Eradicating memory, splitting a nation: What Tamerlan had not destroyed

Martin Makinson

(This article was first published in the official website of the Syrian Writers Association)

As French archaeologist André Parrot once put it, “every cultured man has two homelands: his own and Syria”. This motto was coined by the very person who had discovered the powerful third and second millennium BCE Mesopotamian capital of Mari on the Euphrates under the sands of 55-hectare Tell Hariri near al-Boukemal; he was referring to the fact that plant cultivation and animal husbandry, urban states and the earliest world empires of history, cuneiform writing and the alphabet, all appeared in Syria or spread there immediately after their invention in neighbouring Mesopotamia. Syria was the main route of diffusion of all new ideas that spread across the Mediterranean into Europe and to the rest of the Old World. The result of these 12,000 years of human experience since the foundation of the world’s earliest village at Jerf al-Ahmar on the Euphrates has been a wealth of sites and monuments hardly rivalled by any country in the Middle East. Syria has been of immense significance to humanity since hominids coming from Africa walked into the then lake and oasis-filled Syrian steppe of Qdeir and al-Kowm, north of Palmyra…

Syria has always been a major thoroughfare from the appearance of modern men to the Silk Road, and as such was constantly the focus of recent historical and archaeological research since the mid-19th century. In 2011, the year the uprising began, more than fifty survey, excavation and restoration projects were being carried out on Syrian territory, focusing on periods ranging from 40,000 years old Neanderthal remains in caves near Aleppo to 18th century Ottoman architectural marvels in Damascus. In the 1840s, the British explorer Austin Layard uncovered a gateway with Assyrian lamassu bull-men at Tell ‘Ajaja, ancient Shadikanni on the Habur, before clearing the huge Assyrian metropolises of Nimrud and Niniveh in the 1940s. The buildings of dams, modern agricultural practices, and the haphazard extension of cities had, since the 1960s, threatened many pre-classical, classical and medieval sites, but had also caused scholars to rescue or at least explore mounds of mudbrick and stone otherwise damaged or endangered. So much is known about early experiments in village life and wheat and barley agriculture in the Levantine corridor because of the construction of the Tabqa dam 40 kilometres upriver from Raqqa, leading to the discovery of Mureybet and Sheikh Hassan, early sedentary communities immediately preceding plant cultivation brought to light by French renowned Pre-historian Jacques Cauvin. Cognitive thought and early religion from times « before philosophy » (the title a pioneer work by American archaeologist Henry Frankfort) are known only because small stone plaques, items of portable art, were incised with vultures, geometric signs and panthers, these very symbols appearing on the T-shaped stele of Göbekli Tepe, site of the world’s earliest religious centre 11,000 years ago, located in Turkey not far from the Syrian border. Such evidence for early religion is visible because these stone items surfaced at Jerf al-Ahmar, now under the waters of Lake Tishreen, and at tell Qaramel north of Aleppo. So much is known of trade networks between Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levantine coast and Anatolia in the early third millennium BCE, because for decades the mounds of Mari and Tuttul on the Euphrates (the latter next to modern Raqqa), the capitals of Shehna near Qamishli, Ebla near Maaret an-Numan and Tell Chuera (probably ancient Abarsal) on the Turkish border in the Jezireh steppe had been cleared over very extensive surfaces by Italian, American and German teams. So much is understood of « Cold Wars », of the « Great Game » between empires of the Bronze Age because Hittite fiefdoms like Emar and Tell Astata near Meskene on the Euphrates have been explored by French and German teams since the early 1970s. So much has been gleaned on ancient battlefields because British and Australian projects led by London, Sydney and Durham universities have surveyed the area of Qadesh, the site of one of Antiquity’s most famous conflagrations, opposing Ramesses II to the Hittite king Muwatalli. The battle took place c. 1260 BCE on the very outskirts of Tell Nabi Mend, a mound where Syrian army tanks now roll freely, bombing civilian homes in the countryside around Qosseir and Lake Qattina, assisted by Hezbollah and Iranian « military and guerilla warfare experts ». So much has been gathered on warring states, peace treaties, marriages between princesses, on mysterious peoples such as the Amorites, the Hurrians, the Elamites, the Turukkeans, on alliances, international diplomacy in the early second millennium BCE, on a world system linking the copper-rich plateaus of Elam in Iran to the huge site of Hazor in Palestine, because of the 24,000 tablets discovered at Mari since 1933 by Parrot and his Belgian philologist assistant Georges Dossin. So large is the bulk of historical evidence, so immense the task of already documenting, recording, protecting sites and monuments in times of peace that many fieldwork projects and studies begun in the early days of Near Eastern archaeology are still work in progress… Syria was and is a life-time experience for European scholars. The country’s monuments have been at the source of mystical passion in days when archaeological exploration was intertwined with diplomacy and international politics: Lawrence of Arabia would have never thought of an Arab revolt had he not walked the Jabal al-Ansariyeh and the area around Aleppo barefoot, drawing on his own the Crusader and Arab castles that would be the focus of his doctoral dissertation at Oxford; he would have not imagined  Arab independence and throwing off the Ottoman yoke, had he not worked in 1911 and 1913 with the Arabs of Jerablus while uncovering the 900 BC Late Hittite Long Wall of Sculpture of the city of Carchemish, which todays sits right on the border between Turkey and Syria. The same passion is felt when looking at one of the latest archaeological discoveries of modern times, that of the temple beneath the Aleppo citadel, which has a 1,000 BC long wall of sculpture of its own carved by Luwian king Taita of Northern Palestine (yes, there was a Northern Palestine, also called Pattina, whose capital was the Calno of the Old Testament, now near Antakya…). Deep below the Medieval palaces of Halab’s high mound lies one of the most revered religious monuments of pre-classical Antiquity, constructed in the early second millennium and lasting a thousand years, the shrine of a deity with four names: Tarhunas, Teshub, Addu, Hadad – i.e. the sanctuary of the Weather God. This temple, desecrated by snipers of the Syrian army taking pot-shots at inhabitants of the Old City, was curiously a place of omens and oracles, where envoys of the kings of Mari as from 1860 BCE consulted diviners. Ironically, German archaeologists working in that place in 2010 were hardly aware of the horrors to befall one of the world’s oldest cities.

 

The precedent: Iraq 2003

The Iraq war and the thirteen years of embargo leading to it had destroyed a substantial amount of Iraq’s heritage. One can still remember with anger the Swiss cheese-shaped looting of Sumerian capitals in the south like Larsa or Djokha, the Umma of the Vulture Stela, the first narrated story of a two century war between two city-states. One can still remember the poverty that had lead tribes and antiquities trafficking networks to illicitly excavate huge chunks of these tells (mounds), their discoveries finding ways to Beirut, Jerusalem, and Syria before being bought by collectors, the context of these finds, crucial in terms of information, lost for ever. World opinion recalls with outrage how Bush’s army had stood idly by while the Baghdad Museum was being emptied by people straight out of the slums of the Iraqi capital, insult to injury added by the ignorant denials of right-wing pundits, the likes of Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. One can read once more the story of how historical jewels such as the Uruk vase, showing a procession towards the temple of Inanna at Warka and dating to 3,200 BCE, were retrieved in Iraq, albeit in pieces.

It is bewildering today to witness powerlessly the implacable destruction of Syria’s unique heritage, which in terms of stone monuments and preserved Medieval cities, of Roman metropolises and colonnades, of Crusader and Arab castles, of intact fifth and sixth century AD Byzantine villages and churches in the countryside, exceeds in preservation and variety anything known in the region. The silence of academic institutions, apart for a few courageous and brave archaeologists, is simply astounding. At great risk, many Syrian doctoral students and archaeologists in both Europe and Syria have taken into their own hands to inform the world of the wanton destructions, of the lootings occurring in the last two years of uprising. Dr Amr al-Azm in the USA, Dr Salam Quntar of Cambridge (ex-co-director of excavations at the university of Chicago project of Tell Hamoukar, possibly the Jazira’s largest and earliest urban center, founded in the Uruk period c. 3,600 BC), Dr Sheikhmous Ali of the University of Strasbourg, Mohammed Taha, an officer of the Department of Antiquities in Palmyra before 2006, have all documented from the uprising’s very start the destructions affecting unique remains of thousands of years of civilization. They have done so courageously, since they have been able to establish in many cases who is responsible for this eradication of Syrian, Arab and universal memory. They have stood steadfast in recording how mortar fire, bombings, incendiary devices, artillery have razed to the ground some of the Arab world’s finest architecture. They are truly the heroes of our time, in that they have recreated networks with people on the ground filming and reporting this devastation. It should be understood that anyone not towing the line of the Syrian regime means being considered a « terrorist » by Assad’s murderous war clique. Not towing the line means in this case establishing in objective manner who has looted and razed, just as it means feeding bombed areas cut off from international and local relief operations, or saving wounded people in clandestine hospitals. The contrast with European archaeologists, who have, like the American troops occupying Baghdad, watched Syrian heritage be ruthlessly destroyed or plundered, is all the more astounding. A minority of lecturers, professors have actively brought themselves to the fore by assisting this brave team of Syrians, warning of the destructions and documenting them, but most academic institutions have not openly reacted.

Two years and two months after Deraa, most scholars are still declining to comment on what has happened to monuments from cities and countryside alike. Two years and two months into the uprising, Near Eastern specialists are still not speaking to press and media about what is to be done to save Syria’s heritage. Two years and two months following the arrest and torture of the children of Deraa, Lamia Shakkour is still ambassador to UNESCO, representing a state that has not hesitated in bombing Roman and Medieval Arab cities and museums with heavy artillery. The situation couldn’t be different from Iraq, which is still a hotbed of instability and which went through a civil war since 2003. Why this silence?

Who did what?

Detailing what has been damaged or devastated in Syria would take volumes. It would imply UNESCO-funded enquiries of several years, and would involve researchers on the ground, something the Syrian regime will –significantly- not allow. March 2012 marked a turning point in the devastation. Units of the Free Syrian army took refuge behind Medieval walls at Qalaat al-Mudiq, the Crusader citadel on top of a 4,000 year old mound towering above Syria’s largest Roman city, that of Apamea, where a AD census thirty years after the birth of Christ had counted 100,000 inhabitants. Syrian regime troops did not hesitate to pound the limestone ramparts of Mudiq with heavy artillery shellfire, a tragedy captured on You Tube videos posted by Syrian dissidents. Small-scale looting has always been a problem at Apamea since the 1990s, with locals from the nearby-town of Suqaylibiya riding motorcycles and proposing Roman and Byzantine lamps to tourists. Yet people of the villages Jebel Zawiyeh and the Ghâb are well aware of the wealth that lies next to their home towns, and the gravity of small illicit excavations is dwarfed by the horrific shelling of the citadel’s ramparts by Assad’s soldiers and by the subsequent plundering of one of Syria’s richest mosaic museums, itself located in the 18th century Ottoman caravanserail below the Medieval site and next to Apamea’s Roman theatre. The army also took pot shots at the city’s world-famous colonnade, built under the reigns of Roman emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (c. 138-180 AD). This Roman avenue with spiral-shaped columns was the longest in the ancient world, exceeding 1.8 km; the columns had already fallen prey to the Assad’s regime chrony business ventures, prevalent in the country since the 1980s: Osman Aidi, owner of the Sham Palace five-star resorts (tackily-decorated concrete bunkers), a man enriched by Hafez al-Assad, a person archetypal of Syria’s new bourgeoisie and merchant military class, had poured concrete on the columns of Apamea in a hasty and half-baked disfiguring attempt to reconstruct the ancient road across the site. Osman Aidi is indeed an expert in the pouring of tons of cement and concrete on historical sites: had he not done just that while building Hama’s five-star Afamia Sham Palace hotel on the 13th century maze of souks and on the bodies of thousands killed by Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat during the February 1982 uprising?

The summer of 2012 marked another turning point in destruction. The Free Syrian army, in an ill-thought strategy, thought the time ripe for advancing on Syria’s economic capital Aleppo. Despite some gains in July 2012 in Aleppo suburbs such as ‘Anadan (where state land had been privatized years before by Assad’s chronies Maan Shibli, governor of Aleppo, and his brother Mazen, in order to build schools for the rich and shopping centres), the insurgency was locked down in a battle of trenches within sight of the citadel. Western journalists could gaze at the marvels of the Old City when accompanied by FSA volunteers, who in past lives had been students, teachers, doctors, salesmen. The conquest of one of the northern gates of the Old City, Bab al-Hadid, made the press, world opinion and fighting locals think that Aleppo would fall within days.

A war of artillery rounds, of plane bombings, of snipers, of attrition is still going on to this day, with Aleppo divided between an eastern and northern part under chaotic and fractious rebel control, and a western and southern part under the looming presence of the Assad’s regime shabiha thugs and the army. Aleppo is now the new wartime Beirut of Syria, cut into two parts, without even a green line of vegetation separating them. The tragedy is that this division runs through some of the Middle East’s most spectacular Ayyubid (12th-13th centuries), Mamluq and Ottoman Arab and Turkish architecture. Transformation by the regime’s air force of a three-million inhabitant city into another Grozny has taken place within the confines of the region’s largest souk. A souk is not a monument but a living museum. Aleppo’s markets, which spanned the 2 km distance between Bab Antakya, the Antioch Gate to the West, towards the citadel to the east, were built on the cardo Avenue of Hellenistic and Roman Beroia. Walking up the street, one past shops organized in a centuries-old pattern of guilds, with first the butchers around Baba Antakya, then the fruit-sellers, then the weavers’ souk selling the gold and silver-thread brocade and silk Aleppo has been famous for a thousand years, and then the retailers of another commodity made and stamped in the Old City’s courtyards: olive oil and laurel soap. The livelihood of tens of thousands, including members of the ‘Akkad family who had restarted silk-weaving in Aleppo decades ago, depended on the preservation of this unique maze of streets. The market, covered in its entirety to preserve customers, salesmen and onlookers from the sizzling heat of Syria’s summers (temperatures of 44°C are not unusual in July and August), bissected an array of mosques built by Ottoman architects like 16th century Sinan, Suleyman the magnificent’s favourite, 14th century basalt and limestone caravanserails like the Khan as-Sabun, qaysariyya and Funduk hostels of two arched storeys in whose courtyards merchants of Venice and Persia alike would deposit their wares. Tourists and tradesmen alike would bathe in the Mamluq hammam an-nahassiyeen, whose tiny arched entry on the main souk would open into a resting room covered by a huge dome. The surrounding streets are dotted with historical landmarks such as the early ottoman Bahramiyya mosque, and the refined Khan al-Wazir of 1642. An abundance European of consulates belonging to states such as Austria, Belgium and Tuscany recall the days when merchants became diplomats, when travellers became scholars, and when Venice, France and other Italian states thought it a good idea to reunite east and west by trade, transforming Aleppo into one of the Ladders of the Levant. All of these buildings, benchmarks of the city’s glory, are no on the frontline dividing the uprising from Assad’s troops.

Aleppo’s history was not only synonymous with trade and prayer, with mystics and soufi brotherhoods like the Qaydariyya tariqa worshipping and entrancing in a mosque to the citadel’s north. The city was famous for early treatment of the deranged, the insane, and the delusional. In 1342 Arghun, Mamluq governor of northern city, a man born into a class of slave-soldiers who would logically have had no inclination towards art, decided to build the world’s earliest psychiatric ward, the bimaristan, a building where people in need of treatment would live in fresh small rooms encircling two courtyards, where the mentally ill would sit and be assisted by doctors in the iwan, a vaulted and raised room opening on a fountain. Background noise, far from the bustle of the souks, would have been made by water gushing out of an octagonal fountain, and by pigeons flying above, used either as teams in tournaments by the city’s youth playing on the rooftops, or as messengers delivering letters all the way to distant Cairo and Baghdad. Insanity has taken over, and nowhere can the actions of a psychopath’s mind be better seen than in the bombing of the souk with incendiary ordnance, a bombing which destroyed – possibly deliberately – the lifestyle and income of thousands of the city’s citizens. Approximately a thousand (i.e. two-thirds) of the Old City’s stalls and shops were set ablaze by weapons that are not in the possession of the rebels. Assad’s regime has experience in destroying mazes of ancient streets where an insurgency can roam freely: in this sense the destruction of Aleppo’s souks, khans and mosques can be considered a remake of Hama 1982, when two thirds of the city was levelled.

Insanity and delusion is also apparent in an attempt to transform Aleppo’s religious divide into sectarian warfare. The regime was keen on creating shabihas and militias in the Mamluq and Ottoman suburbs of Jdeide, in the same months of summer 2012. A stone-throw from Tilal Street, Aleppo’s commercial artery built in a conservative Sunni neighbourhood, Jdeide was a “new city” for the wealthy of the city. It gradually became the Christian quarter, where as from the 18th century Syriacs, Armenians, Maronites (Aleppo has a Maronite cathedral in this very neighbourhood) and the Orthodox blended together. In a unique setting, 16th century houses with windows decorated with intricate lattice stonework, with walls carved with many symbols, with ceilings of rafters painted in colourful patterns, housed families of traders and officials. Some of these mansions centred around one or two courtyards, such as Dar Zamariya, Beit Wakil and Beit Akhiqbash were preserved or renovated because they were hotels, restaurants or ethnographic museums. Pro-government militias were created by the regime before any sectarian fighting had even begun in this beautifully preserved section of Aleppo’s heritage. Assad’s attempts to transform a Syrian spring into a sectarian all-out war were at work in Jdeide, the result being that battle lines have affected this neighbourhood as well.

Desecration

Hulagu’s invasion of Aleppo in 1260, his destruction of the local Ayyubid dynasty (descendants of Saladin), the deportations and raids of Tamerlan resulting in the burning of Damascus in 1401 and the devastation of the Hama, Homs and Aleppo citadels have not affected the city as much as current warfare, deliberate bombing of neighbourhoods known for their militant opposition to the dictatorships. The process of destruction of Halab continued unabated until April 2013, when tank-fire at a thirty-metre range pulverized the minaret of one of Islam’s most revered mosques, built in 1099 when Aleppo was part of the realm of Turkish-speaking dynasties such as the Seljuks of Konya and the Zengids originally from Mossul. It has taken instants for regime tanks to shoot shells at the minaret and to transform it into a pile of rubble. Countless invasions in one thousand years of history had not managed to achieve the destruction of one of the city’s landmarks. The irony: Assad’s government had declared Aleppo “capital of Islamic culture” in 2007…

Journalists have caricatured the Syrian uprising in describing it as a Sunni versus Shia war. Yet Aleppo’s inhabitants are proud to point out that the city was the seat of a Shia dynasty who did so much to develop the arts and who bankrolled one of Islam’s most famous poets, al-Mutanabbi. Sayf ad-Dawla’s Hamdanid dynasty lived in a palace in the lower city, a residence undiscovered to this day, and had to flee to Mardin in present-day Turkey when Byzantine forces of John Tzimikes re-conquered part of Syria in 969 AD. What they left in both literature and history is testimony to the city’s tradition of tolerance, a tolerance shattered now by both regime destruction and genocidal repression, Western world indifference and the rise of militant Salafi groups reborn to Assad’s satisfaction from the ashes of the 1982 massacres, which also affected Aleppo and Jisr ash-Shughur as well as Hama.

The regime’s narrative rests on the protection of minorities and of their places of worship. Alawis, Christians and Druze have become virtual dhimmis of the Assad clan, supposedly protected by a government slowly fanning the flames of their destruction. It is clear that the Syrian executive was been active in the devastation of old cities with substantial Christian minorities. The siege of Homs, “capital of the revolution”, evokes images of the extermination of slums and poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts such as Baba ‘Amro and Khaldiya. Yet the old city, built of basalt, already affected by anarchic construction and by the building of shopping centres decided by the governor in 2009 (the financing was Qatari in those good old days of friendship between the two ruling families…), has been relentlessly shelled by regime forces, even at times when no FSA insurgents were in that part of town. The result, apart from the wholesale devastation of Homs’ souk al-Hamadiya, of hammams and old houses like Beit Farqouh (owned by one of the city’s main Christian families, some of whose members I taught in 2008), was the blasting of two 1,400-year old churches: Mar Elian and Umm az-Zinnar, the shrine of the “mother of the belt”, whose name derives from the presence of a garment worn by the virgin Mary.

Syrian regime repression has affected other Christian monuments indirectly. Paolo dell’Oglio has made the country his home and purpose by restoring a derelict Byzantine monastery 90 km in the Palmyra desert north of Damascus: Mar Musa al-Habashi, where an Ethiopian Christian Monophysite monk had lived around AD 550. In the 1980s Paolo had settled down, initially attempting to single-handedly rehabilitate a convent abandoned in the 18th century. Volunteers from both Christian and Moslem communities from Damascus, the nearby towns of Deir Attiyeh and Nebek, funds from the Vatican (Dell’Oglio is a Jesuit), support from local Syriac churches of the Qalamoun region where the monastery lies, had all played a part in the 1990s in reconstructing a building left for to centuries to the elements, to lizards and saloukis. Mar Musa had again survived the Mongols in their onslaught over Damascus in 1261, an expedition culminating in the end of the glorious Ayyubid dynasty. It had survived persecutions of Christians in 1860, when 5,000 Christians of the capital were wiped out following unrest with the Druze in Lebanon. Careful work on the church had revealed paintings and inscriptions in Greek, Arabic and Syriac, some going back to the 9th century AD: the day of judgement was shown, which Jesus and the Apostles towering above the righteous and sinners alike, some in the garb of priests or heretics, others appearing as women, and others again with the instruments they had used in their evil doings, such as daggers. Saint George was chasing the dragon on some of the pillars. With part of the restoration work completed, Paolo had done what every archaeologist should do: publish.

Yet Mar Musa was much more than just a miniature Saint Catherine in Syria, a Byzantine wonder in bitterly-cold, windy or scorching and dry mountains. Paolo dell’Oglio had painstakingly collected volumes for a historical and theological library in the basements of the monastery. He had brought Sunnis, Shias, foreigners and Christians together in an effort at bringing together communities and beliefs. He had promoted dialogue between creeds. It was not uncommon for Syrians to spend summer months in the monastery, praying and partaking in chores and learning. In this community overlooking the eastern sunrise above the mountains of Palmyra and the 3,800 year-old town of Qaryateyn-Nazala, he had done exactly what the Assad regime is now deliberately attempting to implode: an experiment in tolerance. Father Paolo was obliged to accept a road built by the Syrian state when the latter saw that Mar Musa could contribute to fill the coffins of those running the country.  He had angered the regime by negotiating with Salafi militias who had kidnapped Christian families from the town of Qosseir, securing their release through delicate conversation and diplomacy. Arabic-fluent Paolo had infuriated Assad’s clan when he had written an open letter to the Syrian government, complaining against the fate of fellow-citizens undergoing torture or in jails. Paolo dell’Oglio had walked his life in the footsteps of Ignacio de Loyola, who had discarded the sword in order to serve God. He had followed the tradition of the “soldiers of Jesus”, a tradition insistent on scholarship, knowledge, research, education, university studies. Listening to him speak whilst breaking bread and the fast under the tent of Mar Musa’s courtyard terrace overlooking the valley was like being witness to Christ’s Sermon of the Mountain at Kefar Nahum in Palestine. One couldn’t doubt his sincerity when, travelling Europe in 2012, he was calling for Syrians to help the deserters, to assist the insurgents coalescing into the Free Syrian Army, in speeches that, as a man of peace and diplomacy, of understatement and dialogue, he found hard to pronounce. It must not have been easy for Paolo to backtrack Loyola when he was calling for support in a struggle against what he called “the façade of bogus state-institutions with a mafia gang behind.” Paolo dell’Oglio symbolizes what Syrians of all communities could do if united in a common peaceful purpose: build from stone, construct from sand, plant olive trees on rock, hope for each other’s health and welfare. This happened when people would pray and talk while sitting cross-legged on the thick carpets of the monastery’s arched church. Few people have done more to promote peace whilst preserving Syria’s heritage. Few priests had done more to restore Christian treasures in the land of Saint Paul. I recall Dell’Oglio showing me sherds, flints from land above the convent which was to be surveyed by Prehistorians in 2009. Francis Hours, a Jesuit archaeologist, had founded a museum within the premises of Saint Joseph University in Beirut, in an attempt to expose and explain Lebanon’s material culture before the earliest villages. Father Paolo was doing the same in the confines of the Syrian desert, by re-creating a small museum in one of the Middle East’s most beautiful Syriac monasteries, part of a chain of Byzantine era jewels spanning from Mor Gabriel and Deir el Zafaran near Mardin and Midyat in the Tur ‘Abdin mountains of Turkey to the monasteries of Saint Paul and Saint Anthony in Egypt’s Eastern desert. Paolo had studied and loved and lived in a place where Jesuit predecessors like Antoine Poidebard and Robert Mouterde had walked and flown while examining remains of the Roman frontier and of the Arab Christian Ghassanids, allies of Byzantium whom many Syrian Christians claim as their ancestors.

Mar Musa was a place to see the light of inter-religious peace on the way to Damascus, a location where one could be reinforced in one’s faith, into believing that beyond the clan, beyond the sect, beyond the religious divide, a common destiny for all Syrians is still possible. Of what has befallen Mar Musa I know not, and one can only hope that the monastery has not reverted to his previous state.

What was strange was the stark contrast between Paolo’s restorations at this abandoned monastery and the privately-owned museum of looted antiquities, containing prehistoric implements and basalt sculptures of the Hau-wran, built by Salim Da’aboul outside the town of Deir ‘Atiyeh, the capital of the Qalamoun region. No explanations on origin, no comments on how the objects had gotten there in the first place, and one was left to wonder about the impunity of the Da’aboul family, allies of the Assad clan, who had received from the “family” a fiefdom over this corridor between the Anti-Lebanon range and the desert. A private hospital – evidently named Basel al-Assad – a private university, an empty shell huge in size to the south of the city, a North Korean style statue of Hafez al-Assad saluting trucks and cars on the motorway with a fearful eye, a private museum, and, icing on the cake, the private management of hot water springs and steam baths of the Byzantine and Ummayad period at Hammam Abu Rabbah, north of Mar Musa, close to the ancient village and fortress of Hawarine, itself part of the limes arabicus , the frontier, in Late Roman days (4th-5th century AD)…

The list of deliberate destruction by an army on a rampage could go on. April 2012 will be remembered as the months when the oldest minaret of Islam was destroyed. Religious monuments belonging to the age of the Rashidun caliphs (AD 633-660) and the following dynasty, the Ummayads (AD 661-749), are rare. If footage has shown the damage caused by street fighting in Bosra, once the capital of the Nabatean Arabs, and then after 106 AD of the Roman province of Arabia, the fates of Bahira’s church, where the Sira mentions a Syriac priest seeing the Seal of Prophets on Muhammad, of the Nagah church, where the first copy of the Quran was brought, of Omar’s mosque in that city near the Jordanian border, remain unknown. What You Tube shows is the destruction by army tanks of the minaret of the Dera’a mosque, accordingly built by the Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the conqueror of Jerusalem in AD 642 and Khaled Ibn Walid, the conqueror of Damascus’ overlord. A cloud of dust can be seen as the blocks of basalt making up the mosque are reduced to a pile by tank shells. The fact that exactly the same happened in the Great Mosque Aleppo days after, reinforces the interpretation of these destructions as deliberate policy, a mixture of revenge on a steadfast people still fighting, of provocation in a attempt to enrage the Sunni community and to reinforce Jihadism and weaken visions of a secular Syria promoted by most who joined Syria’s revolt.

What is astounding is that the power of these symbols has not enraged Western, but also more specifically Arab and Moslem, public opinion. The Great Mosque of Aleppo and the minarets of Dera’a, the damaged mosque where Khaled Ibn Walid is buried in Aleppo, the an-Nuri Mamluq mosque of Homs where the Temple of Heliogabalus, the “Baal of the Mountain” which became the Roman Emperor’s official cult in AD 218, are all powerful symbols, ranking in importance as highly as the Qarawiyin mosque of Fez in Morocco, that of Kairawan in Tunisia, and that of Ibn Tulum in Cairo, yet no public outrage against this deliberate targeting of world and Islamic heritage has been forthcoming in the last weeks. Western and Arab public opinion appears to be extremely selective in the streets of Cairo, Algiers or Tunis when it comes to condemning crimes committed in the last two years of Syria’s uprising.

Damage to Syria’s historical icons

If churches have not been safeguarded by the regime, so haven’t medieval castles. Footage in the winter and spring of 2012 has shown Qala’at al-Husn, the Crac des Chevaliers, built by the Hospitalier Order of the Crusader monks and taken and rebuilt by Mamlouq Sultan Rukn ad-Din Baibars in 1279, the world’s best preserved military construction of the Middle Ages, under mortar fire.  The Wadi an-Nassar, where the Crac is located, is one that the Assad regime would keep at any cost, even if this means obliterating historical monuments and driving away local Sunnis, like it has done lately by massacring hundreds in Banyas and Al-Baida on the coast. If the FSA thought the strength, fame, and location of the castle would preserve it from regime shelling, it was tragically mistaken, and it would have avoided a repeat of Qalaat al-Mudiq and Afamia.

The regime has not even shown respect to Syria’s iconic landmark, the Temple of Bel, a Syrian and classical limestone temple in a colonnaded courtyard in Palmyra., built in 32 AD Recent videos have shown impacts of heavy machine-gun fire on the columns surrounding the temple. Locals have informed of tanks rolling into the site near the great colonnade, the theatre and the temple of Baalshamin, of the looting of the reserves of the museum, and of illicit digging of graves and the settlement by army servicemen overlooking the ancient and modern city from the summit Fakhr ad-Din Ibn Man’ans castle.

The tip of the iceberg

What of the damage done to so many countless other sites. What of Deir and Qala’at Sima’an, the monastery of Simon the Stylite, close to an army base and to a battle which considerably affected Daret ‘Azzeh, the nearest town? What of the Byzantine monastery on the major natural landmark of the area, the Jebel Sheikh Barakat, a mountain in the Jebel Sima ‘which was transformed into a Syrian army lookout? What of the destruction of part of Harem’s castle, a Crusader fortress overlooking Rihaniyeh on the Syrian-Turkish border, a place where Syrian troops have been firing from with artillery for a year and a half? What of looting across Syria, which is becoming a way of life for populations in areas that have been starved by the regime’s blockade? What of the bombing of Al-Bara, a town in FSA hands, causing not only tens of civilian casualties, as shown by Channel 4 journalist Olly Lambert’s footage in April 2012, but also damage to the largest Byzantine dead city of Syria? What of the refugees whose homes have been destroyed by barrel bombs, what locals call “barmeel” ordnance of 500 kilograms, indiscriminately thrown from helicopters and Mig-23, Dresden-style?  What of Scuds raining over Tell Rifaat, a village 30 km to the north of Aleppo the site of a 30 hectare yet almost unexplored mound containing the Aramean capital of Arpad, mentioned in the Old Testament and seized by king Tiglath-Pileser III in 744 BC? What of the battles on the third and second millennium BC site of Tell Mardikh/Ebla, or on Syria’s largest Assyrian site of Tell Sheikh Hamad, the ancient 7-8th century of Dur-Katlimmu along the Habur, excavated by an expedition from Berlin since 1979, where countless and historically priceless discoveries have been made? What of the lootings of museums like the new one of Deir ez-Zor, where objects retell the story of kingdoms and empires of third millennium BC northern Mesopotamia, and where the abovementioned bull men of ‘Ajaja rest? What of Maaret an-Numan, a city on the frontline, the scene of a grinding standstill between Maher al-Assad’s notorious Fourth Division and the Free Syrian Army units? What of the Idlib Museum, where pro-government shabiha militias terrorize and rampage the streets, and in whose museum collections of 2400 BCE tablets and objects of the Ebla Palace G archives excavated by the University of Rome since 1965 are housed, where objects from the Late Bronze and Iron Age Tell Afis and the agricultural Aramean settlement of Tell Mastuma are kept? What of the refugees, chased out of Jebel Zawiyeh cities like Ariha and Saraqeb, and living in the Roman cave tombs of Sergilla, Baouda and Ruweiha on the plateau? The scale of the destructions is sickening…

Despite starvation and deprivation, which has led to places like Roman Afamia and Byzantine Rusafa being thoroughly burrowed, despite the litany of devastation, hope did come in unexpected twists and turns. Some deserters saw as their responsibility to protect Maaret an-Numans rich collection of mosaics in the autumn of 2012, as well as safeguarding Roman and pre-classical objects. Students in archaeology at the University of Aleppo were expressing the importance of safeguarding the city’s Great Mosque, and were risking their lives filming the damage and taking to a safer places woodwork like that which made up the mosque’s minbar. Countless other actions by locals have shown that Syrians do sense the importance of their unique heritage, that the Arabic word atharat does convey a meaning as important to a farmer from Qamishli or the Hawran as to a city dweller of one of Damascus, Aleppo or Hama’s historical old cities. Most locals do know that tourism will play an important part in their future in a Syria at peace with itself, ruled by an executive who sees his country as something other than a private bank account or an opportunity to loot. As an opposition figure put it during “Damascus’ spring” of 2000, when Assad deceived the world into believing he was a well-intentioned reformer, Syria is “a ten storey building, where the top storeys are the preserve of the ruling clique, and to which no elevator leads to”. The top storeys will be gone, and Syria will hopefully reconstruct its destroyed minarets and Medieval keeps to their former glory.

A matter of national survival

In short, if Syria is to survive as a nation, then all citizens of the country must ponder at the visible remains of their pre-Islamic and more recent past. All the muwataneen of Syria have a stake at making sure it survives what, inshallah, God willing, are the Assad regime’s last throes. The narrative keeping the nation as one, impeding its implosion into sectarian and conflicting micro-states, will be found in the towering columns of Palmyra, whose consoles are in educated Greek and vernacular Palmyrene Aramaic, and whose four tribes consisted of Arab traders and conquerors. A culture of peace, dialogue and diplomacy will be seen in the treaties between Ebla, Abarsal, Kish and Mari of 2450 BCE in the Aleppo museum showcases. It will be read on the Tell Fekheriyeh statue of Adad-Yisi, king of Guzana of the Habour headwaters, written in both Aramaic and Assyrian. It will be written on the walls of the Damascus citadel of a Kurdish Saladin or the reception-rooms of the Central Asian ex-slave and Sultan Qalaoun of the Mamluk period. Learning by example will be gazed from observing the recently discovered hammam of the uncouth Crusaders, who in the 12th century adopted Arab ways of life at the castle of Marqab overlooking the Mediterranean. That people as foreign and at times as barbaric as the Crusaders could be made to like Syrian customs can be read in the memoirs of prince Usama Ibn Munqidh of Shaizar castle on the Orontes: as Saladin’s secretary living in a border zone, he noticed how the Counts of Tripoli and Dukes of Antioch, the Norman and Sicilian Bohemunds and Tancreds and Raymunds Saint-Gilles of Toulouse, could adopt Arab and Syrian ways after a generation and learn from local mores and culture. Citizenship and social mobility will be witnessed in the remains of Philip the Arab, who became ruler of the entire Roman Empire in 244 AD, and who, the son of a legionary in the province of Arabia, founded a well-planned city in the Jebel Druze with some of the finest mosaics and largest baths of the Roman Near East. Syrians from all creeds will take pride in the fact that the Hurrian Endan (lord) of Urkish, now the Kurdish village of Tell Mozan on the Turkish Syrian border near Qamishli, married king Naram-Sin of Agade’s daughter Taram-Agade in 2250 BC, accepting an alliance with the world’s earliest empire

Syrians could, in the future, whilst solving conflict and creating a culture of peace, heed by the example the same Saladin, who, combining the ideals of an Arab faris and a European knight, would protect orphans, forgive his enemies and live frugally to the point of only possessing a few dinars upon his deathbed, as mentioned by another of his secretaries and historians, al-Isfahani. They could think of how prosperous the Roman Empire was under Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 191-211), a Libyan and Phoenician-speaking magnate from Lepcis Magna who married a politically shrewd and able Syrian, Julia Domna, the most powerful woman of her day, the daughter of Bassianus, a Roman citizen and priest of the citizen of Emesa.

Awareness of the depth of history, of the centrality of Syria as a melting pot of ideas, inventions and peoples, would contribute in recreating a new form of citizenship where tribal ‘assabiya would matter less, where clan and sect would be irrelevant and in which differences could harmoniously blend. The Assad regime, creating a cult of personality as sectarian as Emperor Heliogabalus’ mad cult of the Emesa black stone, has prospered on a superficial and fake discourse of tolerance for minorities, held hostage to a clan which has not even been capable of bettering the lot and standard of living of most Alawites whose interests it claims to promote. A shared common history with roots that go as far as human settlement and subsistence agriculture, which can be retraced thousands of years earlier than Ugarit’s alphabet could diminish the impact of Ibn Taymiya’s angry sermons, spoken in times of crisis, Crusaders and invasion and calling for total and holy war.

A common narrative for all the Syrian people, visible in remains that are far more than masterpieces of architecture and sculpture, is matter of life and death for this very old and very new nation. A real regard for Syria’s heritage, not just viewed as an investment opportunity for future villa modas, would discard the hollowness of Asma al-Assad’s over-polished, hypocritical and empty speeches, speeches which led the way to the transformation of old cities into nothing more than Middle Eastern Marrakeshs, locations for soap operas and boutique hotels.