Partying Like It’s 1299: al-Dimashqi on Easter

Ibn Taymiyya’s contemporary Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi (d. 727 AH / 1327) is best known for his geography describing his native Syria c. 1300, shortly after the final expulsion of the Crusaders from the mainland.  Like the more famous Ibn Taymiyya, he was aware of the festivals of the non-Muslims, in particular the Christians, but unlike that Hanbali jurist, he described them in the context of comparing the different calendars in use.  The calendrical context enabled al-Dimashqi to describe the celebrations without condemnation.  Here is his description of Easter in Hama, a major city in central Syria: 

And the festival of Easter is the great one.  They say that Christ arose on it three days after his death and crucifixion, and he saved Adam from hell, and he dwelt in the land for forty days, the last of which was a Thursday.  Then he went up into the sky.  And during this festival the people of Hama take off a period of six days, the first of which is the Great Thursday (i.e. Thursday of the Covenant) and the last is Tuesday, the third day of Easter.  And during that period the women pluck [or put on makeup] and wear festive clothing, and they dye eggs in that time, and they make cookies and cake – the Muslims more than the Christians!  The people of the rest of the cities around Hama, like Hims, Shayzar, Salamiyya, Kfartab, Abu Qubays, Masyaf, Ma’arra, Tizin, al-Bab, Buza’a, al-Fu’a, and Aleppo travel to Hama.  They go together to the ‘Asi (the Orontes river), and the people of Hama pitch tents for them on its banks.  They ride on boats with singers, and women and men dance in the boats and on the banks until the turf is shredded and the six days are over.[1]

Not only does al-Dimashqi give the traditional Christian theological account of the holiday, without bothering to contradict it, but he also goes into great detail into how the holiday was celebrated.  It was apparently the women who attracted his attention, as their activities in decoration, cooking, and dancing are the focus of his description.  I’m afraid my medieval Arabic cosmetology is too weak for me to be certain whether تنتقش means “to pluck [hair]” or “to paint oneself”; Lane’s lexicon seems to suggest either is a possible reading.  Al-Dimashqi also notes that Muslims participate in the festival alongside the Christians, even more than the Christians according to his claim, and the party attracts people from all around central and northern Syria.  While Hims and Salamiyya are not very far away, al-Bab is northeast of Aleppo, perhaps 185 km (115 miles) away from Hama by road.  If that isn’t exaggeration, people evidently traveled for days to join in the party!

While Ibn Taymiyya presents a description of a corrupt society in which Muslims have unknowingly adopted the horrible party customs of their non-Muslim neighbors, al-Dimashqi describes the same cross-religious celebrations in rather more positive terms.  Evidently he found Easter parties to be rather fun, the women attractive, and only the grass was the worse for it.  Historians need to refrain from unintentionally canonizing Ibn Taymiyya’s evaluation of his society, in the face of the evidence which even he provides of Muslims who disagreed with him, to say nothing of the non-Muslims who invited Muslims to join in the celebration.  In light of the current difficulties any kinds of non-Muslim festivals in much of Syria, we mustn’t whitewash the real conflicts of the past, but we need not always give them the microphone.

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[1] Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi, Cosmographie de Chems-ed-Din Abou Abdallah Mohammed ed-Dimichqui, ed. C. M. Fraehn & A. F. Mehren (St. Petersburg: Académie Impériale des Sciences, 1866), 280.

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