The Levant - Gypsy Folk Ensemble

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Early Sources for the History of Folk Dance in the Balkans and Western Asia

The Levant

- Gypsy Folk Ensemble

- Early Travelers to Greece

- Greeks & Albanians from about 1800

- Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Croatians

- Bulgarians, Macedonians

- Romanians

- Asia Minor & Northern Iraq

- Persia

Claudius James Rich (1787-1821), who knew several ancient and modern languages, was the resident agent for British East India Company in Bagdad. He was also involved in antiquarian research in Mesopotamia. He died of cholera in Shiraz, Persia.

In Basra (today in southeastern Iraq), May, 1811:

The day before I left Bussora, on my return to Bagdad, the Musselleem gave me an entertainment, consisting of a public exhibition of dancing, feats of dexterity, &c.

  It commenced with four men dressed up to represent two camels, one man composing the croupe, and one the fore part of each. These mock camels fought, lay down, ate grass, &c., as real ones.

  Next two parties of Negroes were introduced to entertain us with their national music and dancing. One party was composed of Bombazans. Their principal musical instruments were a long wooden drum, one end of which was shaped like a three-legged stool, and rested on the ground, and a horn, which was blown at the side, like a German flute.

  The dancers separated into two parties; on one side the women, on the other the men, who advanced and retreated, then joined and separated, and went through several evolutions, singing and keeping very good time. The Nubian party attracted my attention. One of them played on an instrument exactly resembling th ancient lyre. Their dance was military, and represented attacking and skirmishing. One man particularly distinguished himself. He wore a kind of helmet of skulls and beads stuck with feathers, and brandished a javelin with considerable dexterity.

  After their exhibition was finished, the Musselleem ordered his Turks to entertain us. Immediately about one hundred and fifty Turkish soldiers stood up and, joining hands, began a slow kind of dance, which at first consisted merely in keeping time with the feet, and making gentle inclinations of the body, moving round the circle. They were accompanied by the Musselleem’s double-drums and oboes, and headed by a party of dancing boys in the dresses. In the centre of the ring, two men entirely naked, but covered with flakes of cotton, and having immense white cotton beards, exhibited some ridiculous tricks, riding upon long canes, and charging each other with red spears. The music gradually quickened, and changed its measure, and the dancers got yet more animated, till at last they went round the circle with great rapitity, making the ground ring under their feet. Ibrahim Aga, the Musselleem, told me an anecdote of this dance, which in Turkish is called Tchopee. Hassan Pasha, a former Pasha of Bagdad, having been offended by the rebellious conduct of the Kherzail Arabs, vowed to dance a Tchopee in the centre of their capital. He accordingly entered their country with fire and sword; and having taken their principal town, and put to death almost every inhabitant he could find, himself, at the head of his troops, performed his vow, and danced the Tchopee.

  After the Turkish dance, two sword-players advanced to treat us with an exhibition of sword and shield. They began by some slow movements, accompanied by the hand and saluted first us, and then the company, and each other, with their shields. Swords were afterwards given them, and they cut and parried with their shields with some dexterity, but no science or regular system. Single-stick was afterwards introduced, which was played exactly in the same manner with the shield.

  At last the Musselleem, by way of closing the whole, said he would bring us two men who should astonish us. He accordingly called up two Turks, and giving them two shields, ordered them to behave bravely. They accordingly set to with a good will, and hammered each other for some time most desperately, till they were parted by order of the Musselleem. This finished the entertainment.
- Claudius James Rich: Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan, London, 1836, Vol. II, p. 392-393

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839) was a rather domineering Englishwoman who was virtually the absolute ruler among the Druses of Mount Lebanon. Her travels were written by her physician Dr. Charles Lewis Meryon (1783-1877). She was a relative of Alexander Kinglake, author of Eothen, who gives an account of her in later times.

On August 26, 1814, they rode down to the village of Abra (in Syria near Saydah, a short distance from the Monastery of St. Elias) where three weddings were to be celebrated in the village. The celebrations lasted two days. On the first evening, the grooms sat on the ground in the middle of the village with the villagers around them. The people of the area were Greek Catholics:

A pipe and tabor, with a long drum, kept up incessantly a noisy music, discordant to me, but very pleasing to the people of the country. In the middle of the ring, those who chose stood up, one by one, and danced a slow dance. A few of the young men danced in couples, with swords in their hands, and acted a sham combat. To these succeeded hired dancers ...
- Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope (narrated by her physician) London, 1846, Vol. II, p. 385 [Reprinted Salzburg, 1983]

John Lewis (Johann Ludwig) Burckhardt (1784-1817) was a Swiss traveler who made several journeys in the Middle East often in disguise as a Moslem under the pseudonym Sheikh Ibrahim bin Abdallah. He died of dysentery in Cairo while planning an expedition to Timbuktu.

At Sinai, probably in 1816:

The songs called asamer require a more detailed description. They are heard all over the Desert; but each tribe varies in the performance of them. During my stay in the mountains of Sinai, I had frequent opportunities of hearing those songs, and of witnessing the performance in the dead of the night.

 About two or three hours after sun-set, either the girls and young women, or the young men, assemble upon an open space before or behind the tents and begin to sing there in choruses until the other party joins them. The girls then place themselves either in a group between the men, who range themselves in a line on both sides, or if the number of the females be but small, they occupy a line opposite to that of the men, at a distance of about thirty paces. One of the men then begins a song (kâszyde) of which only one verse is sung, repeating it many times, always with the same melody. The whole party of men then join in the chorus of the verse, accompanying it with clapping of hands, and various motions of the body. Standing close together, the whole line inclines sometimes towards one side, sometimes towards the other, backwards and forwards, occasionally dropping on one knee, always taking care to keep time by that movement, in measure with the song. While the men do this, two or three of the girls come forth from the group, or line of their companions, and slowly advance towards the men. They are completely veiled, and hold a mellaye, or blue cloak, loosely hung over both their outspread arms. They approach with light steps and slight bows, in time to the songs. Soon the motions of the girls become a little more lively, while they approach within two paces of the men; but still dancing (as it is called), continuing to be extremely reserved, strictly decent, and very coy. The men endeavour to animate the girls by loud exclamations, with which they interrupt their song from time to time. They make use for this purpose of exclamations and noises, with which they are accustomed to order their camels to halt, to walk, and trot, to drink, and eat, to stop, and to lie down. They do not address the girl by her name, which would be a breach of politeness, according to Bedouin manners, but style her “camel,” affecting to suppose that she advances towards them in search of food or water. This fiction is continued during the whole dance. “Get up, O camel;” “walk fast;” “the poor camel is thirsty;” “come and take your evening food;” these, and similar expressions, are used on the occasion, added to the many guttural sounds in which camel-drivers talk to their beasts. To excite the dancer still more, some of the gay young men spread before them upon the ground their own turbans, or head-kerchiefs, to represent food for the camel. If the dancing girl approach near enough to snatch away any article of dress, she throws it behind her back to her companions; and when the dance is finished, the owner must redeem it by a small fee paid to the girl. I once released a handkerchief by giving to the girl a string of pretty beads made of mother-of-pearl, observing that it was meant as a halter for the camel; with this she was much pleased, and hung it round her neck. After the dance has continued five or ten minutes, the girl sits down, and another takes her place, beginning like the former and accelerating her movements according as she herself feels interested in the dance. If she seems animated and advances close to the men’s line, the latter evince their approbation by stretching out their arms as if to receive her; this dance, which continues frequently for five or six hours, and till long after midnight, and the pathetic songs which often accompany it, most powerfully work upon the imagination and feelings of the Arabs, and they never speak of the mesamer but with raptures. The feelings of a lover must, on this occasion, be carried to the highest pitch. The veiled form of his mistress advances in the dark, or by moonlight, like a phantom, to his embraces; her graceful, decent steps, her increasing animation, the general applause she receives, and the words of the song, or kaszyde, which are always in praise of beauty, must create the liveliest emotions in the bosom of her lover, who has, at least, the satisfaction of being able to give full scope to his feelings by voice and gestures, without exposing himself to any blame.*

 If the girls of the encampment have any cause to be angry with the young men, the latter attend for many nights, but no females appear to sing the mesamer: on the other hand, I have heard the girls sing, although none of the young men came from the tents to join them.

The mesamer are general throughout the Desert, but almost every tribe differs in the mode of singing them. The song is often composed extempore, and relates to the beauty and qualities of the girl who dances: if the young men are at home in the camp, they continue the like mesamer, for months together, every night. Married men and women sometimes join; young men often walk at night a distance of some hours, and back again, that they may enjoy the mesamer of a neighbouring camp. I may here remark that mesamer must not be confounded with Mezamer, which in Arabic signifies the Book of Psalms.

 * The decent and romantic nature of this dance places it widely in contrast with the vulgar and licentious motions and contortions of the Egyptian dancing-girls, and is even preferable, in a high degre, to the Egyptian or Syrian ladies’ dance.
- John Lewis Burckhardt (1784-1817): Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, London, 1831, p. 252-257

George Keppel (1799-1891), was a British military officer who fought at the Battle of Waterloo. After a military assignment in India, he returned to England in 1824 traveling through Persia and the Near East. He later became the 6th Lord Albemarle (1851).

At Basra (today in southeastern Iraq), February 22, 1824:

The Pasha made his public entrance this morning ... a body of armed men, forming an advance guard, announced their approach by a continual discharge of musquetry, and passed us at a jog trot; then another party, who occasionally halted, and danced in a circle; marking time by striking their swords against each others' shields.
- George Keppel: Personal Narrative of a Journey from India to England, London, 1834, p. 49

On March 3, 1824, in Basra, at the house of an Armenian named Parsigh to see the ceremony of his betrothment to an Armenian lady; after the ceremony and dinner:

In the midst of this revelry, attracted by the sounds of music, we stole onto a terrace where we found all the ladies assembled. They were dancing in a circle in a slow measured step, with their little fingers linked together. This dance is the Romaic, which I have myself frequently danced in the Ionian Islands, and which is accurately described by Lord Byron...

Two very pretty girls, with their hair neatly plaited down their backs, then danced a pas de deux. The step, though slow, was not deficient in grace.

[As the evening advanced, we Europeans took share in the performances in a merry reel, to the music of the drum and fife of the marines.]
- Ibid, p. 62-63

March 9, 1824. On a boat sailing up the Tigris from Basra with a guard of Zobeir Arabs:

...our guards, with a view perhaps to demonstrate their force, assembled at the head of the boat, struck up their music, and forming themselves into a circle, began singing, dancing, and striking each other's shields with their drawn swords. Boats in general pay duty here, but we passed unmolested.
- Ibid, p. 84

Adam Steinmetz Kennard (1833-1945), the son of a London banker, made a trip to the Near East in the middle of the 19th century.

At Jericho, describing dancing by their Bedouin attendants:

Holding each other’s  hands, and forming a ring, they commenced dancing and singing round the fire. Getting more boisterous, they at length broke away from each other, and danced off in different directions, always converging again after a few seconds within the glow of the flames. When tired with this figure, they all formed in line, arm linked in arm, and one of them acting as leader stood in front. Producing mysterious noises in their throats, intended I believe to mimic hyaenas or jackals, or perhaps lions or tigers (but I am not sure which, as I did not enquire), they commenced to sway their bodies from right to left; then, following the motions of their leader, they shook off their capotes; then they tore off their head-dresses, allowing the long horse-tails of hair on the tops of their heads to stream over their shoulders. At one period of the dance they all drew their swords, which flashed for an instant in the fire-light, as they struck them simultaneously into the earth; then, stripping till they were almost entirely naked, they went dancing in and out among the half-buried blades, clapping their hands above their heads, and singing, or rather yelling, at the tops of their voices.

   As the fire burned low, their dancing energies flagged, and they were soon all sleeping, wrapped in their capotes, around the fast-expiring embers. We also retired to our tent; and, whilst our Arab attendants lay snoring at the door, and Mohammad talked in an under-tone in Italian to Halifa, the cook, as they washed up the tea-things together, I employed myself in writing the daily quantum of my journal, with particulars of our visit to the Bedouins, and the dance round the camp-fires at Jericho.
- Adam Steinmetz Kennard: Eastern Experiences: Collected During a Winter's Tour in Egypt and the Holy Land, London, 1855, p. 320-321

Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900) was an American writer and friend of Mark Twain with whom he collaborated in the writing of The Gilded Age (1873).

His travels were in 1875. Here he is in the Jordan River valley at Riha (modern Ariha, just across the Allenby Bridge near Jericho):

When it is dusk we have an invasion from the neighboring Bedaween, an imposition to which all tourists are subjected, it being taken for granted that we desire to see a native dance. This is one of the ways these honest people have of levying tribute; by the connivance of our protectors, the head sheykhs, the entertainment is forced upon us, and the performers will not depart without a liberal backsheesh. We are already somewhat familiar with the fascinating dances of the Orient, and have only a languid curiosity about those of the Jordan; but before we are aware there is a crowd before our tents, and the evening is disturbed by doleful howling and drum-thumping. The scene in the flickering firelight is sufficiently fantastic.

   The men dance first. Some twenty or thirty of them form in a half-circle, standing close together; their gowns are in rags, their black hair is tossed in tangled disorder, and their eyes shine with animal wildness. The only dancing they perform consists in a violent swaying of the body from side to side in concert, faster and faster as the excitement rises, with an occasional stamping of the feet, and a continual howling like darwishes. Two vagabonds step into the focus of the half-circle and hop about in the most stiff-legged manner, swinging enormous swords over their heads, and giving from time to time a war-whoop,— it seems to be precisely the dance of the North American Indians. We are told, however, that the howling is a song, and that the song relates to meeting the enemy and demolishing him. The longer the performance goes on the less we like it, for the uncouthness is not varied by a single graceful motion, and the monotony becomes unendurable. We long for the women to begin.

   When the women begin, we wish we had the men back again. Creatures uglier and dirtier than these hags could not be found. Their dance is much the same as that of the men, a semicircle, with a couple of women to jump about and whirl swords. But the women display more fierceness and more passion as they warm to their work, and their shrill cries, dishevelled hair, loose robes, and frantic gestures give us new ideas of the capacity of the gentle sex; you think that they would not only slay their enemies, but drink their blood and dance upon their fragments. Indeed, one of their songs is altogether belligerent; it taunts the men with cowardice, it scoffs them for not daring to fight, it declares that the women like the sword and know how to use it, — and thus, and thus, and thus, lunging their swords into the air, would they pierce the imaginary enemy. But these sweet creatures do not sing altogether of war; they sing of love in the same strident voices and fierce manner: “My lover will meet me by the stream, he will take me over the water.”

  When the performance is over they all clamor for backsheesh; it is given in a lump to their sheykh, and they retire into the bushes and wrangle over its distribution. The women return to us and say, “Why you give our backsheesh to sheykh? We no get any. Men get all.” It seems that women are animated nowadays by the same spirit the world over, and make the same just complaints of the injustice of men.
- Charles Dudley Warner: In the Levant, 12th ed., Boston, 1882, p. 111-112

Near the Tomb of Rachel at a Moslem cemetary just outside of Bethlehem, a group of women gather to mourn with wailing and weeping, and proceed to dance:

The more active mourners formed a ring in a clear spot. Some thirty women standing with their faces toward the centre, their hands on each other’s shoulders, circled round with unrhythmic steps, crying and singing, and occasionally jumping up and down with all their energy, like the dancers of Horace, “striking the ground with equal feet,” coming down upon the earth with a heavy thud, at the same time slapping their faces with their hands; then circling around again with faster steps, and shriller cries, and more prolonged ululations, and anon pausing to jump and beat the ground with a violence sufficient to shatter their frames. The loose flowing robes, the clinking of the silver ornaments, the wild gleam of their eyes, the Bacchantic madness of their saltations, the shrill shrieking and wailing, conspired to give their demonstration an indescribable barbarity. This scene has recurred every Thursday for, I suppose, hundreds of years, within a mile of the birthplace of Jesus.
- Ibid, p. 112

John C. Simmons (born 1827) was an American delegate to the Ecumenical Conference of Methodism in London in 1901. His trip in the Near East took place in late 1901.

Traveling from Smyrna to Beirut to Damascus, reaching the Abana River (modern Nahr Barada) at Husiniyeh, the modern Husn Niha or Niha, a Lebanese Christian village about 15 miles south of Baalbeck:

We camped on its banks at a town called Husiniyeh. After supper we were invited to a Syrian wedding... [In an open court with men on one side & women on the other] Soon after we were seated, one of the men began a low, wailing song, in a falsetto voice, which was soon accompanied with regular clapping of the hands in unison. Then a piper with a rude reed flute stepped out, and six men joined hands round him, and began a most peculiar dance. The crowd became more and more excited, and the dancing increased in violence. This continued for some time, and the six seated themselves, and one of our muleteers, taking a dagger in each hand, began to dance and to flourish the knives so rapidly, that the eye could not keep up with their movements.
- John C. Simmons: My Trip to the Orient, San Francisco, 1902, p. 134

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