This article shows how the Enlightenment notion of improvement in a cross-cultural context cannot be one of constant polarization. Without ever travelling to the Middle East, the Scottish Enlightenment literati proposed that the Middle East is backward and primitive in its economic and material infrastructure. Europe is progressing while the Middle East remained stuck in ancient times. John Carmichael could not escape the European repository of knowledge about the Orient. In his “Journey from Aleppo to Basra” (1754), he sometimes considered Arabs are irrational, backward and primitive. Yet the conditions of traveling in an Arab caravan invited him to interact with the people he encountered. He socialized and exchanged services with the Arabs. At the same time he learned how modern progress needs not be looked at as one of complete banishment of ancient rituals and traditions from the past. The journey in the Middle East has its educational effects.
A Pluralized View of the Enlightenment Discourse of Improvement
Aleppo, an Enlightenment City
This article examines the travel accounts of some eighteenth-century British travelers to Aleppo. It shows how these travelers’ identities were steeped in the world of others—in the entanglement with people from different cultures and religions—with no mention recalled in their diaries that Islam and Muslims were their enemies. As this article shows, these Britons posited Aleppo as a multicultural, multireligious city in which Europeans were not only men of riches and influence but also free to pursue their cultural and religious practices. This article concludes by emphasizing that British enlightenment practices—toleration, improvement, and freedom—were pursued both within European grand cities such as Paris, Edinburgh, and London as well as in Aleppo.