This is the story of a Levantine prince, or emir, who died in 1635, murdered—along with one or two of his sons— by royal mutes, on the orders and possibly in the presence of his sovereign, the reigning Ottoman Sultan. His name (Fakhr ad-Din ibn Korkmaz ibn Ma’n) will not be familiar to many Western readers. Some things about his life make him unique for his time—and uniquely significant for us, as we look back nearly four centuries from our own time. An Arab Druze, he was not entirely a Muslim, but lived outwardly as one. He spent two years at the court of the Medici in Florence, followed by three years as a guest of the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily and later of Naples. He then returned home, having arguably learned more about the Christian world than any non-Christian Levantine of his time. Most remarkably, he avoided the divisive cultural prejudices of his era, returning from exile full of nostalgia for the homeland and tired of the “salt taste of another man’s bread”—but intent on putting into practice some of what he had observed in Italy.
This he did with varying degrees of success. Not very much survived his downfall except a few Italianate buildings and, perhaps, the memory of interfaith collaboration and a certain proud local spirit, which it would be anachronistic to call Lebanese or any other nationalism or national consciousness.
Labels are common currency in historical writing: the Renaissance, the Counter-Reformation, the Age of Empires or of Industrialization. The period around 1600 AD, in Western Europe and the Mediterranean, suffers from a label problem—that is to say, we have difficulty finding one tidy label to stick on it. This perhaps should not trouble us any more than it did the people of the time, but living in today’s world as we do we must be aware of it.
The surge of intellectual renewal and humanistic creativity we call the Renaissance was losing its vitality, in some places to be choked by the gilded tendrils of the Baroque, in others starved by the severe formalism of the neo-Classical. The traditional economies of Europe were beginning to be transformed by the exploitation of colonial riches from the New World and the discovery of new trade routes to the East. The unity of Christendom, which at times had—for better or worse—transcended provincialism (producing the Crusades, for instance), was being fragmented by dissent within the Church. This was about to break out into a terrible continent-wide war, pitting one league of provinces against another under the banners of Catholicism and Reform.
The relationship with the Other, the nearby non-Christian universe just across the Mediterranean, was also changing:
The sixteenth was a century of discoveries and violent encounters, of windfalls and errors, of borders crossed and borders closed, creating a web of connections that spread in all directions. The seventeenth century was something different. First encounters were becoming sustained engagements; fortuitous exchanges were being systematized into regular trade; the language of gesture was being supplanted by pidgin dialects and genuine communication.[i]
The situation in the Levant—l’autre rive—is also hard to categorize, with its mosaic of ethnic-religious groups fragmented to an astonishing degree within a relatively small area, one that is still persistently in the headlines today.
The life of one man of this time, lived in a series of places and historical junctures, affords us a rare window into the Ottoman, Mediterranean world at a very eventful time. Seen from an angle that is not limited to successions and battles, kings and popes and ministers—though there will be some of each of the above. Set in out-of-the-way places (like the Shouf) as well as famous ones (like Florence); bringing on stage little-known people (like the Druze) and famous ones like the Medici, who will interact in some unexpected ways. And incidentally, allow us to eavesdrop on a specific act of mutual discovery by people of East and West, at a time when this was all but unheard-of.
[i] Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat (London, Profile Books, 2009), p. 19.