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LEISURE GARDENS, SECULAR HABITS: THE CULTURE OF RECREATION IN OTTOMAN DAMASCUS

2010
Akkach , Samer
Leisure gardens and the culture of recreation associated with them have long been an integral part of urban life in Middle Eastern cities. Yet only little has been uncovered on urban landscape history and associated spatial practices in provincial Ottoman centres. Our knowledge of this aspect of socio-urban life has thus remained limited. This is mainly due to the paucity of information on urban landscape in conventional historical sources, and the disappearance of most gardens from the cities’ fabric during the rapid expansion of modern urbanisation in the nineteenth and twentieth century. This study attempts to shed fresh light on leisure gardens and the culture of recreation in Ottoman Damascus in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. It explore the topic through an unconventional source: an anthology of poems by a leading mystic, ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī. Titled the Wine of Babel, this hitherto unexamined source documents the recreational activities of a unique religious personality, whose poetry and other notations offer valuable insights into this vivaciously expressive aspect of urban life. While his notes give us the names of many gardens and places of recreation, which no longer exist, his poetry enable us to gain insights into the aesthetic sensibility of the period. This paper focuses on the aesthetic sensibility revealed in his poetry by tracing, on one hand, the ways in which poetic imageries and figurative expressions were used to map emotive experiences over specific visual fields, and, on another, the role gender played in determining the general aesthetic attitude towards nature and landscape among the educated elite in the Damascene society.