The following book review is part of a series originally published in the Journal of the Oasis Foundation. The six books selected highlight aspects of aspects of Christianity and Islamic history and culture in the Middle East and their bearing on the situation in the region today. Oasis was founded in 2004 in Venice to encourage mutual understanding and opportunities for encounter between the Western world and the Muslim majority world. According to Oasis, “interreligious dialogue involves intercultural dialogue because religious experience is always lived and expressed through the medium of culture: not merely at the theological and spiritual level, but also at the political, economic, and social ones.”
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Aerial photographs of the city of Homs razed to the ground, photographs of the ancient market of Aleppo gutted by fighting, the battle between the Islamic State and the forces of the regime of Bashar al-Asad for control of ancient Palmyra, churches and mosques destroyed by the fury of extremists, and bombings that kill combatants and civilians alike. For years, television, newspapers, and the world press have been telling the following story about Syria: it is a country where a revolution for freedom and democracy degenerated into a bloody civil, regional, and ultimately global conflict involving foreign powers – Russia, the United States – and neighbouring countries.
“What I found lacking in reporting on Syria… was a sense of deep historical perspective, especially on the country’s social and religious texture” (p. XXV), writes Christian Sahner in the preface to his book. The author, a historian of Byzantine, Arab and Islamic History at Princeton, lived in Damascus from 2008 to 2010 and in Beirut from 2011 to 2013, after the start of the Syrian conflict.
The book is a mixture of journalistic reportage, lightweight travelogue and historical essay. The author brings to bear his expert knowledge on the subject, but also uses an anecdotal style, such as might befit a young and curious student on a study-abroad programme, as he traces the history of Syria from ancient to modern times, taking in the Arab conquest of the seventh century and the rise of Baathism on the way.
Muslim men and women pray in the great Sunni Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, formerly a Christian cathedral, next to the tomb of John the Baptist, the precursor of Christ who is also mentioned in the Qur’an. Only a few meters away lies the encased head of Imam Hussein – revered by Shi‘ites, who travel through the region to mourn at the shrine.
The “religious continuity” of Syria tells of a past time of day-to-day cohabitation with underlying tensions, which over the centuries have emerged in different shapes and ways. Is what is going on today a conflict between religious communities? According to Sahner, sectarianism is not what lies at the origin of the war, but “religion has remained a sensitive, often divisive element in Syrian society and politics” throughout the history of the country. “The destructive sectarianism the world has witnessed in Syria recently is something new, but it seems clear that as a discourse and practise, sectarianism is appealing” (p. 110).
The book is a compelling and easy introduction to Syrian history. The historical analyses are peppered with light and fresh anecdotes and vivid characters, such as the author’s Arabic teacher or the family with whom he lived in the old district of Bab Touma in Damascus whom the reader gets to know as the book goes on. The book is divided into five chapters: the arrival of Islam in Syria and the splendour of the Umayyad caliphate; the Christians of Syria, who lived in the country before the Arab conquest and remained the majority for centuries even afterwards; sectarianism and the rise to power of the minority Alawite branch to which Asad belongs; the consolidation of Baathist ideology; and the war today.
Giving shape to the story are the detailed descriptions of monuments, of sacred and profane works of art and architecture, the author’s enthusiasm for the past that permeates the walls of dozens of churches, mosques, palaces, mausoleums … many of which have now been destroyed or desecrated in the fury of war.
The disappearance of the architectural heritage is a tragedy that leads to an even deeper one. As Sahner says, “The collapse of security… has opened the floodgates of theft and pillaging, often on a massive, industrial scale. The loss of this cultural heritage is a tragedy not only in absolute terms. It is also robbing Syria of its connection to a multi-faceted and diverse past. Indeed, when you destroy a people’s monuments and their material record, you destroy the people themselves. How much harder to rebuild a country when its most important symbols are gone forever?” (pp. 189-90).
Rolla Scolari is a journalist working with the Italian daily La Stampa. She is also She is editorial and communication director at Oasis.