Summer 2014 brought Mark Hoover exploration and surprises in Amman, Jordan. Coming from the University of Pennsylvania, Mark discovered a new perspective on religion, historical art, and which books to add to his personal library.
When I announced to my host family that after visiting the place where Jesus was baptized I would visit the town of Salt, I received an interesting assignment. I was to burn a candle in the church of Kidr (Moses’ mentor in the Quran) there and say a prayer for them. Strange, a Muslim family was asking me to burn a candle (a Christian practice) in a Christian church dedicated to a Muslim figure. I knew that Middle Eastern Muslims often conflate Kidr with St. George, and had even heard stories of Muslims showing up at festivities in churches on St. George’s day in Syria. I assumed that something similar was going on.
It was, only more intensely. In the story I had heard from Syria, the priests officiating the St. George day celebrations were somewhat bemused by the Muslims showing up, thinking that Kidr was the focus of the day. In Salt the clergy clearly went a step further and used the Muslim conflation of the two to their advantage. While the iconography in the church clearly indicated that it was dedicated to St. George, the sign advertised it as “Al-Khadr Church” in both English and Arabic. Either it was an instance of shrewd taking advantage of (harmless) inter-religious misunderstanding, or of syncretism, the Christians of Salt absorbing the Muslim conflation of St. George and Kidr till it became part of their own Christian veneration. It was an interesting experience nonetheless.
During the Eid al-Fitr break, a classmate and I went to visit Azraq, an oasis in the Jordanian desert known for the old “castles” around it. The last of these we visited was actually a Roman-style bath house for one of the ‘Umayyad Caliphs in Damascus. Its interior was completely covered in frescoes like the one pictured. Clearly the Caliph had a rather sensual artistic taste when bathing in the middle of the desert. Fresco scenes much more salacious than the one shown imply that they themselves were only depictions of what he himself got up to there.
The most interesting thing about the frescos was how un-Arab they were. Sometimes the tell-tale Arabic script remained, but apart from that everything about them was Byzantine. I had read before that when the Arabs conquered the Middle East, they brought no artistic culture with them, and thus, before they developed one of their own, informed by Islamic values, they simply adopted the art of their subjects. The frescos were a powerful real-life demonstration of this.
This picture shows my collection of Arabic books at the end of my stay in Jordan. Apart from the Bible (the big blue one in the middle), I acquired all of them in Jordan.
My book buying spree started small with the purchase of the books lying horizontally: a Quran, a medieval Arabic equivalent to Aesop’s Fables, and Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (the tiny book vertically next to these is a miniature Quran the shop owner gave me as a present when purchasing those three).
I received the small blue book as a present by the pastor of the church I attended in Jordan. It was written by the pastor of the church I attended back when I lived in Lebanon. Small world.
That would have been it, but then my host father mentioned a poem, the Alafiyeh Ibn Malik, which described the rules of Arabic grammar and which religious scholars had to memorize. Of course I needed to buy it too (it’s the small pink one next to the miniature Quran), and with it I bought a commentary on it (second from the left) and another work of similar stature (the third from left).
In the last two days, my teachers mentioned two books I “needed” to have. This time an important collection of hadith (first from the left) and the some pre-Islamic poetry (fourth from the left) were my target. While I was there, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn (a short Quran commentary, fifth from the left) found its way into my possession as well.
This spree of book-buying, which make packing on the return journey much harder, was a wonderful excursion into the world of Arabic classics. Now I just need to read them.