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.
5th century stonework carving [copyright Diana Darke]
The apse at Qalb Lozeh, 5th century [copyright Diana Darke]
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]
What remained of the pillar of St Simeon Stylites, at the centre of the four basilicas in July 2010. [copyright, Diana Darke]
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.
The Church of Bissos, Ruweiha, 6th century [copyright Diana Darke, February 2005]
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:
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.
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.
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 paylocal 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 aprovincial 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 itsdispleasure 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 fightersdefeated 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 ISISfighters 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.
It was striking last night, as Paris’s landmark site of Notre Dame Cathedral burned before our eyes, how few seemed to know that Notre Dame’s architectural design, its twin towers flanking an elaborate entrance, its rose windows, its rib vaulting and its spire (la fleche) owe their origins to Middle Eastern predecessors. Tributes flowed in from round the world, praising the cathedral’s status as an icon of our shared European heritage and identity. “All of us are burning,” declared President Macron to the French nation.
Let’s start with the twin tower design. The earliest example stands on a hillside in northwest Syria, in Idlib province, in a church built from local limestone in the mid-5th century. It’s called Qalb Lozeh (‘Heart of the Almond’ in Arabic) rightly praised as one of the best preserved examples of Syrian church architecture, a magnificently proportioned broad-aisled basilica, the forerunner of what came to be known as the Romanesque period.
When Gertrude Bell first saw it in 1905 she described its “towered narthex, the wide bays of the nave, the apse adorned with engaged columns, the matchless beauty of the decoration and the justice of proportion preserved in every part… this is the last word in the history of Syrian architecture, spoken at the end of many centuries of endeavour… the beginning of a new chapter in the architecture of the world. The fine and simple beauty of Romanesque was born in North Syria.” Later scholars like George Tchalenko, Georges Tate and Jean-Pierre Sodini conducted extensive surveys.
In belated recognition of its importance it was included in 2011 within a UNESCO World Heritage Site labelled Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Locally they are known as the ‘Dead Cities’, clusters of nearly 800 Byzantine stone-built settlements with over 2,000 churches dating from the 4th-6th centuries. Their wealth was built on wine and olive oil production, with many stone presses still extant. They were renamed the ‘Forgotten Cities’ by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism before the war, and there were even hiking holidays under discussion, with planned homestays in the villages to bring income back to these remote rural areas.
Inside the church is divided into three, with a central nave, echoes of the Trinity everywhere in the design – the three aisles, three pillars on each side of the nave, three facade windows, three apse windows and three arches dividing the nave from the side aisles. The arches rest on squat square piers with strong capitals to bear the weight of the upper storey with its clerestory windows. The nave would originally have had a wooden roof, long since gone, but the vaulted dome over the semi-circular apse still survives.
Reconstruction of the facade of Deir Termanin, another twin-towered church in North Syria
Side view of Qalb Lozeh showing the squat piers, capitals and clerestory windows
Qalb Lozeh was thought to have been built as a pilgrim staging post en route to the famous St Simeon Stylites, some 35km to the northeast. Pilgrims, monks and merchants travelled constantly between Syria and Europe – influences were fluid, as were borders. Frankish (modern French) Crusaders saw these church designs (as well as local military architecture) in the 12th century, and brought many ideas back with them to Europe, where they were developed further.
What we today call the Gothic arch, prevalent in Notre Dame and in all the great cathedrals of Europe, was an architectural design first seen in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo and passed via Amalfi merchants to Sicily. With their advanced knowledge of geometry and the laws of statics Muslims developed both the horseshoe (also known as Moorish) arch (first seen in the Damascus Umayyad Mosque then further developed by the Umayyads in Andalusia in the Cordoba Mezquita) and the pointed arch to give more height than the classical arch. The first building to use them in Europe was the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 1071, financed by Amalfi merchants. It then moved north to the Church of Cluny which boasted 150 pointed arches in its aisles. The fashion quickly spread from these, two of the most influential churches in Europe, as this pointed ‘Gothic’ arch was stronger than the rounded arch used by the Romans and the Normans, so allowed the construction of bigger, taller, grander and more complex buildings like the great cathedrals of Europe.
Other borrowings from Muslim designs, also to be found in Notre Dame, include ribbed vaulting (traced to the 8th century Abbasid Palace of Ukhaydar in Iraq and later entering Europe via the Toledo and Cordoba mosques in Muslim Spain), rose windows (first seen at the 8th century Umayyad palace of Khirbat Mafjar (Hisham’s Palace) in the West Bank near Jericho,
and the spire (which collapsed so spectacularly on Notre Dame as the timber roof gave way beneath it). The first known spire is on top of the northern Minaret of the Bride in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, built in the early 8th century.
In England the first ever spire was on top of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1221. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of London then rebuilt in 1710 by Sir Christopher Wren, an avowed admirer of Muslim architecture who conducted an extensive comparative study of Gothic, Moorish and Ottoman styles. “The Goths,” he said, “were rather destroyers than builders: I think it should with more reason be called the Saracen (Arab Muslim) style.” The combination of dome and tower in his masterpiece of St Paul’s, together with the structure of the domes in the aisles, shows this strong Muslim influence, also clearly visible in Notre Dame.
St Paul’s, as rebuilt by Christopher Wren in 1710 after the Great Fire of London
The original St Paul’s with the first ever spire in England, completed in 1221
The cat man of Aleppo, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, touched the hearts of millions when his sanctuary featured in a BBC video in 2016. He had to leave the city when it fell to Syrian government forces, but he’s now back – in an area nearby – and helping children as well as animals.
My new book ‘The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo‘ is a joint venture telling his story in his own words, from his childhood growing up in Aleppo, loving cats, becoming an electrician, getting married and having children, till the war turned his whole life upside down and gave him the chance to do what he’d always dreamed of. He is still inside Syria, so we used WhatsApp to communicate, me sending him questions, him replying orally in voice messages. He only speaks Arabic, which is why the publishers approached me, as they needed an Arabic speaker with extensive background knowledge of Syria. After collecting all the information, I wrote the book very fast, 80,000 words in two months. The intensity helped me to turn myself into him, so I could write in the first person, which was the publishers’ brief! A trusted Syrian refugee couple, Raida Mukarked and Ammar Hasan, who used to live in the upstairs flat of my house in Damascus, but who are now displaced to Beirut, helped me collect the information and we have now all become good friends with Alaa, a real team.
Just weeks after the BBC video was filmed, Mohammad Aljaleel (known to everyone as Alaa) watched helplessly as his cat sanctuary was first bombed, then chlorine-gassed, during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo.
Most of his 180 cats were lost or killed. Like thousands of other civilians he was trapped in the eastern half of the city under continuous bombardment from Russian and Syrian fighter jets.
As the siege tightened, he was forced from one Aleppo district to another, witnessing unimaginable scenes of devastation. Yet throughout, he continued to look after the few surviving cats and to rescue people injured in the bombing, driving them to underground hospitals.
When the city fell in December 2016, he left in a convoy, his van crammed full of injured people and the last six cats from the sanctuary.
“I’ve always felt it’s my duty and my pleasure to help people and animals whenever they need help,” Alaa says. “I believe that whoever does this will be the happiest person in the world, besides being lucky in his life.”
After a brief recuperation in Turkey, he smuggled himself back into Syria – bringing a Turkish cat with him for company – and established a new cat sanctuary, bigger and better than the first one, in Kafr Naha, a village in opposition-held countryside west of Aleppo.
Using the same crowdfunding model employed successfully in east Aleppo, funds were sent in by cat-lovers from all over the world via Facebook and Twitter.
But Alaa has always worked for the benefit of the community, as well as the cats themselves.
In Aleppo, he and his team of helpers bought generators, dug wells and stockpiled food. Even at the height of the bombing, they ran animal welfare courses for children, to develop their empathy. They also set up a playground next to the sanctuary where children could briefly escape from the apocalyptic events taking place all around them.
The new sanctuary has expanded to include an orphanage, a kindergarten and a veterinary clinic. Alaa and his team resemble a small development agency, providing services that government and international charities cannot or will not. He strongly believes that helping children to look after vulnerable animals teaches them the importance of kindness to all living creatures, and helps to heal their own war traumas.
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war,” he says. “It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
As a boy growing up in Aleppo, Alaa had always looked after cats, spurring his friends to do likewise, even though keeping cats and dogs as pets is not customary in Syria or the rest of the Arab world.
He started working aged 13, as an electrician, but also turned his hand to many other jobs – painter, decorator, IT expert, satellite-dish installer… he even traded toys between Lebanon and Syria.
He worked hard and he learned how to get things done. “May the dust turn to gold in your hands, Alaa,” his mother used to say.
His dream was to become a fireman like his father and work in search and rescue, but such jobs were handed out only to those with connections, and the connection through his father was not enough. So for years his applications were rejected.
“Of course I would never have wished for a war in order to make my dream come true. I wish I could have achieved these things without the suffering I have seen,” he says.
“God blessed me by putting me in a position where I could help people by being a rescue man, but in my worst nightmares I never imagined a war like this for my people or for my country, or even for a single animal.”
During the siege in Aleppo he used to visit both Christian and Muslim old people’s homes, distributing food. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra regularly chided him, calling him a kaafir, an unbeliever, but he continued regardless.
“Our Prophet Muhammad was good to everybody. He spoke with all Christians and Jews. I believe in Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because all of them had a noble aim. I’m a Muslim, but I am not a fanatic. I just take from religion everything that’s good and that I can learn things from,” Alaa says.
Despite the difficulties he has endured, Alaa has always maintained a wicked sense of humour. At the new sanctuary, a tabby called Maxi the Marketing King is chief fundraiser, soliciting “green kisses” in the form of dollar bills via social media accounts.
Alaa wears a T-shirt with “Maxi’s Slave” written on it, and gets ticked off for smoking too much or for not cooking gourmet meals. He admits his shortcomings. “We submit to Maxi’s authority as the ruler of his kingdom. But even with Maxi’s leadership it wasn’t easy to launch the new sanctuary,” he says.
This is an understatement. The rebel-held area where Alaa now lives is semi-lawless and when powerful gangs realised he was receiving funds for the sanctuary, they attempted to kidnap him. He was no longer being bombed, but his life was still at risk.
As well as cats, the new sanctuary has dogs, monkeys, rabbits, a chicken that thinks it’s a cat, and an Arabian thoroughbred horse.
“There are so few thoroughbred horses left inside Syria now that I worry about finding him a mare to breed with. I plan to perform the role of a traditional Syrian mother and try to find him a wife, so that he can have children and start building up the population of thoroughbred horses in Syria again,” Alaa says.
All the animals have names, generally awarded by Alaa. An aggressive black-and-white cat who came to the sanctuary, stole food and terrified all the other cats was nicknamed al-Baghdadi, after the Iraqi leader of Islamic State (IS).
“Of course, this cat was a million times better than that evil murderer al-Baghdadi, but this name came to mind because his presence in the sanctuary coincided with the arrival of IS gangs in Aleppo,” Alaa says.
A large ginger tomcat was given a Trump hairstyle and christened The Orange President of the Sanctuary. A pair of speedy acrobatic cats were called Sukhoi 25 and Sukhoi 26, after Russian fighter jets.
“They’re old planes, but effective enough for the job required of them in Syria. We always knew when the Russians were coming to bomb us because of their very loud engine noise. We’d shout: ‘Watch out! A Sukhoi is coming!'”
Alaa’s reputation inside Syria has travelled far and wide, and the government is well aware of his activities.
In 2017 he was called by the Magic World Zoo, south of Aleppo, which asked desperately for his help to feed the neglected lions, tigers and bears – which he did, despite the dangers of the journey which involved passing through Jabhat al-Nusra checkpoints. While there, he discovered he had been recommended by the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture.
“It was funny that the ministry knew about us and was handing over responsibility for the zoo animals to us,” he says. “The Magic World Zoo gave me a lot of headaches.”
Alaa was eventually able to negotiate a solution for the animals with a charity called Four Paws, which arranged for the animals that hadn’t died to be transported out of Syria to new homes in Belgium, the Netherlands and Jordan.
In the new sanctuary he looks after 105 children, of whom 85 are “orphans” (in Syria the word covers children who have lost a breadwinner, as well as those who have lost both parents). Only 11 children actually sleep in the orphanage at present, because it isn’t finished, but all receive education, food and clothes, for which Alaa pays 25 euros per month.
The biggest risk is the instability in the region. Clashes break out periodically, as it’s close to the border with Idlib province, which is controlled by rebel groups who often fight each other. No-one knows what will happen next to that part of Syria and who will end up in charge.
“I blame all fighting parties equally – no matter who they are or why they say they’re fighting – for the killing of civilians,” Alaa says.
“We are rebuilding our communities and my role in that is to rebuild my sanctuary for cats. Friendship between animals is a great thing and we should learn from them. I’ll stay with them no matter what happens.
“It seems the world cannot solve wars and conflicts these days. That’s why there are now so many refugees around the world, but especially here in the Middle East.
“I do not want to be a refugee. I want to stay in my country, in Syria. I want to help people in any way I can.”
My BBC Breakfast TV interview with Naga Munchetty about the book:
Al-Akhal Mosque, dating to 1485, now bears garish, green-painted mortar
Detail from the Aleppo Room in Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art
Compare and contrast these two scenes: in Berlin, a team of highly qualified Syrian architects under the auspices of the Museum of Islamic Art carefully builds a digital archive of Aleppo’s historic monuments to help with future restoration. In Aleppo, a gang of semi-illiterate thugs under the auspices of “The Tiger” – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favoured Syrian warlord, General Suheil al-Hassan – takes credit for ineptly restoring the same ancient mosques it helped to destroy.
While a third of Syria’s housing stock is estimated to have been destroyed during seven years of war, the new battle is between armies of frustrated conservation experts outside the country and armies of looters acting with impunity on the ground.
In Aleppo, a new poster hangs from buildings in “liberated” areas back under regime control, reading in grammatically incorrect Arabic: “Together it will come back more beautiful.” It is tellingly ambiguous about exactly who will bring Syria back more beautiful; an unsavoury mix of gangs and shabiha thugscalling themselves the “Tiger’s Men” are currently claiming that role.
Poster displayed in Aleppo square “Together it will come back more beautiful.”
Turning a blind eye
Their most recent trophy, Al-Akhal Mosque, dating to 1485 in the Jdeideh quarter, now bears garish, green-painted mortar.
Al-Akhal Mosque, dating to 1485, now bears garish, green-painted mortar
A YouTube video lauds their achievement, calling them the “White Hands”, perhaps meant to portray angelicness or innocence. They rebuilt the nearby Al-Fadila school and erected a plaque to ensure posterity knew it was them.
Entrance to Fadila schooll
Plaque claiming credit for rehabilitation if Fadila school by Mr Khaled Hazari
No one asked to see their permissions, according to a local source. Corruption is rampant throughout the city as gangs of shabiha (literally “ghosts”, the word used to describe armed militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad) run the show. Hated by many Aleppo residents, they are predominantly Alawites and Mardinli Turkmen.
But the government does not want the communities to reconstitute themselves. On the contrary, it wants society to remain fractured. A broken society is easier to control
The Assad regime seems unwilling -or unable- to rein them in, turning a blind eye to their looting of local residents’ houses. “There’s a hierarchy for the booty,” said an Aleppo resident who asked to remain anonymous. “The TVs are for the officers, the fridges and washing machines are for the middle ranks, and the wood and wiring pulled out of people’s abandoned homes is for the lower ranks. It’s disgusting.
Shuttered shop-front graffiti by Assad’s shabiha
Graffiti by ‘The Tiger’s Men’
“We see the trucks loaded up with booty being driven off openly in broad daylight. They don’t need to do it in secret … It’s their reward for their loyalty. We’re living in medieval times.”
Whole swaths of central and eastern Aleppo have been destroyed by a combination of Russian and Syrian aerial bombardment and rebel tunnel-bomb explosions. All parties to the conflict share blame for the destruction of Syria’s chief trading city. Its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site afforded it no protection once the war arrived in 2012, a year later than in Damascus.
The city’s churches and cathedrals have already been largely restored, thanks to well-connected priests and patriarchs close to the regime. Funds from wealthy Christian donors have somehow found their way in, despite financial sanctions.
Some individual homeowners engaged local labour to repair their damaged houses after the city fell in late 2016 – but then state structures started reasserting themselves. “It’s worse now than it was before the war,” said a resident from Aleppo. “At least back then, there was only one authority you had to get permission from. Now there are five, and each one wants his cut. The opportunities for corruption have multiplied.”
A government that genuinely cared about its people and its communities would clamp down on the shabiha thugs and their mafia-style gangs
Ordinary residents in Aleppo did what they could after the city fell. The streets of Jdeideh, a frontline in the conflict, were full of rubble from the debris of aerial bombardment and underground explosions. Volunteers painstakingly cleared the streets, a process for which the government was quick to take credit.
On 28 September, the government even staged an international tourism day in al-Hatab Square, that was filmed by Al-Mayadeen, a pro-Syrian regime TV channel, and a Russian state TV channel, to show the world how Aleppo was returning to normal after the reassertion of regime control. But it takes a long time to loot a city of more than three million people, and as long as there is money to be made from the illicit plunder, it will continue.
In such an atmosphere, there is currently no scope for the repair of hundreds of Aleppo’s monuments. Local residents watch while their neighbourhood mosques, formerly the centres of their community, slowly disintegrate.
Aleppo city centre
Winter months are the hardest, when rainfall can cause severe damage to buildings already in a precarious state. Domes with cracks or sections missing collapse, turning what would have been a relatively simple and inexpensive repair into a costly exercise that could take years.
The danger is that such buildings may even become too difficult and expensive to restore, simply because they have been neglected – victims of the bureaucratic inertia that is crippling all aspects of reconstruction in Syria. In many cases, all that would be required would be some plastic sheeting to cover the roof and make the building watertight – an exercise that would take only days and cost very little.
But the government does not want the communities to reconstitute themselves. On the contrary, it wants society to remain fractured. A broken society is easier to control.
A government that genuinely cared about its people and its communities would clamp down on the shabiha thugs and their mafia-style gangs. It would have the vision to provide microfinancing to small-scale businesses and to harness cultural heritage for sustainable development, encouraging employment and the revival of traditional crafts.
This shared heritage could foster a strong Syrian identity across religious and ethnic divides, becoming part of a nationwide reconciliation process. It could empower women, now outnumbering men by four to one in the workforce, and help them rebuild the destroyed foundations of their country.
Earlier this month, reports surfaced on the internet of two metric tons of looted antiquities discovered in The Tiger’s Damascus home. Is this how Syria comes back more beautiful?
Berlin’s team of Syrian architects – like everyone outside Syria, including Unesco – is powerless to intervene. All they can do is hope and pray that, when the day comes that Syria can finally benefit from their digital archive, something remains of Syria’s cultural heritage to be saved.
The Aleppo Room in Berlin’s Islamic Art Museum, dated 1600-1603, shipped to Germany in 1912 from Beit Wakil in Al-Jdeideh, a part of Aleppo that suffered heavy destruction between 2012 and 2016.
A version of this article appeared in Middle East Eye on 14 December 2018:
As fewer and fewer people write by hand, graphology, the analysis of handwriting, is something of a dying art. I qualified as a graphologist at the London-based British Academy of Graphologists in 2002 after a three year course and tough final written and oral examinations for which French examiners were flown over from Paris. The French have long been devotees and it is still widely used there in recruitment tests.
The key principle is that the unconscious elements in handwriting – spacing, continuity, flow, type of movement, pressure and stroke – come directly from the brain and therefore cannot lie or be disguised. That is why it gives such a useful insight into the true character of a person, his or her preoccupations, insecurities, drives and aspirations. People can superficially change their writing – as often happens in fraud cases – but a trained graphologist’s eye can spot the signs.
I have given Expert Witness statements on Arabic handwriting in a number of court cases in the UK and have also had extensive professional experience of Arabic handwritings while working in government and in commercial companies. Bashar al-Assad’s “lies” have been a recurring theme in media coverage of the Syrian crisis. It seems he took in the majority of the international community, presenting himself as a modern IT-savvy leader with an intelligent and beautiful British-born wife. Through clever use of PR firms, including the British Bell Pottinger, he cultivated the image of a reformer, keen to bring progress and liberalisation to his country.
But gradually, as people watched how violently the Assad regime handled the 2011 uprising from the start, year after year, many came to realise that this image was false.
The same conclusion was reached by the new three-hour BBC2 documentary series A Dangerous Dynasty: The House of Assad after months of detailed research by the production team, together with scores of interviews with key players who knew him.
Handwriting analysis provides a way to get closer to understanding the psychology of this enigmatic man, to know whether he is weak or strong, a manipulator or manipulated, and above all whether he has the stomach to fight on.
Before the War
In 2012 after months of searching, both online and by asking everyone I could think of who might conceivably be able to help, I finally tracked down a sample of Bashar Al-Assad’s handwriting. It was only his signature, as it appears on a legal document – Decree 49 dated 10/9/2008, a piece of legislation designed to make it impossible for Kurds in Syria’s northern border regions to buy or rent property, thereby aiming to drive them from their ancestral agricultural land.
But as a qualified graphologist with considerable experience of examining Arabic signatures, and also having come across some months earlier a sample of his father Hafez Al-Assad’s signature (from a book published in 1995), I was sure that I would be able to make a number of deductions and draw some potentially enlightening conclusions. A signature is the key to the writer’s inner life, showing his ability to realise his potential, his own evaluation of himself, his sincerity and the subconscious influences of his family background. I published an article comparing father and son in the May 2012 issue of the journal of the British Academy of Graphology:
The Father/Son Contrast
The contrast between the signatures of father and son was immediately striking. In fact the only area where they shared a similarity was in the horizontal space they took up on the page. The father’s was written with a bold strong stroke and a progressive, upwardly rising movement. It was the signature of a true visionary, imbued with self-belief, drive and dynamism – all the more remarkable given his humble village origins and basic schooling. The son’s much thinner, less confident stroke could hardly be more different. It starts by zigzagging back and forth almost on top of itself, wasting effort and energy, lacking in direction and focus, as if trying to make a strong statement while in effect almost cancelling itself out.
This is one of the many signs of insincerity in the writing, along with regressive slant, unnecessary dots and exaggerated ornamentations. The regressive and descending movements indicate stubbornness and a denial of the present, an attempt to avoid what is coming. The signature finishes by attempting an upward flourish to aggrandise itself. But this flourish turns into a regressive and protective upper zone loop that then plunges down into the lower zone. It then tries again, attempting another upward flourish that pierces the protective upper zone loop briefly before plunging down in a final and dramatic regressive stab straight through the middle of itself, like a huge sharp spike or dagger.
The son is evidently struggling to ‘big himself up’, to live up to his father’s expectations, but without the father’s drive, vision or strength, despite his educational advantages. A final centripetal stroke of this kind that cuts the rest of the signature in half is in graphological terms a very significant dominant. It shows great underlying tensions, a split between what he is trying outwardly to be and what he is at core. It is self-sabotaging and self-destructive, the mark of a man who would even be capable of committing suicide, something his father or, for that matter, Saddam Hussein, would never have contemplated. [In 2003 I wrote an analysis of Saddam’s handwriting for The Times newspaper based on several letters he wrote from hiding which were published in Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat Arabic daily newspaper. The analysis showed his level of self-belief was such that he would never have admitted defeat, a conclusion that was borne out when, after capture and trial, he went to his execution in 2006 still insisting he was president of Iraq.]
Appearance versus Substance
With his greater emphasis on the vertical axis than his father’s progressive horizontal sweep, Bashar is more preoccupied with how he appears to the world, while his father’s energies were focused on achieving his vision. Directly undermining his own attempts to project a dynamic front, Bashar ends by carefully placing the three individual dots of the ‘sh’ letter in the middle of his name within the protective loop of the upper zone, and then, as an even more cautious afterthought, adds a final full stop in the lower zone, which signals his mistrustful attitude towards the world. In his father’s confident and progressive signature, the two dots that should appear as part of his name are not bothered with at all. His flourish is real, not an act.
In today’s Syria it is always Bashar’s face you see on both the pro-regime and anti-regime banners to proclaim either their loyalty or their opposition to the Assad regime. “Tel pere, tel fils” some of the protesters’ placards used to announce. But what this analysis of their signatures shows is that while Bashar may be the face of the Assad regime, he is far from being its backbone. That is the preserve of the innermost Assad clan – his mother, his sister and brother Maher. He is locked inside it and cannot break out – he would never dare.
After the War
The final episode of the BBC2 documentary series on 23 October 2018 showed Arabic documents smuggled out of Syria, bearing Bashar’s signature, signing off on clampdown orders from his newly established Crisis Management Unit in Damascus. They date from early 2012, four years later than my original 2008 sample. A comparison of the 2008 and the 2012 signature shows three important changes. The 2012 signature can be viewed here, in episode 3, at 28.38 minutes in, as BBC licencing protocol does not permit the image to be reproduced from the programme.
Firstly, one year into the war, it shows a more squashed and flattened shape, as if weighed down by pressures from above. Graphologically this is significant as it shows the expectations from what is known in psychology terms as the ‘superego’ – namely the pressures from parents, from society at large, weighing on him more heavily than in 2008. Interviewee after interviewee in the BBC2 series talked about the power and influence of Bashar’s mother, urging him to act more decisively, to maintain what his father, who ruled Syria for 30 years from 1970-2000, had created.
Secondly, the initial fast zigzagging to and fro has lost its energy and intensity. In 2008 the signature began with at least four fast movements back and forth. In 2012 there are only two, much weaker, slower strokes.
Thirdly, the final flourish is much weaker, flabbier, with the final downward stroke more like a limp piece of string than the sharp spike of the 2008 signature. His choice of a thicker nib gives the appearance of a bolder stroke, but the final movement is still regressive rather than progressive, the three dots from the ‘sh’ of Bashar are still cowering at the back of the protective shield he builds round himself for security, and the final full stop is still placed even behind that (remembering that the movement in Arabic is right to left, so the full stop, if used at all, would normally appear to the left not the right of the signature).
All this adds up to a picture of a deeply troubled man, struggling to carry on. Syrian state media is projecting him as victorious, as having won the war against ‘the terrorists.’ But psychologically, this is the most dangerous time for him, when he may let his defences down a little. His mother died in February 2016 so her influence is over. Were his wife Asma to die – she is currently suffering from breast cancer and looks extremely thin and ill – would Bashar still have the appetite to continue as president of Syria? I wonder. Maybe he would take the early retirement he joked about when the French documentary maker in episode two of the BBC2 programme asked if he enjoyed being president. “Sometimes I get tired,” he said. And that was before the war.
The well-preserved Roman road near Al-Dana, Idlib province, heads towards Turkey
Idlib Museum reopened last month after a four-year closure. It was an act of defiance, said the local Head of Antiquities, to show the world that Syria’s northwest province is much more than a “hotbed of terrorists” and “festering abscess”, as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has described it.
In the current political, diplomatic and military manoeuvring over Idlib, its history, culture and people draw scant attention. Yet it is important to understand the nature of Idlib as a province, its character and identity, because this gives clues as to its future. Before the war, the rugged uplands of Idlib, with an average altitude of 700m, boasted a number of holiday resorts, popular with city-dwellers, especially Aleppans, seeking escape from the summer heat. Scenically it is one of the greenest regions of Syria, thanks to its cool rainy winters.
However, this mountainous terrain – with few urban centres – also makes it perfect guerrilla territory. Lacking oil and gas reserves, it still has vital strategic value through its neighbouring provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Lattakia. It also controls the major northern border crossing of Bab al-Hawa into Turkey. A magnificent 1,200m stretch of paved Roman road still runs beside the main Aleppo–Turkey road, testimony to the importance of earlier trade routes in the region.
Idlib’s location, linking the coastal areas to the hinterland, means that two key highways, the M4 from Aleppo to Lattakia, and the M5 from Aleppo to Damascus, pass through it. Opposition control of the province has meant that both highways have been blocked since 2015, necessitating long detours on minor roads to connect Syria’s five biggest cities. The Syrian regime’s first priority will be to retake these trade highways.
As well as its mountainous limestone massifs Idlib also boasts the river valley of the Orontes, an exceptionally fertile low-lying plain known as the Ghaab Depression, where much of Syria’s agricultural produce is grown, such as wheat, cotton and potatoes. Over 100 waterwheels used to line the banks of the Orontes, invented in the fifth century to scoop up the river water and lift it into the adjacent fields. About seventeen still survive, most of them a little upstream in Hama to the south. The area remains self-sufficient in food and water today.
The Orontes is called Al-‘Aasi in Arabic: it means “the Rebel”, a name it earned by virtue of being the only river in Syria to run north instead of south, before reaching the sea near Antakya (ancient Antioch), now in Turkey. Agriculture still provides most of Idlib’s employment, and whole families can be seen working together in the fields at harvest time. The higher slopes are covered in olive groves, vineyards and fruit trees, especially cherries, the best in Syria.
Idlib’s remote hillsides have historically been the place to which rebels retreated in earlier confrontations with the ruling powers. In 1920–21 its mountainous uplands around Jebel Zawiya became the final stronghold for the Hananu Revolt, whose fighters were attempting to drive the French out of Syria with the help of Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalist army. The revolt collapsed in 1921 after the Turks withdrew their support, but a low-level insurgency continued till 1926, a pattern that could repeat itself. Like today, the rebels had arms but lacked heavy weaponry, and were mainly Sunni Muslims, a mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turks, fighting against what they saw as the “infidel French” in defence of their homeland. A hundred years ago the French discovered, like Assad today, that pacifying northern Syria was much more difficult than quelling Damascus and the south.
Idlib’s rich and varied landscapes were also home to many earlier civilizations – Eblan, Hittite, Aramean, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Arab. Scattered among its hills and plains are over 190 ancient tells (man-made mounds), tombs, castles, churches, monasteries, hermitages and other dwellings. Tell Mardikh, ancient Ebla, 3km east of the main Aleppo–Damascus highway, is Syria’s most important Bronze Age site, belonging to the country’s oldest civilisation from the third millennium BC, with its own Eblan language. Ebla means “white rock”, a reference to the natural limestone of its acropolis.
17,000 cuneiform clay tablets were discovered in 1975 by Italian archaeologists led by Professor Paolo Matthiae, who devoted his life to excavating the site and uncovering the city’s trade in gold, lapis lazuli and high quality woollen textiles. Many of the tablets were moved to Idlib Museum when it first opened in 1989. Security in Syria’s archaeological sites, never tight at the best of times, slackened even more after the war broke out in 2011, with illicit digs common in both regime and opposition areas. Ebla was violated by armed opposition groups, but the worst-hit victim was Apamea, when it was under regime army control from 2012–15. It is Syria’s largest classical site, four times bigger than Palmyra. Satellite photography shows its 2km-long colonnaded street overlooking the Orontes Valley pockmarked with over 5,000 illegal digs. It lies just south of Idlib in Hama province and is currently under rebel control, within the Russian/Turkish demilitarised zone.
Further south from Ebla, halfway to Hama on the main highway to Damascus, lies the town of Ma’arret An-Nu’man. In 1098 it was besieged by the Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem and 20,000 Muslims, including women and children, were said to have been massacred and eaten. Raymond of Fulchre, the leader of the crusaders, wrote: “Our people were so frenzied by hunger that they tore flesh from the buttocks of the Saracens which they cooked and devoured with savage mouths, even when it had been insufficiently roasted on the fire”. Today the town’s cultural gem is a perfectly preserved sixteenth-century Ottoman caravanserai, the largest in Syria at 7,000m², built from indigenous black basalt. It was converted in 1987 to house a collection of stunning Roman mosaics moved from the nearby villas of rich Romans, but in 2015 the Syrian regime dropped two barrel bombs filled with TNT on the museum, causing extensive damage. The mosaics had fortunately been crated up and moved to the basement two months before. All such damage has been meticulously documented as it happened throughout the war by websites including www.apsa2011.com.
Arguably Idlib’s most significant cultural heritage monuments are the so-called “Dead Cities”, clusters of nearly 800 Byzantine stone-built settlements with over 2,000 churches dating from the fourth to the sixth centuries. They were renamed the “Forgotten Cities” by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism before the war. The wealth of these early Christian communities was based on wine and olive oil production exported to the Mediterranean via Antioch. The numerous olive and grape presses still to be found among the ruins testify to the strength of the trade, but wars disrupted the trade routes, causing the population to lose their livelihood and move west to the coast.
Among the most complete of these Byzantine settlements is Serjilla, in a hauntingly desolate spot between two hillsides, beloved by tourists for its pair of exceptionally well-preserved and graceful buildings –a public bath-house and an andron or men’s meeting hall.
Nearby is Al-Bara, with five early churches and many Roman-style villas lived in by Crusader knights for a few years in the early twelfth century before they were driven out by the local ruling Ayyubids.
Without a doubt the most significant of the many churches architecturally is Qalb Lozeh, “Heart of the Almond” in Arabic. Standing high in the mountains west of Aleppo, at 670m, not far from Harem and the Turkish border, it dwarfs a small Druze village of the same name. Dated to c.640, the church is considered Syria’s finest example of Byzantine architecture and its design, with twin towers flanking a flamboyant arched entrance, is widely seen as the forerunner to what in Europe became known as the Romanesque style.
In the current war the Druze villagers, known for their fair hair and blue eyes, tried to remain neutral, but twenty of them were massacred in 2015 by extremist groups who regarded them as heretics. The demographic mix of Idlib has historically been overwhelmingly Arab with a few Kurdish and Turkmen elements, but today there are also foreign fighters from the Caucasus, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as some Uyghur Chinese Muslims who control the Jisr Al-Shughour region on the main Aleppo–Lattakia highway.
The “Forgotten Cities” were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, under the umbrella title “Ancient Villages of Northern Syria”, just in time for the war. There were well-advanced plans at that time, in which I was personally involved, for Syrian eco-tourism to be developed there. Visitors, it was hoped, would trek from site to site across the beautiful landscapes of Idlib, sleeping in friendly local homestays. Today it is a vision which seems impossibly remote.
If Idlib were to descend into the vortex of an all-out military offensive, the UN has warned it could be “the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century”. No one knows what will happen next, now that the 15 October 2018 deadline for the departure of extremist groups has passed. How long Idlib Museum – located in Idlib city centre – can stay open is anyone’s guess, but staff say they have a twenty four-hour plan to protect the priceless displays if war comes.
A version of this article was published on 13 September 2018 in The TLS online:
On my recent trip to Syria, a bus-full of bishops, reverends and members of the House of Lords was my cloak of disguise, the perfect garb in which to pass under the radar of the regime and hear, not the official line which was pumped at us full throttle at every opportunity, but the voices underneath. As one of our group, who had come with an open mind, described it at the end: “It’s like an orchestra in which the strings are playing too loud, drowning out the other instruments. Some sections of the orchestra are simply missing, their instruments broken, unable to play any more……”
How do you heal a broken society? Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, has one answer – you set up branches of Syria Trust, her flagship charity founded in the year 2000 when her husband Bashar al-Assad inherited the throne. Before the war it had roaming 4WDs with teams of manicured rich kids dispensing computers in villages. Today it has 15 community centres round the country dispensing “Intellectual Capacity Development” and “Psychological Support Programmes”. We were given tours of two such centres in Aleppo, surreal pockets of ultra-modern, high-tech installations amid the devastated wasteland, by grinning youthful Assad loyalists fitted out in spanking new uniforms embroidered with the charity’s name. Films ran constantly in the foyer areas showing regime soldiers treating children and citizens with gentle care. Black and white photos gracing the walls did the same. Silent women sat in front of empty sewing machines, summoned to be on parade.
The cheerful staff left on buses as soon as we did, but while we were there, they handed out brochures called ‘Manarat’, (Beacons) describing how they would encourage ‘critical thinking abilities’ in children. To what end? To challenge the system? A fake freedom since the curriculum is tightly controlled. The “Life Skills” development programme for over 13s talks scarily of “effective citizenship” and “purposeful contribution”. A whole generation is about to be brainwashed into the service of Assad alone. Graffiti all over the country, on the long drive from Damascus to Aleppo, spells it out: Al-Assad lil-Abad (Assad for eternity), Al-Assad wa laa Ahad (Assad and no one else) and Allah, Hurriya, al-Assad wa bass (God, Freedom, Assad and that’s it). The merchandising is also in full swing – Bashar mugs, Bashar and Putin photos for sale in hotel lobbies, Kerbala soap for Iranian visitors.
A society is being broken, bit by bit. For now, Assad is rewriting history, with Putin’s help, to cover up the original cause of the damage. Everything is laid at the door of ‘the terrorists.’
On the drive back from Aleppo we stop at Adhra Al-Madaris, one of the many ‘reception centres’ housing refugees displaced from the Ghouta after the Russian-led Syrian Army offensive just over a month ago. This one holds about 5,000 and they are being held like animals. It is the first taste of reality on the trip, raw humanity without filters, deeply affecting for everyone. Surprisingly, the soldiers guarding the camp allow us in to talk directly to the refugees, and because of the size of our group, the Arabic-speakers among us are able to slip off into the crowds. I was invited by a woman and child to come to her ‘home’ and she led me through a maze of small curtained spaces, each one for a family, to her own tiny space with nothing but a thin mattress, a plastic sheet on the floor and a gaping hole in the concrete roof.
The room fills up quickly with more and more women till we are about 15 squeezed into the tiny space. They offer me water from a tin cup, since they have nothing else, no facilities to cook or make tea. Desperate to tell me their stories, it emerges hygiene facilities are horrific, with just one squalid toilet, food is a sandwich for breakfast and macaroni served up centrally as their cooked meal. They hate it and agree they were better nourished under the siege where they had meat and vegetables in their village of Hammoura. All they want is to go home but they are trapped with no information and nothing other than the clothes they are wearing. I ask how they had been treated by the rebel fighters during the siege and they say fine. There was no problem.
There is an Arab proverb that runs: If God wants to make a poor man happy, he makes him lose his donkey, and then find it again. Assad, like a vengeful god, has destroyed the country and driven out half its population, pronouncing it much ‘cleaner’ than before. Now he is preparing to give back the donkey, lame and mutilated, to those left behind, hoping they’ll be so grateful they won’t dare complain. But social justice in Syria, so smothered under the official narrative now, will break through soon enough – it is only a matter of time.
A version of this piece was first broadcast on the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme on Radio 4 on 28 April 2018, see link below:
Through a quirk of fate, I was on a bus travelling from Beirut to Damascus on the day that the US, Britain and France launched airstrikes on Syria. The group I joined was on a pastoral visit arranged months earlier, at the invitation of the Syriac Orthodox church, to offer support and solidarity to Syria’s Christians.
The name of the bus, Al-Ma’arri Travel & Tourism, was well-chosen, for Al-Ma’arri was an 11th century blind Syrian poet-philosopher whose Treatise on Forgiveness is thought to have directly influenced Dante’s Divine Comedy. His poems expressed the cynicism and pessimism of his times, where political anarchy and social decay were prevalent. He became a vegetarian and adopted a life of seclusion.
Breezing through the checkpoints with no obvious bribery or checking of luggage, our bus clearly shone with the sanctity of those on board. My previous trip in late 2014 to rescue my Damascus house from war profiteers had involved packets of cigarettes passed to soldiers and profuse sweating as grubby hands rummaged among my bags. Our clergy-led coach party was treated like royalty throughout; there was no need even to sully our feet with a descent from the bus at the border.
When I bought my crumbling courtyard house in 2005 at the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old City of Damascus, I did so as an individual, with no shortcuts or favours. For three years I battled to complete its restoration, fighting the labyrinthine bureaucracy, helped only by ordinary Syrians like my architect and his team of craftsmen, my lawyer and my bank manager. Various friends who lost their homes in the suburbs to regime bombardment have lived there since 2012 – up to five families at some points, more after the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013 when the courtyard was full of mattresses. Today, just one extended family lives there at my invitation, in residence since 2015.
In the Christian quarter of the city, we were whisked on to a smaller bus that wiggled its way past the Damascus citadel into the pedestrianised square, directly in front of the spiritual heart of the city, the Umayyad mosque. Its magnificent courtyard had been cleared of worshippers in our honour and we were ushered into an audience hall I had never known existed, despite scores of previous visits. Here, the grand mufti – the country’s most senior Muslim authority – Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, presided over an atmosphere of bonhomie and spoke of the joy of Muslim-Christian relations. Amnesty International notes that the grand mufti’s approval would have been required for between 5,000 and 13,000 executions carried out at Saydnaya prison since 2011.
In Homs, our next stop, we passed countless chilling posters of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, mainly in his dark glasses and military fatigues, the slogan beneath assuring his people he would protect Syria from “the terrorists”. Before the war the Assad look was more tracksuited, on a bicycle taking his son to school, or tenderly planting trees at the roadside. In posters of Christian martyrs, he appears opposite the Virgin Mary in his role as the ‘God Bashar’.
Homs was shockingly empty, acres of devastation, with only the famous Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque hastily restored by the military construction department to be viewed from afar. It is an empty shell for show, like so much else.
Through accidental timing, we were in Aleppo for Syria’s national day on 17 April and found ourselves invited to an elaborate concert put on for the country’s elites inside the citadel. As we walked up the ramp of one of the world’s greatest pieces of military architecture, we looked down over the destroyed souks and mosques, and were issued little Syrian flags to wave and shout “Hurriya” (freedom) followed by “Halab” (Aleppo) when prompted. It seemed like a cruel echo of the earliest peaceful chants for freedom in 2011. Freedom is now on the regime’s terms only.
Back in Damascus, on 19 April I visited my house and watched helplessly from the roof as Russian/Syrian fighter jets from Mezzeh airbase flew in broad daylight over central Damascus and dropped cluster bombs on the residential southern suburbs of Yarmouk and al-Hajar al-Aswad. Through accidental timing again, it was the first day of weeks of incessant bombing, day and night, till the ISIS rebels agreed a deal and were bussed out into the eastern desert.
Smoke from cluster bombs exploding over Hajar Aswad, southern suburbs of Damascus
The Orwellian outline of the Presidential Palace lowering over the city of Damascus
“Trapped” was the word I heard again and again from my Syrian friends, Muslim and Christian, to describe their predicament. While the world debates the legality of airstrikes, to those on the ground the action amounts to no more than hot air. Not one of my friends even mentioned the strikes, knowing their fate remains unchanged – to be killed if they dare to protest or to submit to the will of Assad. It is far too late for the west and the international community to intervene militarily in Syria – that should have been done in 2011, or 2013 at the latest, before Islamic State or Russia came in to fill the lawless vacuum we ignored.
Now the only option is to keep up all forms of pressure on the Assad regime and on Putin, to make both feel the heat. In the past, Assad has caved in quickly to pressure, such as when he removed his troops from Lebanon in a matter of weeks following the international outrage at the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, in 2005. Assad and Putin are umbilically connected at present, but if the cord were cut, leaving Assad stripped of his Russian shield, he would capitulate much faster than anyone imagines. All it needs is a united and coherent policy. That’s something that has been sadly lacking so far.
Putin and Assad merchandise for sale in a hotel lobby in Aleppo
A version of this article appeared in The Guardian on 1st May 2018:
President Bashar al-Assad makes no distinction between ISIS and other rebel groups – all are “terrrorists” to be annihilated, legitimate targets. He could have expelled ISIS years ago from their pockets of control in Hajar Aswad and Yarmouk in the southern suburbs of his capital Damascus. But he was content to let them to be there because since 2015 they were doing his job for him – fighting against the more moderate rebels in the suburbs and weakening them year by year.
The famous photo from February 2014 showing the residents of Yarmouk under siege, flowing out like a river of humanity to get aid.
But while I was inside Syria last week the campaign against them started, following on directly from the ‘liberation’, that is, total displacement of residents from Douma, the Ghouta’s most rebellious area. I stepped into the courtyard of my house and almost immediately the sound began of fighter jets – Russian ones by most accounts – flying in broad daylight across the centre of Damascus and almost casually dropping their cluster bombs on Hajar Aswad.
Smoke from cluster bombs exploding over Hajar Aswad, southern suburbs of Damascus
It took me a while to see them, they were flying so much higher than I expected, but as my eye grew accustomed to them, I traced their course from the Mezzeh military airport, over the Presidential Palace, and in a loop over the southern suburbs and back again. It was utterly surreal. Yet this is the new normal inside Syria. A government dropping bombs on its own people, in its own capital, and everyone helpless to do anything about it. It is impossible not to think about the people being killed and maimed beneath those bombs. Even if they survive, thousands are sleeping in the streets, their homes destroyed. There is no longer any running water and the last hospital has been targeted and destroyed. The bombing continued all that Thursday 19 April and has been going on relentlessly for a week.
‘Trapped’ was the word I heard again and again, as people are forced to listen to the constant soundtrack of destruction. They feel totally helpless in the face of Assad’s overwhelming grip, backed by the might of Russian air power and military planning.
Yarmouk was one of the earliest refugee camps in Syria, formed after 1948 when the first waves of Palestinians were displaced from the newly created state of Israel. It was home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and over 100,00 Syrians. Now the survivors are being bussed to Idlib, where the final showdown awaits in this barbaric war.
The Orwellian outline of the Presidential Palace lowering over the city of Damascus