Syria’s Heart on Fire10/03/2012
Conflict is troubling enough; conflict that erases history and scorches culture is tragic. Some of the most disconcerting news from the past weekend comes out Syria, where a year-and-a-half-long streak of violent unrest has resulted in the death of thousands—nonviolent protestors, rebel forces, and soldiers of the ruling regime alike—and the destruction of centuries of ancient art and architecture. New reportage recently came from the Associated Press (via Salon):
A fire sparked by battles between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops and rebel fighters tore through Aleppo’s centuries-old covered market Saturday, burning wooden doors and scorching stone stalls and vaulted passageways. The souk is one of a half-dozen renowned cultural sites in the country that have become collateral damage in the civil war.
Christopher Merrill’s recent book, The Tree of the Doves, is, in part, a eulogy for the cultural legacy of the world, focusing on how the destruction wrought in places like Syria deeply affects us all. At the outset of one of his essays, Merrill provides some historic context of the souk, traditionally a place of civil life in Syria:
The Aleppo souk, the largest in the Middle East, has long been a meeting place, in a city strategically located between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, dating to the eleventh millennium BC (Abraham is said to have provided milk to travelers), and for generations of traders the souk was the last stop on the Silk Road before they set sail for Europe. Nor did its dominant economic position diminish until the seventeenth century, when Europeans began to use the sea route to India, around the Cape of Good Hope—though under Ottoman rule it maintained its hold on the Western imagination as a site of mystery, if not of economic opportunity. Shakespeare mentions the Syrian city twice in his dramas, in the first act of Macbeth—“Her husband’s to Aleppo gone,” says a witch—and in Othello’s final speech:
in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcise`d dog,
And smote him—thus!
Then Othello stabs himself—an act that links his noble younger persona to the lost soul, transfigured by jealousy, whose murder of his beloved Desdemona is likewise a betrayal of Venice. For in Shakespeare’s cosmology, in which personal deeds often carry political consequences, the Moor recognizes that he deserves the same punishment for his crime as he once dealt a Turkish cur: believing that he has been betrayed, Othello betrays everything that he loves; at the climax of the play his past merges with the present, and he sees both ways, registering the full dimensions of his loss. His is a form of double vision, if you will, which mirrors the dual nature of Aleppo, a crossroads of the East and West, where collisions of modern and ancient ways of being are commonplace. The city had lost its allure in the Western imagination before the collapse of the caliphate in 1924, but some modern visitors recognized its importance.
In The Tree of the Doves, Merrill often turns his ruminations to the American invasion of Iraq. Though the situation is different, reading Merrill’s insights gleaned during a walk through an archaeological dig in Iraq gives even greater pause now, especially in regard to the recent destruction in Aleppo:
In these exquisitely preserved ruins my thoughts turned to the careless destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq, thousands of which had been looted during the war. Before the invasion, archaeologists had pleaded with Bush administration officials to make every effort to preserve the heritage of the cradle of civilization, many sites of which remained unexcavated. But the plundering of the National Museum of its artifacts, which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed as the cost of freedom—“Stuff happens,” he said—set the tone for what was to follow. Archaeologists formerly employed by Saddam Hussein were stealing bowls, sculptures, and frescoes to sell on the international art market; Babylon was crumbling under the weight of American tanks; the foundations of Western civilization were disappearing before our eyes.
In this partial excerpt of The Tree of the Doves, read more about the trinity of human actions—ceremony, expedition, and war—that Merrill passionately argues form history; and the political, environmental, and social changes we’re witnessing now that presage the end of one order and the creation of another.