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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"history that we could not protect"

On this Christmas Day 2012 this may seem a strange posting, but... I don't think so. My blog.

I have been to many ancient sites in the eastern and western world. Some, like those of the Indus Civilisation, have been recovered from deep under the earth, and some rescued from the jungles of Southeast Asia. I have seen these sites in restoration, being saved for posterity.

   In looking at sites like Mohenjodaro, of the Indus Civilisation, I always reminded my students when showing them:
Don't forget that you're only looking at the skeleton of this city, without everything that gives it life – the colour, the smell and the noise.... People. Animals. Gardens. These images we'll see today are of an empty shell.
With other cities it's very different. They are ancient cities but have always been inhabited. They're alive. When something is destroyed, it is rebuilt stone by stone, if their inhabitants don't want the character of the city utterly changed. 

   Of course, they get their share of modern buildings and innovations. It would be a strange city that did not. So the city evolves.

   Some very old ones have seen deaths of their inhabitants on a grand scale, but the character of the city survives over millennia. Even during the great European wars of the twentieth century, there was some containment of destruction of cities, leaving aside some notable exceptions I don't want to talk about here.

   But what about when a bloody civil war is going on today in one of these living ancient cities, where the weapons of war are monstrously powerful? The attackers' targets are the city dwellers and enemy combatants, and the easiest way to expose and kill them is to destroy the places they live, even though they are part of the civil heritage of the country. Today's gains must be made at all costs.

   Take Syria, now engaged in exactly this sort of war, killing and maiming and ruining the lives of millions who have formerly shared their past and their lives willingly. Its leaders have turned weapons of vast destructive power on their own cities, and the loss of life and utter misery is incomprehensible to outsiders. Nothing or no life is sacred, not even the great places of worship that have stood for centuries.

   We don't want to know. It's Christmas and we have other things to occupy us. We don't face death every moment in the way these people do. We don't see the headless little girls or the horrors beyond description, unless you've been to hell.

   And we don't know what to do.

   Here's the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo, a home for all the Abrahamic faiths. Islam, Christianity and Judaism rub shoulders here. I'd tell you about its ancient past, but it's not my story. What I do want to mention is a story, all too true, pointed out to me by my old friend, Grant Winkler. 

The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls

It's a beautiful piece about an subject with more than its share of ugliness – perhaps it's more sadness about loss of identity than anything else. It's rather long; about 3,500 words, and I don't expect many will read it to the end. I would have found it challenging myself these days, in front of a computer screen, but on a little Kindle screen, lying in a comfortable bed, it's very easy.

I'd like to share with you just a few tiny excerpts. Disjointed scraps. That's all.

Watching death has become a pastime of the revolution. 

The once-vibrant cities cannot be saved, so you watch, helpless, as they become ruins.

Ruins are sold to us as romantic and poetic.

But that kind of romanticism is only afforded with the distance of time and geography. In war, ruins-in-the-making are not beautiful....

We walked on history so deep, we did not understand it....

After you leave, no matter where you are in the world, you know that Aleppo is there, waiting exactly as you left it. Instead, it is you who returns in a reinvented form each time you come home....

It is a city of churches, temples, relics, and graves of revered mystics.

Misplaced pride has proved us unworthy of this history that we could not protect.

Syria has become the land of topless minarets and headless little girls.

You learn about things when they are broken — friendships, love, people, and even cities.

Things take on new, unimaginable forms when they are destroyed.

...places from your childhood have disappeared forever.

People forget that the reason Aleppo was the best-preserved historic Islamic city in the Middle East was a result of neglect rather than care.

What had been painstakingly rebuilt stone by stone, refurbished, reclaimed, and reinvented, is now destroyed in minutes.

We hear rumors of our antiquities disappearing through the open seams of our country....

Don't you dare, even for one second, believe that your people and your cities are immune to what happened to my country, my friend. None of you are.

Just as no parent should ever have to bury their children, no citizen should have to bury her own city.

Why post this on a day of fun and revelry for many? You can come to your own conclusions. Just make a note of the place to find it, and come back to it another time.


  1. It's OK. The Pope has called for peace in the world. That should fix it.

    I think this post of yours is a very appropriate one for Christmas, actually. And in the rush of overeating and consuming and expecting to be 'happy' we don't want to remember the world's tragedies. But this sense of ever unfolding history is exactly the perspective we need to appreciate any star of truth that Christmas holds. This Christmas was sadder for me than I could have imagined, because grief and memory are not predictable, and I did think of all the trauma in the world immeasurably greater than mine -but how can one human comprehend all that? I can't.

    Perhaps that is the message of a Christ, who supposedly does encompass all that sorrow. That somehow, beyond the pain, kindness and sanity can survive, and we need that belief for guidance. Certainly, it does not mean lack of 'right action', though.

    Julie M xx

    1. Thank you, Julie – great comment. The article itself that I referred to is beautifully written. What is happening in Syria is sadly only one of a series of human-made disasters around the world that all the intelligence and 'progress' of the age has failed miserably to address. If the trillions spent on war were actually spent on the improvement of the human condition, there would be no need for war. That's the real tragedy.

      I can well imagine that this would have been a sad Christmas for you; like no any other in your life.

      All religions contain the same fundamental message, even if it seems we have to burrow down below the words of the sacred texts exploited by the ignorant and the extremists. The message of Jesus is a beautiful one. The pity is that it is so sadly abused, as are the texts of other religions. And 'right action' is surely what is needed if each society isn't to descend into lawlessness and violence in the decades to come. As he so rightly said in the article,

      Don't you dare, even for one second, believe that your people and your cities are immune to what happened to my country, my friend. None of you are.

      He's right. Look into the ghettoes of every major city in the USA.



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