Years ago, I spent a fortnight in the Archeology House inside the now-destroyed Bel Temple in Palmyra, Syria. The caretaker, Abu al-'Ashayer, was an octogenarian who had served generations of researchers since the late 1920s, when the French cleared the sanctuary precinct of its native inhabitants. He was also the patriarch of a prominent local family that claims to have lived in Palmyra since the days of Queen Zenobia in the third century AD, and to have gone through the conversion of the country from paganism to Christianity to Islam, the faith of the majority of Syrians today.
Even if inflated, Abu al-'Ashayer's family lore reflects the long history of Syria itself. This small country, perched on the eastern end of the Mediterranean, has greatly contributed to human civilization. For many millennia, it was home to inbred cultures and a passage or destination for invading empires, migrant tribes and persecuted minorities. From prehistoric settlements in the ninth millennium BC to Mari, Aram and Phoenicia in the second millennium BC, to Hellenistic Seleukia, Roman and Christian Syria, to Islamic Bilad al-Sham in the seventh century AD, and on to a truncated modern nation-state, the country has sheltered diverse peoples and accumulated various religions and cultures.
This is the true essence of Syria: home of 17 religions and sects, as well as multiple ethnicities and cultures. Some flourished for a long time and radiated their influences near and far. Others shone brightly for a brief moment before disappearing into the mist of history. Still others inhabited particular niches in the land where they nurtured their own way of life. All, however, created hybrid art that bespoke the multicultural character of the country long before the term was even coined.
Shadowed by the devastations of the most brutal civil war of our young 21st century, this spirit of openness has retreated and an ugly sectarianism has emerged in its place. The intractably complex conflict, which has ravaged the country for the past six years and caused tremendous death and destruction, has reduced the image of Syria to that of either ghastly factions savagely fighting each other or lines of desperate refugees seeking asylum wherever and however they can. This degradation should not be allowed to dominate our perception of Syria. The culture of multiculturalism needs to be resurrected again if the country is to be saved.
We need to remember that Syria was the land where some of the earliest organized human settlements were built; where some of the first ideas about the divine were conceived; where the first alphabet was inscribed on a tablet in Ugarit; where St. Paul saw the light in Damascus and converted to a follower of Christ and founder of his church; where the child Mohammed was revealed by the monk Bahira in Bosra to be a prophet who will lead his people from darkness to light; where Salah al-Din (Saladin) taught medieval Christendom the true ethics of chivalry; and where Ibn 'Arabi finalized his Unity of Being theosophy, which aimed at nothing less than a universal belief that joins the creator and all the created. These grand ideas, nurtured in the Syrian soil, found their most beautiful and enduring expression in the myriad artistic traditions that span the past 5,000 years of Syrian history.
As the great powers blunder in their search for a political solution to the Syrian quagmire, hope for the country needs to be rekindled. Celebrating Syria's civilizational and artistic contributions to world heritage may be our best way to humanize the country and its people anew.
Professor Rabbat will give the plenary talk in the symposium, 'Syria's Art and Architecture: A Multicultural History', to be held at the Aga Khan Museum on Oct. 29.