Renaissance Emir: a Druze Warlord at the Court of the Medici
(published April 2013 by Quartet Books of London: paperback published by Interlink USA imprint Olive Branch Press, June 2014)
The genre is historical biography, the subject (Fakhr ad-Din Ma’n) a very unusual 17th-century Levantine prince. Unusual, because he defied the mighty Ottoman Empire at the height of its power, had to go into exile, and spent 5 years—from 1613 to 1618—in Europe, one of the very first non-Christian Levantines to reside there. He first stayed as a guest of the Medici in Florence, at the elegant Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. He (along with an entourage of several dozen others, mostly Muslim but including some Christians and Druze and one Jew) then went to Sicily and then Naples as guests of the Spanish Viceroy.
The book includes research in original sources, especially one contemporary Arabic memoir, which I have newly translated from the Arabic and draw on extensively in the book. This is a unique document that makes fascinating and at times amusing reading today.
As a source and a read in its own right, the memoir of his stay in Christendom is infinitely richer than the writings of Hassan al-Wazzan—“Leo Africanus”— for example. Amazingly, there is no biography of him in English, and none in any language for half a century.
Besides his European adventure, a number of things about Fakhr ad-Din make him worthy of attention. He was a Druze, one of the most enigmatic sects in the Levant, and the story of their faith and relations with the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Christians is most illuminating about relations across—and in between—the Christian-Muslim divide. The book includes a pithy description of the history and beliefs of this fascinating and little-known community.He dreamed of a new Crusade, an attack against the Levantine domains of the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine), one that would wrest the Holy Land back from the Turks and see him crowned King of Jerusalem and Syria in his own right, not as an Ottoman vassal. In this he grievously underestimated the deep-seated divisions within the Christian world, as well as the limits to Ottoman patience with such a loose cannon as a vassal.
His discussions with the Medici princes and Pope Paul V, recorded in the Medici archives, are enlightening both as to the geopolitics of the time and the complex personality of this most unusual Levantine. His Crusade never got off the ground, but he learned Italian and when he returned to Lebanon, he brought with him not just ideas but artisans, sculptors and gardeners, even bakers and whole families of farmers—all of whom provided a heady dose of cultural cross-pollination that certainly added to the personality of the fascinating and diverse country that is Lebanon today.
The story ends badly, with Fakhr ad-Din and his son strangled and decapitated by royal mutes in the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul, in 1635. Beyond the intrinsic interest of the character, his life provides a fascinating vignette of international relations around 1600, when the European powers were establishing consulates and factories in the Asian domains of the Ottoman Empire at its peak and making treaties with the Porte (while talking secretly about Crusades), and the Persia of Shah Abbas was reaching its own apogee.
All these currents and more are woven into this story, which provides the reader with a banquet of colourful anecdotes about the elusive Druzes, Ottoman society, inter-Christian rivalry and machinations, and much besides. Like the European discovery of bananas, for instance; or the first bank that was “too big to fail”.
NOTE: By clicking on the following highlighted phrases, you can browse the Table of Contents or see Reviewers’ Comments, read the Prologue, or follow my musings about who Fakhr ad-Din “really” was. Or buy the paperback by clicking here.
The Book was officially launched on 1st May 2013, at Daunt Books Holland Park (London). A great party:
Photo: The happy author between son Alex and wife Andree and novelist Hanan al-Shaykh.