BEA – Travellers to and from the Middle East

March 6, 2020 @ 10:00 am – 12:00 pm

This five-week course will examine a variety of historical accounts of travel to, from and within the Middle East. It is led by Paul Starkey (Professor emeritus, Durham University) and Dr Janet Starkey (ASTENE).

Egypt and the Middle East have enchanted many travellers over the centuries, and these lectures provide a fascinating array of accounts and perceptions. From the earliest epic of Gilgamesh, to early Christian, Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, to medieval merchants, missionaries and fictional travel narratives; artist-travellers who influenced European images of the Middle East; and travellers from the Middle East in Europe, they travelled in pursuit of knowledge, power, diplomacy and trade, for pleasure and adventure, on pilgrimage, and to discover and plunder the exotic.

Content of course: each two-hour session will consist of a lecture followed by an opportunity for questions and discussion. There will be a break for refreshments which are included in the price. Suggestions for supplementary reading will also be given for anyone interested in pursuing the topic in more depth.

6 March: 1. A short introduction to the course and the region, followed by The Cedars of Lebanon in literature and art (Paul)

From the time of the Epic of Gilgamesh (c.2100 BC), the Cedars of Lebanon have served as a distinctive artistic and cultural icon. They were described in the nineteenth century by prominent ‘Orientalist’ travellers like J.L. Burckhardt, and painted by, among others, Edward Lear. This lecture will consider their enduring appeal.

13 March: 2. Jewish and Muslim travellers: Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela and Ibn Battuta (Paul)

Benjamin [Binyamin] of Tudela (1130–1173) may be regarded as a sort of Jewish precursor of the Christian Marco Polo (1254–1324) or the Muslim Ibn Battuta (1304–1369). This lecture will reassess his Travels against the better-known writings of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.

20 March: 3. Fictional travellers, creative writers or liars? Marco Polo, Odoric of Pordenone and John Mandeville (Janet)

Marco Polo travelled in the Middle East in the thirteenth century; Odoric set off from Venice in 1318; Mandeville supposedly travelled in the region from 1322. They described impenetrable deserts, fabulous monsters and strange plants. But did they really travel there, or even exist?

27 March: 4. Creative influences of artist-travellers in the Middle East: from Dürer to Vanmour and beyond (Janet)

French-Flemish painter Jean-Baptiste Vanmour (1671–1737) illustrated everything from Ottoman court life and ambassador’s audiences to everyday events and costumes in Constantinople’s multi-national society, and inspiring many travellers, painters, engravers and even composers.

3 April: 5. The life and times of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1804–1887) (Paul)

Al-Shidyaq was a Lebanese Christian by birth who worked and travelled at various times during his life in Egypt, Malta, Tunisia, France and England, before dying in 1887 in Constantinople (Istanbul). His adventurous life — recorded in several works — provides a unique introduction to travel in the region and to contacts between Europe and the Middle East in the nineteenth century.