We know, basically, who he was; there is even a Wikipedia page about him, and one could stop at those bald facts, most of which are more or less accurate. But who was he? Can we know anything significant about the real self of someone who died four centuries ago? For he has been cast in several posthumous roles: the “founder of the Lebanese State”, and several other “father of his country” avatars. He has been downgraded to a “local strongman” by one scholar. His biographer Khalidi presented him as a pious Muslim, loyal to his Ottoman sovereigns but forced to disobey by bad local governors. Like El Cid: “oh God, what an excellent vassal/Did he but have a better Lord”.
The Franciscan friar Roger who became Fakhr ad-Din’s “personal pysician” described him as a “closet Christian” who dreamt of handing the Levant to Christendom and the Levantines to Christianity. In Europe, where he spent five years, he was very keen on observing Ramadhan and eating Halal food; but he enjoyed the jolly and sometimes bawdy entertainments of his Medici hosts. He was a brave leader of men, always at the front of a cavalry charge, or down in the trenches building siege walls with his hands, alongside his soldiers. Betrayed by one of his closest advisors at the end of his greatest military victory, the fifty-something Emir pulled him off his horse and ran him through on the spot.
He learned Italian well enough to translate a treatise on botany, one of his passions; and was a formidable chess-player. He was fiercely loyal to his friends. He was said to be able to charm anyone, to talk his way out of any scrape, and indeed he earned the friendship of the Medici Grand-Dukes and Grand-Duchesses who were his hosts; the Archduchess Maria Cristina even sent him a precious amber and gold chess set, and a telescope, “one of Galileo’s”. He might even have met Galileo as their stays in Tuscany as guests of the Medici partly coincided. He seems to have thought he could talk his way out of captivity when the Endgame crashed upon him.
Having just spent three years and a bit immersed in everything I could find about his life, from the Medici archives in Florence to the Ottoman ones in Istanbul, to transcriptions of popular songs about him, I cannot say I know him. But the only surviving likeness painted from life, actually an engraving of an oil painting done while he was a guest of the Medici, has a fascination for me. There is the slightly pudgy face of a short, but very fit and strong man in his forties. A turban asserts his Ottoman provenance, a curly beard, prematurely grey, his age. But instead of the “sneer of cold command” one sees in the Bellini or other Western portraits of Ottoman sutans and lesser grandees, there is something else. A faint smile, a definitely mischievous twinkle in his eye. And something slightly wistful.
What I would give for half an hour in his presence, in some antechamber or corridor of eternity. How I would limit my questions to that short a time is a bit problematic, but how wonderful it would be to ask: what did your Druze religion mean to you? Did you really believe the Pope would mobilize a Crusade to put you on the throne of Damascus? What lessons did you learn from exile? What did you hope to do on return to Lebanon: just consolidate your dynastic realm as an Ottoman vassal? Why did you over-reach and cause the final catastrophe? What do you feel you accomplished? Do you regret the whole enterprise, or only certain tactical mistakes?
So there, I am on record. What is the email address of whoever organizes meetings Up There?