by Maurits H. van den Boogert, 2010


The Natural History of Aleppo by the Scottish physicians to the British Levant Company in Aleppo, Alexander Russell (1715–68) and his half-brother Patrick (1727–1805), is a landmark in European knowledge of the Arab world. Not only was it a splendid publication, both as a single volume by Alexander Russell (1756) and in the two-volume edition, expanded by Patrick (1794), but it was the first detailed study by a European of an Arab city, with a description of the topography, the inhabitants, and the plant and animal life in the neighbourhood. The authors had a privileged access to every level of Ottoman society and were well placed to provide an account of life in one of the most important cities of the Ottoman Empire, besides botanical, zoological, and medical information which is of interest to the present day.

In the first full-length study of the Russell brothers and their work, Maurits van den Boogert assesses the Russells’ botanical and zoological discoveries, as well as the reliability of their ethnographical chapters. He also analyses the Natural History in the context of medical practices of the time both in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Van den Boogert reconstructs their stay in Aleppo (1740–53, 1753–72), their life in Britain, Patrick Russell’s experiences in India, and their broader connections, as respected members of the Royal Society, with the world of learning at large.

In the eighteenth century the Natural History was considered ‘one of the most complete pictures of Eastern manners extant’, and since its rediscovery in the twentieth century modern scholars have consulted it widely too, often without questioning its reliability. Van den Boogert’s analysis shows that the book actually presents a very selective—and highly personal—vision of Ottoman society. Aleppo Observed analyses the work of two alert and intelligent observers whose approach to the Islamic world was markedly sympathetic and fair-minded. It is therefore fitting that this volume should appear in the series ‘Studies in the Arcadian Library’, which is dedicated to promoting a better understanding of the historical cultural links between Europe and Islam.


Chapter One. Alexander Russell
Chapter Two. Patrick Russell
Chapter Three. The City of Aleppo
Chapter Four. Natural History
Chapter Five. Medicine
Chapter Six. Ottoman Society and Arab Culture

Author Information

Maurits H. van den Boogert (PhD, Leiden 2001) studied Arabic at Leiden. He is the author of The Capitulations and the Ottoman Legal System (2005) and has (co-)edited four volumes, including The Republic of Letters and the Levant (2005—with Alastair Hamilton and Bart Westerweek), and The Ottoman Capitulations: Text and Context (2003—with Kate Fleet). Van den Boogert, who works as a publisher for Brill, is guest lecturer at the Leiden University Centre for Islamic Studies (LUCIS) and at Leiden’s School for History. He is also the Managing Editor of the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient.

Review Highlights

‘Although aspects of their [the Russells'] work have been explored before ... a full length biography has been notably missing for some time. Boogert's elegantly written and informative book admirably fills this gap. Like previous Arcadian Library publications, the study is richly complemented by numerous illustrations from the Russells and their contemporaries.’
Simon Mills in The British Journal for the History of Science

‘Like previous publications from the Arcadian Library, Aleppo Observed is a beautifully and lavishly illustrated book that will be a joy for the connoisseur and a treasure for the scholar. Maurits H. van den Boogert's scholarship is impeccable.’
Gerald Maclean in The Times Literary Supplement

Sample Text

Acknowledgements: The word ‘observations’ is frequently found in the titles of eighteenth-century publications of a scholarly or scientific nature, and of travel accounts. It conveys that the author had seen the things and people he described with his own eyes (which was not always true), but also more than that; observing is not about sight, but insight. It is not merely about what the author saw, but also his Weltanschauung. This book is about two ‘Enlightened observers’ (to borrow Anita Damiani’s phrase), Alexander and Patrick Russell, each of whom stayed in Aleppo, in North Syria, for several years and whose work continues to inform historians of the Middle East.

The research for this book started at least a decade ago. My thesis was partly about Ottoman Aleppo in this period, so I soon came across The Natural History of Aleppo in the literature and started reading the second edition in the Leiden University Library. I was struck by the clarity of its prose and the apparent transparency with which the authors presented their arguments, but at the same time I was puzzled by the subtle dissonance between the voices of Alexander and Patrick Russell. Who had written what, I wondered, and on what did the brothers have different opinions? It was Alastair Hamilton who suggested that I collect any information I could find about its authors, about whom surprisingly little was known at the time. From then on, wherever my research took me, I always took some time to look for traces of the Russell brothers and their work ...


Introduction: On 10 April 1755 a letter from Sir James Porter, the British ambassador in Istanbul, was read out at a meeting of the Royal Society in London. Porter had been sent a list of queries about the Ottoman Empire, several of which had arisen from contradictory information in travellers’ accounts. A resident in the Ottoman capital from 1746, Sir James had an outspoken opinion about the value of these travelogues.


We have not yet extant an exact genuine account of the customs, manners, and practices, of these people, nor really of these countries. Those which I have read are extremely faulty, not to say worse, in many particulars, which have fallen under my own knowledge. What am I then to conclude, as to those that have not? And how can a Tournefort, and many others I could name, in running over vast tracks of countries in two years, or less, sometimes by night, sometimes by day, with hasty caravans, give us a true history?

Not only was the French traveller, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, singled out for criticism, but so was the ambassador’s own countryman, Sir Paul Rycaut. A former secretary to the English ambassador in Istanbul and later consul in Izmir, Rycaut had resided in the Ottoman Empire for much longer than most travellers. His book, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire, which appeared in 1665, was the most authoritative work on the Levant of its day, and continued to be consulted until well into the eighteenth century. According to Porter, however, parts of Rycaut’s work were not based on his own observations, but on those of others. One important informant named Thomas Coke, like Rycaut an erstwhile officer of the British embassy in Istanbul, was considered unreliable since his notes, Porter observed, ‘must have been only the hearsay of the Christians of Pera [the quarter where all embassies were located], who neither have, nor ever had, knowledge or observation sufficient to be depended on; nor dare they venture to enter into intimate particulars with such Mahometans as could truly inform them.’

Porter’s criticisms were undoubtedly also meant to assert his own status as an expert observer, for it seems safe to conclude that he already intended to publish a book of his own at this time. His Observations on the Religion, Law, Government, and Manners of the Turks would appear thirteen years later, in 1768. In 1756, however, just the kind of book that he suggested was lacking was published, The Natural History of Aleppo, the work of a physician from Edinburgh called Alexander Russell.

The definition of ‘natural history’ has changed through the ages, but in the eighteenth century it was a blanket term for various combinations of scientific disciplines which have since become distinct fields in their own right. Effectively referring to the description of all living things, the term embraced botany, zoology, entomology, the scientific study of snakes (ophiology) and ichthyology (research on fishes). The study of the weather was common among eighteenth-century naturalists, so meteorology could also be added to the list. Various aspects of medicine, like case descriptions, were also included in the eighteenth-century definition. Some students of natural history, moreover, included geology, physics, mineralogy and astronomy, although Russell did not. Studying natural history was a gentlemanly activity which was considered far more scholarly than the genre of travel writing. It is therefore significant that Alexander Russell chose—as the only author on the subject in his time—to present his experiences in Syria in this particular form. The first edition of The Natural History of Aleppo, which appeared in London in 1756, focused on plants, quadrupeds and fishes, but also contained an ethnographic description of Ottoman society in Aleppo.

The third largest city of the Ottoman Empire had long been known in England. It appeared in many accounts of travel to the East, including that of Sir John Mandeville in the fourteenth century. Today Mandeville’s Travels is generally considered unreliable, but its popularity throughout Europe helped to spread Aleppo’s fame. Another successful travelogue was the far later book by Henry Maundrell, the Levant Company chaplain in Aleppo from 1696 until his death in 1701. His Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem was first published in 1703, and was reprinted no fewer than seven times in England alone by 1749.

Several foreign descriptions of the Levant were also known in Britain in the first half of the eighteenth century. The works of the former French consul in Aleppo, Laurent Chevalier d’Arvieux, who died in 1702, were esteemed since he had resided in the Levant for twelve years and had learned to speak Arabic fluently. His Travels were first published by La Rocque in 1717, while an enlarged version, edited by the Dominican missionary Jean-Baptiste Labat, appeared in Paris in 1725 under the new title of Mémoires. Then there were the naturalists. The sixteenth-century German traveller Leonard Rauwolff was just as important as Tournefort. A physician and botanist from Augsburg, he set out on a three-year journey through the Near East in 1573. His aim was to discover unknown plants and drugs to enable his sponsor and brother-in-law to extend his commerce with the Levant. Not only did Rauwolff collect plants, but he also recorded his observations about the places and peoples he encountered. He was the first European to describe coffee—the bean, how it was prepared, and how it was consumed, even if he erroneously noted that it was called ‘Chaube’, mistaking the Syrian word commonly used to advertise fresh coffee for its name in Arabic. Rauwolff’s travel journal was published in German in 1582 and the English translation appeared more than a century later.

The French traveller and naturalist Jean de Thévenot, who died in 1667, travelled in the Ottoman Empire and Persia from 1655 to 1666. His Relation d’un voyage fait au Levant, published in Paris in 1665, covers his travels in Turkey (1655–63), while two following parts (on Persia and the ‘East-Indies’) came out posthumously in the French capital in 1674 and 1684, respectively. In 1687 the first English translation, by Archibald Lovell, appeared in London.

Parts of many of these works were republished in collections like those of Olfert Dapper, the physician and armchair traveller who died in Amsterdam in 1689 without ever having visited the regions he described on the basis of ‘several old and new authors, and accounts by eye-witnesses’. In 1677 he published his famous description of Syria and Palestine, which was soon translated into German and English.

Thomas Shaw, too, is relevant. An Oxford graduate, he accepted the chaplaincy to the British ‘Factory’ (i.e. community) at Algiers in 1720. From there he travelled throughout North Africa and on to Egypt and Cyprus. Because he was interested in natural history he collected botanical and other specimens, and made meteorological observations with his barometer and thermometer. An antiquarian and a cartographer, he collected ancient coins and made maps of the regions he traversed. He maintained a correspondence with British and foreign consuls and with French missionaries throughout the Levant, and, after having contributed no fewer than nine papers to the meetings of the Royal Society, he was elected a fellow in 1734. The certificate for his election already says that he was in the process of ‘printing a relation of all his travels’, which in fact only appeared four years later.

Shaw’s Travels, or Observations relating to several Parts of Barbary and the Levant, Oxford 1738, soon became controversial. The author was criticized above all for his geographical descriptions, which some scholars claimed were incorrect. For example, his theory about the geological evolution of the Nile delta was attacked by his friend Richard Pococke, whose Description of the East, London 1743, was based on his own travels in the Levant in 1737–8. Shaw was not vindicated until much later, by Edward Gibbon and James Bruce, who testified to the accuracy of his observations. The true problem with his Travels was his injudicious use of classical accounts such as those of Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy—authors who continued to be cited by most travellers throughout the eighteenth century.

More travel accounts were published during the eighteenth century than ever before. But while the genre was universally popular, not all travelogues, as Porter pointed out, were reliable. This was partly a result of popularity, vanity, publishers’ demands, and prejudice. The genre soon acquired a mixed reputation. Even at the time the truthfulness of the accounts of several travellers was publicly questioned in reviews and literary salons. In many cases such criticism was justified, but some travellers were vindicated later, while others, whose probity was never questioned during their lifetime, have only been exposed more recently. Besides the reception of Shaw’s Travels two further examples illustrate this process.

Alexander Russell dedicated the first edition of The Natural History of Aleppo to Alexander Drummond, the British consul in Aleppo, and to the members of the British community there. Drummond, a close friend and patient of Russell’s, was the author of the Travels through Different Countries which had appeared in London in 1754. The work described Drummond’s travels prior to his appointment to the consulate in Aleppo, when he visited Izmir, Cyprus, several ports on the Palestinian coast, and examined remnants of antiquity in Syria. Drummond’s Travels was subsequently referred to by most authors on Syria, but it does not appear to have been widely reviewed or discussed in Britain. Today it is commonly considered an important source on Ottoman Cyprus in the eighteenth century because Drummond resided there for several months and wrote about it at length. A recent examination of his section on Izmir, however, has revealed that Drummond’s Travels was extensively edited—in fact, probably rewritten—by its ghost-writer, the novelist Tobias Smollett. While he may have left the sections on Cyprus unaltered, the editor transferred part of the author’s account of Syria to the section on Izmir. Smollett’s editorial interventions do not make Drummond’s entire text less reliable, but it is important to be aware of them.

By and large Drummond escaped the scrutiny of his contemporaries, but this was not the case with James Bruce of Kinnaird. After he had been appointed British consul in Algiers, Bruce, an amateur mathematician and astronomer, was asked in 1768 to record the transit of Venus from North Africa. This was part of a plan to chart the event from several stations around the globe, in which the Royal Society of London had a leading role. In Bruce’s case, he received particular support from William Russell, Alexander and Patrick’s brother and Secretary to the Levant Company, who was an amateur astronomer and mathematician. After one year’s residence in Algiers, Bruce set sail for the Levant, but he was shipwrecked off Benghazi. Having barely survived hypothermia, he proceeded to Syria, travelling via Sidon, and eventually reached Aleppo, where Patrick Russell attended to his health. On his way back to England, in Marseilles, Bruce received letters from William Russell informing him that scholars had lost interest in the transit of Venus and ‘now ardently wished for a journey to Abyssinia’, so that is where Bruce decided to go.

Bruce returned to England in June 1774. The publication of a brief account of his travels in The London Magazine by James Boswell, a distant relative of Bruce, made him a celebrity, whose fame for a short time rivalled that of Captain Cook and Joseph Banks. Bruce’s reputation was based on his discovery of the source of the river Nile and on his stay in Abyssinia. Nevertheless, the reliability of several of his observations and experiences was publicly questioned in prominent periodicals. He was savagely attacked and ridiculed by his opponents, who openly doubted whether he had ever set foot in Abyssinia. For instance, Dr Johnson, whose favourable review of Russell’s work had helped to establish its reputation, severely criticized Bruce. Johnson was the translator of Jeronimo Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia, and a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. The publication of the Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in 1790 did not end the debate, but its author was eventually vindicated in the early nineteenth century. Interestingly enough, in a letter to the editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine in March 1795, a contemporary defender of Bruce, who had died a few months earlier, quoted the second edition of The Natural History of Aleppo in his support.

The first edition of The Natural History came out in 1756, less than a year after Alexander Russell had returned from the Levant. The book was soon sold out, but the description of the city of Aleppo was reprinted several times during the eighteenth century, and this strengthened its reputation. After a series of fragments had been published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1756, the complete section appeared in a number of collections of excerpts from famous travelogues. In 1762 a Dutch translation came out, by the Leiden ichthyologist Laurens Theodore Gronovius. It was the only foreign translation of the full work, but the chapter on Aleppo alone was published in a German version of one of the English collections of travel writings, while another was translated into French. As Robert Irwin has written, ‘Russell’s book was in its time the classic and authoritative source on everyday life in a Muslim country.’

The second edition of The Natural History of Aleppo, which was published in 1794, confirmed the authority of the first, adding an impressive bibliographical apparatus as well as extensive endnotes. Alexander’s half-brother Patrick discussed and provided additional details about elements in the main text on the basis of his own observations. Again, only one foreign translation appeared, this time in German, by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, professor of medicine at Göttingen. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the second edition of the Natural History was praised by Pinkerton, who stated that ‘this is not only the best description of Aleppo, but one of the most complete pictures of Eastern manners extant.’ In 1791 Patrick Russell also published his Treatise of the Plague, a German translation of which appeared in Leipzig.

The work of Alexander and Patrick Russell was reviewed in contemporary periodicals, but its reliability never appears to have been questioned, either by its contemporaries or by scholars of later generations. Nor did the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 change this. Following Said’s denunciation of Western publications about the Islamic world as bigoted and racist, many modern students of Middle Eastern history have become apprehensive about consulting pre-modern Western travel accounts. Yet the reputation of the Russell brothers has not suffered, and The Natural History of Aleppo continues to be quoted extensively on many aspects of social and urban history.

But can we trust Alexander Russell’s claim that The Natural History of Aleppo is ‘an exact account’, ‘a faithful narrative of facts’ in which the author has used ‘no false colouring in his representation’? And if so, does it also apply to the second edition, which Patrick Russell edited and extended? Indeed, is it possible in the second edition to distinguish the author’s voice from that of the editor? And what was the connection between The Natural History of Aleppo and the Russell brothers’ other publications?

In order to answer these questions about the work of Alexander and Patrick Russell we cannot limit ourselves to their publications. We need to know more about their lives. To what extent did their upbringing and education influence the way they made and recorded their observations? We must examine their social circle in order to establish whether any of their friends somehow affected The Natural History of Aleppo. Only such an assessment of the authors’ scholarly milieu will enable us to identify their original contributions to science and learning.

In accordance with Alexander Russell’s will at least part of his personal papers were kept for Patrick, who was still in Aleppo at the time of his brother’s death in 1768. In his own will Patrick, who died in 1805, ordered his executors to destroy his private correspondence and papers—and these probably included those of Alexander. Since another of the brothers, Claud, was one of the executors, we can assume that Patrick’s wishes were obeyed. This would go some way to explaining the paucity of the surviving primary material.

This book consists of two parts. The first deals with the lives of Alexander and Patrick Russell, starting with their youth in Edinburgh, where they were born and educated. It includes a discussion about the milieu of Edinburgh’s Writers to the Signet, in which they were brought up. Then we move to London, where the Russell brothers lived for several years after their return from Aleppo, but probably also prior to settling in Syria. Their intellectual life in the British capital revolved around the Royal Society in London, of which their brother William was also elected a Fellow. Alexander Russell was also a member of an informal society of physicians, who discussed interesting medical cases among themselves, and eventually published them. Their consultation by the Privy Council, on account of their first-hand experience with plague epidemics and quarantine in the Eastern Mediterranean, was important for the careers of both Alexander and Patrick, and will therefore also be discussed. In Patrick Russell's case, his years in India will be taken into account too. It was there that he became a professional naturalist, and during this period he worked on the second edition of the Natural History, as well as his Treatise of the Plague.

The second part of the book focuses on the Russells’ stay in Aleppo and what they wrote about it. The first chapter of this part examines the Ottoman city and the British mercantile community there of which Alexander and Patrick Russell were members, with particular reference to the consul, Alexander Drummond. The chapter on natural historical phenomena sheds light on their personal interests, as well as the efforts they made to extend the scope of the Natural History. The chapter that follows focuses on Western and local medical practitioners in Aleppo, with an emphasis on the plague. Finally, I discuss a number of aspects of Ottoman society, including its various religious communities, the Russells’ description of the harem, and literary culture in Aleppo. Most observations on this topic were added to the Natural History by Patrick Russell, who collected several Oriental manuscripts at Aleppo. These texts, and particularly his manuscripts of the Arabian Nights, helped to establish his reputation as an expert on Ottoman popular literature, the genre which European scholars increasingly became interested in at the start of the nineteenth century.