The Middle East is in chaos. The Egyptian government has collapsed and been replaced by the rule of generals. In Syria, Aleppo is besieged by troops from Damascus. Rival powers fight over Homs and Hama. The ruling family tries desperately to cling to power. This was the Middle East of the 12th century (as captured in my most recent novel Kingdom), when Saladin was rising to power as the chief opponent of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. It sounds familiar, right? After almost a thousand years, we have come full circle.

I have spent a good part of the last three years writing about Saladin and the Crusades, and it has been fascinating to see the events of the past echoed in the present turmoil in the Middle East. In the coming weeks, I will be blogging on the Arab Spring and the crises in Syria and Egypt, as seen through the lens of the Crusades and the 12th century. I’ll compare the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s rule the end of the Fatimid Caliphate. I’ll look at the opposition drive to remove the Al-Assad regime, comparing it to Saladin’s campaigns against the ruling Zengid family in Syria. I’ll give tours of Cairo, Aleppo, and Damascus, then and now. And I’ll compare medieval France and Syria to the present states of those nations. First, though, I will start with a look at the warring factions in Syria and their roots in the past.

Who Are / Were the Saracens?

The people of Syria today are a mix of different religions and ethnicities inherited from the past. The people that the Crusaders referred to uniformly as Saracens were actually an elite of fairly recent arrivals of Turkish origin ruling over a mix of Arabs, Romans (aka Byzantines), Persians, Turkomen, Kurds, Jews, and Nubians. Religiously, the majority of the population was Sunni Muslim, but there were also a large number of Jacobite and Syrian Christians, Jews, and other Muslim sects, including the Shiite Hashashin and Alawites (also called Alawis), fringe sects who lived in the Syrian mountain ranges overlooking the coast. A thousand years on, the population of Syria looks much the same (though most of the Jews left due to persecution after the founding of Israel). Arabs dominate, but Kurds and Turcomen are still prominent. 75% of the people are Sunni, approximately 13% Alawite, and 10% Syrian Christian.

Rifts between these groups have given added impetus to the Syrian struggle against the authoritarian rule of the Al-Assad regime. Bashar Al-Assad and many of the key figures in his government and the military are Alawites, while the majority of the people are Sunnis. Sunnis are who we tend to think of when we think of Muslims. Worldwide, they represent well over three fourths of all Muslims. They follow Sharia law. They embrace the five pillars of Islam: kalima – the declaration of faith (“I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger”); salat – the five daily prayers; zakat – alms-giving; sawm – fasting during the month of Ramadan; and hajj – pilgrimage to Mecca. They only eat halal foods. They do not drink alcohol. And, they don’t much like Alawites, who they consider to be pagans.

The Ala-who?

As for the Alawites, they consider themselves to be Shia Twelvers. The first and most fundamental divide in Islam is between Sunni and Shia. After the death of Muhammad, his first successors were not his relatives, but rather his most trusted companions, who were nominated to lead. The Sunnis accept these men as the first caliphs. The Shia do not. They believe that only people related to Muhammad’s house could be a supreme ruler, and so of the first caliphs, they only recognize the fourth, Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali. Most Shia recognize twelve more caliphs (hence the designation Twelvers), all descendants of Ali, ending with Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is still alive but concealed from mankind by Allah. He will someday return as the savior of mankind. Sunni believe the savior has not yet been revealed. Despite these differences, Shia religious practices are very similar to Sunni ones. They share the same articles of faith. Sunni and Shia consider one another to be Muslims, part of one faith.

So if Alawites are simply a type of Shia, why do Sunnis consider them to be pagans? To start to get at an answer, let’s take a look the history of the Alawites. Their faith was first preached by one Muhammad ibn Nusayr, and organized by his follower Al-Kahsibi, who died in Aleppo around 969. In 1032, his grandson and disciple Al-Tabarani moved to Latakia, where most Alawites still live. Al-Tabarani converted the rural population of the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, the coastal mountain range that divides Syria from the Mediterranean. This was a popular refuge for sects deemed heretical. The famed Hashashin, a group of Ismaili Shia, lived in the mountains just to the south.

The particulars of the faith that Muhammad ibn Nusayr preached are a closely guarded secret amongst Alawites. They do not have mosques, meeting only in one another’s homes. Only men with two Alawi parents may be indoctrinated into the faith. And they have adopted the principle of taqiyya – hiding their faith in order to avoid persecution. The result is that Alawites can look much like Sunnis, or Shia, or even Christians, depending on the circumstances. In truth, their religion appears to be an amalgam of Muslim, Christian, pagan, and Zoroastrian elements. They reject Sharia law and Muslim dietary restrictions. They believe that the souls of the wicked pass into unclean animals such as dogs or pigs, while those or the righteous enter more perfect human bodies. They venerate groves of trees. Bread and wine take a prominent place in their ceremonies, and they believe the fourth caliph, Ali, to have been a Jesus-like incarnation of the deity. They also believe in a holy trinity consisting of Muhammad, Ali, and Salman al-Farisis, a freed slave of Muhammad’s. They celebrate the Christian festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, and honor many Christian saints. Given all of that, it is pretty clear why Sunnis would consider Alawites to be pagans.

How an Alawite Became President of Syria

Through most of Syrian history, Alawites have been persecuted. They were a poor rural people, keeping to themselves in their mountainous land. How, then, did they rise to power in Syria? The key was the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party, which was active in Syria from the 1940s and gained prominence after independence. Founded by a Greek Orthodox and a Sunni, it was secular and progressive. Because of this, it attracted non-Sunni minorities, particularly Alawites. On 8 March 1963, the Ba’ath party engineered a military coup and took control of Syria. Three years later, a group of mostly Alawite military officers within the Ba’ath party removed the current leaders and took over the government. Amongst these men was Hafez al-Assad, who took control of the government on 13 November 1970, with the support of the military. He built a power base that relied largely on family connections and Alawite solidarity. In 2000 he died, and his son Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s current president, took control.

The rise of Alawites to the rule of Syria has been compared to an untouchable becoming president of India. A despised sect, they were drawn to secularism, which brought them into the Ba’ath party, and once the Ba’ath party achieved power, their solidarity allowed them to control it. The Al-Assads’ rule has never been popular, and from the beginning, dissent has been suppressed. Now, Bashar al-Assad faces a rebellion driven by a desire for greater freedom and an end to his family’s rule, but given a particularly nasty edge by the pervasive mistrust and dislike of the Alawite sect of which he is a part.  If Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls it may be a step towards greater freedom in Syria, but it won’t be pretty.