Can Syria's Cultural Heritage be a Fulcrum for ending its Civil War?
by FRANKLIN LAMB
Omayyad Mosque, Damascus
For visitors to Syria these days, certainly this one, it's almost become a cliche to shake ones head and mumble, "this is not your normal civil war!" Meaning that in spite of the dangerous environment for families and enormous sacrifices being paid daily, the Syrian people go about their lives with amazing resilience.
Yesterday, 2/5/15, was the latest example. Rebel mortars started raining on downtown at 7 a.m. after a rebel commander Zahran Alloush of the "Islam Army" tweeted that his forces would keep firing mortars and rockets "until the capital is cleansed." An estimated nine people were killed, and dozens wounded in downtown Damascus from roughly 60 rebel mortars. By the end of the day more than seventy, most of them rebel forces, died as the Syrian army and rebel fighters trading salvos of rockets and mortar bombs.
Despite the bombardment, most office workers showed up for work, students arrived for classes at Damascus University, and the public schools were open although many were dismissed early. This observer had appointments at three different Ministries and only one person I was to meet stayed home because it was near the fighting and he chose not to tempt fate.
One government minister smiled knowingly when his visitor commented that between the Dama Rose hotel and his office, although the streets were at that point nearly empty and the sound of mortars was loud, the street cleaners and trash collectors were nonchalantly going about their work. Students of Syrian culture say examples such as this one reflect the deep and unique connections among Syrians for their country--present and past.
It is becoming commonplace, as the world learns more and becomes more distressed about Syria's Endangered Heritage to speak of this country as the crucible or cradle of human civilization which spans hundreds of thousands of years. This country is home to some of the world's first cities, as well as globally important sites from the Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite, Assyrian, Persian, Greco-Roman, Ummayyad, Crusader, and Ottoman civilizations and to some of the oldest, most advanced civilizations in the world.
The area saw our evolution -- for example, at the Middle Acheulian occupation site at Latamne northern Syria between 800 -- 500,000 years old, stone tools and possibly even early hearths have been identified as belonging to a civilization hundreds of thousands of years before modern humans evolved 120,000 years ago. 10,000 years ago, the first crops and cattle were domesticated in Syria and the subsequent settlements gave rise to the first city states, such as Ebla and Mari. Writing developed here and the creation of literary epics, art, sculpture, and the expansion of trade soon followed. At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, the destined to become modern Syria was invaded by the rise of the great Southern empires emerging from Ur, Bablyon, Assur, Akkad and Sumer. From the East the Persians invaded and occupied the area and then the Mongols and the Arabs. From the North came the Hittites and from the West, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines to be followed by the Crusading forces of the Kings of Europe. Nomadic tribes, known from the Christian Bible, such as the Canaanites and Arameans, arrived and all conquered the area for varying periods and settled. For 400 years Syria was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and her people revolted and occupation was passed to French after World War I until Syria finally achieved her independence following World War II.
Nowhere else has the world witnessed this complex and unique meeting of states, empires and faiths as Syria. Who can imagine that the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus was originally a temple to Jupiter? Later converted to a Christian basilica to John the Baptist, and in turn became what some consider the fourth-holiest place in Islam.
Salahdin, the enemy of King Richard the Lionheart, is buried there. And as history continues to leave its ever-changing imprint, in the last thirty years UNESCO has declared six sites in Syria-- Syria has 6 such sites including the ancient City of Damascus and a further 12 on the list for Tentative consideration on its World Heritage List. It is from this this rich and diverse history, that Syria's people have a reputation for tolerance and kindness. Yet now this history, and the peace built upon it, is threatened as never before, and the cultural heritage of all of us, these cross-roads of civilization are quite literally caught in the cross-hairs of war.
Religion has also indelibly marked Syria. This observer has walked through some of the area where Abraham, who influenced three monotheistic religions, pastured sheep at Aleppo and gave the city its Arabic name -- Halab. Other visits to religious landmarks have included the old city of Damascus and Straight Street, where tradition holds that the conversion of Saul to Paul the Apostle occurred. Shortly before the events of March 2011, mass was still being held in the house he reputedly inhabited almost 2,000 years ago. The head of the John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, is said to be enshrined in the Great Mosque in Damascus. The village Maloula is amongst the last places in the world where Aramaic, the language spoken at the time of Jesus, can still be heard -- part of a living, breathing, spoken history. Khalid ibn al-Walid, companion to the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, is buried in Homs in his namesake mosque. Muhammad's successors left a legacy of beautiful mosques: several are now part of World Heritage sites.