dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Syrian Literary Festivals

This October My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution will be featured in three literary festivals:  Cheltenham, Henley and Wimbledon. Full details below with booking via their websites.

First, on Saturday 4 October 2014 at Cheltenham:

In association with Waterstones

diana darke cover - Copy.jpg

PRESENT TENSE: SYRIA

QUICKFIND L066

SAT 4 OCT 2014 9:00PM – 10:00PM

THE STUDIO, IMPERIAL SQUARE

£8 – MEMBERS 10% OFF

If you are a member then login to book your tickets, if you’re not a member then find out how to become a member and get access to priority booking.
Public booking opens on Mon 01 Sep at 12:00pm

The-Times-Logo-March-2011.jpg

DETAILS

Anthony Loyd, The Times war correspondent who was recently injured reporting from Syria, evaluates the Syrian crisis with Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus, and questions what might happen next.

All Literature events

MEDIA GALLERY

How #ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, declared himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ in June 2014. Claiming a genealogy traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and his noble tribe the Quraysh, together with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, his religious credentials are certainly stronger than previous Al-Qaeda leaders.

The caliphate in early Islam was a military and political office, not simply a religious one. The Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime was religious leader, lawgiver, chief judge, commander of the army and civil head of state all in one. ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is following this model. The Prophet Muhammad died suddenly in 632 leaving no male children. Disputes over who was to be his khalifa or caliph, (Arabic ‘successor’) have been responsible for most of the schisms of Islam, including the major Sunni/Shi’a division. ‘Never was there an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed than the caliphate,’ wrote the respected historian Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153) in his Book of Sects and Creeds.

To boost his standing further, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ appears to be modelling himself on the first four Sunni Orthodox caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali – known as Al-Rashidoun, ‘the rightly-guided ones’, who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Under them the Islamic state expanded within a decade from Arabia to conquer first Syria, then Iraq, Persia, Egypt and beyond. Those early conquests were characterised by military campaigns led by brilliant strategists like Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-Aas, using horses and camels in lightning raids against their enemies – the Byzantines and the Sassanians – whose armies were generally on foot. Today’s ISIS attacks too are characterised by their speed and surprise, always mounted on vehicles, attacking from many sides like a Bedouin ghazwa (raid). Raiding was seen as a noble occupation in early Arabia – much poetry is devoted to its praise. Acquisition of new territories was one of the principal duties of the caliph, and it is to this tenet of jihad (religious war) that Islam owed its fast early growth.

The Prophet Muhammad’s great achievement was to break tribal allegiances and replace them with a new fraternity of Islam: “Know ye that every Muslim is a brother unto every other Muslim, and that ye are now one brotherhood.”  All new converts of whatever tribe, race or nationality were welcomed. The new ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is using the same tradition to welcome foreign fighters to his fold.

New actors on the world stage like ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ do not come out of nowhere. Conditions have to be right for them to flourish. When the Prophet Muhammad preached the new religion of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, anarchy already reigned in the 7th century world around him. Arabia’s political structures had broken down, sapped of energy by never-ending tribal feuds and disputes over springs, pasture and livestock – the bare necessities of life in an arid desert environment.  Long-running wars between the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanians, heavy taxes imposed by both empires and the multiple schisms of the Christian Church paved the way for the rapid advance of the early Muslim armies.

Like the early caliphs, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’s’ conquests have been eased and enabled by the chaotic regional environment. The post-2003 ‘de-Ba’athification’ process carried out by the Americans after deposing Saddam Hussein left an Iraq reeling and beset with government in-fighting. Ripe for harvest, its oilfields beckoned tantalisingly.

Syria’s tragic revolution-turned- civil-war provided the perfect cloak to ISIS ambitions. Under a general amnesty in early 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists were released from Assad prisons. They regrouped and organised themselves into what has evolved as ISIS. In March 2013 they captured Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, 25 miles east of Tabqa, Syria’s largest dam, just as in August 2014 they captured the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, on the Tigris – now wrested back for the time being by the Kurdish peshmerga with the help of US air cover. In Syria ISIS practised its fighting skills, not on the well-equipped Assad army, but on Syria’s Kurds and on the poorly-armed rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS now controls most of Syria’s eastern oilfields, and in Iraq too its strategy involves systematically seizing the northern oil installations, fuelling its wealth. Conservative estimates put ISIS income from oil alone at US$1 million a day. The bearded chiefs have grown rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Thanks to such control of oil and water, new followers flow strongly into the fold. An impoverished population suffering from the effects of drought, unemployment and disenchantment with the powers-that-be, makes fertile recruiting ground. Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s early converts to Islam were slaves and lower classes – people with something to gain. The first caliph Abu Bakr, when recruiting for his armies, wrote to the people of Mecca promising them there was rich booty to be won from the Byzantines. To raise more money from its conquered territories, early Islam also imposed a means-assessed poll tax on Jews, Christians, Sabians (and later Zoroastrians) considered ‘People of the Book’, acknowledged to be monotheists. Only groups like the Yazidis, who were misunderstood as ‘devil-worshippers’, were presented with the stark choice of ‘convert or be killed’. The poor paid a quarter of the rich, while women, children, beggars, the old, the insane and the sick were exempt. ISIS has been taking taxes from towns under its control in Syria since 2013. In Iraq it has been demanding protection money from local business, whilst also presenting a generous face through handing out food, petrol and subsidising electricity.

As well as offering an attractive and powerful identity, ISIS can offer $400-500 a month as regular income to young Sunnis only too happy to believe in a new ideology based on their own supremacy, and in which the Arabian concept of ghanimah, booty, is legitimate.  Sura 8:42 of the Koran says ‘one-fifth of the booty is for God, the Prophet, those close to him, orphans, the poor and the wayfarer’ ie belongs to the state. By implication therefore the rest can be taken by the fighters. Yezidi women and children are legitimate spoils of war in this ideology.

Under the rallying cry of religion, the ISIS of today is driven by motives it sees as sanctioned under Islam – to gain territory, to acquire new converts, and to spread its strict Islamic rule of law – the Shari’a – with punishments like amputation for theft and beheading for apostasy or for non-believers who refuse to convert. It is copying the social mores of 14 centuries ago.

But behind this religious cloak the same economic forces that drove the Prophet Muhammad’s followers and led to his early conquests are driving the speed of ISIS’s advance. Many despairing Syrians and Iraqis who have watched their countries crumble around them are now joining ISIS out of pragmatism, rather than ideology. The attraction of being on the winning side cannot be overestimated. As long as the region remains in disarray, the likelihood is that ISIS will increasingly be seen by many as the only answer – and a rewarding one to boot.

 

#Yazidi women are legitimate ‘spoils of war’ in #ISIS ideology

As reports begin to emerge on the fate of Yazidi women captured in the Sinjar region of Iraq, it is as well to understand the ideology that enables ISIS to consider its actions legitimate:

The rules on ghanima (booty or ‘the spoils of war’) are clearly laid down in the Koran, Sura 8, verse 41, and ISIS is following them to the letter in its treatment of Yazidi women:

“Know that a fifth of what ye have won belongs to Allah – to his prophet, his family, to the orphan, the needy and the traveller.”

The verse was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad after the Battle of Badr in 624, the first decisive military victory won by Muhammad and his followers against those who opposed his new religion of Islam. As part of the pre-Islamic Bedouin raiding culture of the Arabian Peninsula, Arab chiefs had by tradition kept a share of the booty. It was the norm of the times. One fifth was later considered by Muslim scholars to be the share needed to support the Islamic state’s expenses as it expanded its empire. The remaining four-fifths were divided among the fighters who had won the booty.

This same concept of booty is being followed now by ISIS 14 centuries later, and they are defining it in the same way. The accepted definition by Muslim scholars of ghanima includes all weapons and all movable possessions. It also includes ‘non-believers’ who can be taken as prisoners of war – be they men, women or children. These prisoners are to be divided as slaves among the fighters. ‘Liberating’ the women is even considered an act of pious charity, especially if the women in question happen to be Yazidi, wrongly labelled ‘devil-worshippers’.

How in the 21st century does one even begin to combat such an ideology, when it is so convinced of its own legitimacy?

Yazidi children during a religious ceremony [Getty]

Yazidi children during a religious ceremony [Getty]

Related:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crisis-isis-militants-plan-to-marry-captured-yazidi-women-9674922.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29001357

 

 

 

Iraqi/ISIS/Yazidi conflict is less about religion than about oil, water and power

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing the Peacock Angel, as God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

Article below as published in The Sunday Times 10 August 2014:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/focus/article1444902.ece

Oil and water, not religion, are fuelling Isis campaign to wipe out minorities

Who could have dreamt that the plight of the secretive Yazidis, stranded without food and water up Mt Sinjar, would suddenly command worldwide attention, let alone lead to US air strikes against the self-styled caliphate of the insurgent group Isis? But the epic, near Biblical scenes of this resilient group of people fleeing up a bare mountain have caught the public imagination.

Look more closely at a map and it becomes clear that this entire region is filled with religious minorities, the remnants of the intermingling of many faiths. For here in the once Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of religion, even the birthplace of civilization itself. Three of the world’s great monotheistic religions were born here – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a deeply spiritual part of the world.

The origins of many of the religions practiced here remain shrouded in obscurity. Yazidi ancestry is Assyrian-Semitic but over the centuries they are thought to have moved north from Basra and become Kurdicised.

Successive persecutions at the hands of local rulers have stemmed from two misunderstandings:  that their name referred to the detested early caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya (when it derives instead from the Persian for angel ized), and that they worshipped the devil (a confusion of the name shaytan, Arabic for devil, with the Peacock Angel whom Yazidis see as God’s alter ego on earth).

 

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Physically they resemble Kurds and most speak Kermanji Kurdish, though the Yazidis from Mt Sinjar also speak Arabic. They live separately from neighbouring tribes and do not intermarry, mainly settled in remote villages but are sometimes nomadic with herds of sheep. They have never been politically important – till now, when they have come under the glare of the international spotlight.

They have only ever sought to practice their religion in peace, away from prying eyes. At the core of their faith is a deep belief in transmigration,  that each life gives the chance to move gradually forward towards a better future. Hell and the existence of evil are denied as absolutes. They see all evil as man-made. Their current persecutors, Isis, are evil personified, threatening them with death or conversion, but no Yazidi can convert religion – it is tantamount to forfeiting the soul. As with the Druze and Alawi minorities found across Lebanon and Syria, it is not possible to convert to their religion, only to be born into it.

The images of bleak deserts that flash across our screens today also serve to obscure the region’s two secret treasures: water and oil.  The mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers both of which have their headwaters in eastern Turkey, run through Syria and Iraq before exiting into the Gulf near Basra. The very word ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘the Land between the Two Rivers’.

Whoever controls these waters controls the lifeblood of the region, and IS’s seizure in recent days of the fragile Mosul Dam has the potential to change the course of history – another epic flood of biblical proportions. Downstream, were it to burst, either accidentally from lack of maintenance or deliberately as an act of maniacal vengeance, Iraq’s first and second cities, Baghdad and Mosul, would disappear underwater. The oil wells of northeast Syria, northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan all lie within the grasp of IS, and it is systematically taking control of them to fund its operations.

Beside the religious there are further ethnic  minorities, such as the Turkmen who divide more or less equally between Sunni and Shi’a Islam with their own language and customs, and the Shabak, mainly Shi’a  but with elements of Yazidism. They too have their own language. The numbers of all these minorities have plummeted over the last decade, none more so than the Christians, down to about 400,000 in Iraq alone from 1.5 million before 2003. There are between 70,000 and 500,000 Yazidis worldwide.

It is one of the great ironies of history that all these minorities lived out their beliefs in relative peace under the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the Assads in Syria. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ and now the rise of Isis have combined to turn this part of the world upside down. Into the power vacuum left by the floundering Syrian Revolution and the chaos of the Maliki-led Iraqi government stepped Isis, making its headquarters at Raqqa on the Euphrates in Syria.

As the patchwork of Iraq and Syria disintegrate under the onslaught of Isis, it is north to Iraqi Kurdistan that the overwhelming majority of persecuted minorities are fleeing. Perceived as a haven of relative stability, the Kurdistan Regional Government is seeking to gain independence from Iraq, though its Peshmerga fighters, low on cash and weaponry, will be tested to the full in the coming weeks and months. Its Education Ministry has introduced the enlightened policy that its schools must teach all world religions equally. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but Islam is accorded no special status. A person’s faith is seen as a private matter. For Isis such a policy is of course anathema.

Many refugee minorities would flee to Turkey, if the borders were opened, as the Turkish government now also allows its Syriac Christians and its Yazidis to live unmolested.

The biggest irony is that all the religious groups struggling to co-exist in this region believe in the same God, however they choose to address him or whatever symbol they choose to represent him – be it a peacock, a cross, the sun or simply an abstract geometric pattern. Proof if ever it were needed, that this conflict is less about religion, than about water, oil and power.

Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution. She has specialised in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

Related posts on the Yazidis:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-now-we-can-all-share-the-boris-fantasy-9658001.html (scroll to second letter from Professor Christine Allison, Ancient community faces a grim fate)

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel, God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

 

 

Syrian ‘World of Interiors’

My Damascus house

In peaceful times World of Interiors might easily have been the sub-title for My House in Damascus. The Arabic concept of the baatin meaning the internal aspect that can only be sensed, as opposed to the zaahir  signifying the outward visible surface, is one of the leitmotivs of the book, re-awakened from my distant undergraduate days studying medieval Arabic literature at Oxford. From the outside the historic house I bought nine years ago in Old Damascus presented nothing but a plain facade, but on the inside it was a secret world. Even after a lifetime’s specialisation as an Arabist, I had never dreamt of buying property in the Arab world. But a chance encounter with an antiquities architect whilst researching a guidebook to Syria led me in an unexpected direction and together we spent four unforgettable years of restoration and discovery.

Inside that sanctuary I have experienced, more than anywhere else, a powerful sense of unity with nature and with my surroundings. The way the light stroked the ancient stones, the way the vibrant bougainvillea fell in a magenta trail, the way the palm doves swooped from their nests in the heavy foliage to peck at invisible delicacies, the way the tortoise meandered silently in and out of the shadows. The music of the call to prayer from the myriad mosques echoed round the walls and on Sundays the church bells chimed in melodiously.  Overwhelmed by the palimpsest of Syria’s complex past and present embodied in the multi-layered heritage of the house, I felt embraced as if by some archetypal womb.

To reach that point was hard. The path was strewn with near-impassable obstacles, blocked with bureaucratic nightmares beyond imagining.  But Syrian friends patiently helped me through the labyrinth. Only after painstaking deconstruction did I get there, a process which came to be symbolic of Syria’s own years of deconstruction, still alas ongoing.

First the breezeblock wall dividing the courtyard two-thirds one-third had to be pulled down to reunite the space as one, a move I identified as the reunification of Syria’s population, broadly two-thirds Sunni Muslim, and one third minorities like Kurds, Alawis, Christians and Druze. Next the uniform white-painted cladding had to be stripped off the walls revealing the centuries-old stonework of contrasting soft limestone and black basalt. This was a particularly lengthy stage, as we chipped away carefully with hand tools, struggling not to damage what lay beneath. The uniform cladding of the Ba’ath Party system and the tentacles of its omnipresent security system have been suffocating Syria’s identity for the last 50 years. Concrete is tough stuff.

Even so, the day will surely come when Syria too has its rotten infrastructure, its faulty wiring and its dodgy plumbing ripped out. Like the house, it will gradually emerge from the wreckage, as kaleidoscope colours begins to blend subtly with mellow shades from across the ages. The human quest for the perfect space – what I found in my magical courtyard – will never die.  Once ‘tasted’, as Islam’s greatest philosopher Al-Ghazali  wrote, the memory cannot be taken away. Today’s tragedy inside Syria leaves many wondering  how and when it will all end. How can a nation and its people endure such suffering?

Yet what I have learnt from my Damascus courtyard, is that despite the extremism and corruption currently ravaging the country, Syria’s core identity, firmly-rooted in centuries of moderation and tolerance, will survive. Its  zaahir looks hideously damaged, but its  baatin, its ‘World of Interior’ will remain intact.

The 'secret ceiling', an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

The ‘secret ceiling’, an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

As published in World of Interiors, August 2014, under Journal of an Arabist:

In renovating the house she bought in Damascus in 2005, Diana Darke has chipped away at the modern layers to find the harmonious structure beneath. A similar deconstruction is needed to recover the tolerant, pluralistic  Syria hidden by war.

‘My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’ is published by Haus, Amazon price match paperback and ebook£10.49:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=727

My House in Damascus

 

 

Postcard from Nusaybin, southeast Turkey

POSTCARD from NUSAYBIN (as published in Chatham House’s The World Today magazine (Aug/Sept 2014 issue)

Mar Yakoub Church and university, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

Syriac Mar Yakoub (St James’s) Church and university dating to the 4th century, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

One glance at a modern map is enough to understand why Nusaybin is a hotspot in today’s world. Situated in southeast Turkey, it looks across the border at its southerly reflection, Qamishli in northeast Syria; its main east-west highway hosts an endless convoy of tankers with their precious cargo heading out from Erbil in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan into oil-poor Turkey;  and another highway leads southeast to Iraq’s Mosul. This volatile triangle of territory is delineated by watchtowers and fences along the Syrian-Turkish border, erected in the 1970s, and by the long Syrian-Iraqi desert frontier which became a physical barrier only after 2003.

All this talk of borders would have made no sense at all before World War One. Sykes-Picot had yet to draw their ‘lines in the sand’ creating the modern states of the Middle East. The maps in Baedeker’s 1906 Palestine et Syrie show only the loose provincial Ottoman boundaries and the journey from Nusaybin to the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire on the banks of the Tigris opposite Mosul, is described as ‘five days on horseback requiring a strong escort.’ Even in the 1930s under the French Mandate when Agatha Christie accompanied her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan to dig the famous tells of Mesopotamia, they would arrive by train at Nusaybin via the Berlin-Baghdad railway, then head south with no customs formalities, despite their trunkloads of luggage.

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

Nusaybin’s strategic location on east-west trade routes ensured a complex past. Beginning with the Assyrians, empires came and went, and as Roman Nisibis it formed a fortress-frontier against the Persian Sassanids. Forever caught in the power-play of outside forces, there are two indigenous peoples, the Kurds and the Syriacs, in and around Nusaybin who rarely get a mention, stateless peoples whose aspirations for nationhood were repeatedly thwarted. But an unintended consequence of recent events like the US invasion of Iraq, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the rise of ISIS militants has changed the dynamic.

The city’s residents today, like most in the area, are overwhelmingly Kurdish, with just a small Syriac community, but in the 4th century the population was mainly Syriac, and Nusaybin’s Syriac roots are still deep. St James’ Church in the centre is one of the world’s oldest functioning churches, dating back to 325. Alongside it sits the newly excavated university where famous scholars like St Ephrem the Syrian, ‘Harp of the Spirit’ (306-73), composed  hymns and trained all-female choirs. His language was Syriac, and his descendants, ancestors of the Assyrians, still speak a dialect of ancient Aramaic known locally as ‘Suryani’, using its classical form in their liturgy.

Successive persecutions at the hands of fellow Christians, Muslims and Kurds across the centuries caused most to escape to Europe and beyond, but to ensure the language does not die, each year dedicated members of the Syriac diaspora  send their children to Syriac summer schools run by monks at the nearby monasteries. Those who stayed scattered into small broken communities across the region within cities like Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria, Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq.  Qamishli was largely created by Christians fleeing the fighting of World War One.

Next summer  will be the centenary of their worst ever persecution, the 1915 Sayfo (The Sword), little known in the West, a massacre in which tens of thousands of Syriacs were slaughtered alongside Armenian Christians, mainly at the hands of Kurdish tribesmen.  Yet remarkably, today the highly educated and talented Syriac community is reviving, fed not only by families from abroad, but also by refugees from Syria,  returning to their ancient homeland. Most significantly of all, they are gradually healing historic rifts with their Kurdish neighbours, acknowledging that they were manipulated during the 1915 Sayfo by their Turkish masters.

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man's land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2013]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man’s land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2014]

Looking across today’s barbed-wire border from Nusaybin, through the no-man’s-land where the last relics of Roman Nisibis still rise, the houses and grain silos of Syria’s Qamishli are clearly visible. Blessed with fertile wheat fields, Syria’s largest oilfield and three major rivers, this panhandle of northeast Syria  is quite a prize, and in January 2014 Syria’s Kurds, as the dominant population, declared Qamishli capital of ‘Rojavo’  or western Kurdistan. The 22 cabinet ministers are a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix, in line with their secular ideology. Kurdish identity is defined by ethnicity, language and culture not by religion, a fact reflected in Iraqi Kurdistan’s schools where all world religions are taught equally.

Today’s fragile balance is now threatened by new invaders, the Sunni militants of ISIS, who want to rid the region of imperialist borders, and impose an ultra-conservative Islamic state across Iraq and Greater Syria.  A year from now, at the centenary of the Sayfo, will Nusaybin still be in Turkey? What will the map look like? Only one prediction can safely be made – that it will still be a hotspot.

 

 

#Syriac Christians threatened with the ‘Sword’ again

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

The threat of  ‘the sword’ has special resonance for Syriac Christians. Syriac for ‘sword’ is Sayfo, the name they use to refer to the massacre they suffered in 1915, when tens of thousands of them were slaughtered. On Friday 19 July the Syriac Christians of Mosul, whose ancestors were the Assyrians with their capital at Nineveh on the bank of the Tigris opposite Mosul, were threatened with the sword, unless they converted to Islam or paid the jizya, a tax levied by early Islam on religious minorities. Beheading by the sword was the earliest form of capital punishment in Islam. This time, to escape such a fate, they are fleeing northwards in their thousands, mainly into Iraqi Kurdistan, whose Kurdish rulers do not define themselves or anyone else by religion. Islam is one among many religions and Kurdish schools there teach all religions equally. Nearly a hundred years ago,  the Syriacs fled southwards from Turkey. On that occasion their persecutors were mainly Kurdish tribesmen acting on the instructions of  Turkish masters seeking to purge the Turkish state of non-Turkish minorities, but today their tormentors are fanatical fighters of mixed nationalities from the State of the Islamic Caliphate (formerly ISIS), who took control of Mosul,  Iraq’s second city, on 10 June 2014.

As Europe remembers the outbreak of World War One a hundred years on, the oft-forgotten group of Aramaic-speaking Christians has been gearing up for its own centenary. Their original heartlands are the region known as the Tur Abdin (‘Mountain of the Servants of God’ in Syriac),  a remote corner of what is now southeast Turkey, where their churches and monasteries date back to the 4th century. As their anniversary approaches, this resilient community, helped by members of their increasingly active diaspora from Sydney to Stuttgart, has been resolutely fighting back.

Their expulsion from Mosul will definitely not be the end of them. The following text of my BBC From Our Own Correspondent piece with accompanying photos, describes their determination to survive:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3 (direct link to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of 10 July 2014)

“No need for alarm clocks in Midyat. Every day in this ancient Syriac Christian town high on its plateau in southeast Turkey I am woken by goats bleating at my window and by cattle clattering past on cobbled streets. Kurdish children are herding them to nearby pastures from once elegant mansions that now serve as stabling.

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

For visitors like me the livestock lends a rustic charm, but not for members of the Syriac diaspora like Gabriel Khoury, whose ancestral home is one such pungent stable. Gabriel’s family emigrated to Australia when he was a boy, but now he has come back to claim his property. ‘I have six court cases to fight,’ he declares, his blue-eyes flashing angrily.  I encounter him at church where he leads the chanting in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Then he takes me to the one-roomed hovel, his current home, which is all he has left of his heritage. His surname ‘Khoury’ reveals he comes from a line of priests.  ‘Long story short,’ he explains, ‘I will not give up till I have my family’s houses and shops back. Then, if God wills, I will rebuild them.’

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Rebuilding is a constant refrain in this region known as the Tur Abdin,  where the Syriacs, one of the world’s earliest Christian communities, suffered heavily at the hands of the Kurds and Turks, especially in the 1915 massacres. At the village of Kafro I meet Niall, who has returned from 30 years in Stuttgart to help rebuild his community. An imposing row of large walled villas with a slightly fortified feel now flanks the single street. Alongside the ruins of the house where he was born, he has opened an al fresco pizzeria shaded by a nine-sided gazebo draped with vines. Multiples of three, representing the Trinity, are everywhere in the architecture here, and vines too hold deep spiritual significance, producing wine from the precious blood-stained soil. Traditionally each family planted just enough for its own modest consumption, but now some Syriacs have set up a wine factory imaginatively concealed in a mock mansion carved with friezes of grapes and wine glasses. Producing five reds and two whites to growing worldwide acclaim, its carefully chosen trademark  Shiluh means ‘peace’ in Syriac.

‘Two more families are coming back this year,’ smiles Niall, as he takes me to see the derelict shell of their original church. ‘When our community is bigger, we will restore this one. For now we are using a smaller one.’ He leads me past a well-tended cemetery where an open grave is awaiting the body of a 90-year-old returnee from Germany. This land reclaims its old, but reclaiming the young is more problematic. ‘Our teenagers,’ he explains, gesturing at a group just finishing their pizzas, ‘will leave soon for universities in Germany. A school bus takes the three of them from Kafro to Midyat where they are the only Christians in classes of over 40. How can we expect them to return here?’

Back in Midyat, Gabriel is on the case. The refugee camp established on a nearby hill was intended just for Syriac  Christians fleeing the fighting in neighbouring Syria, but so successful were they in being sponsored to leave, that only one family now remains.

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

 People like Gabriel took responsibility for the Christian refugees, many of whom have since moved west to Istanbul. Some have stayed in Midyat, like Maryam, a fair-haired beauty originally from Qamishli just across the border in northeast Syria. She now works as a waitress at one of Midyat’s magnificently restored Syriac mansions, converted to a 15-room hotel.

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

‘Long story short,’ says Gabriel, ‘we need more like this to bring our people back, more girls and more hotels.’ He even wonders if one of his sons might marry Maryam – his own wife was from Qamishli – and plans how young men might return from Europe as architects and managers to design and run hotels, as businessmen to create new enterprise, and above all  as lawyers to champion their cause. I dare to raise December’s controversial settlement of the land dispute with the biggest of the monasteries. ‘Don’t make me laugh,’ he retorts  tossing his head, ‘they gave us 20% only, the other 80% is still held back. Long story short,’ he continues, ‘we will fight on till we get back what is rightfully ours. ‘

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk at Mor Awgen, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk  who has revived Mor Awgen Monastery, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

As the centenary of their historic massacre, the Sayfo, approaches, long story short, maybe they will.

Related links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/conversion-of-iraq-as-isis-drives-christians-out-of-their-homes-the-groups-genocidal-intentions-take-on-horrible-clarity-9617651.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/time-runs-out-for-christian-iraq-isis-deadline-passes-with-mass-flight-9617606.html

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/jabhat-al-nusra-announce-islamic-emirate.html

Church of the Mother of God, Haho July 2013

Church of the Mother of God, Haho [DD, May 2014]

Saving #Syria’s Cultural Heritage – how to help

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Little known and little recognised, groups of Syrians inside Syria are working together to try to save the destruction of their country’s cultural identity. Confronted with the inertia of the international community, the occasional statement and handwringing from UNESCO and the Syrian government’s own narrative presenting itself as the custodian of the country’s rich treasures, these groups are taking matters into their own hands. A mix of academics, archaeologists, students and ordinary citizens with a deep love for their country, they have almost no funding and most are volunteers.

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

A recent study (by Heritage for Peace see link below) has shown that 38 organisations are involved worldwide in efforts to highlight the damage to Syria’s cultural heritage, including the big names like UNESCO, Blue Shield, the Global Heritage Fund, the World Monument Fund, ICCROM and ICOMOS. The overwhelming majority are talking shops, gathering data and posting it online. They are largely based outside Syria and function only through the official channel of the Syrian Directorate-General of Museums and Antiquities (DGAM) which in turn only functions in the regime-held areas of the country. Of these 38 organisations, 14 have been formed since 2011 specifically in response to the Syrian crisis, mainly from volunteer groups. Only six of the organisations are Syrian, working on the ground inside the country, and of these only three that we are aware of are taking pro-active, pre-emptive measures to protect ancient buildings. It is a chronic state of affairs, but such is their commitment to doing whatever they can that they are prepared sometimes even to risk their lives in order to protect and save their cultural identity.

Bricking up Zachariah's Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Bricking up Zachariah’s Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest and richest city, is where such actions have been most prevalent. The Division of Antiquities of the Free Council of Aleppo was founded in 2013 and has sandbagged and walled up the precious sundial in the Aleppo Great Umayyad Mosque, and bricked up its shrine of the Prophet Zachariah. With the help of the Tawhid Brigade from the Free Syrian Army, they have dismantled its 12th century wooden mihrab for safe-keeping away from the front line.

The Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks was founded in Aleppo in 2013. Its members, many of them archaeology students from Aleppo University, at considerable risk to themselves, saved the stones from the fallen minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque and have put them safely elsewhere awaiting reconstruction after the war. They also helped the Free Council of Aleppo with protecting the sundial and removing the mihrab.

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) was founded in 2012 in Strasbourg by a group of Syrian archaeologists and journalists. Together with collaborators on the ground they have compiled an extensive website cataloguing the damage (www.apsa2011.com) and have also held short workshops in Turkey’s Gaziantep to train Syrians in techniques of how to record damage and how to carry out simple protection measures.

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge rebels from the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, Idlib Province

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge refugees sheltering in the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, near Al-Bara, Idlib Province

A team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, Idlib Province

An APSA team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, near Al-Bara and Kafaranbel, Idlib Province

All of this work goes unrewarded financially and unrecognised internationally. Syria’s concentration and range of cultural heritage sites far exceed that of neighbouring Iraq. Yet while Iraq benefited from a UN resolution in 2003 after the US invasion banning trade in its antiquities, the Syrian case has been largely ignored, complicated by politics. Stepping up to the challenge, the Global Heritage Fund UK has recently agreed to help by acting as a channel for funds for anyone who would like to help support this work. The sums involved are small by the standards of international organisations. But international organisations like UNESCO cannot operate inside Syria without the permission of the Syrian government – a permission which has not been forthcoming.

APSA is looking to raise £32,000. So far they have raised £6,400. If each of the 624,000 people who clicked to view the recent BBC feature highlighting the problem (see below) had been able to contribute just £1, the target could have been met 20 times over.

Anyone who would like to do something tangible to help can contact cgiangrande@globalheritage fund.org, or use the donation form below. Even small amounts will make a huge difference. Handwringing and nostalgia, alas, do not.

Global Heritage Fund – 2014DonationFormV2

Related links:

http://www.heritageforpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Towards-a-protection-of-the-Syrian-cultural-heritage.pdf

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28191181

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria's Cultural Heritage

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria’s Cultural Heritage

 

Syria – a book to help you understand it differently

http://www.timeoutistanbul.com/en/books/189/My-House-in-Damascus-An-Inside-View-of-the-Syrian-Revolution

Full text of review in Time Out Istanbul by Pat Yale below:

My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution

Diana Darke was one of the first foreigners to buy a house in Damascus, offering her a unique view into the Syrian conflict.

Three years of increasingly savage fighting. More than 150,000 dead. Many thousands more injured. Nearly three million people turned into refugees. Another 6.5 million displaced inside their own country.

 The bald statistics for the damage done to its citizens by the Syrian conflict are utterly shocking, but for most people the initial “Something Must Be Done” attitude has gradually been replaced by a grim acceptance that nothing probably can be done in a situation that lacks clear goodies and baddies. And so we tune out the horror of it all, unable to focus on so much human suffering day by day.

 Into the void left by those who have turned away has stepped Syria guidebook writer Diana Darke, one of the first (if not the first) foreigners to buy a house in the country. Darke offers just the sort of first-person account of what has been going on that makes it possible for people to re-engage with the story. Her book ‘My House in Damascus’ describes how the chance sighting of an open door in the old city in 2005 brought her into contact with an architect engaged in the then-blossoming business of restoring the lovely old mansions.

 “You realize that you can buy property here,” he tells her, thus triggering a search for the perfect bolthole. It turns out to be the lovely if dilapidated house of Bait Baroudi just round the corner from the great Umayyad Mosque.

This is no story of love lost and refound against a Middle Eastern background. Darke was no ingénue, stumbling uncertainly into a country about which she knew little. Instead, she was an old hand with form in this part of the world, a fluent Arabic speaker whose research for the Bradt Guide to Syria had taken her to every corner of the country. Read her description of exploring the great Byzantine “Dead Cities” north of Aleppo and weep for what has almost certainly been lost.

But the heart and soul of the book is always Bait Baroudi, a courtyard house that still retained its lovely original decorations, albeit partially obscured, when she bought it. Darke poured her savings into a gentle restoration aimed at preserving the building’s heritage; when the work was completed after three years “the house looked and felt as if the inhabitants of earlier centuries had only just left.” But as she skips over the bureaucracy she encountered and revels in every detail of the restoration process, always lurking in the background is the knowledge of what is to come: the day when she will no longer be able to live in the house and its courtyard will have to be turned into a mini-refugee camp for some of those with whom she had worked over the years.

Despite the book’s subtitle, ‘An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’, Darke doesn’t bother with the finer details of which armed group is doing battle with which other one. Instead she introduces us to a roll call of colorful characters – Ramzi the Philosopher, her state-imposed guide in the early days, Maryam the Christian bank manager, Marwan the lawyer, and Bassim the architect – all of whose lives are irrevocably changed as the conflict intensifies.

All books eventually come to an end but of course the story of the Syrian civil war has yet to reach its conclusion. As you turn the last page of the book you know that you can go straight online to continue reading on Darke’s blog, dianadarke.com. Tragically Darke herself is no longer able to get a visa to enter Syria, but in her blog she recounts the ultimate absurdity of when she travels to Sidon in Lebanon and meets up with Marwan. He hands her some rental agreements that she must sign to ensure that the refugees now living rent-free in Bait Baroudi will not be booted out by the authorities.

War may ravage and destroy people’s lives, it seems, but the wheels of the bureaucracy will keep on turning until the end.  Pat Yale

Damascus June 2011 061

Living in the eye of Syria’s storm

Book Review of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution

by Mary Russell, The Irish Times, 28 June 2014

Diana Darke’s account of her life in the ancient city glows with an understanding of and affection for its people.

While so many commentators and journalists write about Syria the victim, and zoom in on the death and destruction of that great country, Darke affords the Syrians she meets the dignity of being individuals.

Click here for the full review:

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/living-in-the-eye-of-syria-s-storm-my-house-in-damascus-1.1846142

My House in Damascus

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 596 other followers

%d bloggers like this: