Syria: Lest we forget
I don’t normally touch on non-Japan related issues, but the civil war in Syria is too important not to comment on. While it is out of sight, having largely disappeared from our newspapers and evening bulletins, we should not let it slip out of mind as well, condemning hundreds of thousands to be part of a forgotten catastrophe. The civil war that began in March 2011 shows no sign of abating. The UN estimates there to have been 70,000 deaths in the conflict, around half of which were civilian. A staggering two million people, ten percent of the population, are thought to have been internally displaced and live as refugees in their own country. Another million have made their way out of Syria and sought asylum elsewhere, mainly in Turkey and Jordan. President Bashar Assad and his Ba’ath party forces are aligned against a range of competing, disunited opposition groups, from the Islamic fundamentalist Nusra front to the secular National Coalition. Both sides are entrenched, neither looks to be able to achieve a victory.
In September 2010, I spent ten days travelling through Syria. The following is an account of the places I visited as they were then, and as they are now.
I crossed the border into Syria from Antakya in Turkey by bus, heading for Aleppo in northern Syria. I had hit across the idea of travelling across Europe to Syria overland. When people ask why I chose Syria, I usually say something about wanting to see the edges of the old Roman Empire in the deserts where the remains were best preserved. I do love history, and it sounds reasonable enough. But I still don’t quite know why I chose to go to Syria, other than it seeming like something of an adventure and being far enough away to count as a challenge. Whatever the reason, on that bright morning in the southernmost extremity of Turkey I boarded an old bus with lime green seats and brown velour curtains, terribly excited at the prospect of reaching the much storied city of Aleppo by mid afternoon. Syrian border formalities were disorganised but friendlier than I had expected; the only real trouble came after we had crossed the border. The bus was supposed to go to Aleppo, drop off passengers and then make for Damascus, two hundred miles south, but after asking for a show of hands from people going to Aleppo and discovering there to be only five of us, the driver decided that it was really quite a large detour and he’d rather skip Aleppo and give himself more chance of getting home in time for tea. So, he struck a fairly one-sided deal with the Aleppo group, offering us half our ticket fare back if we got on the bus and caught a local minibus the rest of the way to Aleppo. It wasn’t much of a choice as he made it clear that he wasn’t driving to Aleppo in any instance, and he was supported by the other thirty or so people on the bus who must also have had a nice tea awaiting them in Damascus.
Luckily, the Syrian public transport system worked splendidly; five minutes after being dropped off, an old minibus bound for Aleppo pulled up. It was one of the old Japanese minibuses that seem to make up the majority of public transport infrastructure across the Arab world from Syria to Morocco. The minibus sped across an arid desert landscape dotted with low rise stone houses. Occasional towns came and went, each main street a huge informal meeting place for men to drink tea and smoke, the thick water tobacco smoke wreathing each in an ethereal shroud from which he conducted his affairs. Large pictures of President Assad peered owlishly down on the traffic from gantries rigged over the road, the only sign of the dictatorial burden the nation groaned under. Each town seemed lively and harmonious, with an air of neighbourliness evident even from the window of a speeding bus.
And speed it did; our driver was another one who had no time to lose in returning home for tea. Other cars are left in his wake as the old Hiace engine whizzed, clanged and rattled furiously at his bidding, overtaking now on the inside, now on the outside, and now, when there is no room to overtake two slow lorries on the road, on the shrub-dotted sand that makes up the verge. A policeman was one of my fellow passengers, and he shouted at the driver to slow down. The driver retorted that it was his minibus and he would drive how he wished; the policeman took out a pair of handcuffs and shook them gently, threateningly, by the driver’s face. We slowed down.
Arriving in Aleppo was a bewildering, brilliant surprise. Compared to Turkey, everything was less familiar and more exciting. Arabic script prevailed, rendering me instantly illiterate. Ahead was a market square and a high, ancient wall; the fabled Aleppo Souk. To the left was the only point of reference I had in the city; the Aleppo clocktower, built in 1899 by the Austrian architect Charles Chartier; a reminder of how cosmopolitan Aleppo was in the era around the end of the Ottoman empire, when Agatha Christie, Charles Lindbergh, Theodore Roosevelt, T.E. Lawrence and Charles De Gaulle all sipped drinks at one time or another in the bar of the Barons Hotel.
The souk, the largest covered market in the world, was a labyrinth of passages in which all sense of direction and time is left at the entrance. People have traded here since the 14th century, when the silk road brought silk from Iran, spices and dyes from India and paper and fabric from China to be sold to the Mamluk elites. Aside from the acceptance of credit cards, little seemed to have changed. The division of the souk according to crafts had been maintained across the centuries, and the main method of transporting goods under the ancient stone arches was still the humble donkey. The smells of aromatic woods, spices and dyes mingled with the breakneck sales patter of the stallholders and constant bustle of traffic in that enclosed otherworld to take you back in time, as if each stone archway pushed the calendar back a decade.
Emerging from the souk brought a no less memorable sight in the form of the Aleppo Citadel. Sited on an artificial mound with a 45 degree slope all around, a twenty metre deep moat and a single, monumentally fortified gateway, it was intimidating enough to look at as a tourist, but to imagine being a soldier in a company charged with storming the castle was a truly terrifying thought. The walls of the main gate and outer battlements were fully six feet thick, presenting an unbroken facade of immovable stone and defensive arrow slits. In its heyday, the sides of the mound would have been faced with limestone, dazzling prospective attackers and adding blindness to their already considerable list of disadvantages. Anyone who did breach this dizzying list of obstacles would then have been faced by a vaulted entrance ramp which twisted and turned six times before reaching the inner gate. Machiolations (also known on less formal occasions as murder-holes) in the vaulting allowed the defenders to pour hot oil and water on the attackers from above. It is no surprise that the castle was never taken by force; what is surprising is that anyone dared to try.
The current citadel is largely a 13th century construction, though the citadel area has been used for defence since the third millennium BC. Aleppo is a city that astounds with its age, and preservation. The clock tower mentioned above is considered new, being a mere hundred years old, and the city itself is thought by archaeologists to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, with evidence for habitation reaching back to the sixth millennium BC, only very shortly after people in the fertile crescent started farming and got the hang of collective living at all. The city and its dry climate preserve ancient artefacts so well that a Polish archaeologist I met at the citadel complained that he was looking for evidence of material culture from before the Roman invasion in 64 BC but kept digging up Roman coins and helmets. I don’t know many places in the world where an archaeologist would be disappointed to find ‘only’ Roman remains and nothing older.
A short distance outside the city is another historical highlight; the Church of St. Simeon Stylites, dating from the fifth century. Simeon Stylites were a spectacularly odd fellow. He followed the life of a religious hermit, but found that even in a cave in the desert, his reputation was such that people would seek him out to ask for his religious teaching. As a hermit, he was rather unhappy about this state of affairs, and took the somewhat bizarre decision to live on a small platform atop a pole, where it would be impossible for people to bother him. This had rather the opposite of the desired effect, and crowds came from miles around to see the hermit living in the sky. At this point it might have been sensible to try and choose a less obvious form of anonymity than living on top of the tallest structure for miles around, but Simeon was not one to give up on such a wonderfully eccentric idea. Rather than coming down, he gradually increased the height of the pole until he was living fully fifty feet above the ground. This caused even more visitors to call, and his life of religious contemplation was constantly interrupted by petitioners shouting from ground level for his advice. Evidently a pragmatist, Simeon struck a deal with the crowds; he would come down and preach twice a day, in return for being left in peace the rest of the time. This seems to have suited all parties, and he lived on his pole for 37 years until his death in 459, upon which the church was constructed around the pole. Unfortunately centuries of relic-hunting visitors chipping away at the famous pole has left it barely worthy of being called a stump, let alone anything grander. However, the grandeur of the fifth century church ruins around it still remains, as does the magic of being in one of the oldest churches in the world.
Aleppo indeed wears its history well. People live in it, not around it; in 2010 the souk was as alive as it must ever have been, the citadel area was busy with people congregating in cafes to talk over tea and sweets, and in every row and alleyway of ancient houses life pulsed busily indoors and out.
Today, in April 2013, a ceasefire was announced in Aleppo. The reason was not because the Syrian government has come to an accord with rebel groups, not because all sides have decided to abandon the madness and go home. It was simply a temporary truce to allow the Red Crescent to pick up bodies, shot by government snipers in the street. Until now, it has been too dangerous to retrieve them, so they lay there, decomposing, unable to receive a burial, unable to be mourned. The living eke out an existence as best they can, waiting for hours in line to receive a bread ration or some clean water while mortars and shells tear the sky apart overhead. The passages and alleyways of the souk which once took the visitor back in time are now ripped apart, the fourteenth century stonework strong enough to make an inviting base for both government and rebel fighters. The traders have long since deserted their pitches, and the only shouts to be heard are those ordering an attack or a retreat as fighting for each area of the souk continues with unabated ferocity.
The citadel, which surely most Aleppians thought had seen its last fighting during the Ottoman Empire, is again a sought after military target on high ground in the centre of the city. Its walls still stand, but the imposing fortified entrance was partially destroyed in August by shells and explosives that its medieval builders could scarcely have conceived. Government forces now control the citadel and are using it as both a lookout point and artillery compound, from which rebel districts are bombarded to break resistance to the regime. After these areas have been reduced to rubble, the army and the Mukhabarat (secret police) comb the destruction for survivors and rebel fighters, and take them away to be tortured and shot.
A short walk down the road from the citadel stands the Umayyad mosque, just over the road from a shwarma shop where I stopped for lunch back in September 2010, and fell into conversation with the owner about Manchester United’s newest signing, Javier Hernandez. I very much doubt that he is still in business, and if he is he doubtless has more pressing concerns than the vagaries of the premier league transfer window.
The mosque was also an early target for government troops for its surveillance opportunities from the eleventh century minaret, the tallest free standing stone tower in the world of such an age. Each side’s facade shows off a different style of the period, making it an exceedingly important example of Seljuk architecture. However, historical merit counts for little in the fog of war. After President Assad’s forces took the mosque, on October 10 last year rebel groupings tried to overcome the mosque by blasting holes in its mosaic-covered 13th century walls and storming through. However, they were repelled and forced to retreat, attacking now only with sniper fire from surrounding neighbourhoods.
It is this sniper fire which has truly killed off normal life in Aleppo, as it did in the similarly intractable conflict in Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s. The mundane sounds of social life have been muted, the fabric and colour of the city washed away. Both rebel fighters and ordinary civilians have taken to using underground tunnels where possible to get around town, though these hastily built warrens carry the very real danger of collapse, especially when mortar fire lands nearby. Tens of thousands have left this fine old city, whose heart is being ripped out street by street, whose people are being shelled, shot and starved every day they manage to survive another day of life.
Unlike Aleppo’s forsaken thousands, I was able to leave in the comfort of a highway bus, the main means of intercity public transport in Syria. I was heading for Hama, the fifth largest city in Syria after Damascus and Aleppo, famous for its huge wooden noria (waterwheels) dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The largest is over twenty metres in diameter.
The waterwheels served the vital function of channeling water from the Orontes river into aqueducts which provided water for irrigation in the surrounding farmland. There is much debate as to their origins; the earliest evidence of noria in Hama is from the later Byzantine period of around 1000 years ago, but a mosaic dating from the 5th century at nearby Apamea shows a noria-like construction, suggesting an even earlier origin than the end of the first millennium. These days the noria are purely decorative, and the continuous creaking of those lumbering wooden giants as they turn sounds a mournful protest across the centre of Hama, as if they are objecting to still having to work at such a great age.
Hama’s more recent history also provides some clues about the current conflict. Hama was the centre of the last sustained challenge to the Assad regime; from 1978 to 1984 the Sunni Muslim population rose against the Baathist regime, then led by the current president’s father Hafeez Assad. The conservative Sunni of Hama considered the secular, nationalist Alawite sect that the Assad family adhere to as heretical, and the Sunni group known as the Muslim Brotherhood began a concerted guerrilla campaign against the government from 1978. This included one nearly successful attempt on Hafeez Assad’s life in 1980, when Muslim Brotherhood guerrilas attempted to gun down the president during a state visit by the president of Mali. In 1982 he took bloody revenge on the Brotherhood in their stronghold of Hama by declaring war on the city a week in advance, and declaring that anyone who failed to evacuate within that period would be considered a rebel. The army, the Mukhabarat and the airforce descended on the city, led by the president’s brother Rifaat Assad. Planes bombed rebel districts to allow infantry and tank units to march through the rubble. The army shelled areas of fierce resistance for three weeks before combing the ruins for survivors. Tunnels under the city were pumped full of diesel fuel and set alight. The journalist Robert Fisk estimated casualties to be around 20,000, while Amnesty International gave a figure of 25,000. Rifaat Assad himself boasted of having killed 38,000.
After the Hama Massacre, membership of the Muslim Brotherhood was made a criminal offense and Hafeez Assad continued down the road of repression and state sponsored violence for the rest of his reign. This helps explain why the younger Assad is holding on to power even as the country goes to hell in a handcart; his father survived a six year insurgency, albeit on a more limited, single city scale. The current conflict has continued for two years, and Assad may still believe he can manage some kind of decisive victory which allows him to claim victory and further crush the battered country under his vicious rule, though it is hard to see how given the fractured nature of the fighting, with districts and even streets within towns and cities divided by allegiance to the rebels or the government.
He is also in a situation where realistically all he can do to give himself the best chance of survival is to stay in power and try to fight his way out. The murder of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya will have served as a signal lesson that, if the rebels gain the upper hand he and his clique can expect no mercy, and even escape would likely lead to imprisonment and a high profile trial at the International Criminal Court; he has few friends left in the international community, and perhaps none who would risk becoming a pariah state for giving him shelter.
I wonder if he ever wishes he had stayed in his previous life, which might not have given him the same power, but would certainly have brought less mayhem and suffering to the world. For Bashar Assad was never meant to follow in his father’s footsteps; that duty was placed squarely on the shoulders of his older brother Basil. Basil joined the army after university, rising to the rank of commander and taking charge of presidential security. From 1984, he began to accompany his father on presidential visits both at home and abroad receiving the classic education of a dictator in waiting. The national press eulogised him as the brave, pure successor to the presidency.
Meanwhile, Bashar Assad was allowed to pursue his own role, free from the responsibility of future political office. He trained as a doctor, working for four years in Tishrin, the largest army hospital in Syria. In 1992 he moved to London to do postgraduate research in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital, and settled into a comfortable life in the city. Love also bloomed in England when he met his future wife Asma al-Akhras. The comfortable life of a surgeon in London, perhaps with a lucrative Harley Street surgery, awaited the younger Assad.
On January 21st 1994, everything changed. Basil Assad collided with a roundabout while driving to the airport in fog for an early morning flight. Not wearing a seatbelt, he was flung through the windscreen and killed instantly. In this instant, Bashar’s comfortable future in the medical profession was erased, his life turned on its head by a momentary but fatal lapse in his elder brother’s concentration. Hafeez Assad called him back to Syria immediately, where he was put on the fast-track to the succession always intended for Basil. He entered the military and rose in five years to the rank of Colonel, with his father ensuring he was always surrounded by sympathetic fellow Alawites. Simultaneously he engaged in public life and government, culminating with his taking charge of relations with Syria’s most important neighbour Lebanon.
In 2000, Hafeez Assad succumbed to a heart attack, and Bashar became president in June with a level of popular support seen only in dictatorships (97.2%). While there were hopes for liberalization and democratization under the English speaking, western educated Assad, the paths he chose eventually led to the present, where he fights to keep a semblance of control over a country torn asunder beneath him, to ensure the survival of his regime and himself. So, is it too much to imagine that occasionally he wishes he were back in London troubled only by a tricky eye procedure or tube strike?
Krak Des Chevaliers
Hama’s waterwheels sounded me a sad farewell as I left the city, but my heart was full of childlike enthusiasm as I was on the way to one of the places I had most wanted to visit in Syria – the unsurpassable Crusader castle known as Krak des Chevaliers (castle of the knights). Lawrence of Arabia once called it
“perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world, which forms a fitting commentary on any account of the Crusading buildings of Syria”
It was built in three stages, reaching its current extent over one hundred years after the first limestone block had been laid by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli and son in law of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, in 1142. The final stages of construction were the outer keep and the central chapel. The construction of the outer keep created a corridor fully 137 metres long which invaders would have to pass through to reach the inner keep, all the while being attacked with projectiles and boiling liquids through murder holes in the walls on each side. Attackers would also have had to notice a sharp hairpin bend in the passage to reach the inner gate, as going straight on would have brought them out in a no-man’s land between the inner and outer walls of the castle, where death and destruction could be freely brought down upon them. Like the Aleppo Citadel, it is no surprise that it was never taken by force, instead being lost only when the crusaders left the Levant entirely after the fall of Acre in 1291. Historian Hugh Kennedy called the defensive structures of the Krak “the most elaborate and developed anywhere in the Latin east … the whole structure is a brilliantly designed and superbly built fighting machine”
The chapel is a small but beautiful building in the centre of the huge complex. Its barrel vaulted roof is more typical of Norman design than thirteenth century Gothic, and it would have been considered old fashioned in contemporary France. The crusaders were at the forefront of technology when it came to castle construction, but their churches understandably lagged behind the latest architectural styles of Western Europe.It is in the chapel more than anywhere in the castle that you can still imagine the presence of those crusader knights in the 13th century, praying for success in their missions to retake the Holy Land the night before riding out to battle. On one side of the church, a more modern Gothic vaulted corridor still survives, and it is striking to consider that the very same vaulted arches might be found in any of the older Oxford colleges or adorning a monastery nestled in a remote valley somewhere in rural Languedoc.
The Krak des Chevaliers is another great monument which has suffered depredations in the civil war which it was not built to withstand. Its importance in defending the Homs Gap, which links the large central city of Homs with Tripoli and the sea, is still relevant today. After rebel soldiers took shelter there in the first months of the uprising, the Syrian army shelled it, destroying some of the inner defenses and part of the beautiful chapel with its precious thirteenth century fresco remains. It will take a lot to destroy the monumental Krak, and we can but hope that even the might of a modern military offensive may not be enough to lay down the great old beast.
After touring the Krak and pretending to be a Crusader knight, I was finally ready to see Damascus, oldest capital city in the world, and the city that first bus driver from Turkey had been so eager to reach. Like so much of Syria, Damascus overflows with history, and having survived these six thousand years past, it will surely live through the current conflict despite enduring some of its fiercest fighting. I got on another gaudily decorated bus (peach coloured curtains paired with lime green seats) which came with its own travelling salesman. He walked up and down the bus every five minutes peddling goods that ranged from ice-cream to toothbrushes. In fact, on closer inspection they were the only things he was selling. Presumably they came as a set; after the sugary hit of a nice scoop of vanilla a quick brush makes sense, though as the temperature in the bus was approaching 30 degrees he seemed to be doing a much brisker trade in the latter than the former. Discussion with my fellow passengers revealed that while the man who sold me the ticket assured me the bus was going straight to the centre of Damascus, his version of ‘central’ was somewhat akin to Ryanair’s, and that the nearest I could be dropped to the capital was on the ring road skirting it. Bus travel in Syria is always something of a lottery, but the unbounded kindness of Syrians ensures that no matter how far you end up from your intended destination, someone will put you back on the right track, and if the first person you ask doesn’t know the way he can be relied on to find someone who does. I speak no Arabic (beyond being able to ask furtively if a newsagent might stock some illicit beer behind the counter), but I never felt lost, confused or threatened once thanks to the kindness of Syrian strangers. So it was that when I got off the bus, fellow passengers would not let the bus continue until they had put me safely in a taxi heading for the actual centre of the city. The journey to the old city where I was staying proceeded uneventfully through the outer reaches of town, until the taxi driver pointed to an older looking stretch of wall, a gate over the road crowned with a plain white minaret.
“That’s 2000 years old. Roman. It’s called Bab Sharqi (The Eastern Gate)”
he said matter of factly, as if pointing out a telephone box or public convenience. And so it is in Damascus, which “measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin”
as Mark Twain wrote in 1869 in ‘The Innocents Abroad’. Bab Sharqi is only one third the age of the city as a whole, which was first populated at least four thousand years before the Roman invasion by Pompey Magnus in 64 BC. Damascus was part of the territory of Hyksos, who harried and overran Lower Egypt in the seventeenth century B.C., and some of the earliest Egyptian writing to survive comes from the Amarna letters, diplomatic correspondence between Damascus, then called Dimasqu, and the Egyptian administration. History is a constant here; “old Damascus is by right, the Eternal City”, to let Mark Twain do to the talking again.
The old city presented its credentials as I walked through the gate; a row of shops on one side that would not have looked out of place in any of the last five centuries, and on the other side an Armenian church that provided a timely reminder of Syria’s two thousand year old link with the Christian religion. Ten percent of the Syrian population is Christian, though that simple statistic obscures the dazzling variety of denominations that make up that fraction; joining the Armenian Catholics in the church by Bab Sharqi are Syriac Catholics, Maronites, Melkites, Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians.
In the civil war, thus far there has been an impressive lack of religious intolerance or victimisation, though very recently the BBC reported that two senior clerics, the heads of the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox church in Syria had been kidnapped by militants in a rebel held area near Aleppo, though they were thankfully released the next day. The allegiance of the kidnappers is not known, and we must hope it is not a sign of religious conflict becoming enmeshed in the existing Gordian knot of war.
The road leading down from Bab Sharqi is called Straight Street, which sounds somewhat prosaic, but the familiar magic of Damascus returns when you hear that it was down this same street that the blinded Paul was led after his conversion. Straight Street leads straight to the main souk, called Medhat Pasha souk after the Ottoman governor who ordered its renovation and roofing in the middle of the 19th century. All along the Medhat Pasha souk and its ancient offshoots, shops no wider than a bicycle sell nuts, dried fruits and spices out of enormous jute sacks grouped together on the ancient cobbles.
Shafts of light piercing through that lead roof talk of earlier conflict; in 1925, an uprising against the French mandate put in place in the aftermath of World War One brought French military might down on Damascus, and the souk was machine-gunned from the air to quiet the rebellious natives, giving it something of a cheese grater appearance.
In the most recent conflict the souk has been quiet aside from demonstrations early on in the uprising, perhaps because any street called Straight Street is likely to make sitting ducks of anyone unwise enough to try fighting in it.
Halfway along the souk, I went to one of Damascus’s most famous shops. Bakdash has been serving ice-cream to Damascenes for over one hundred and thirty years, and even today fluffy, snow white mounds of ice cream are pounded by huge wooden mallets wielded by men with biceps like balloons. They advertised different flavours on the menu, but I didn’t see anyone order anything other than a booza, a pistachio covered mastic flavoured ice cream that tastes something like pine smells. I have no idea whether they have been able to continue the venerable tradition through the civil war, but rumour has it that they continued to sell ice cream even as the French biplanes were strafing them overhead, so perhaps there is room for optimism.
At the end of the souk is the gate of the Temple Of Jupiter, a Roman stone edifice that would be a site of national importance almost anywhere else but in Damascus is just another incidental speck of history.
Opposite is the Umayyad Mosque, Syria’s largest and oldest mosque; indeed, in this city of superlatives it should come as little surprise that it is the oldest continuously used mosque in the world. The sixth Umayyad caliph, Walid I decreed that a mosque be built on the site of the old Byzantine cathedral in 706, less than a lifetime after the death of Mohammad.
It is a monumental construction. The central courtyard would be comfortably large enough to old a rugby match, though perhaps the two eighth century domes at each end would be a hindrance to the free flow of play. The interior courtyard walls are decorated with gold leaf mosaic depicting trees, landscapes and the Barada river that flows through Damascus. While much of the work has been restored over time, some of the mosaics in the Western vestibule date from the original decoration of the mosque in 715. I cannot express how astonishing I find it to think that, one thousand three hundred years ago, an artist etched a pattern on a wall, plastered small tiles and stones into the pattern and decorated parts of it with gold leaf, then stepped back to admire his work and reflect on a job well done, and be satisfied that he had done his God proud with such fine handiwork. Over the following centuries the Vikings roamed and ransacked Europe, the Black Death annihilated possibly one fifth of all people in the world, Gutenberg invented his printing press and clever chaps in Italy reformed the basis of all knowledge and called it the renaissance. Trains, telegraphy, the industrial revolution, modern medicine, flight and space travel and a thousand other things all came into being, and all the while some pieces of stone stayed, unmoved, undamaged, affixed to the wall of this remarkable building for me to stare at in wonderment well over a millennium later.
“In Damascus there is a mosque that has no equal in the world, not one with such fine proportion, nor one so solidly constructed, nor one vaulted so securely, nor one more marvellously laid out, nor one so admirably decorated in gold mosaics and diverse designs, with enamelled tiles and polished marbles.”
commented the Arab geographer Mohammed al-Idrisi in 1154. Eight and a half intervening centuries have done nothing to make the sentiment less true.
Another surprise about the Umayyad mosque is its lively inclusivity. The bones of John the Baptist (Yahya to Muslims) are said to be interred here, and many Christians also visit to pay their respects, the most august of them being Pope John Paul II who visited in 2001, becoming the first pope ever to set foot inside a mosque. Adherents to any other religion are welcome too, and the atmosphere inside this and every other mosque I visited in Syria was a long way from the forbidding piety I had expected. Children ran around playing football or tag, ladies chatted in aisles and men relaxed and napped in the courtyard.
It is this very openness that allows the Umayyad mosque to transcend religion, and become the beating heart of Damascus.
Opposite the mosque, I stopped to rest tired legs at a lively looking cafe. As so often happens in Syria, a man sitting nearby turned to say hello. He was perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties, with a splendid grey moustache wider than his face, and accompanied by his wife. He was a mathematics teacher by profession, but he spoke English very well, and he told me about his life and family. He had come into the centre of town with his wife to buy a toy for his grandson’s fifth birthday, and he proudly showed me the toy robot he had picked up in the souk. Politics is not an acceptable topic when the Mukhabarat might be listening, so we stuck to Syrian history, of which citizens are understandably proud. He told me that Damascus’s old city held over five thousand houses from the Ottoman Empire, almost all of which were architectural jewels in one way or another. He touched on the French occupation before the second world war, but abruptly stopped when we got to the post war period. “I should stop there” he said, evidently not willing to speak about Syria after 1966 when it came under Ba’ath party rule. It was the only sign I saw in Syria of oppression, of a lack of freedom of speech or thought. He returned then to the distant past, talking of the Romans, Seljuks and Crusaders with a passion and depth of knowledge remarkable for someone trained in mathematics, and with a kindly patience that became one of my most enduring memories of the Syrian people.
My companion’s wife whispered something to him, and he explained that he had to leave to go and see his grandson. We said our goodbyes, and it was only when I left half an hour later that I found he had paid for my drink and sweet as well. He was typical of the Syrians I met across the country, who simply wanted more people to visit and appreciate the wonders Syria had to offer, and were kind enough to share their knowledge and help those who had visited in any capacity they could.
Just outside the mosque is the tomb of Saladin, and one wonders what he would make of people from all over the world coming to the city he tried so hard to defend from the west and their righteous armies of religion during the Crusades. Eight hundred years ago, he fought more than two years of almost daily conflicts with England’s Lionheart, Richard I during the Third Crusade (1189-1202). Despite being mortal enemies, Saladin and Richard enjoyed a warm and chivalrous relationship that sets at odds the brutality of many combatants in the medieval Holy Land; when Richard was ill, Saladin sent him fine fruits and delicacies, and when Richard’s horse was killed in the Battle of Arsuf Saladin sent him a fine Arabian steed. In return, Richard went so far as to propose that Saladin’s brother marry his sister Joan, Queen of Sicily, and Jerusalem be the wedding gift, though the offer was rejected.
Having successfully defended Jerusalem from Richard’s army, they negotiated safe passage for the remains of the Crusader force and Jerusalem’s Christians to Acre, destroying once and for all the European dream of bringing Jerusalem back inside the empire of Christendom Far from being reviled in Europe for this, Saladin became a celebrated example of knightly virtue. When he died in 1193, he possessed not enough money to pay for his funeral, having given the majority of his wealth to the poorest of his subjects.
So perhaps Saladin would not mind so much the stream of Western visitors to his tomb and the mosque; certainly a much greater threat comes from the Syrian conflict. While the centre of the city has thankfully been spared the destruction that Aleppo’s historic monuments have suffered, fierce fighting has destroyed outer districts, causing rebel fighters to shelter in increasingly central locations. The army will not give ancient monuments a second thought in their efforts, and it is fearfully easy to imagine a noose of fire tightening around the 350 acres of the old city, with its thousands of precious monuments, palaces, mosques and houses, the area about which Tahir Shah wrote; “For me, a journey to Damascus is an amazing hunt from beginning to end, a slice through layers of history in search of treasure.”
Just outside the city stands the mountain of Jebel Qassoon. When I visited it was a popular sightseeing spot, and the night view from its summit is truly impressive, with the city radiating out from the unmistakable open space of the Umayyad Mosque in the centre of the panorama. It was also an exceedingly popular spot for trysting couples, away from the prying eyes and disapproving murmurs of the city. If a young Damascene says that he ‘went to Jebel Qassoon last night’, the chances are it was not solely to enjoy the view.
Today, alas, that romantic opportunity is lost to Syrians. As with the citadel in Aleppo, the high ground was soon taken by government forces, who have blockaded the mountain and stationed artillery atop it, within easy reach of the city centre. One can only pray that the mortars and missile launchers will not be used against the old city as an alternative to tanks which cannot negotiate its narrow, twisting alleyways of shadow and stone.
Damascus is in great danger, of a modern and terrible kind which it has not faced before. I will leave the last word to Mark Twain, in the hope that he was correct when he wrote “She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”
Bosra and Deraa
My final stops in Syria were Bosra and Deraa in the extreme south of Syria by the border with Jordan, and the origin of the current conflict. Bosra is home to a fine Roman amphitheatre of the mid second century, when the Empire stretched to its largest extent and enjoyed its days of glory under the wise rule of the Five Good Emperors. It is the largest and most complete Roman theatre in the Middle East, and is unusual in having been built on level ground rather than into a hillside as was typical. In Roman Syria’s heyday, fifteen thousand spectators would have enjoyed the classic works of the likes of Juvenal and Horace played out on the basalt stage. Records covering the administration of Bosra in these days reveal that the theatre would once have been draped in silk hangings to protect audiences from summer sun and seasonal showers, while perfumed water was also evaporated during a performance for a final touch of luxury.
The structure is so solid and imposing that when the Islamic rulers decided to build a fortress in Bosra in the 14th century, they could think of no better solution than to build a reinforced wall around the theatre and declare it a castle; it was these later ramparts that have helped to preserve the theatre so beautifully to the present day. In the space between the theatre and the walls, later generations have arranged local artefacts such as tablets and gravestones, the Greek and Latin script another reminder, as if any were needed, of the great age of this town and country.
Unfortunately, the cities where the rebellion started have come in for some of the heaviest punishment from government forces. It was in Deraa, the “cradle of the revolution” and Bosra’s near neighbour, that the revolution began in March 2011. Protests began in response to the arrest and torture of several teenagers for writing anti-government graffiti. Demonstrators clashed with police, and intensified after Friday prayers on March 18th when thousands took to the streets. The local Ba’ath party headquarters were burned down on the 20th, and in response police used live ammunition on the rebels, killing fifteen. The following Friday, the 25th, similar protests spread nationwide, with 100,000 marching in Deraa, and tens of thousands engaging in pro-democracy demonstrations length and breadth of the nation in cities such as Homs, Hama, Baniyas, Jasim, Aleppo, Damascus, Deir-ez-Zor and Latakia. From June the first armed rebel militias began to appear, and in July they had evolved and coalesced far enough to announce the formation of the Free Syrian Army, helped by large numbers of deserters from the regular army, where morale sank with every order to fire on unarmed Syrians. A number of soldiers were also court martialled and execued for refusing to fire on civilians when ordered. In August the Syrian National Council was formed to unite opposition voices, but even today it remains a fractious patchwork of political groups, long term exiles, grass roots demonstrators and militants. Since the formation of an opposition army, protests have been replaced by armed struggle, with every city in the country being torn apart to a greater or lesser extent by the fighting. Ceasefires proposed by notables such as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan were roundly ignored on all sides, and the international community is both divided and understandably shows no signs of wanting to send troops into such an insoluble conflict. The United States, United Kingdom and France among others have recognised the rebel Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate government of Syria, and provided it with non lethal aid in the form of communications equipment and medical kit, while Britain has also provided intelligence from bases in Cyprus. Recent rhetoric has opened the door to military goods also being supplied from the US. Meaningful international action such as sanctions against the Assad regime have run aground on the shoals of Russian and Chinese suspicion; both veto any action which they see as violating Syrian sovereignty, with the Russian Foreign Ministry emphasizing the conflict as an internal matter where the international community has no right to interfere.
The most recent development, and a truly worrying one, is the claim by a senior Israeli intelligence official that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian government in Aleppo. Syria is one of very few countries not to have signed an international convention banning chemical weapons and is estimated to hold large stockpiled of mustard gas and sarin. President Obama has declared that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer”, so if it is confirmed military intervention by the US may be on the cards, though I am sceptical about the popular will to intervene in another Middle Eastern quagmire.
In September 2010, I was able to get on a bus from Deraa, in the same square that would see six months later those first protests that set alight the tinderbox, and head over the border into Jordan. Since then, five hundred thousand Syrians have followed in far, far less comfortable conditions, increasing Jordan’s population by around 8% and creating what Jordanian officials have called one of the greatest crises Jordan has faced in recent history. Yet, those Syrians in Jordan, living in refugee camps, carrying their lives in a bag and not wanted by the host country, those are the lucky ones. Those still in Syria, especially those in the cities, face death or injury by doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. The UN High Commissioner for refugees estimates that half of the population, a staggering ten million people, will need humanitarian aid to survive by the end of the year. Unesco estimates that half of those in need will be children. Unfortunately, with the civil war dropping from public view the vast sums of money promised to Unesco and Unicef in a January fundraiser in Kuwait have signally failed to materialize, leaving relief operations desperately underfunded.
I will not pretend to have any solutions to the civil war, and I have no idea how it will end. All I can say is this; I have mentioned Syria’s long history many times already, and I believe it provides a glimmer of hope for the future. Such an ancient country will surely not disintegrate now, having survived every crisis that Earth could throw at it over the past six millennia. I believe, and sincerely hope, that even though the fabric of Syrian society is being ripped from all sides, it will not be torn apart.
I’ll return to the proposition that I began with. The civil war has continued for over two years. It has stopped being a feature of our news, and of our everyday concept of what is happening in the world. However, hundreds of thousands are dying, and millions are denied their basic human right to a life free of violence and fear. The least we can do is declare that we will not forget Syria.