that he used the language found in al-Nabulusi’s travel writings to show that al-Nabulusi wasn’t just interested in the region for religious reasons, even though several of his travel journals were based on trips that he took while on the Hajj.
“One motive for these travels was pilgrimage. Some scholars have emphasized that he was a kind of spiritual traveler, that he wasn’t really interested in the areas, the lands. He was interested in the pilgrimages to burial sites,” said Tamari. “I talk about his descriptions of cultivation and trees on his travels to say it wasn’t just about spirituality or mysticism. He was very much interested in specifically describing and appreciating land and the earth. So there is a kind of physical element to his pilgrimages. That’s what I was talking about in Jordan.”
Tamari stated that al-Nabulusi’s most famous travel journal came from a Hajj journey that took al-Nabulusi north through Syria, to Hama, then around Bilad al-Sham, to Egypt, an long journey for al-Nabulusi to take.
“What’s really peculiar about al-Nabulusi is he does not go on the Damascus caravan. He takes off on the Hajj and he goes north and travels through Syria,” said Tamari. “He goes about as far as Hama, which has been in the news lately since it’s one of the centers of opposition to the current regime. He turns west towards the Mediterranean and he travels along the coast. He visits many of the places in Lebanon he had visited on a previous trip. And then he sticks to the coast and goes down the Palestinian coast, through Gaza to Egypt. Egypt is another center for a caravan [for the Hajj]. All of the people from north and west Africa basically gather in Cairo and they go together as a caravan. They go south along the Red Sea, but on the Egyptian side. They cross over near Mecca. He follows that route. So, he takes the Egyptian caravan to Mecca. I suggest that this is again an indication of his attachment to Bilad al-Sham. He didn’t just go straight to Egypt. He did another round within his own land. And, that’s his most famous travel journal.”
The second conference, which took place over this past weekend, was at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The conference title was Living Empire: Ottoman Identities in Transition 1700-1850. Tamari stated he was invited to this conference as well, and that SIUE helped pay for his travel expenses to the conference.
“The next one relates to this attachment to the land and also Arab ethnic identity before Arab nationalism. It’s something I’ve written about before, but I am combining the two in the presentation this time,” said Tamari.
Tamari said that his research suggests that nationalism began earlier in the region than what many historians typically agree.
“Most historians agree that nationalism, as the political movement for creating nations based on ethnic or territorial units, is a 19th century phenomenon. In much of the Middle East, historians believe it’s a late 19th, even maybe early 20th century phenomenon and that it’s mostly a product of interaction with the West. That was the dominant view for a long time and I think it’s still pretty well accepted,” said Tamari. “Some people have been challenging that view and have been looking for the pre-modern sources or roots for modern national identities, contemporary identities.
The third conference, during the first week in May, will take place in Beirut, Lebanon at the American University in Beirut (AUB) where Tamari lived for a year as a Fulbright scholar. According to Tamari, the conference will commemorate the passing of Kamal Salibi, a ‘giant in the world of writing the history of Lebanon.’ Tamari stated that the papers presented at the conference will be turned into a festschrift, a collection of writings published to honor a scholar.