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Friday, October 31, 2008

The richest Jew in Damascus, 1816

James Silk Buckingham wrote a diary of his travels in the early part of the nineteenth century, called "Travels Among the Arab Tribes Inhabiting the Countries East of Syria and Palestine."

He mentions the richest Jew in Damascus, Mallim Yusef, who was a very important member of the Damascus branch of the Ottoman government, "directing all the financial operations" there.

Buckingham then describes a visit to the "kihyah bey," or local prime minister, temporarily taking the duties of the late Governor of Damascus after the latter's untimely death returning from the Haj in Mecca:
[We] found the venerable Turk seated in a small but richly furnished apartment, guarded and attended by at least fifty handsome officers, all armed with sabres and dirks, and all superbly dressed. We were desired to seat ourselves on the sofa beside these chiefs, before whom stood in groups an equal number of armed attendants, and were treated with great respect and attention.

The rich Jew, Mallim Yusef, who conducted us to the presence of the kihyah bey, seated himself with the greatest possible humility on the floor beneath us, at the feet of his superiors who occupied the sofa, first kneeling, and then sitting back while kneeling, on the heels and soles of his feet, with these and his hands completely covered, in an attitude and with an air of the most abject and unqualified humiliation. Mr. Bankes was dressed as a Turkish effendi, or private and unmilitary person : I still continued to wear the less showy garments of the Christian merchant, with which I had replaced my Bedouin garb. The rich Jew was dressed in the most costly garments, including Cashmere shawls, Russian furs, Indian silks, and English broad-cloth : all, however, being of dark colours, since none but the orthodox Mohammedans are allowed to wear either green, red, yellow, azure, or white, in any of their garments, which are therefore, however costly in material, almost restricted to dark browns, blacks, and blues. Among the party was also a Moslem dervish, with a patchwork and party-coloured bonnet of a sugar loaf shape, and his body scarcely half covered with rags and tattered garments ; his naked limbs obtruding themselves most offensively, and his general appearance being indecent and disgusting.

It was impossible not to be struck forcibly with the different modes of reception and treatment adopted towards us, more particularly as contrasted with our real and apparent conditions. The Jew, who was by far the wealthiest and the most powerful of all present, who lived in the most splendid house in Damascus, and fed from his table more than a hundred poor families every day, who literally managed the great machine of government, and had influence enough, both here and at Constantinople, to procure the removal of the present bey from his post if he desired it, was obliged to kneel in the presence of those who could not have carried on the affairs of government without his aid, while the dervish, contemptible alike for his ignorance and arrogant assumption of superiority, was admitted to the seat of honour, and, with ourselves, who were of a faith as far removed from their own as the Jew's, was served with coffee, sherbet, and perfumes, and treated by the attendants with all the marks of submission and respect.
Here we have the very definition of dhimmitude: a Jew could reach great political heights and wield enormous power in the Muslim world, yet must always act with deference and abject humiliation to even the lowest Muslim he meets. We see that in 1816 Damascus, Muslim servants were considered higher in the social milieu than the richest Jew in the city.

UPDATE: I made a mistake in my last paragraph that Kashmiri Nomad takes me to task for; see here.