Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Syria Then and Now

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.

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.



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