Syria and Turkey commentary

The Little Known Links between the Medieval Green Man, the Mystical Saint Khidr, and King Charles

The colourful royal invitation to King Charles III’s coronation is rich with images of the natural world. It is a fitting reflection of the new king’s profound interest in nature and the environment. Prominently featured in the centre is what the BBC website calls ‘the folklore figure of the “green man” [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-65175984], described by Buckingham Palace as ‘a symbol of spring and rebirth which celebrates a new reign’.

But what do people, including those at Buckingham Palace, really know about the mysterious Green Man? Seen peeping out from the carved foliage of so many Norman churches, he did not appear in England till the 12th century. His origins are shrouded in mystery and his meaning was lost by the end of the Middle Ages.

As part of research into the Islamic influences on Norman architecture, I have been studying the Green Man for some while now. The more I saw him, in all his moods, from menacing to humorous, from welcoming to ferocious, the more I saw his uncanny parallels with al-Khidr, a popular and well-known Islamic saint with many mystical associations. Al-Khidr means ‘The Green One’ in Arabic, and the Arabic root kh, d, r, conveys everything to do with greenery, green pastures, verdure and vegetation. The colour green was the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite colour, and al-Khudeira, one form of the Arabic root, means Paradise.

The timing of his appearance in our foliage and in this country, coupled with the fact that he was not known before, but appeared suddenly, suggests he was very likely brought back to England by returning Norman Crusaders. They would have first encountered him in the Holy Land, where he is deeply embedded in local folklore and Sufi mysticism as an omnipresent figure, a force for both good and evil. Given the powers with which al-Khidr is associated, his appeal to Christian Crusaders would have been considerable – it is not for nothing that he is conflated with St George, patron saint of England and, who, incidentally, is also the patron saint of the Lebanese Christians, the Palestinian Christians and the Syrian Christians.

There is however one big difference between al-Khidr and St George. Al-Khidr is still alive, whereas St George was martyred by pagan Roman soldiers and is well and truly dead. That said, like al-Khidr, he had the power to appear to people at moments of crisis and give them strength, as can be seen in the legend of his timely appearance at the 1098 Battle of Antioch, part of the First Crusade, riding on a white horse and carrying his famous lance, just in time to save the day and turn the battle in the Crusaders’ favour. It is a scene recreated in medieval church murals, as in the 12th century St Botolph’s Church at Hardham in West Sussex, painted by the monks of the powerful Cluniac Priory of Lewes. These monks, so associated with returning Crusaders, would have been entirely familiar with the legendary appearance of St George at Antioch, and his presence in the mural means it can safely be dated to the early 12th century, after news of the victory at the battle would have reached England. St George was especially venerated as a warrior saint from the Crusades onwards.

Church of St George, dating to 515, Ezraa, southern Syria

Al-Khidr’s immortality is a vital characteristic that he shares with the Green Man, whose various forms and facial expressions depict him as very much alive, like some kind of primeval spirit living among the foliage.  Part deity, part prophet, part pagan, part saint, part human, his appeal has proved to be universal, a unifying figure among the three great monotheistic religions. In the Holy Land he is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, conflated not just as al-Khidr and St George, but also as the Prophet Elijah.  

Of his many tombs, the most likely one to contain an actual body is thought to be in Lod, Israel, where the Crusader church of Saint George was built on top of an earlier Byzantine one alongside the Mosque of al-Khidr.

At Bait Jala near Bethlehem a shrine is believed by Christians to be the birthplace of St George, and by Hebrews to be the burial place of Elijah. William Dalrymple, in his book From the Holy Mountain, also came across this kind of syncretism and fluidity between religions in the Holy Land, writing of Bait Jala:

‘With all the greatest shrines in the Christian world to choose from, it seemed that when the local Arab Christians had a problem – an illness, or something more complicated – they preferred to seek the intercession of George in his grubby little shrine at Beit Jala rather than praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.’ He asked the priest at the shrine whether many Muslims came too, and the priest replied, “We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down.”

The shrine’s reputation as a place of healing was nothing new, but stretched back as far as anyone could remember, a continuous tradition. Such places carry a very special power and atmosphere.

My own first encounter with al-Khidr was in Aleppo, at a visit to the citadel in 1978, when I noticed his cenotaph to the right of the zigzag path that leads up through the succession of defensive gates into the citadel itself. Its location there was as if well-placed to give thanks, chosen for its survival of the dangers represented in the archway above the entrance by a pair of intertwined serpent dragons. Having navigated the fifth and final zigzag, with smiling lions and sad lions carved into the stone walls, seen as having magical powers and protecting against evil, you emerge into the sunlight of the open citadel summit.

These are exactly the properties with which the Green Man is credited today, in his many revivals in garden furniture and ornaments of the 21st century, the same powers with which he was credited in England from the Middle Ages onwards.

It is no accident that the oldest forms of him in England are to be found on early Norman churches, where his religious imagery shows itself in full flourish. The fact that he appears on doorways and entrances on the outside of churches, and again on the interiors, on chancel arches, capitals and columns, marking the transition into the holiest parts of the church, is not just coincidence. His role is to ward off evil spirits, to protect against harm, but also to celebrate the fertility of Nature and to welcome worshippers into the presence of God. He could be carved in wood or in stone, but was rarely to be found in illuminated manuscripts, stained glass or in jewellery. In the forms where his mouth, nostrils and sometimes even his ears and eyes, appear to be sprouting the foliage and vegetation, he also symbolises rebirth, the endless cycle of Nature of which he is an integral part. Often his face was the only sculpture to survive the obsessive destruction of the Reformation, presumably because he was not seen as idolatrous, but rather as a harmless representation of Nature that offended no one. This interpretation confirms that his origins as a saint were already lost to Christians by the 16th century.

The first Green Men to appear in England during the 1100s were the work of masons brought over from France after the Norman conquest in 1066. Their faces were not classical by any stretch of the imagination. The Green Men on the capitals of the main portal of Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire, for example, have protruding eyes with carved holes for pupils as found in early oriental statues of kings and pagan gods.

The Kilpeck foliage carvings also show Coptic/Fatimid style in the way the stems are bound together with ties and how the leaves have deeply incised v-shaped grooves.

At Barfrestone Church in Kent, sometimes called ‘the Kilpeck of the South’, a pair of Green Men on the north door likewise show no classical influence and are evidently protecting the church from evil spirits and may thus have given comfort and reassurance to a highly superstitious medieval population who would have wholeheartedly believed in evil spirits and their power. Sometimes, when smiling, he serves to welcome worshippers into the church.

The Gothic Revival brought the Green Man back into public consciousness and 20th century writers like JRR Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings introduced characters called Ents who were half tree half man, leading lives of quiet wisdom deep in the forest. Morris dancers are more versions of the Green Man, re-enacting old traditions that have been largely forgotten. He has well and truly entered the public imagination as an immediately recognisable figure, usually benign these days, but with occasional overtones of a wild spirit in league with nature. In this dual function and almost schizophrenic personality the Green Man again echoes the characteristics of al-Khidr. King Charles himself, I’d like to think, with his own freely acknowledged appreciation of Islam, would be happy to learn of such deep cross-cultural connections.

A version of this article was first published on Middle East Eye:


The Turkey/Syria Earthquake strikes at the birthplace of civilization

Gobekli Tepe

The sheer scale of the disastrous series of earthquakes in southeast Turkey and northwest Syria is hard to absorb, especially in a region already blighted by a decade of war, displacement, drought and disease. As if that were not sufficient punishment, the cruel weather has added another layer of suffering with its comfortless blanket of snow, making rescue efforts even tougher, whilst leaving thousands of shell-shocked souls to freeze in the open, homeless.

For many outside the region, it may seem a faraway tragedy that has no direct bearing on their own lives.  But as someone who has visited the area repeatedly over several decades, I feel that, beyond the humanitarian crisis unfolding day by day, there is a bigger picture that needs to be explained, to help grasp how connected we all are by oft-forgotten historical and cultural ties.

Historical and Cultural Context

The discovery in the 1990s of the world’s oldest temples, a series of mysterious circular structures on the summit of Göbekli Tepe (‘Pot-bellied Hill’ in Turkish), turned all previous perceptions of man’s early history on their head. Overlooking the once lush grasslands of the Fertile Crescent, northeast of Urfa, they were built by nomadic hunter-gatherers some 12,000 years ago, pre-dating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, and the world’s earliest city at Çatalhöyük, also in eastern Turkey, by a full 3,000 years.

Gobekli Tepe

Similar groupings of circular temples have been identified in northern Syria, collectively proving that man’s first construction efforts, were devoted, not to building settlements, but to the worship of deities connected with the sun, the moon and the circular seasonal cycles on which he depended. The temples were first unearthed in 1994 by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who tragically died before seeing UNESCO inscribe them on its World Heritage List in 2018.

World heritage sites 

As recently as 2021, UNESCO added the late Hittite site of Aslantepe (‘Lion Hill’) near Malatya and the Euphrates, in recognition of its significance in illustrating how a State society first emerged in the Near East, along with a sophisticated bureaucratic system that predated writing. Among the finds were the world’s earliest known swords, evidence of the first forms of organised combat used by the new elite to maintain their political power.

Aslantepe, two lion men in combat

Towering above the Tigris, UNESCO’s other World Heritage Site (2015) that lies within the earthquake zone is the brooding city of Diyarbakir, whose mood seems reflected in its massive black basalt walls. It too is part of the ancient Fertile Crescent, an important regional centre commanding the surrounding fertile plains throughout Hellenistic, Roman, Sassanid Persian, Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman times. Its elegant ‘Ten-Eyed’ bridge, built by the Seljuks in 1065, still spans the river below.

Further testimony to the onetime prosperity of the region is the site of Zeugma on the Euphrates, famous for its collection of superb mosaics, among the finest in the world. Once a thriving frontier town on the eastern edges of the Roman Empire, where 5,000 troops were garrisoned to defend against the Persians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, it was also known as Belkıs, a reference to the Queen of Sheba  and her legendary wealth. Rescued, along with many other ancient sites, from the flooding caused by the modern Birecik Dam on the Euphrates, the spectacular mosaics graced the floors of rich villas, but today are housed a new purpose-built museum in nearby Gaziantep, epicentre of the first 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck overnight on 5 February.

Zeugma mosaic, the so-called ‘Gypsy Girl’

Those who know Aleppo will find in Gaziantep many echoes of that more famous Syrian city. Not for nothing did so many Syrian refugees fleeing war in their own country take refuge in Gaziantep as their city of choice. In the days before the artificial borders imposed by Britain and France after World War One, the two cities were closely linked. Easily the most sophisticated city in southeast Turkey, Gaziantep, long hailed as the pistachio capital of the world, boasts around its prominent Seljuk citadel an old quarter, much of which was built by the Ottoman Governor of Aleppo. Like Aleppo, it has a mixed Muslim/Christian population, with its Christian population in Ottoman times likewise much larger than today. Their churches and mansions are still scattered about the old Christian quarter, often now converted to musical venues or boutique hotels. The citadel itself has suffered damage in the earthquake, so the historic quarter of which it forms the heart must also have been affected. Like Aleppo’s historic centre, it was the subject of extensive restoration projects, and experienced boom-level growth in recent times, its citizens deeply proud of their shared heritage and identity.

Gaziantep Citadel

Border ironies

Earthquakes do not recognise political boundaries, and just as Gaziantep was part of the Ottoman Province of Syria till 1922, so Aleppo too, less than 200km to the south, has suffered damage, both to its iconic citadel mound and to its surrounding historic areas. Friends have told me of their homes, newly restored from the war, damaged once again, by force majeure, as if accursed. Aleppo’s Great Umayyad Mosque, located at the foot of the citadel, has been undergoing restoration funded by Putin’s ally, the Russian politician Ramzan Kadyrov, President of Chechnya. The mosque’s unique 1,000 year-old Seljuk minaret miraculously survived many earlier earthquakes, only to collapse in cross-fire in 2013. Its rebuilding is a dauntingly complex jigsaw that is in progress, 60% complete, which has somehow survived this quake.

In more border ironies, the Province of Hatay in southeast Turkey belonged to Syria till 1939. Known before then as the Sanjak of Alexandretta, it was incorporated into Syria under the French Mandate in 1918 at the Ottoman Empire’s demise, but the French then gave it to Turkey in anticipation of a new war against Germany, a bribe to buy Turkish neutrality. Syrians have never accepted the transfer and most Syrian maps still show it as part of Syria.

Now eclipsed by the mosaics at Zeugma, Hatay boasts its own, much older mosaic museum in its capital city of Antakya, ancient Antioch, also hit by the earthquake. Built by the French, it was considered in its day second in the world only to the Bardo Museum in Tunis, displaying, in scenes like Narcissus and Echo and the Drunken Dionysus, the licentious lifestyle of banqueting and dancing against which the early Christians here preached. St Peter’s Rock Church cut into the cliffs behind the city was founded in 47CE by Peter, Paul and Barnabas as the first church after Jerusalem. Matthew is said to have written his Gospel in Antioch. Even before the arrival of Christianity, the city was very mixed, with Greek, Hebrew, Persian and Latin all spoken in its streets. ‘If your aim in travelling is to get acquainted with different cultures and lifestyles, it is enough to visit Antioch’, wrote Roman historian Libanius. ‘There is no other place in the world that has so many cultures in one place.’

St Peter’s Rock Church, Antakya (ancient Antioch)

Cycles of history

Today the population remains very mixed, with large communities – both Muslim and Christian – blended together. Among the early churches in Antioch was the octagonal Domus Aurea (Golden House), a magnificent structure thought to have been Constantine the Great’s palace chapel, built in 327CE. Destroyed by fires and earthquakes in 588, its exact location is lost to us today, but it is known through the description of contemporaries to have served as the prototype for the octagonal Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, from where the Emperor Charlemagne took his inspiration for his own palace chapel at Aachen, Germany.

Parts of the Crusader castle of Marqab, built from black basalt to dominate the Mediterranean coastal plain, are also damaged from the earthquake, with collapsed towers. Second in power only to the mighty Krak des Chevaliers, its cellars were stocked with enough provisions to last a thousand men for a five-year siege. Originally an Arab stronghold fortified in 1062, it was captured by the Byzantines in 1104, then sold to the Knights Hospitaller. It fell following a brief siege to the Mamluk army of Sultan Qalaoun in 1285, who whitewashed and thus preserved the frescoes in the chapel. One depicts a striking vision of Hell in which a huge bishop is sitting naked in a fire, with two devils tending the flames, along with two monster-headed figures flying overhead.

Marqab Castle, near Baniyas, Syria

Such cycles of history, filled with so many seismic twists and turns like earthquakes, wars and invasions, have all played their part in the ever-shifting balances of power in this region of great strategic significance. When looking at the horrors that are unfolding in southeast Turkey and northwest Syria today, it is impossible to predict how the current disaster will shape the future of this most volatile of regions.

The complex political landscape at play in both countries is likely, without huge international support, to hamper progress towards the imperative delivery of aid, while fledgling efforts that were underway for restoration of cultural heritage sites, especially in the blighted and fractured territory of Syria, will inevitably be pushed even further down the agenda.

Past parallels show us that rival powers are likely to continue to vie for control of this once Fertile Crescent, where the tectonic plates of so many past civilisations have struggled for survival, in ways that have shaped us all.

This piece first appeared in Middle East Eye on 9 February 2023:


Putin in Palmyra: how Russia won the ‘truth’ battle in Syria and learnt lessons for Ukraine

Putin’s ‘Victory Concert’ in Palmyra, 5 May 2016

When Russia entered the Syrian war in September 2015, I started to watch RT, Russia’s state-controlled TV network. That’s a six-year dose of studying how Russia projects its worldview to a global audience, a master class in alternative reality and information manipulation. These same techniques are now being reprised in Russia’s reporting of its “special military operation to liberate Ukraine from neo-Nazis.” All independent media outlets in Russia have been forced to close, ensuring that only President Vladimir Putin’s version of events reaches Russian ears and eyes.

The Arab proverb, “He who speaks the truth must not pitch his tent near ours,” might have been written for Putin. With skills honed through decades of working for the KGB, including time spent as a liaison officer to the Stasi in East Berlin, President Putin is a true aficionado of the art of disinformation. He knows how important it is to seize the narrative from the outset and never to deviate from the script. Syria provided him the perfect training ground for Ukraine. RT journalists were allowed free rein inside the country to report the Russian government’s version of events, while Western journalists were denied visas. Russian media repeatedly discredited the work of the White Helmets, whose first-hand film footage of Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes on schools, hospitals, and markets across the country flatly contradicted Russian propaganda. The BBC extensively researched and exposed this tactic in their Intrigue: Mayday podcast series.

To counter Western outrage in Ukraine, Putin uses tactics familiar from Syria, claiming Russian attacks were faked or that Ukrainians themselves conducted them as part of an anti-Russian smear campaign. In Syria Russia claimed to conciliate, while simultaneously denying humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas under siege, in the same way that humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of civilians are routinely thwarted in Ukraine. Residents under siege in Syria were given the choice — starve or surrender. When they eventually surrendered, the Russians brokered “reconciliation deals,” which were then reneged on. Russia used “de-escalation zones” as temporary strategic measures, allowing it to buy time to refocus on military efforts in other areas, exactly as it is doing in Ukraine now. In Syria it then broke the de-escalation agreements, blaming the “terrorists” for violations. To this day, the false narrative persists in many Western quarters that the Syrian war was all about fighting “terrorists” like ISIS. But research has established that more than three-quarters of the deaths in the Syrian war were perpetrated, not by ISIS terrorists and other extremists, but by the Assad regime and its supporters — Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. ISIS and its ilk killed just 6%. Rarely did Bashar al-Assad and his Russian bosses target ISIS. Instead they went after the moderate opposition — as did ISIS — well aware that they were the real threat. Of the half million Syrians killed, the overwhelming majority were innocent civilians, women and children, not “terrorists.”

Putin and Bashar merchandise on sale in an Aleppo hotel, in April 2018, author’s photo.

As reports mount of chemical weapon use by Russian forces in Ukraine, expect more lessons learned in Syria. Russian media claimed the numerous horrific photos of dead gassed Syrians, uploaded by witnesses at the scene, were fakes, using “actors.” When teams from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tried to reach sites to collect evidence, they were barred for “security reasons” and told that soldiers were making the area “safe.”

While Russian-sponsored trolls and bots were active on social media in support of Syria’s President Assad, just as they are today in support of Putin’s actions in Ukraine, Assad apologists, including respectable British academics and Members of Parliament, were seduced into parroting these Russian memes, causing untold damage to public perceptions of the Syrian war. The Times newspaper conducted its own investigation into such people. In April 2018 I myself travelled with a delegation dubbed “the Crazy Club” to undermine its message from within. Invited to visit and tour Syria by the Syriac Orthodox Church, we were treated like royalty, and it was easy to see how Christians throughout the 11-year war chose to align themselves with Assad to ensure their own survival. The same thing is happening today with the Russian Orthodox Church, where Patriarch Kirill in Moscow is standing by Putin, giving the Ukraine invasion his blessing and branding it “a Holy War.” By contrast, a multi-faith mission of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists led by Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, has travelled, at some risk to themselves, to Ukraine to meet refugees, hoping to persuade President Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church of the error of their ways. Williams is even supporting calls for the Russian Orthodox Church to be excluded from the World Council of Churches.

If only a similar high-level multi-faith group had spoken out years ago against the way both President Assad and President Putin have used their relationships with the Orthodox Church to project themselves as guardians of the minorities, the war might have taken a different course and much bloodshed might have been avoided.

Instead, tragically, despite initially appearing to support anti-Assad protesters, Western governments, weary of Middle Eastern conflicts, and with no appetite for involvement, kept their distance, leaving a vacuum that first ISIS in 2013 and then Russia in 2015 stepped in to fill. Their inaction was a gift to Russia, emboldening Putin to pursue his goals in Ukraine.

Bashar and Putin together in their ‘virility’ poster: the caption reads ‘The Age of Virility and Men’ in Arabic and in Russian.

Putin understood from the outset how to ensure Russia benefitted from the conflict. He enlarged the Russian naval base at Tartous and developed an air base at Hmeimeem near Latakia, extending the Russian state’s lease to operate them by 49 years. A Russian import-export village was established in Latakia port after 2015 and Russia’s military hardware was showcased. Putin boasted of testing over 320 weapons systems in Syria, while 85% of Russian army commanders gained combat experience in Syria. The cruelest and most efficient of them, Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, has now been appointed to take charge of operations in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Neither nation-building nor reconstruction were ever on the Russian agenda in Syria. On the contrary, the Kremlin was content to have a client state that was just stable enough to safeguard Russia’s interests, but not so strong that it no longer needed Moscow’s protection. The same is likely to be true in Ukraine, with Russia spending just enough money in areas it considers strategic, but avoiding large-scale investment that would bog it down, as happened in Afghanistan. Unlike Western governments that require clean endings and to bring their troops home, Russia has shown in Syria that it is comfortable with protracted low-level conflict, often using mercenaries as cannon fodder. In Ukraine battle-hardened Syrian soldiers are said to be recruited at 25 times their Syrian salary to fight for Russia. The Russian TV network Zvezda News, owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense, posted a recent video showing Brig. Gen. Suhail al-Hassan, “The Tiger,” commander of the Russian-backed elite 25th Special Mission Forces Division, involved in air landing operation drills in northern Syria. The Russians are clearly in charge, while the Syrian soldiers are interviewed afterwards, raving about the experience and praising their Russian trainers. Russian media likewise show upbeat interviews with Syrian soldiers purportedly queuing up to fight for Russia in Ukraine, while Western media report coercion among Syrian recruits, who acknowledge that 90% of them die.

Putin and Bashar watching over a Syrian regime checkpoint, January 2019.

Today Syria is a puppet state, with Russia controlling security and defense, while Iran has taken charge of the religious and cultural files. An Aleppo businessman summed up the situation well, describing Bashar as “a man with two false legs, one Russian, one Iranian, hopping from one leg to another as the ground he is standing on is very hot.”

As for the Russian propaganda climax, that came in Palmyra on 5 May, 2016. Knowing the world was fascinated by the fate of Syria’s most iconic ancient site, a magical trading city in a desert oasis first seized by ISIS in 2015, Putin flew in a Russian orchestra from Moscow, led by his favorite conductor, to stage a victory concert in the Roman theatre after Russian forces helped recapture it from ISIS. To crown it all, with the eyes of the world watching, Putin popped up by videolink on the Palmyra stage to project himself as “the Saviour of Syria,” the only international leader truly fighting terrorism. Pocketing massive credit, it was the moment he moved from the Palmyra stage to the world stage, his dream come true, a global player at last.

Soviet ties to Syria go back to the 1970s when the USSR was Syria’s main economic partner and one of its strongest political and military allies. Hafez al-Assad’s long-term vice-president from 1984-2005, Abdel Halim Khaddam, said in an interview from exile in Paris: “You have to understand that, at some point, practically half the Syrian population worked for the Secret Police. Remember that we were formed by the Soviets. That’s why they were so powerful. The intelligence services soon became the main factor in maintaining the regime. The model was the KGB or Stasi. They were everywhere. Thousands of Syrians went to Russia to train and study, learnt Russian, and married Russians.”

Putin has learned much from his Syria playlist, tactics perfected over the years in which he had a free hand in the country. After the fighting in Ukraine is over, with many cities reduced to empty shelled buildings, expect the same tactics employed in Syria, where the regime confiscated all property from people it deemed “terrorists,” using new laws on land it had taken to prop up regime agendas and create facts on the ground, a sly way of gaining revenue while avoiding sanctions.

Today, ironically, I can no longer watch RT on Freeview, Sky, or other Western media channels because, just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was taken off the air across Europe and the U.K., deemed “unfit to hold a license.” If only such a concerted Western consensus had been garnered against Russian disinformation in Syria, providing a challenge to the Russian and Syrian regime’s narrative that it was always “fighting the terrorists,” the Syrian war might, in my view, have ended by now, instead of dragging on into its twelfth year. May the Ukraine war at least not share that fate.

This piece first appeared on the Middle East Institute’s website, where Diana Darke is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Syria Program. She is an independent Middle East cultural expert and Syria specialist, author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis (2016), The Merchant of Syria (2018), and Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe (2020). The views expressed in this piece are her own.


Is Bashar al-Assad really the Guardian Angel of Syria’s Minorities?

Photo by the author, Homs, April 2018

Look at the imagery in this poster plastered on a wall in bombed-out Homs. I photographed it on a visit in April 2018. Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, sporting dark glasses and military fatigues, looking resolute and determined, appears in the heavens opposite the Virgin Mary, floating above the head of a martyred soldier. Bashar, on a par with the Virgin Mary, is presented as the guardian angel of Syria’s Christians. The message is spelled out even more clearly in war slogans liberally scrawled by regime militias on the walls of buildings everywhere, even on mosques — “There is no god but Bashar” and “Do not kneel for god, kneel for Bashar.”

Since the start of the current war, Bashar al-Assad, in power since 2000, has consistently sought to promote himself as the protector of Syria’s minorities — be they Christian, Alawi, Shi’i or Druze — from Islamist extremists. Many Western audiences have been seduced by his smart casual look and by his increasingly prominent, beautifully turned-out British wife, Asma. What has happened to minorities over the last 10 years of war and how does that compare to their treatment historically inside Syria?

Syria’s constitution is secular, but states that the president must be Muslim. When Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1970, he was the first Alawite to become head of state. Alawites were considered by mainstream orthodox Sunni Muslims, who make up around 75% of Syria’s population, to be an heretical offshoot of Shi’a Islam, so Hafez engineered a convenient fatwa from Musa al-Sadr, a respected Shi’a cleric, declaring Alawites to be “within the fold of Islam.” Before the current war, Alawites accounted for about 10% of the population. Precise figures today are notoriously difficult to assess but most experts think the proportion may now have risen to something closer to 15%, partly because the majority of the many millions who have left Syria as refugees have been Sunni Muslims. Christians account for around 10% of the population, while Druze and Ismailis (further offshoots of Shi’a Islam) together represent about 5%.

Sectarianism and internal divisions

It is a common misperception in the West that sectarianism in the region is some ancient phenomenon rooted in age-old feuds. The Assads know this and understand only too well how to play on Western fears of Christian persecution by Muslim extremists, especially after the rise of ISIS and its public beheadings of Western Christians. But such divisions as existed between people were as likely to be found within the plethora of Christian and Muslim sects historically represented, and still present, in Syria as between the different religious communities themselves. One colorful story told to me by a Syrian dentist who grew up in a majority Orthodox Christian village in Syria’s Wadi Nasara (Valley of the Christians) described how his church felt so upstaged by a fancy new Evangelical church built with money brought in via the Allied army after World War II that the rival church was blown up! Syria’s Christians are not one homogenous group — there are many internal divisions, just as there are within Muslim and indeed Jewish groupings. The root of the problem is often economic inequality, rather than religious difference.

A striking historic example is the 1860 Damascus massacre of thousands of Christians. Covered in the European press at the time as a sectarian event, it triggered outrage and public sympathy, followed by the dispatch of French troops in what was labelled the first humanitarian intervention in defense of minorities. Yet the problem was never sectarian — it originated within the silk industry of Mount Lebanon. The Maronite Catholics were commercially closest to the French and many lived in socially-isolated grandeur, rich from the privileges awarded them by Western powers seeking to gain new markets at a time of European recession. As the Ottoman grip on its empire weakened, a feeding frenzy began in its provinces, with foreign interests competing for the spoils. The result was not only the ensuing inter-confessional violence among communities that had lived together largely peacefully up to that point, but also the complete undermining of the regional silk industry. It was gradually bought out by foreigners, mainly French Catholics, leading more and more locals to lose their livelihoods.

In Damascus the predominantly Catholic wealthy quarter in the Old City was burnt and looted by a mix of impoverished Druze and Bedouin, while many indigenous Orthodox Christians who lived in poverty-stricken Midan outside the walls to the south were spared and protected by their Muslim neighbors. The same resentments based on privilege and inequalities are building in today’s Syria, as churches in Homs and Aleppo are rebuilt and refurbished while the vast Sunni suburbs and their local mosques remain flattened. Only the flagship Aleppo Umayyad mosque and the Homs Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque are being rebuilt for show, as empty shells.

Newly made church pews in Homs about to be varnished.
Newly made church pews in Homs about to be varnished. Photo by the author.
Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque under restoration, funded by Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov, a key ally of Russia's Putin.
Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque under restoration, funded by Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, a key ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Photo by the author.
Khalid ibn al-Waleed Mosque in Homs, restored to a very rudimentary standard by the regime's Al-Iskan al-Askeri, the Military Housing outfit.
Khalid ibn al-Waleed Mosque in Homs, restored to a very rudimentary standard by the regime’s Al-Iskan al-Askeri, the Military Housing outfit. Photo by the author.

The 1860 war, like the war that rages today in Syria, was often mislabeled a civil war. Episodes of persecution were frequently misread by Europeans as sectarian, rather than economic, in nature.

But as with the current war, it only exacerbated the root cause of the grievances, deepening foreign interference. In the wake of French troops educational and philanthropic agencies began to arrive, often run by Catholic missionaries, founding orphanages, boarding schools, and dispensaries in which their own religion was privileged.

Engineering demographic change

Once the French took over Syria after World War I under their mandate, they continued their “divide and rule” methods by creating separate statelets, including for the Alawis and the Druze. But their attempts were resisted in the Great Revolt of 1925, which began in the southern Druze region. The Syrian people showed their innate pluralism by refusing to identify themselves by sect. Not until after the Ba’athist coup in 1963 did sectarian sentiment in Syria begin in earnest, when the sense of exclusion felt by many Sunnis led to the first real appearance of Sunni Islamist militancy in the 1980s, the trigger for the Muslim Brotherhood Hama massacre led by Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad.

From 2012 onward “starve or surrender/reconciliation” deals were imposed on populations perceived to be disloyal. The first such deal was in Homs, where opponents of the Assad government were transported out in the famous “green buses” to the rebellious Idlib Province, whose population has now swelled to bursting with more and more displaced rebels, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. By late 2016, after half the Syrian population had been displaced and Syrian citizenship had been granted to tens of thousands of Iranian mercenaries who had fought to keep him in power, Bashar boasted to an American interviewer that “the social fabric is much better than before.”

Demographic change continues to be engineered or precipitated in today’s war, as it has been throughout Syria’s history. Centuries ago Sayf al-Dawla, founder of the Hamdanid dynasty, relocated the entire Shi’a population of Harran (in today’s Turkey) to repopulate his capital Aleppo after it had been ravaged by a Byzantine attack. After the end of the Crimean War, the Russians, needing to create a Christian majority, brought in Christians and by 1865 had pushed over half a million Muslims out into the Ottoman heartlands. In 1939 the French separated the Sanjak of Alexandretta from Syria and ceded it to Turkey, triggering the exodus of thousands of Armenians and Arabic-speaking Alawi, Sunni, and Christian refugees into northern Syria. In 1967 after capturing the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, Israel began almost immediately to settle Israeli Jews there, before illegally annexing the territory in 1981. Israeli maps show it as Israeli territory, not as Syrian territory occupied by Israel. Official Syrian maps continue to show both the Golan and the Sanjak of Alexandretta (renamed Hatay by Turkey) as part of Syria. Future maps of Syria will no doubt vary depending on who publishes them.

The ultimate irony is that within so-called secular Syria as represented by the nominally secular Ba’ath Party, in power under the Assads for the last 50 years, sectarianism has been consistently on the rise. The mentality has been you have either been a Ba’athist or not. You are either with us or against us. Loyal Ba’athists have been protected, be they Sunni, Alawi, Christian or whatever. Those perceived as disloyal to the Ba’athist Party have been punished, either through imprisonment, detention or torture.

Before the Assads, religious identities were pluralistic, and were only relevant at the social level. They were not politicized or institutionalized. The Assad legacy is to have turned Syria into a sectarian society for its own ends, following the French mandate model, setting community against community. But once Assad and his dynasty are gone, the Muslim-majority Syrian society will, in time, revert to its natural state of tolerance and co-existence with religious minorities, given the chance. It is the default position of every Syrian I know. All of them mourn the current triumph of Assad’s mock-secular sectarianism and pray collectively for its speedy passing.


This article first appeared on 12 April 2021 as part of a series written for MEI, the Middle East Institute based in Washington DC, where I am a non-resident scholar on their Syria Program:


The ‘Saracen’ Secrets of European – and American – Architecture

Cross-section of the Washington DC Capitol Dome, showing the Islamic double dome vaulting technique

England’s greatest architect, Sir Christopher Wren, wrote that what we call “the Gothic style should more rightly be called the Saracen style.” Americans, it seems, are especially fond of Gothic. Across the continent are spectacular Gothic Revival structures, many modelled on the medieval cathedrals of England and France, such as St. John the Divine and St. Patrick’s in New York City, Washington National Cathedral, and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, GA. On top of that, America boasts the world’s biggest collection of neo-Gothic architecture in its universities, colleges, and schools. What accounts for that popularity?

America’s leading neo-Gothic architect, Ralph Adams Cram, wrote in his book Gothic Quest about the power of architecture “to bend men and sway them.” Like the fervent European Gothic Revival architects before him, such as Augustus Pugin, designer of the clock tower commonly known as Big Ben for the Houses of Parliament in London, Cram believed that Gothic was the “purest” form.

Big Ben London UK
The neo-Gothic clock tower commonly known as “Big Ben,” attached to London’s Houses of Parliament, was designed by Augustus Pugin, sometimes called “God’s Architect” because of his devout Catholic faith. (Dietmar RabichLondon (UK), Elizabeth Tower, -Big Ben- — 2010 — 1979CC BY-SA 4.0)

While studying classical architecture in Rome, he had an epiphany during a Christmas Eve mass, thereafter becoming an Anglo-Catholic. Like his fellow neo-Gothic enthusiasts in Europe, and indeed like many Europeans today, for him Gothic architecture epitomized the Catholic faith. The commonly held view of Gothic’s provenance was that it represented Europe’s shared heritage. Although such Eurocentrism remains deeply rooted, serious scholarship has questioned just how “European” the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine civilizations that preceded the era of Gothic actually were, since all three empires were multicultural and multiethnic. Few of the later Roman emperors were ethnically Italian and even fewer Byzantine rulers were ethnically Greek.

The Islamic roots of Gothic architecture

The time has come to examine Gothic in the same way, since Cram never realized, along with Americans and Europeans in general, that key elements of Gothic architecture — the pointed arch, the trefoil arch, ribbed vaulting, and many other features — were born, not in Europe, but further east, often evolving from styles that were associated with a completely different religion.

Even Eurocentric architects cannot deny that the pointed arch had its origins in Islamic architecture. It appeared in the 7th century Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built as the first Muslim shrine by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, and was then further developed under the Abbasids in Baghdad.

Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built as a Muslim shrine in the late 7th century. Its design features were widely copied by the medieval Crusaders and brought back to Europe in the 12th century. (Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

It went on to become the defining feature of Islamic religious buildings. The trefoil arch, so enthusiastically adopted by Gothic architecture as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, first appeared as a carved decorative feature in Umayyad shrines and desert palaces. Byzantine church architecture, which the Umayyad caliphate inherited, had round Roman arches and single domes, like Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia. There was not a pointed or trefoil arch in sight, let alone ribbed vaulting.

Mezquite de Cordoba Mihrab
Trefoil arches above the mihrab in the Cordoba Mezquita, predating their use in Gothic cathedrals by over a hundred years. (Ingo MehlingCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

From Syria and their capital Damascus, the Umayyads brought these elements to Spain in the 8th century, re-using them in their main mosque of Cordoba, still known today as the Mezquita, Spanish for “mosque,” even though it was converted to a Catholic cathedral at the Reconquista. The 10th century ribbed vaulting of the Mezquita’s main dome was analyzed in 2017 by Spanish architectural engineers and pronounced the most perfect example of geometry, never once needing structural repair in its thousand-year existence.

Cupula de la Maqsura
The perfect geometry of the ribbed vaulting in the Cordoba Mezquita, predating Gothic rib-vaulted ceilings by over a century. (Ruggero Poggianella – FlickrCordoba, la Mezquita CC BY-SA 2.0)

The masons’ marks displayed on the rear wall show the names to be overwhelmingly Muslim, unsurprisingly, since their grasp of geometry and their stonemasonry was recognized as far superior to that of their European counterparts. It was no coincidence that Spanish Christian kings like Alfonso XI and Pedro the Cruel insisted on Mudéjar (Muslim) craftsmen for their building projects.

From Spain, these skills and styles passed into southern France where they were gradually incorporated into Benedictine abbeys and Cluniac shrines on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. The same styles also found their way into Europe from vibrant Islamic cities like Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo, passing first via Italian trading ports like Amalfi, then via the Norman, Arab-influenced architecture of Sicily.

Amalfi cathedral, showing the pointed arches first copied from the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo. The cathedral was financed by Amalfi merchants trading with Cairo. (Berthold WernerCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The returning Crusaders, ironically, set up new kingdoms in the 12th century, mimicking the styles of their conquered enemies, whom they called the Saracens, meaning “people who steal.” The Norman French brought the styles back to Normandy, where they synthesized them into what was originally just called “French work” in cathedrals like Notre-Dame and Chartres, before importing the style into England, under Norman rule at the time, in buildings like Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

Roof of Bell Harry Tower
Fan vaulting of the crossing inside Canterbury Cathedral. (Tobiasvonderhaar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Westminster Abbey Chapter House
Pointed arches, trefoil arches and ribbed vaulting in the Chapter House, Westminster Abbey. (ChrisVTG PhotographyCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Only centuries later was it misleadingly dubbed “Gothic” by an Italian art historian, the same person who coined the term “Renaissance.” In Spain, it was called the “Gothic of the Catholic Kings.” Eurocentrism at work again.

From Spain to North America

In North America, it is easy to forget that when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1492, they came from a world in which Christians and Muslims had shared rule for nearly 800 years. The Spanish colonizers did not build in the style of the native Americans whose lands they took, but imported the styles of their homeland, just as the Umayyads had recreated the Syrian styles of their homeland in Spain, modelling the Cordoba Mezquita on the Damascus Umayyad Mosque. The influence of “the Moors,” as the Muslims were known, can be found in practically every style of Spain from the 8th century onwards, with its unmistakable tinge of Orientalism.

The Spanish missions in California and Arizona, founded by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order in the 18th and 19th centuries, also imported the styles of their homeland, and Moorish designs are evident in San Xavier del Bac and San Luis Rey de Francia.

San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier del Bac, near Tucson, Arizona, with its Moorish-inspired exterior. (KeyanyCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Taking inspiration from English Oxford and Cambridge colleges, “Collegiate Gothic,” as it is known, began in 19th century America with church-like libraries at prestigious universities such as Harvard’s Gore Hall.

Harvard's Gore Hall
Harvard’s Gore Hall. (G.G. Smith, engraver, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The popularity of Collegiate Gothic endures into the 21st century, with prominent “new” buildings still seen as representing the pinnacle of sophistication, such as Yale’s Benjamin Franklin College and Princeton’s Whitman College. Much of Yale’s campus can be considered “Gothic,” including Yale Law School.

Yale Law School Sterling Building
Yale’s Sterling Law Building, home to the Yale Law School. (Shmitra, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Europe too there is still one famous neo-Gothic church under construction. Its Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudí, another devout Catholic, openly acknowledged the influence of Islamic architecture in his masterpiece, the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. It is a style we might call Hispano-Saracenic-Gothic, representing the ultimate fusion of nature, geometry, and religion. A multinational team is collaborating to complete it in time for the 2026 centenary of Gaudí’s death, using materials from all over the world.

Sagrada Familia
The still unfinished Hispano-Saracenic-Gothic cathedral of La Sagrada Família, Barcelona. (C messierCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

On top of all the “Saracen,” “Moorish” elements we have identified in so-called “Gothic” buildings, there is still one more surprising thing to take in: The Capitol building in Washington, DC owes a debt to Islamic architecture, through its double dome.

U.S. Capitol building
The United States Capitol, with its double dome, a “Saracen” technique where the interior and exterior have different profiles, leaving a hollow in between. (SdkbCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is the technique, first used in Seljuk tombs and later Ottoman mosques by the great court architect Sinan, where the exterior profile is taller, in order to make a bold silhouette on the skyline, than the interior dome, which is lower, with a hollow space in between. The clever device was copied across Europe, notably by Wren in his iconic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London where he openly admitted use of what he called “Saracen vaulting.” That is why the cover my new book, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe shows the interior dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Surely if there is a lesson in all of this, it is that no one “owns” architecture, just as no one “owns” science. Everything builds on everything else.

How wonderful it would be, in this current age of Islamophobia and nationalism, if we could acknowledge the ties that bind us, often in mysterious and unseen ways, rather than seeking to airbrush them out of our history. My hope is that an enhanced understanding of the shared elements of Christian and Islamic architecture might encourage us toward a broader inter-religious dialogue, even with those we may sometimes have seen as “the enemy.”

A version of this article first appeared on the website of the Washington-based thinktank The Middle East Institute:


Hagia Sophia, not just a building…

Hagia Sophia exterior

Hagia Sophia’s conversion from a museum into a mosque has seen thousands and thousands of words committed to the page across the globe.

Most of it recycles the same information – that the great church was built in the sixth century under the Byzantine emperor Justinian, that it was converted to a mosque when Mehmed the Conqueror captured Constantinople in 1453 and that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, repurposed it as a museum in 1934.

All this is true but misses so much of the flavour and historical context of this hugely important building.

The tone of much western coverage is pained, as if the Hagia Sophia is somehow part of a European Christian cultural heritage now wrenched away into the dark folds of Islam by a Turkish president with neo-Ottoman delusions.

There can be no doubt that President Erdogan does indeed have his own agenda for converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and his timing is clearly political. It heightens his popularity with his core Islamic supporters at a time when the Coronavirus pandemic is running amok with Turkey’s struggling economy, and provides a welcome distraction. He makes no apology for his actions – and an Optimar poll show 60% of Turks support the move.

The important thing to understand is that the Hagia Sophia – like so many religious buildings – has its own highly political backstory. As ever the architecture reflects the politics in visible form and the current events are but the latest in a long line of twists and turns.

Ethnically diverse

The first church on the site was built in 360, but there is no evidence that it had Christian mosaics on the walls of the type found from the fifth and sixth century onwards. Walls instead were covered with marble revetments, plaster, and painted and gilded stucco in decorative patterns. Constantine denuded virtually every city in the empire of its pagan statuary to adorn Constantinople, his new Rome, just as Justinian scoured the empire for precious marble two centuries later, like the eight green columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, to build Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia marble columns from Ephesus

When the Western Roman Empire and Rome itself collapsed in 476, Constantinople became the largest and wealthiest city in Europe, and the influences upon it were wide and varied, including from the Roman Latin culture, the Egyptian Copts, the Thracians, Macedonians, Illyrians, Bythinians, Carians, Phrygians, Armenians, Lydians, Galatians, Paphlagonians, Lycians, Syrians, Cilicians, Misians, Cappadocians, Persians, and later the Arab Muslims.

Many Europeans call the Byzantine Empire ‘Greek’, when in practice it was very ethnically diverse. Greeks composed a relatively small portion of this multi-ethnic empire, and most Byzantine emperors were not ethnic Greeks.

Justinian was obliged to build the current Hagia Sophia after it was damaged beyond repair by angry crowds protesting his high taxes. According to art historian John Lowden, Justinian was ‘a person of vision and extraordinary energy, both intensely pious and utterly ruthless … his military ambitions matched by his grandiose building programme.’

Reconstructing Hagia Sophia

To re-establish control as quickly as possible, he commissioned two famous architects in 532, both from western Asia Minor, to complete the project with a huge workforce over an intense five-year period. Both ignored numerous stylistic quotations and detailed instructions from the emperor to come up with their own unique creation, universally recognised as the highpoint of Byzantine architecture and admired round the world for the stunning achievement of the central dome.

A very different image is conveyed by the western European Latin manuscript now held in the Vatican Library, in which an enormous Justinian, many times bigger than the Hagia Sophia itself, is seen directing a small, rather nervous-looking mason who is balancing on a ladder.

The inspiration for Hagia Sophia was never Hadrian’s Pantheon, but earlier Eastern traditions. St Simeon’s Basilica, in Syria west of Aleppo, completed in 490, was the largest and most important religious establishment in the world for fifty years before the construction of Hagia Sophia.

It also inspired the UNESCO World Heritage Site basilicas of Ravenna, briefly capital of the Western Roman Empire, where all the bishops up till 425 were Syrian and whose patron saint Apollinaris was a native of Antioch.

Famed across Europe as a site of pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostela of its day, St Simeon’s could hold 10,000 worshippers, more than Notre-Dame de Paris or the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny.

The heavenly temple

Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for over a thousand years, a major influence on and inspiration for future religious architecture, both Christian and Muslim. A series of earthquakes caused it to fall in 558, just twenty years after it was completed, by which time Justinian was seventy-six and both architects had died.

Sections of this second dome, completed in 562, collapsed again in 989 and in 1346, but were restored and repaired without material change. It was a remarkable achievement, openly praised by later Ottoman historians—following the typical Byzantine tradition, they used language implying that the architect must have worked in direct union with God, with descriptions of a guardian angel watching over the church.

Even before the Ottoman conquest of the city, Islamic tradition had identified Hagia Sophia as the heavenly temple that the Prophet Muhammad had seen on his nocturnal journey to heaven from Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, which was understood to predestine the church’s conversion to a mosque.

In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, Hagia Sophia suffered the greatest damage in its long history, looted and sacked, along with the whole of Constantinople, thereby consummating a major schism between the Latin and Greek churches—Roman Catholics against Greek Orthodox Christians.

For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed.

The Fourth Crusade

The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Fourth Crusade and the crusading movement generally thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.

Pope Innocent III, who had unintentionally launched the ill-fated expedition, rebuked them:

“How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and devotion to the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. ..They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.”

The pope’s outrage however did not prevent him accepting the stolen jewels, gold, money and other valuables, and the Church was much enriched as a result. A great deal of this wealth was in turn repurposed into huge building projects throughout Europe— much of it decorates St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and some of it certainly would have helped to finance Europe’s Gothic cathedrals.

Remorse was expressed 800 years later by Pope John Paul II for the events of the Fourth Crusade. Writing to the archbishop of Athens in 2001, he said:

“It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret.”

Shared symbolism

When Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453, he permitted his armies three days of looting, as was the custom, but then called a halt.

Most churches were allowed to continue functioning, but the Hagia Sophia was adopted as a mosque. Mehmet erected a minaret and subsequent sultans erected three more, so there is now one at each corner, but the interior remains largely as it ever was.

There is much shared symbolism between Christianity and Islam in the meaning of the dome as the physical representation of heaven and the afterlife, but the flavour of Hagia Sophia as a building was always different to the sacred buildings of Rome like the pagan Pantheon and Michelangelo’s St Peter’s.

Its design was rooted in Eastern traditions, where Persian mausoleums had a circular dome resting on a square drum. The transition between the circle and the square resulted in an octagon, which came to represent, both in Christianity and Islam, the resurrection and the journey between earth and heaven, which is why so many tombs are octagonal in both religions.

As well as shared concepts, Christians and Muslims in the eastern Mediterranean enjoyed a common heritage of building materials, techniques and tools passed on from the Graeco-Roman, Persian and even earlier Etruscan worlds.

They also shared workers, builders and craftsmen, who moved around according to demand, following the next or the most profitable commission from a wealthy patron, no matter what his religion. Byzantine mosaicists, for example, were frequently employed to decorate Islamic mosques, such as the Dome of the Rock, the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, and the Cordoba Mezquita.

In 1573 the great Ottoman architect Sinan was commissioned to strengthen Hagia Sophia, which was again starting to show signs of possible collapse. Extra buttressing was added to the outside to ensure its resistance to earthquakes.

In total, twenty-four buttresses have been added over the centuries to ensure its stability, making its external appearance quite different to how it would have looked originally.

In today’s world of intense economic pressures, a final mention should be made of the loss of revenue to the Turkish treasury through the conversion of Haghia Sophia to a mosque. Like the Blue Mosque next door, and like all mosques in Turkey (unlike many cathedrals and churches in Europe) entry will now be free to all.

The entrance fee to Hagia Sophia as a museum was expensive, c$15 per person. Maybe we should celebrate the fact that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can today make repeated visits to admire the blended architecture of Christianity and Islam on display for free in this unique building, standing on its promontory between East and West.

This article first appeared in Middle East Eye on 31 July 2020:


Syrian Secrets rising from the ashes of Notre-Dame

1024px-Incendie_Notre_Dame_de_Paris Notre-Dame fire

Notre-Dame roof and spire aflame on 15 April 2019, but structure intact. Photo from Wikipedia LeLaisserPasserA38.

Who would have thought that last year’s catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame de Paris would reveal so many secrets from its ash? A team of scientists has been gathered under the leadership of a military general to conduct deep background research into the fabric of the cathedral, hoping to understand how on earth the medieval masons and craftsmen made the building stand up. Nothing was written down, no plans were used. The study will take an estimated six years, helping to guide the restoration work.

The fire also sparked my own desire to study further. This time last year I wrote an article explaining the architectural backstory of the cathedral, how, like all medieval Gothic cathedrals, the origins of its twin towers flanking a monumental west entrance, its pointed arches, its rose windows, its ribbed vaulting can all be traced to the Middle East. Now, after extensive research, I have discovered many more connections, all of them unexpected. The full results will appear in my forthcoming book Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture shaped Europe:  https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/stealing-from-the-saracens/

Meanwhile, here are just a few pointers, to give the flavour. Let’s start with the stained glass, thankfully still intact after the fire. Recent analyses of stained glass in the main cathedrals of England and France between 1200 and 1400 all show the same high plant ash composition typical of Syrian raw materials. High-grade Syrian plant ash soda, known as ‘the cinders of Syria’, was considered superior to the pre-Islamic Egyptian natron ash used by the Romans and the Byzantines in their glass manufacture, and all Venetian glass analysed from the 11th to the 16th centuries shows its consistent use, by law. Medieval Continental Europe imported the raw materials for all its glass since there was no known local source.

Coloured glass windows have been an integral and innovative element of Islamic architecture since the 7th century, starting with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock which carried coloured glass in its many high windows. They were known as shamsiyyat (from Arabic for sun) and qamariyyaat (from Arabic for moon), showing how the solar and lunar imagery of windows continued into European religious architecture. The Templar knights adopted the Dome of the Rock as their chief Christian shrine after the First Crusade, mistaking it for the Temple of Solomon, an error which resulted in many churches being modelled on a Muslim shrine. Notre-Dame’s famous rose windows on its west and north facades date from 1225-50 and are designed for the light to radiate out from the centre, hence the so-called Rayonnant style.

1280px-Gothic-Rayonnant_Rose-6 North rose window Notre Dame c1250

Notre-Dame Rayonnant-style North Rose Window, c1250, photo from Wikipedia, by Zachi Evenor and Julie Anne Workman, Aug 2010.

Light was also at the core of Gothic cathedral design.  Saint-Denis in north Paris was where the wealthy and powerful Abbot Suger first used Illuminationist thinking as the guiding principle in his new basilica. But who was Denis?

Paris_-_Cathédrale_Notre-Dame_-_Portail_de_la_Vierge_-_PA00086250_-_003 Notre Dame St Denis head

The martyr Denis, Bishop of Paris, holding his head after decapitation on Montmartre, Notre-Dame, Portal of the Virgin, photo from Wikipedia by Thesupermat, Sept 2011.

The Abbot and his contemporaries believed him to be a disciple of Paul, who later became confused with the first Bishop of Paris and patron saint of France, martyred on Montmartre. Centuries later, scholars realised that Denis’s influential work the Celestial Hierarchies, was in fact a hoax, written by a 5th century Syrian mystic monk calling himself Denis in order to get his philosophy noticed. As a result he is known in ecclesiastical circles as Pseudo-Denis, but his trick worked. Today the Basilica of Saint-Denis is universally acknowledged as the first true example of ‘Gothic’ with tall pointed arches enabling the lofty elegant choir. It was used thenceforth as the burial place of French kings.

1024px-Coeur_de_la_Basilique_de_Saint-Senis Saint Denis choir by Bordeled

Basilica of Saint Denis, the first, new, light-filled ‘Gothic’ choir, based on the philosophy of Denis, a 5th century Syrian mystic, photo from Wikipedia by Bordeled, July 2011.

The very symbol of French nationhood and French royalty is the fleur-de-lis. But where was that first seen as an emblem? On the plains of Syria the Crusaders copied the local sport of ‘jarid’, knightly jousting tournaments on horseback where the players attempted to dismount each other with a blunt javelin. Heraldry and the use of family or dynastic symbols was already in use under the Ayyubids and the fleur-de-lis first appeared in its true heraldic form, the three separate leaves tied together in the middle by a band, as the blazon of Nur al-Din ibn Zanki and on two of his monuments in Damascus. Later Mamluk helmets often had nasal guards terminating in a fleur-de-lis. The boy king of England, Henry VI, was crowned king of France aged ten inside Notre-Dame in 1431, against a backdrop of fleur-de-lis.

Sacre_Henry6_England-France_02 Henry VI of England Fleur-de-lis

Coronation of the boy king Henry VI as king of France inside Notre-Dame, against a backdrop of fleur-de-lis, photo from Wikipedia public domain.

Notre-Dame’s central portal carries a stone-carved allegory of Alchemy, a statue of a woman holding books with a ladder and staff. The very word comes from the Arabic al-kimya’ and in medieval times the Middle East was widely acknowledged as the home of advanced experimental science. The use of plant ash in glass was itself a kind of alchemy, an experiment in which the addition of the alkaline (from qily another Arabic word) plant called ushnaan to the silica of the crushed pebbles of the Euphrates produced the world’s finest and most delicate glass, based at Raqqa, the centre of the Syrian glass industry from the 9th to the 14th century. The addition of further chemicals coloured the glass, cobalt for blue, copper oxide for turquoise, manganese for purple/pink and so on.

Alegoría_de_la_alquimia_en_Notre-Dame Alchemy Allegory Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame Allegory of Alchemy on the central portal, photo from Wikipedia by Chosovi, April 2006.

But the ashes of ushnaan also had other properties. They had been used since biblical times as a cleaning agent (Aramaic shuana) where there was no access to water, both in personal hygiene and in clothes laundry. To this day it remains an essential natural ingredient in the Syrian soap industry, as the plant grows especially well south of Aleppo round the salt lake of Jaboul. This is what gives Aleppo soap such a wonderfully soft and silky feel on the skin. It even has the bubbles trapped inside just like the Syrian glass.

IMG_20200302_1634507 Stained glass Canterbury Cathedral c1180 V&A

Stained glass c1180 from Canterbury Cathedral, showing the trapped bubbles from the plant ash. These bubbles also gave the glass extra strength, making it less liable to fracture.  Photo by Diana Darke, taken 3 March 2020 in the V&A Museum, London

The team of scientists at Notre-Dame have made their own unlikely cleaning discovery – that the best way to remove the toxic yellow lead dust from the stained glass windows without danger to the colours is to use baby wipes from Monoprix. The commercial chemical wipes risked being too abrasive. Gentle Aleppo soap would no doubt be even better. How fitting it would be if the cathedral could be cleaned using the very same plant ash that is already inside its stained glass windows.


Syrian soap from Aleppo, with bubbles, made using Syrian plant ash known as ushnaan, famous for its natural cleansing properties, photo by Diana Darke, taken 31 March 2020

A version of this article first appeared in Middle East Eye on 14 April 2020:


The ‘Forgotten Cities’ of Idlib at risk in Syria’s war

20190425181743_01Kharrab Shams

One of the earliest churches in the Dead Cities, Kharrab Shams, dated to 372. [photo copyright Diana Darke, Feb 2005.]

The haunting beauty of Syria’s so-called ‘Dead Cities’, once seen, is never forgotten. Here on the wild and magical hills of northwest Syria nestles the world’s richest repository of 4th, 5th and 6th century churches – over 2,000, spread among hundreds of early Byzantine settlements. Together, they represent the transition from Roman paganism to the zeal of early Christianity, providing unique evidence in stone of the influence of Syrian styles on the subsequent evolution of European Romanesque and Gothic religious architecture. 

But today, like the three million souls currently kettled in Idlib province, they are utterly forgotten. Bygone inhabitants grew prosperous from production of olive oil and wine, as their stone presses testify. Today’s cash crop is cigarette tobacco, lifeblood of the war.


The olive presses in a 5th century villa at Serjilla. [copyright Diana Darke, July 2020]

Ironically, Syria’s Tourism Ministry rebranded the ruins ‘The Forgotten Cities’ before the war, imagining high-end walking tours for romantically-minded visitors amid the bucolic landscapes.

So forgotten were they, that UNESCO only recognised as them as a World Heritage Site in June 2011, calling them ‘Ancient Villages of Northern Syria’. Confusion over what to call them remains, but beyond doubt is their astonishing state of preservation. The ancestor of France’s beloved Notre-Dame Cathedral still stands on a remote hilltop in rebel-held Idlib, its familiar twin-towered facade flanking a monumental entrance.


The facade at Qalb Lozeh, with three-storey towers flanking a monumental entrance, c. 450 [copyright Diana Darke, July 2010]

Crafted from local limestone c.450, it has survived wars, earthquakes and centuries of use as a playground for village children, never requiring buttressing in over 1500 years. Known as Qalb Lozeh, Arabic ‘Heart of the Almond’ (cf crème de la crème), its flamboyant doorway was designed to welcome eager pilgrims en route to hear the eccentric St Simeon preach from his pillar, a day’s walk northeast.

Much closer, in the valley below, today’s Qalb Lozeh villagers would have heard the explosions from Barisha on 27 October 2019, when ISIS chief Al-Baghdadi was ‘taken out’ by US special forces. Idlib’s rugged karst geography makes it natural guerrilla territory, with perfect caves for rebel hideouts.

Hermits too have long sought refuge in these caves. St Simeon Stylites, son a local farmer, was the most celebrated hermit of his day, moving from a cave to a pillar (Greek ‘stylos’) to escape the crowds who pursued him. When he died in 459 after living 36 years on top of his pillar, the Byzantine Emperor ordered the construction of four basilicas and a walk-in baptistery to mark the spot. The resulting St Simeon’s Basilica complex, completed in 490, was the Santiago de Compostela of its day, the first centred church beneath a dome, not surpassed in all of Christendom till Hagia Sophia in 537. Its curved apse (chevet) and the finely sculpted ornamentation on its lintels, arches, mouldings and facades herald the many subsequent architectural refinements of Constantinople and Europe.


The chevet at St Simeon’s Basilica, completed by 490. [copyright Diana Darke]

The magnificent complex was badly damaged in May 2016 by Russian airstrikes blowing what remained of St Simeon’s pillar to pieces.


What remained of the pillar of St Simeon Stylites, at the centre of the four basilicas in July 2010. [copyright, Diana Darke]

Today the raised hilltop is the site of a Turkish observation post.

Turkish powers of observation are evidently not the sharpest, for on 17 December 2019 the disappearance was reported from Ain Dara, an unusual neo-Hittite temple overlooking the lush Afrin valley just north of St Simeon’s, of a giant basalt lion, guardian of the site for 3000 years. Now feared smuggled across the Turkish border, it represented Mesopotamian fertility goddess Ishtar, popularised through Agatha Christie’s Curse of Ishtar set in Iraq where Christie, who worked on excavations in northern Syria with archaeologist husband Max Mallowan, helped save ancient treasures under threat. In January 2018 the temple was 60% destroyed by Turkish air force shelling.


The claws of mythical beasts carved in the basalt stone of the 3000 year-old Ishtar Temple at Ain Dara [Copyright Diana Darke, July 2010]


The giant footprints of Ishtar entering the Ain Dara temple, a unique feature in the region. [copyright Max Darke, July 2010]

The routine Russian/Syrian bombing of Idlib’s schools and hospitals barely makes the headlines these days. Neither does the displacement of thousands of its poverty-stricken civilians into cold and muddy olive groves. Idlib’s inhabitants and culture are both ‘Forgotten’ and ‘Dead’, abandoned to their fate.

But we give up on the region at our peril.

Unmoved by massive loss of life and heritage, hard core Islamist extremists are digging in for the long haul. Most are not local, but with northwest Syria now home to the world’s largest concentration of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, the next iteration of ISIS may even now be incubating, soon to emerge from the caves of Idlib, to wreak more damage on Syria’s battered people and culture.

20190426120125_01 Church of Bissos Ruweiha

The Church of Bissos, Ruweiha, 6th century [copyright Diana Darke, February 2005]

A version of this article appeared on the BBC website on 8 February 2020:




Sharjah – the ‘Green’ and ‘Virtuous’ Emirate

As I floated in the balmy waters of the Gulf, the clammy embrace of a plastic bag reminded me that even Sharjah, the self-proclaimed “eco-emirate” and “cultural capital” of the UAE, cannot control the sea.

On land, its 80-year-old ruler has always tried to steer a more enlightened course than the other six emirates. With a total ban on alcohol, it is also the “dry” emirate, free from the boozy brunches and cocktail-fuelled nightclubs of neighbouring Dubai.

I lived in the Emirates during the booming 90s, and everyone says life is much harder now – less work, lower salaries, higher costs. So how is green and virtuous Sharjah coping in today’s cut-throat commercial world?


From commerce to culture – Sharjah has turned a former shopping mall into its Museum of Islamic Civilisation (Copyright Diana Darke)

First off I wanted to revisit some of Sharjah’s many museums. Most are clustered in town round the Book Roundabout, but my favourite, the Natural History Museum, is set all by itself in the desert beyond the new airport. It tackles no less a subject than creation itself, using hi-tech to the full, bombarding all the senses. At the entrance a Quranic quote proclaims:

Assuredly the creation Of the heavens And the earth Is a greater matter Than the creation of man: Yet most men Understand not. (Sura 40, Verse 58)

To digest such profundity I sat in the cafe, just as before, eating organic cake, watched by hungry wolves on the other side of a window – they are in the open, while the humans are confined. The whole concept was the brainchild of Marycke Jongbloed, a Dutch expat GP and nature-lover who became one of the UAE’s first environmentalists.  In 1991 she wrote her eye-opening Green Guide to the Emirates, giving guidance on how to avoid damage to wildlife habitats during aptly named ‘wadi-bashing’ excursions in 4WDs.


Desert driving in 4WDs damages far more habitats than most people realise (Copyright Diana Darke)

She explained how the delicate relationship between animals, plants and man in the desert had remained undisturbed for centuries, but how the advent of the rifle then changed that balance forever.


Oryx only exist in captivity now (copyright Diana Darke)

The last oryx was wiped out in 1972, hunted for sport. Motorised hunting parties with dozens of vehicles would slaughter whole herds. After no such sport was left in their own countries, Arabian princes and their entourages went instead to kill the wildlife of other countries like Jordan and Iraq where a Qatari hunting party was caught (and ransomed) as late as 2016.

Marycke is long gone, and her Green Guide is out of print, but the oryx, gazelle, tahr goats, sandcats, and Arabian leopard live on in her museum and in the adjacent breeding centre. New labels tell of endangered species, giving facts and figures, but not a word about the hunting pastime which brought them to near extinction. The houbara bustard fixes me, the only visitor, mistrustfully with his beady eye, and who can blame him?

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The suspicious-eyed Houbara Bastard, near extinct (copyright Diana Darke)

In pre-oil days Sharjah was wealthier than either Abu Dhabi or Dubai, thanks to a bustling trading port at its Creek, run by the powerful Qawasim seafaring tribe. Earlier in the 20th century Sharjah was also the headquarters of the British-sponsored Trucial Oman Scouts, with an RAF base and a residence for the British political agent. As such it had a stronger British presence than any other emirate, thanks to the ruler’s agreement in 1932 that allowed the British to build an airstrip, the UAE’s first. The rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras Al-Khaimah had all refused. This brought Sharjah valuable extra revenue at a time when the pearling industry had virtually ceased because of the arrival of Japanese cultured pearls.


Sharjah’s Creek is still bustling with old dhows, traditionally trading with Iran and India. (Copyright Diana Darke)

Oil was discovered in Sharjah in commercial quantities in the 1970s, enough to enable it to improve its infrastructure. But it remains poorer than most of its oil-rich neighbours, forced to diversify while struggling with rapid urbanisation and high population growth.

On this trip I spoke to as many young Sharjans as I could about their own culture and environment. Not a single one had even heard of the Natural History Museum. The sad truth, it seems, is that Emirati youth is not really that interested. What excites them, I discovered, was global culture, especially international sports celebrities, many of whom ironically, in a perverse reversal of the Arabian hunting parties, are being lured by hefty prize money to come and play in fancy new venues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Sharjah can’t compete on that front, but it scores higher on churches and Russians. There were always a few back in the Nineties – churches and Russians – but now there are lots. The biggest church, not just in Sharjah but in all the UAE, is the Russian Orthodox,

Sharjah Russian Orthodox Church

Sharjah’s Russian Orthodox Church of St Philip the Apostle in the Al-Yarmouk area of town, on land allotted by the Sharjah ruler to the Russian Orthodox community in 2007 (photo credit, Asghan Khan, Gulf News)

with capacity for 20,000 worshippers, in elegant Byzantine architecture complete with turquoise onion domes. Hundreds of thousands of Russians a year now visit, lured not just by the churches, but also by the cheaper hotels, lower rents and tax-free fur coats. If they miss alcohol they just stock up in Ajman, the mini-emirate next-door.

Today’s version of Marycke Jongbloed, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, would suffer heart failure if ever she came to the Gulf. The UAE’s climate policies have been called out as ‘highly insufficient’ by the independent Climate Action Tracker. The Emirates collectively per capita have one of the biggest carbon footprints in the world and the highest waste generation. Moves are afoot to counter that image, with Dubai’s ‘Sustainable City’ and another twice the size planned in Sharjah, but it may just be PR.


The ‘Wild Wadi’ theme park sits alongside Burj al-Arab, a luxury hotel on its own artificial island, where the Royal Suite costs $24,000 a night. It is on the beach in Dubai. (copyright Diana Darke)

Greta has accused world leaders of ‘clever accounting and creative PR’ to make it look as if they are doing something, while in practice doing little. Dubai could give a masterclass in such skills. The campaign to promote its EXPO 2020, billed as ‘the World’s Greatest Show’ is in full swing under the slogan ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ with a major sub-theme of ‘sustainability.’

The pioneering Marycke hoped that education was the key, that her Green Guide would change behaviour, teaching people to understand the desert. ‘And if you become thus involved,’ she wrote, ‘surely you will not leave plastic bags, bottles and cans lying around…’

Decades later, the proliferation of plastic, on land and at sea, suggests her message – and Greta’s – are still falling on deaf ears.

A version of this article appeared in Middle East Eye on 22 December 2020: https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/sharjah-really-green-and-virtuous-emirate

Diana Darke is a Middle East cultural expert with special focus on Syria. A graduate in Arabic from Oxford University, she has spent over 30 years specialising in the Middle East and Turkey, working for both government and commercial sectors. She is the author of several books on Middle East society, including My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis (2016), The Merchant of Syria (2018) and co-author of The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo (2019). Her upcoming book Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture shaped Europe will be published in June 2020, and can be pre-ordered at a discount for £17.60 here:

NATO’s dilemma over the controversial Turkey/Syria border & the Kurds who straddle it

On 22 November 2019 I gave the annual John Martin lecture to the British Society of Turkish Area Studies (BATAS) at Regent’s University, London. My chosen title was ‘Turkey and Syria: deep past connections and deep present differences’, picked months earlier in order to focus attention on what had been, in my view, the long neglected border between Turkey and Syria. Little did I know that it would become, just weeks before the talk, the focus of worldwide attention after a phone call between President Trump and President Erdogan on 6 October 2019. The call was quickly followed by two connected events – the sudden US troop withdrawal from northeast Syria and Turkey’s incursion into Syria to create a long-demanded 30km deep safe zone along the border.

Originally agreed by the French and the new Turkish Republic after World War I, much of the border follows the course of the Berlin to Baghdad railway. A vastly long 822km line running from the Mediterranean eastwards, it crosses the Euphrates River and ends in Syria’s northeast corner where the Tigris River forms the border with Iraq.

It is an area I know well, having visited southeastern Turkey regularly since the late 1970s when first writing and then updating my Bradt guides to Eastern Turkey and to Syria. In fact it was where my feet first touched Turkish soil, after crossing from Syria at the Bab al-Hawa border post in my ancient Citroen 2CV. I therefore discovered Turkey ‘backwards’, entering from the east. At that time Syria was the safe haven, Lebanon was in the grip of civil war (I had just been evacuated from MECAS, my Arabic school in the hills above Beirut) and most of eastern Turkey was under martial law.

Syria engraving by John Tallis & J.Rapkin, c1851, showing wilayats of Aleppo,Tripoli, Acre, Beirut, Gaza (Diana Darke own copy)

To give an overview, I began the lecture by showing a series of historical maps of the region, starting from Ottoman times, when there were no physical borders, only administrative boundaries for tax purposes. The maps showed how, after World War I, what had been the Ottoman province of Syria gradually became smaller and smaller, losing Jerusalem, Gaza and Nablus to Britain in the south, losing Lebanon to a separate state created by the French, and losing the Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay) to Turkey in 1939. Syrian maps to this day still show Hatay as part of Syria, since the land transfer by the French was in clear breach of the terms of their Mandate.

Map of Syria drawn by N. Partamian in 1953, showing Banias in the Golan and Antioch within Syrian borders (Diana Darke, own copy)

Perhaps the least known historical map, and the one most relevant to today, is the one I discovered in the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient in Damascus, which shows the religious and ethnic groupings inside Syria and Lebanon. It was compiled by the French Mandate authorities ruling the region in 1935, and it marks the areas inhabited by Kurds along the Turkish border. These Kurds arrived after World War I as refugees from Mustafa Kemal’s new Turkish Republic. Non-Turkish minorities who stayed in Turkey were obliged to assimilate into a new all-Turkish identity and forgo their own cultural identities, so many left, either voluntarily or forcibly. The Kurds who crossed into Syria were later granted Syrian citizenship by the French Mandate authorities, only to have it taken away again by the Ba’athist government in 1962, which left 300,000 of them stateless, known as ‘bidoon’ (Arabic for ‘without’). President Assad of Syria hastily announced he would grant them citizenship in reaction to the 2011 uprising against him, but the UN estimates there are still 160,000 stateless Kurds inside Syria and that the remainder have mainly left the country.


This 1935 French map also clearly shows that the area in which Turkey has now created its ‘safe zone’, the stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, was historically a Sunni Arab and Turkmen dominated region, a fact well known to Turkey and which is why it chose to begin its ‘safe zone’ operation here. Kurds settled there only since 2012 during the Syrian civil war, often displacing the original Sunni Arab population, as part of their push for an autonomous Kurdish region here – what they call Rojava, meaning ‘Western Kurdistan’. These Kurds belong to the PYD, the strongest of the seven main Syrian Kurdish political parties, founded in 2003. Though it seeks to deny such links today, the Syrian PYD is so closely affiliated with the Turkish PKK Kurdish political separatist party that it was commonly referred to as its Syrian wing. When the Assad regime army quietly withdrew from these border regions in 2012, the PYD were quick, as the best organised Kurdish group, to take their place, and have also kept lines of communication open to the Syrian Assad regime, which continued to operate Qamishli airport and to pay local salaries for civil servants and teachers.   

Both the Syrian Kurdish PYD and the Turkish Kurdish PKK parties follow the ideology and teachings of the jailed Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, a fact that is made clear by his face appearing outdoors in flags on the battlefield and indoors in PYD office buildings. 


In my lecture I considered the historic unity of the region, as revealed by the shared architecture of cities like Aleppo and Gaziantep built under the same Ottoman governor, shared trade, and the shared geography of the Fertile Crescent, where dams on the Euphrates have turned deforested plains into productive fields of cotton and wheat. Next I explained about the pockets of Christianity that straddle the border, looking at monasteries that have been newly established on old foundations by Syriac monks like Father Joachim of Mar Augen, on the ridge above Nusaybin in Turkey, looking out over Qamishli in Syria.


Many Syriac communities and other minorities found refuge here after escaping from the Sayfo massacre by the Kurds in 1915. When I had first visited Mar Augen in the 1980s the ruins were being lived in by a Yezidi family.

Before the current Syrian war, the border was very open and easy to cross. There were no visa requirements for Syrians and Turks to cross into each other’s countries, and as a result, many Syrians holidayed in Turkey and vice versa. President Erdogan and President Assad even holidayed together, in a symbol of these close ties.

But this porous border became a problem once jihadi fighters of all nationalities, including Europeans, started crossing it to join ISIS in its newly-proclaimed caliphate based in Raqqa, on the Euphrates in eastern Syria from 2013 onwards. Assad saw Raqqa as a provincial backwater and ignored the rise of ISIS there. Erdogan also underestimated what ISIS would become and was accused of turning a blind eye.

The four-month battle for Kobane in September 2015 was the turning point, when US fighter jets teamed up with PYD Kurdish fighters on the ground to expel ISIS from the city – the US/Kurdish coalition was born. Erdogan protested loudly from the start about this alliance between America and the Kurdish separatists it has considered terrorists since the 1980s when the PKK first began a long-running guerrilla war against the Turkish army in which 45,000 lives were lost. The PYD, in an effort to legitimise themselves in the eyes of the outside world, formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by recruiting some local Arab and Syriac fighters, but it was always Kurdish-dominated. To help understand, consider for example what would happen if Basque separatists, regarded as terrorists by the Spanish government, were to team up with the French army to defeat a group like ISIS. Spain would no doubt have been equally vocal about its displeasure from the outset.

In other words, the current problem that countries like France have with fellow NATO member Turkey’s actions against the PYD Kurds was foreseeable from the start. Turkey was willing to use its own army, but France and others in the US-led coalition against ISIS took the short term, expedient method of fighting ISIS using PYD Kurdish boots on the ground who were already there and only too willing to partner with the US and its allies. These PYD Syrian Kurds wanted to defend their Kurdish majority cities like Kobane and they knew it would play well to them and their image in the long-term, if they were seen to be reliable partners against ISIS.

They also showed themselves to be experts in PR, campaigning in Moscow, in Washington and in European capitals for support of their Rojava project – PYD offices abroad have opened in Moscow, Prague, KRG Sulaymaniyah, Stockholm, Berlin and Paris. Photo features on their Kurdish Kalashnikov-wielding female fighters have appeared so often in the western media that you could almost be forgiven for thinking the female fighters defeated ISIS single-handed. Rarely mentioned is that many of those female fighters were on the battlefront to escape patriarchal domestic dominance, notoriously prevalent in Kurdish society with its ‘honour killings’ and blood feuds. Some women have even set up all-female villages where they can live freely away from their controlling menfolk. Fighting ISIS offered an escape route.

In this highly complex and combustible situation along the Turkey/Syria border, everyone is fighting for different reasons, driven by conflicting aims and beliefs. When it was first formed after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies, this new border between modern Turkey and Syria was porous and easy to cross, and remained so till very recently. But in late 2014, largely in response to European criticism that it was allowing ISIS fighters to cross into Syria without checks, Turkey began construction of an impenetrable 3m high concrete security wall along the border, topped with razor wire. The EU funded the construction, according to German Der Spiegel, keen to protect itself from ISIS.

Today it is complete, the third-longest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China and the US-Mexico border wall. The communities that once straddled it are now divided permanently, for the first time in their long and interwoven history. Such barriers, as has been amply demonstrated in the past, erected as short-term solutions to complex problems, have a way of creating long-term obstacles to peace as well as to people. NATO’s future is at stake, so a well-coordinated, long-term solution must be found.

Syria Turkey border wall

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