Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Archive for April, 2013

The civil war in Syria, which began in March 2011, has now gone on for so long that it has ceased to be news. As the opposition struggle against the Assad regime has stretched over weeks, then months, then years, the conflict has migrated from the front to the back pages of western newspapers. In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, we like our revolutions fast. We appear to have little patience for this sort of drawn out affair. Only when something truly terrible happens do we take notice. If then.

Last week, for instance, a truce was called in Aleppo to allow for the collection of rotting corpses. Red Crescent workers and members of an opposition council drove into the Al-Sakhour district to pick up bodies, many of which had been decomposing for months. The majority of the dead were children. At a time when the Boston Marathon bombing is grabbing all the headlines, it is worth remembering that things like this are still happening on a regular basis in Syria.

The battle for Aleppo, in particular, has produced tragedy on a truly horrific scale, with over ten thousand dead – over half of them civilians – some 4,500 people missing, a million having fled, and most of those who remain in need of humanitarian assistance. The battle has raged for nearly a year since 19 July 2012, when rebel forced stormed the city. It has featured some 7,000 rebels battling the Assad regime’s army of 10,000. After initially capturing several districts and pressing close to the Old City at the heart of Aleppo, the rebels were driven back. What followed over the next months was a continual cycle of rebel offensives met with government shelling. Initially, the government had the upper hand, but gradually, the rebels expanded their toehold in the city, winning a few more neighbourhoods with each cycle of violence. Eventually, they managed to seize the southwest Aleppo and the towns to the city’s south, thereby cutting the government forces off from reinforcements coming from Damascus. The battle has become a siege.

And in this siege, there are no heroes. Government shelling of neighbourhoods controlled by rebel forces has killed thousands of civilians. Bodies of men and children executed by the military have been found dumped in the Quweiq River, which flows through the city. The rebels, meanwhile, have resorted to car and suicide bombs during lulls in the fighting. They, too, have killed countless civilians. They have undertaken widespread looting to supply themselves. And by taking shelter in civilian homes – often against the will of the civilians, the majority of whom support the government forces – they have contributed to the shelling of innocents. The ones who suffer the most from all of this are the people of Aleppo. The city has become cut off from the outside world. Many of its people are starving. There are reports that soldiers on both sides of the conflict, as well as some civilians, are taking advantage of the chaos to commit rape on a large scale.

All of this horror can numb us to the point where we just want to look away. I cannot. I have watched the battle for Aleppo from afar with grim fascination, because I have spent much of the last three years writing about Syria and the Holy Land in the age of Saladin. In my Saladin Trilogy I chronicled Saladin’s sieges of Aleppo. Now, the past seems to be intruding on the present. The current battle for the city even started in the Salaheddine district. Much of the fighting has centred on the Old City, which the rebels have repeatedly tried to capture. It is this city – which dates from Greek times – that I have described and written about repeatedly in my novels. Now it is being destroyed before our very eyes.

It can be hard for people unfamiliar with the Middle East to understand the significance of this. Aleppo (or Halab in Arabic) is no sleepy hamlet or backwater town. It is one of the great historic cities of the world, with a current population of over two million. At the heart of it lies the Old City, which was at one time encircled by a wall, much like central Paris or London. So imagine open warfare breaking out on the streets of London or Paris and you will have some idea of what is happening in Aleppo today. The Umayyad Mosque which sits at the heart of the Old City is older than the Tower of London, Notre Dame, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Also known as the Great Mosque of Aleppo, it has influenced the construction of mosques throughout the world. Now, this symbolic structure has become the focus of fighting between opposition and government forces. The rebels have blown holes in its walls to gain entrance. They destroyed its northern gate. And at one point, the government appears to have set fire to the great structure before retreating. The mosque has not suffered his level of damage since it was largely destroyed in the great earthquake of 1138. Imagine armed men battling for control of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and you’ll have an idea of what this means in Syria.

The rest of the Old City has not escaped the carnage. In August, shortly after the rebels attacked the city, the great citadel at its heart came under attack. One of the oldest castles in the world, the citadel sits on a mound of white rock that rises above the city. The mound has been fortified since the days when the Greeks controlled Aleppo. It was manned by the Romans and the Byzantines, who build churches atop the mound that stand today. In Saladin’s time, a mighty gatehouse into the citadel was built, and the imposing walls, which rise directly from the stone slope of the mound, were reinforced. The citadel had not come under attack since 1401, when Tamerlane took Aleppo. Now, it has returned to its original function. The great gatehouse build by Nur ad-Din is pockmarked from bullets, and crumbled stone is piled in the entryway.

The citadel, however, was built to withstand attack, and it has stood up surprisingly well to modern arms. The souqs of the city have not. These covered markets are what made Aleppo famous in medieval days and beyond, when the city was the chief entrepôt for eastern goods entering the West. They still are – or rather were – the glory of the city. The souqs – much like the more famous covered markets of Istanbul – consist of streets that have been roofed over with stone. Each street or neighbourhood specializes in a certain good. They are largely in ruins now.


The tragedy in Aleppo is thus a double one. The human suffering is first and foremost, as it should be. But alongside it is the destruction of one of the world’s great cities. The past that I write about – the past of Saladin and the Crusades – is special in many ways, one of which is that it has remained mostly intact in Syria. Until recently, the citadel, Great Mosque, and souqs of Aleppo appeared much the same as they did in Saladin’s day. One could in a sense step directly into the past. Now, that past is being destroyed piece by piece, as the bloody conflicts that defined the city’s past recur in the present. When writing about Saladin’s sieges of the city – about the suffering of the people cut off from outside supplies and help – I never dreamed I would live to such a thing played out again. It is with great sadness that I have.

I love to read and have since I was a child.  My love of books is why I became a novelist in the first place.  It has been a bit disappointing, then, to find that the more I write, the less I seem to read.  When I do find time for a book, it is usually research for one of my novels.  Between writing, research and my lovely-but-time-intensive young daughters, it has gotten to the point where I’m lucky if I read ten novels in a year.

No more!  In an effort to force myself to read more, I have decided to start posting bi-weekly (that’s fortnightly, not twice a week) reviews of books I have read.  Most reviews will be of historical fiction novels, although the occasional non-fiction book will creep in.  I’ve started with a review of David Cowley’s non-fiction book, How We’d Talk if the English Had WON in 1066, which is a beginner’s guide to how English might have looked had William the Conqueror been instead William the Defeated.  Upcoming reviews will include Tim Griggs’ Distant Thunder, Manda Scott’s The Art of War, and Jane Harlond’s The Chosen Man.

David Cowley’s book is an enjoyable thought experiment – a beginners guide not to Old English, but to how modern English might have looked had the English won at Hastings.

How would we talk if the English had won at Hastings?  The giant question hinted at on the cover of David Cowley’s interesting book is front and centre throughout.  As Cowley himself admits (in updated Old English), “Swith hard to tell!”  Indeed it is.  Counterfactuals tend to make historians like myself a bit uneasy, and this one is a doozy.  Nearly a thousand years have passed since William bested Harold.  That’s a lot of time.  If the outcome of the battle were changed, it is impossible to know where we’d be today.

One can say with certainty, though, that a lot besides our language would be different.  The Norman invasion took England out of a Scandinavian orbit including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway and brought it into a different one focused on the relationship with France and Western Europe.  It ended slavery in England (over 10% of the English were recorded as slaves in the Domesday book of 1086) and replaced it with feudalism – hardly an improvement since slaves, unlike serfs, could at least in some cases buy their freedom.  And it perhaps made England a more secure country through the Normans’ devotion to castle building.  It is worth bearing in mind that before William and his followers conquered England, it had already fallen to the Romans, the Angles and Saxons, and only fifty years previously, the Danes.  Would England have remained unconquered if Harold had won?  Maybe not.

All of these uncertainties mean that it is impossible to know how the English language might have evolved had Harold won.  Before William, the language of the Britons had already been pushed to the fringes of the island, living on only in Wales.  It left only a few traces in Old English.  And in Harold’s time, the Danish presence in England was making its presence felt on the language, producing words like “earl”, “berserk”, “lad”, and even “egg”.  It was the rubbing together of Old English and Old Norse that had begun to remove the case endings from Old English.  Had Harold driven out both the Danes and the Normans, might English have remained a case language, like German?  Had the Danes invaded again, might it look more like Danish?  Or might it have evolved more like Cowley suggests when he presents a list of words “based on a knowledge of how current words which are from Old English have changed since that time”?  Any or none of these is possible.

Setting aside, then, the impossible question of how we might speak had Harold won, Cowley’s book is great fun, and a real treasure for authors and re-enactors seeking to write or speak in a form of English that is both intelligible to modern readers and at the same time closer to the language of our Saxon ancestors.  For readers who read Old English, scanning his list of updated words is a fun game of linguistic what-if.  Personally, I have found his book something of a godsend as I seek to create more authentic dialogue for the Saxon characters in my books.

While Cowley attempts to impart some of the basics of Old English grammar with a few interesting lessons, for the most part his book is simply a really big list of updated Old English words.  Because the words are updated, he is in effect presenting a different version of modern English, a version stripped of Latin and French additions and enriched by some lost words from the past, some of which are immediately understandable and some of which are not.  Among the former some of my favourites include “bonebreach” (bone fracture), “eldfather” (grandfather), “goldhoard” (treasure), “hungerbitten” (famished), “oathbreach” (perjury), and “searim” (shore).  These words have an otherworldly yet familiar feel that takes the reader back immediately to “days gone by” (to borrow another phrases suggested by Cowley).  Amongst the less obvious words, are such treats as “smicker” (which means “elegant” but sounds, to my ear, anything but), “swike” (deceit), “tharfer” (pauper), and “werekin” (the human race… as opposed to, say, werewolves).

All told, the book has more than enough interesting and fun words to entertain even the casual reader.  But is there enough here to justify Cowley’s contention that our language might be better off if the English had won at Hastings?  Of this, I am less certain.  Cowley argues that class differences would be less sharply drawn had there been no linguistic split between French speaking nobles and English speaking commoners.  Perhaps.  Looking across the Channel, however, we see no such split in France, and yet the French managed to develop some pretty stark class differences.  And we must remember that pre-Conquest England – a land of ealdorman, thegns, ceorls, thralls, and slaves – was not exactly egalitarian.

As for the fate of the English language, it is true that we are missing some words from our past, but we have gained many, many more.  For Cowley, this is a potential problem.  He points to “sight” and “vision” as the sort of unnecessary duplication that Hastings wrought.  But to my mind, the wealth of words we have to choose from is part of what makes English such a rich language.  For “sight” and “vision” are not exact equivalents.  Calling someone a man of great vision does not mean the same as calling him a man of great sight.  And a woman can have foresight or second sight while forevision and second vision sound like medical conditions.  Combining Old English and Old French has given us a wealth of words with subtly differing connotations.  It has given us the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, Austen, and Eliot.  That, in my opinion, is worth a little confusion.



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