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Last week from Munich came a triumphant announcement by foreign secretaries Kerry and Lavrov of major humanitarian interventions in Syria, to be followed in a week by a cease-fire. Celebration was muted, and within hours the news was qualified, deprecated, and disparaged by almost everyone not involved in the negotiations, and some who were. Shortly before the news of the projected ceasefire, Bashar al Assad had declared that he would persevere until he had retaken all of Syria, beginning with Aleppo.
Given that neither a military nor a political solution is in sight, and none of the players seems deeply concerned about civilian casualties, the war will simply continue until the entire countryside, not just parts of it, becomes a sandy quarry for shards of ancient civilizations.
And the Alawites, with their dubiously valuable coastal bases at Latakia and Tartous.
Shortly after January’s blizzard, exiting the Met Museum, I happened on a small display of postcards—faded pastel photos of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hama taken sometime during the French Mandate. These were a poignant contrast to an afternoon spent taking in many square yards of luminous Titians and Tiepolos, Brueghels and Rembrandts–not to mention the various treasures in the new Ancient Near East section.
Selections of the postcards were on offer in an envelope marked For the Syri an Relief Fund of Save the Children, $25, cash only. This last is either an ironic or realistic touch, given that in 2015 the so-called international community pledged $10 billion for Syrian refugee relief, of which less than half actually materialized. According to the U.N., last year’s biggest donor, Kuwait, provided $75 per capita for Syrian relief, followed by Norway with $28. The United States and the European Union provided less than $5 per capita, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did no better.
An old postcard view of the famous Aleppo citadel shows it largely overgrown and silted up. It appears much better preserved now, even after the most recent shelling of the citadel, by the government and/or by the insurgents, than in the early photos during the French Mandate. One explanation is the extensive restoration of the ancient site initiated in 2001 by the admirable Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit international development agency established in 1967 by Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, who is the worthy son of the less worthy but colorful playboy who married a movie star named Rita Hayworth.
The citadel of Aleppo has been destroyed countless times since the original temple was built on the plateau in the first millennium B.C.. Most of the remaining structures date from the 12th century, when the son of Saladin the Great excavated the moat, built the massive gateway and ramp, and most important, dug a deep well and a reservoir. The citadel’s slopes were faced with shiny, slippery limestone to discourage attacks, especially by night.
In 1260 the Mongols took the citadel anyway, beginning a series of invasions, from the Mameluks, who added a ring wall with 40 towers but lost it to the Ottomans in 1516. There followed three hundred years of Ottoman peace, which some now recall with nostalgia, and people moved back up to inhabit the citadel. But an 1822 earthquake leveled the citadel’s buildings to the ruins that were being mapped and restored when the Syrian civil war began. The Aga Khan conservation project focused on the outer walls and the Ayyubid palace complex within, while the Ottoman barracks became a well-equipped visitor’s center and cafeteria. The restoration was more or less completed in 2007 and presumably now serves the present convenience of the Syrian Army. Neither foreign journalists nor independent archaeologists have been inside the citadel since the war began. The extent of new damage during these latest years of fighting have inflicted will not be known for some time…..when a new assessment and reconstruction can be imagined to begin.
Is there anything to be said about these repeating cycles of feverish creation, violent destruction, and eventual restoration? The persistence and ingenuity of human efforts to repair and restore seem the only positive element of the terrible wars and natural disasters that have ravaged empires ancient and modern.
After the disastrous Florentine flood of 1966, an international rescue effort was carried out by art historians and students we recognized, even in their wading boots and mackintoshes, in the television coverage. (Cf. my account,”Restoration,” which I just located online, in J-stor.) Eventually, much was learned about art restoration, but much less about flood prevention, and some say that the Arno is as much of a threat now as it was in 1966.
There’s no way to make a transition to the disasters of September 11, 2001, where we had an agonizing, close-in view of the New York attacks. On that morning, we happened to have planned to breakfast downtown with a former student of my husband’s who was then city commissioner of culture. In the ensuing months and years, this remarkable woman had the heavy burden of coordinating much of the Ground Zero project planning and construction. But the terrorists’ mastery of 20th century destructive devices left much less of the World Trade Center to work with than the ruins of the Aleppo citadel.
A group called The Future of Syria is already planning the details of the reconstruction of the country if and when the war ends. At this point they are estimating that the recovery will cost at least $100 billion. Comparing it with the much-praised Marshall Plan for postwar Europe, which cost the U.S. $130 billion in today’s dollars, the Syrian plan seems a realistic if distant investment.
Today, this brutal conflict seems uniquely horrible in the number of innocent civilians killed, injured, and driven from their homes, but in the long view, perhaps it is not. Since 2014 there has been a lively debate, set off by Steven Pinker, as to whether our present bloody era is more or less violent than any in human history.
In any event, the Syrian civil war is a kalaidoscopic fragmentation of its conflicting forces, rebel entities all vying to represent “The Opposition” to the Assad regime in a series of variously stalled peace talks. Research has shown that in any civil war, the greater the number of warring factions and of their international sponsors, the longer the war will last. The Islamic State alone has at least four names, including ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh, and it has carved out for itself a role as the common enemy of all the groups fighting alongside or against the Assad regime. In North Latakia alone, dozens of insurgent groups have emerged, including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, Jabal al-Akrad, and Jabal al-Turkoman. (Note that Jabal means hill or mountain.) I can’t resist adding that the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion was the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade, now shifting to the First Coastal Brigade.
“Men and nations,” said the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, “do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
The Syrian postcard benefit project was the bright idea of a conservator on the Metropolitan museum staff, Jean-Francois de Laperouse, who works primarily with the Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic collections. How much pain he must be suffering during these years of destruction of a culture that he knows so well.
His 18th-century ancestor was a famous explorer who mapped, among other places, the Pacific Coast of North America.
I would like to include here an interview with the living Laperouse, but I had to leave the wonderful museum, and return to the coast mapped by his ancestor.
Again: the cards are $25 each packet, payable in CASH.
You may even have heard of one Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the gigantic offspring of a Paduan barber, an enterprising lad who dodged Napoleon’s draft by emigrating to England. Lacking both English and a profession, he served for a while as a strong man in a circus.This handsome hunk won the heart of an intrepid Englishwoman, who may or may not have been a tightrope walker when they met. She contrived somehow to help him set up as an engineer, and before long he was invited by a passing pasha to design a hydraulic system on the Nile. When the project failed (due to a lazy work crew, said Belzoni), he quickly shifted to the antiquities trade. Eventually he was able to dig up and haul off immense Egyptian antiquities that would become some of the British Museum’s prize exhibits. You can see “Belzoni” chiseled naively into the foot of a colossal statue of Rameses I.
I happened upon Belzoni during my hours in the old British Library, researching the rich topic of Looted Art. How I enjoyed those months of bootless delving, the untidy piles of book request slips at my desk in the dimly-lit inner Reading Room, my notes filled with vivid and shocking details. Themes did emerge–Looted Art and Nationalism/Colonialism/Imperialism—but never shaped themselves into an argument, much less a book. But it seemed to me, then and now, that Belzoni’s story was a natural for a Sondheim opera.
In 2001, I happened to meet a musicologist, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, who knew Sondheim well. It was just after 9/11. Military helicopters were circling in the blue September sky over the Janiculum Hill, and armed guards patrolled the American Embassy across the street. When we weren’t watching the sky and the street, we were all glued to CNN on our computers. Nothing would ever be the same again, we all agreed. Hardly the moment to float a frivolous opera project. But eventually the Academy fellows went back to their painting, their research, their writing, and their complaints about the Academy’s food. Although nothing in fact ever was the same again.
Rome of course has long been decked with the plunder of the empire’s Eastern conquests, most notably Egyptian obelisks adorning eight Roman piazzas. Venice still has its looted lions and horses, Florence an obelisk or two as well as a trove of mummies, and museums throughout the world hold treasures of other lands. So we cannot quite fathom why the Islamic State prefers to destroy rather than flaunt the captive architecture of grand pre-Islamic eras.. Easier to understand is their clandestine marketing of more portable antiquities, whose revenue is said to surpass that of oil sales to benefit the caliphate.
While mourning Isis destruction in Palmyra, Mosul, and Nimrud, it’s hard to ignore Northern Europe’s robust tradition of iconoclasm extending from biblical idol-bashing to the Crusades, the Reformation, and the French revolution. In sixteenth-century Geneva and in Basel, Calvinist mobs destroyed every Catholic image they could find, from stained glass windows to statues of virgins and saints and holy medals.
And as we recoil from the barbarous horrors of Isis beheadings, historical memory glides past an estimated 16,000 guillotined by French revolutionaries, and the millions annihilated in the Holocaust. Note that enlightened France continued execution by guillotine until 1981, and during last year alone, American ally Saudi Arabia decapitated 158 people.
Their bloody revolution did occasion a French diaspora, especially of the aristocrats, followed in the mid-19th century by Irish emigration, almost entirely of the poor. In the largely economically- driven diaspora from southern and eastern Europe during the 1880s-1910s, my grandparents Franz Josef Pozar and Marie Peskova, born in Moravian villages (then Austrian) made it to the west coast of California via Galveston,Texas . My grandfather, a strapping redheaded farm boy, good with horses, had served in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry. At the end of his term, in August 1914 as it happened, he immediately booked passage to America. Marie Peskova had found work as a seamstress in the nearest city, Vienna, where she met my grandfather and eventually followed him to California. There was no pot of gold for them in California, but they never returned to their villages.
The year before the Soviet Union disintegrated, we met my mother in Vienna, for a sentimental journey. She knew the names of her parents’ villages in Moravia. After a miserable border crossing past the fence into then-Czechoslovakia, and one night in Ivancice, hometown of Alfonse Mucha, whose posters adorned generations of college girls’ dorm rooms, we followed a map and actually found the two villages. In Mohelno we found a few Peskovi in the graveyard, even the annoying uncle who had returned more than once to visit them in Santa Cruz, California. My grandfather’s village was Rohy, which means crossings or a junction. An old man hoeing the hill above the main road turned out to speak German and could point out the homely bulk on the opposite hill as the Pozar place. Ah, he said, that Alois (Pozar, my grandfather’s eldest brother and scourge) was a hard man. The kulak house was a bit disappointing after we had noticed that the largest building in Rohy still had “Pozar” over the door. (Later I learned that “Pozar” meant “fire,” and the imposing structure was presumably the firehouse.)
Scant decades after my grandparents, there was the crucial migration, from Europe in the 1930s, of the Jews. In the academy and the art world especially, these were our respected elders and/or the parents of most of our friends. Once, long ago at Ellen and Steve Greenblatt’s table, talk turned to Israel, and we realized that we were the only gentiles present and therefore didn’t feel as free to condemn Israeli expansionism as the others.
Our Hungarian friends, some of them Jews, have an intense, complicated migration history. The earliest Hungarians rode into the Magyar Plain from the northeast more than a thousand years ago. Later they were occupied by the Ottoman Turks, and later still lost much of their territory in the settlement of the First World War.
Many Hungarians emigrated to escape Soviet Communism. And the latest tragic iteration of Hungary and emigration was the fence built by Orban’s right-wing regime to keep the latest wave of refugees, many from Syria, from entering, even en route to Germany. But the abhorrence expressed by the western world for Hungarian callousness has proved to be relative to the many thousands, yea millions of needy refugees now swarming into Western Europe. And the New Year’s attacks on women in Cologne and other cities, allegedly by Arab and North African men, is a disaster in every way.
Americans didn’t welcome Jews until after the Holocaust, and we won’t be welcoming Muslim refugees now. “This growing cry to turn away people fleeing for their lives brings to mind the SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Florida in 1939,” Dana Milbank writes. “It’s perhaps the ugliest moment in a (presidential) primary fight that has been sullied by bigotry from the start.“ The American elections proceed, bizarre, unhinged, while Angela Merkel begins to seem some kind of heroine. Still, what’s needed is not another martyr, but peace settlements in the Middle East.
The latest genetic research shows that the 5,200 year-old remains of a woman, found in Ireland recently, a couple of centuries after the potato famine, show strong origins in the Middle East, where agriculture originated. Probably we don’t need ironies any more than we need martyrs.
One cold November afternoon in the British Museum, a swarm of schoolchildren suddenly filled Room 41, the Sutton Hoo burial ship treasure and Europe 300-1100; the Great Migrations. Kids in school plaids circled among the glass cases holding the ship’s treasures—swords and halberds, croziers and chalices, Byzantine silverware, golden brooches, and the famous iron helmet.
Unlike most tribes sweeping through Roman Europe in those early centuries, the schoolchildren seemed peaceable and even modestly respectful of the cultural artifacts at hand.
The Sutton Hoo ship-burial dates from the early 600s, the era of Beowulf, that noble Anglo-Saxon saga read mainly in Sparknotes—at least until its luminous translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
Seamus Heaney came to dinner one night in Berkeley. He was tall and solid, chatting amiably in our crowded front parlor. As it happened, he found himself standing back to back with one of the patrons of his Berkeley lecture chair, who was at that moment confiding to me that she simply couldn’t understand “one word” of his poetry. With one eye on the poetic back, I asked what she was planning to read next. After a pensive pause, she reminded me politely how much she had enjoyed my novel. Now, she guessed that she should read that new Harry Potter thing that everyone was talking about, written by some single mother on welfare.
The Irish potato famine, and the shocking British government policy surrounding it, starved at least a million Irish and forced another million to emigrate. By 1900 New York City was 60% Irish. Seamus Heaney’s family stayed in County Derry and survived, and he himself wouldn’t be commuting to Berkeley, Harvard, and Oxford until the 1970s.
Apposite quotes from Heaney’s Beowulf appear backlit above the Sutton Hoo treasures, in the handsome new display underwritten by the very attractive and extremely rich Sir Paul and Jill Ruddock. The Ruddocks’ funding, and the database of the new Google Cultural Institute, have made Room 41 accessible to anyone on foot in Bloomsbury or anyone anywhere with an internet connection.
These days, opportunities seldom arise to add splendid new works to the world’s great museums, so the new philanthropy often concentrates on rearranging what already exists. And after all, the British Museum has more than 8 million objects, most from former British imperial colonies and territories on every continent and archipelago. International conventions now prohibit the wartime looting that has been common for millennia, as well as theft and resale of cultural artifacts, but those agreements don’t apply to items exported before national or global laws were in force.
A large literature and legal domain has developed around ownership of cultural property . In the most outstanding example, the Parthenon marbles were removed (hacked off the temple) by Lord Elgin during Ottoman rule, decades before the existence of the beleaguered Greek state that now wants them back on their Acropolis.
The riches of the British museum do also serve to highlight Britain’s ongoing population of immigrants. Julius Caesar in 55 A.D. arrived to spearhead, so to speak, four centuries of Roman rule, whose hegemony was eventually challenged in irregular bursts by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and others.
We don’t know much about the reception of migrants in the various Roman provinces. Presumably when the Saxons or Vikings or Avars or Normans had burned the crops, crushed the cities and raped the women, there was little talk of making them citizens. It’s only in recent history that the “Barbarian Invasions” have morphed into the sanitized “Migration Period”.
Now ISIS looting, its extent, intention, and execution, are much discussed. From outside, it appears that they only destroy what cannot be carried off and sold, such as the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, which I was so lucky to see in October 2010, gilded by a sunset, while munching on dates picked from a roadside plantation by our driver.
Abu Hani was a Palestinian exile who was able to make a life for himself and his family in Damascus. I asked him once, rather idly, what Syrian city he liked best, and he said “Perhaps Homs”. Tonight I heard that Homs, or what is left of it, has been recaptured by government forces, but I haven’t known for four years the whereabouts of Abu Hani.
The Syrians’ migration, and the others—economic, political, whatever, will continue whether or not various peace negotiations among Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, U.S. & Europe, and the (irreconcilable) Syrian factions are successful. These tens of thousands of Syrians clearly have lost hope in raising their children and making a life for themselves on their arid land amid the contending powers. Not many of them are likely to be welcomed in the United States of America, once known as “The Immigrant Nation.”
At the end of September 2015, in the fifth year of the relentlessly ruinous Syrian civil war, all the world has been forced to take account of some two million refugees from that conflict, along with those from other ruined countries, seeking asylum in Western Europe–or as close to the West as they can manage. What did we expect?
In the spring of 2011, at the tail end of the Arab Uprisings, Syria suddenly began to implode. Bashar al-Assad’s regime reacted brutally, heavily documented by viral cellphone videos, against the localized rebellions. Very soon there were more rebel groups than could be sorted out. Later, amid the widening conflict, Barack Obama threatened retaliation for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. It was a nasty confrontation, since the Syrian regime was backed by Iran and by Russia.
When the chaos began, the regime of Bashar, an English-educated opthalmologist and his pretty banker wife, with their ideas of social reform and their inherited autocracy, had been holding the fragmented country together– Sunni, Alawite, Shia, Kurdish, Christian–for more than ten years, in conditions of severe drought with ongoing factional disputes.
Naturally this neo-colonial construct fell apart in an instant, the cities and archaeological sites collapsing in slow motion over the next four years. Various Sunni-majority states, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S., Britain and France, continued to support, sporadically and covertly, the discordant rebel factions.
Now we’re waiting hopefully for the U.S. to acknowledge that peace in Syria can only be achieved by including the country’s only legitimate government, which is still Assad’s. It may not have been a perfectly democratic election, but whose is? At this point, there should be meaningful negotiation with all parties agreeing to fight the common enemy, ISIS–and to stem the flow of refugees with massive foreign aid. How long will it take?
Rebuilding Syria’s economy, heavily dependent on tourism, will no doubt include reconstruction of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back six thousand years. Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a prize among imperial conquests long before Alexander the Great. Much still remains of massive crusader castles and even of Roman Palmyra. Mosques, markets, madrasas, and oil fields have all been damaged in the crossfire between the Syrian army and rebel militias.
In October 2010 We were staying in Damascus in a quiet guesthouse near Bab Sharqi, when the poor Tunisian fruit seller sparked the series of uprisings first known as the Arab Spring. Syria took longest to ignite, but every place where we stopped then would soon be ravaged by the rising fury of young men without work, of impending famine after a four-year drought, of Shia, Sunni, Alawites turned against the regime and each other.
That October, a Palestinian exile, our driver, and the Iraqi Christian who gave us breakfast, were still safe under a firmly non-sectarian regime.
On a day trip from Damascus to the Roman ruins at Bosra, we stopped for water in the dusty little city of Deraa.
Deraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had always been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus. That October it was crowded with refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, and with others from across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Not surprising that it would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings.
A few weeks after we passed through, some bored Deraa youngsters posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to demand their release, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones. When one of the protesters died, sympathetic rebellions broke out in other settlements to the north and east, and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a town on the Euphrates which had once been an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. Near Deir, in 2006, the Israelis had bombed a nascent nuclear development plant, acting on intelligence from both the C.I.A. and an Iranian general. But only four years later, we Americans seemed to be welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
In a 2012 news photo of the main street of Deir, every facade has been shattered, leaving cross-cut views of the crumbled interiors.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syria: Deraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s northeast regions, including Deir ez Zor and Rakka, hold most of the Syrian oil reserves. There the land and the oil have been controlled by tribal warlords, with the regime looking the other way as long as they received a share. Now the new Islamic State is taking over, with an effective combination of intimidation and nutrition. They have established an effective network to produce and distribute bread at a low cost, and free to the poor.
In the far north, Aleppo, the largest and most historically important Syrian city, was bombarded by both the government and successive rebel factions. When the seventeenth-century Souk Madina went up in flames, we tried to make out, on some video footage, the smoky corridor that led through the market to the old house hotel where we had stayed. We did remember lovers trysting in the shadows of the citadel.
North of Aleppo are the ruins of the monastery church of St. Simeon Stylites, where the saint was alleged to have lived atop a pillar for thirty years, its height increasing with his growing distaste for the mob below. A stub of the pillar where he preached his angry fundamentalist sermons sits there in the middle of the Byzantine ruins, but we were more interested in the activity on the slope below. Two women in headscarves were laying cloths on the ground while small children scampered among the olive trees. Not a picnic, said our driver–an olive harvest. Olive oil is Syria’s number one export, he said, adding that the women were Kurds, and shrugging when we asked him how he knew.
Kurdistan was part of the area sometimes called the Levant, which also included the coastal Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and part of Jordan. After the First World War, the victorious Allies–in a series of agreements, some public and some secret, all self-serving and conflicting–carved the lands of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. With desultory attention to tribal religious and linguistic questions, the new borders were in complete accord with colonial interests. Russia’s share included most of the former Ottoman Empire, Britain held the Palestinian mandate, and the remainder of Syria, much diminished, became a French protectorate. The boundaries set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 form the main western carapace now targeted by the newly-formed Islamic State.
Southwest of Aleppo is the desert town of Ma’aret al Nouman. On a hot, dusty morning, we parked in the crowded market square by the old mosque. In the courtyard, two teachers came out to meet us, and we glimpsed a few boys’ faces pressed curiously against the schoolroom windows. The girls, of course, were in another school.
Ma’aret’s museum was a former caravansary carpeted with late Roman mosaics, mainly lively animal and vegetal fantasies, improbably well-preserved. Following us through the rooms ringing the central courtyard, an emaciated guard with kohl-ringed eyes turned on lights and offered cups of tea.
In Ma’aret in 1098, when the bloodiest of the Crusaders’ battles were raging, a pack of famished Franks fell upon a heap of recently slain townspeople, cooked and devoured them. The babies, it was said, were spit-roasted. More than one contemporary chronicler recorded this tale of Western brutality, which of course survives in the Arab world even after a millennium. Crusaders slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims, but during the colonial decades, western schoolchildren were taught mainly about the barbarism of the infidels occupying the Holy Land.
The Ma’aret museum was shelled in October 2012 and at last report was serving as a rebel stronghold. A video from an archaeology site showed a young soldier in the courtyard, trying to fit a jagged mosaic fragment into a larger design. Months later came reports of a truckload of Roman carpet mosaics being stopped at the Lebanon border.
The soil of the Roman ruins at Apamea is now densely pocked with looters’ exploratory holes. There are those who hold that looting has at least the potential for saving precious artifacts from destruction.
As we traveled west from Ma’aret and into the mountain passages that led to the eastern Mediterranean coast, our driver pointed out that most of the towns were mainly Christian; women were moving about freely with uncovered heads. However, our next stop was Ugarit, whose cuneiform alphabet made it the center of the literate world in 1300 B.C.E. At the excavation site we were served refreshments by two women who were the wives of the cafe’s owner.
Down the coast we stopped briefly in Latakia, formerly the capital of the Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of the Shia faith and counts the Assads as members. Latakia’s ancient history seemed mostly concealed under thriving commercial development; the port facilities had been modernized during the French mandate, and the city was later given to Syria, whose other ports had been lost to Turkey in 1939 . (In 2015, Latakia is the site of a Russian military build-up of uncertain, probably exaggerated, extent.)
Especially in Alawite country, Bashar al-Assad’s mild, unprepossessing image was everywhere, on awnings and kiosks and windshields, fluttering on banners. Our well-connected driver said that Bashar and his wife often went out of an evening without guards. He had been introduced to them in a restaurant and confessed himself impressed that Assad stood up from the table to shake hands.
A thousand years after the Franks had abandoned their last forts along the eastern Mediterranean coast and in the mountains, Christian settlements still endure where the Crusaders first invaded, constructed forts and castles—and deposited their genes and their religion. We stopped in the little port of Tartus.
Ibrahim ibn Yakub at-Turtushi was a well-traveled Jewish trader whose tenth-century description of the city of Prague begins many Czech histories, including one I edited. I had never expected to see Ibrahim’s hometown of Turtushi (Tartus). Originally a Phoenician colony, it became a marginally prosperous port, with an inhabited crusader fort on the embarcadero festooned with citizens’ laundry.
Intermittent attempts have been made to depict Tartus as a powerful Russian naval base, supporting the flow of arms to the Assad regime. Yet reportedly only four men ran the Russian port facility and one of its two floating piers was inoperative because of storm damage.
From the port we progressed to a very plain Gothic church, once an early Marian chapel, later a mosque, later still a billet for Ottoman soldiers, then restored by the French and eventually turned into a museum of musty Crusader tombs.
Tartus, largely loyal to the regime, has remained relatively unscathed during the war, and a sizable number of its youth try to avoid serving in either the army or the rebel militias. Both Alawites and Christians live in increasing fear of the rising power of the new Islamic State.
From the coast, we turned back east and drove out of the marine heat up into mountains, across pine-strewn ravines and around rocky hairpins, arriving finally at a hotel on a promontory just across a deep gorge from Qualat Salah es din, Saladin’s castle. Looking across the gorge in the gathering coolness, we decided to take the last hours of light to wend our way up its precarious access road. From the fortifications, the marauders’ sea was a distant blue through the pines. The site seemed impregnable, but Saladin and his forces drove out the Crusaders before the mortar was dry in the walls. On the way out of the castle, we stopped in the entry hall, where our driver was having tea with the guardian, an old friend who was keeping the site open late for us. But neither of them could explain to us how the immense stones of the wall had been dragged up the mountainside and fit into place a millennium ago.
At our hotel across from the castle was a more modest construction site—adding a new floor for the anticipated tourist rush. The work stopped only after we returned from a nearby hostelry, where we we had enjoyed our grilled fish and near beer entire alone in the establishment. In the morning our driver handed us water bottles for our coming trek through the mountains and across the Al Ghab plain to Homs.
Homs was Syria’s third-largest city, but its population as well as its buildings have been decimated by repeated shellings by the government and the insurgents.
In 2011 it seemed a very prosperous place. We stayed for only a day in a large, comfortable hotel liberally lined with oriental rugs and potted palms. In the hotel restaurant we were approached by a voluble young woman with a French accent who declared herself delighted–in a curiously proprietary way–to find that Americans were visiting Syria.
We stood on the edge of the Homs tell at sunset, listening to the calls of the muezzin across the city. A countertenor from a minaret on the left horizon rose above the others. One deep layer of the tell mound had been dated back to the biblical David and Solomon.
Later, as we circled the darkening citadel playground, small sheep-eyed kids shouted “Hello, hello!” and a few were brave enough to answer when asked their names.
We had taken a side trip that afternoon to Hama, half an hour away. The youths in the Hama souk had been far from friendly.
In the markets and mosques of Damascus or Aleppo, in any public space, our driver, tall, dark, and broad-shouldered, usually marched slowly a few paces before us, looking directly ahead, running interference. In Hama’s souk, we strolled through a dark gallery during the slow period of the afternoon when markets were often closed. Dour young men in kaftans lined up to watch us pass. Nobody tried to sell us anything.
Hama was the home of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, where in 1982 Bashar’s father, the Lion of Damascus, brutally quashed a rebellion by leveling the old town and killing tens of thousands of citizens. The silent hostility in the tunnel of the Hama souk was just a shadow of that catastrophe. To some extent, Bashar al-Assad’s hope of saving Syria from chaos may rest, for better and for worse, on his people’s memories of the sectarian violence leading to the terrible Hama massacre, as well as the regime’s violence in crushing it.
To the east of Homs was the Krac des Chevaliers (Qal’at Hosn), said by some to be the most perfect crusader castle in the world.
Our hotel that night was another one under construction, in a big way. The manager had been to hotel school in Damascus and had learned to tell customers what they want to hear…in our case that the hammering would end in half an hour.
After we went to our rooms, our guide and the manager began a long-running backgammon match on the terrace. Meanwhile the racket continued.
During the backgammon match, we went for a walk around the road to the hotel, past a scatter of ugly new buildings, followed by a very orderly Bedouin camp oddly close to the roadbed. Farther on, scorched olive trees spilled down a burnt slope in an old quarry. In the valley, plumes of smoke rose from the fires of stubble preceding winter planting, and a few lights glimmered on the slopes across from the castle. The landscape reminded us of one on the other side of the Mediterranean, in postwar Italy. It seemed possible just then that Syria, with its ancient treasures, might indeed attract hordes of tourists. Meanwhile, it was a very long night, with acrid smoke from the day’s burning in the valley filling our room.
On our trek back to Damascus from the coast, we detoured to visit Maloula, an old village of yellow and blue houses layered pueblo-style down a slope of the rugged Kalamun mountains. Biblical Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was still spoken there, and pilgrims visited its ancient monasteries—before the war of course.
To enter a fifth-century chapel in the lower monastery, we had to pass through a police cordon, which seemed odd. Our guide pressed rapidly ahead into the small crowd, mostly in western dress, clustering around two smiling couples.
The tall man in jeans and a blazer was Bashar al-Assad, with his wife Asma. With them were the late Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and his young daughter, as well as another man in Arab dress, unknown to us. Assad and Chavez had just signed oil agreements in Damascus, probably with the Arab as well.
Shortly before this meeting, Chavez, in a cheeky press blitz of countries not allied with the U.S. or Israel, had exchanged vows of loyalty and affection with the late Moammar Khaddafi of Libya. Assad, the mild-mannered opthalmologist, is the only survivor of this trio of strong men.
In November 2012, Maloula, still mainly loyal to the Assad regime, was struggling to stay out of the conflict, which one of its citizens said was the beginning of World War III. This was hardly an exaggeration, given the increasing part played by countries from Iran and Russia to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. More and more this was becoming a proxy war. By 2014, loyalists in Maloula had fled to Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad planned to stay on as president of Syria, whatever is left of it.
This is what remains of the small town of Azaz in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border. In 1125 it was the scene of a famous victory of Crusaders against the Seljuk Turks. A thousand years later, during the Syrian civil war, it was captured by insurgents and then leveled by government forces. We didn’t see Azaz in 2010; this is a file photo.
*Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by the author or taken from open sources.