Last week, the city of Aleppo was very much in the news. Aleppo, with a population of over two million, is the largest city of Syria, with the nation’s only significant concentration of manufacturing and commerce and shipping. The insurrection taking place there could more greatly affect prospects for overthrow of Bashir al-Assad’s villainous regime than those taking place in Damascus, the capital, or in Homs or Hama, where tens of thousands have already been liquidated.
The shaky, faint-edged cellphone images serving in absence of on-site television coverage make clear that the citizens live in squalor. The hard part for us is to distinguish how much of this squalor is the result of present carnage and how much was already typical of life for most people in Syria. Life here in Syria, as in the Arab world generally, is abject at best of times — except for the very rich.
Our governments and UN agencies as well as missionary organizations and NGOs harp upon the neglect of such Third World people by the civilized and pampered West. They campaign ceaselessly for money to assist programs to improve health, to improve literacy, to bring at long last to these disadvantaged and neglected parts of the world the benefits that follow from the many centuries of progress made possible by the gifts of civilization. Still, nothing has improved for decades.
A formidable obstacle to clear thinking on this theme is the linear-progressive template that was handed out to us when we were in grade school. This describes how, beginning with Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, Civilization went out into the world and started a work of bringing science and literacy and commerce and other facets of good life to the pre-civilized world. With this in mind, our hit-and-run journalists accompany these scenes of Middle East poverty with words like “primitive” and “medieval.”
In fact, the part of the world to which Syria belongs is not pre-civilized. It is certainly not medieval. It is post-civilized. The first civilizations in the world came from here. Aleppo is within a narrow alley along the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean which, as early as 12,000 years ago, during the “New Stone Age”, was dotted with villages. Aleppo could well be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world — a title that it contests with Jericho. (Jerusalem is a late entry into this contest, its earliest strata dating possibly to about 3000 BC.) Several millennia later, around c.3500-3100, in the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris (Iraq, today), villages like these would coalesce into the first cities. Somewhere around 1900-1800 BC, Abram (later Abraham), undoubtedly an educated man and the member of a ramified family of traders, was persuaded by his God to leave the attractions of the city of “Ur of the Chaldeans” (Sumer) and go to “a land that I will show you” (Genesis 11:26 – 12:5).
Aleppo once thrived within the “The Cradle of Civilization.” It was here that settled agriculture, a pre-condition for civilization, was invented. It was here also that the domestication of plants and animals was accomplished. It was here that writing was invented, that the earliest discoveries in mathematics and the arts were made, the earliest pottery, the invention of the wheel.
Where we come from (we Europeans and Americans) there is no record at all going back to these times – just legends, beloved of computer-game designers. Several millennia would go by before the races from which we derive would get noticed by the literate civilizations, and given the names they have in our history books. By contrast, the people who lived in Syria are never lost sight of by History. They thrived in an important corner of every one of the major Ancient Empires, from the Akkadian through the Romans and the Byzantines. The population of Syria during the heyday of the Hellenistic empires was probably not be exceeded until the 19th century. The city of Antioch, then the capital of the Province of Syria, was the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria.
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Syria came early within the bounds of the next great empire in this part of the world, the first Empire of Islam, the Umayyad Empire, whose capital was Damascus . At its height, this Empire stretched from Spain and Morocco to India and parts of Central Asia, covering more than five million square miles. Its power and splendor were indicated by the splendid palaces and mosques in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
But this was to be the apogee for Syria. It has all been downhill since. We are told that one of the last Ummayad rulers, looking about at all this splendor and sensing the trouble ahead, bemoaned his short-sightedness: “Rather than visiting what needed to be visited, we were more interested in the pleasure and enjoyment of life; we oppressed our people until they gave up and sought relief from us …. We trusted our ministers who favoured their own interests and kept secrets from us.” A perfect epitaph for the Assad regime.
Civilization is not continuous; it does not develop inevitably along a linear path. At some point in the history of all empires those who rule make decisions that lead downward. Progress is no longer in the cards. Institutions calcify, Culture is set back. Motivation for improvement withers away. In the case of the Arab Middle East, this turning point is found in the emergence of Islam.
Paradoxically, the determination to overlook the distinction between pre-civilized and post-civilized worlds follows from a habit of condescension that is inseparable from the liberal mindset. This in turn is related to the self-loathing instinct that requires us to bundle together the pre-civilized (the First Nations everywhere) with the post-civilized as victims of predatory Europeans, to cough up indemnity for the sin of exploitation of the weakest and to sit quietly while the accomplishments of all the civilizations are pronounced to be equal.
Whatever one may think about the spiritual, philosophical and intellectual benefits that the world has received from Islam, an unavoidable conclusion is that fourteen centuries of governance under Islamic regimes has left the Arab world with rulers who make no effort to respect the rights of the masses and the masses without means of peacefully correcting the massive injustices with which they have lived for all these centuries.
The political culture of the Middle East needs massive correction. Its deficiencies follow from the fundamental impossibility of adapting the Qur’an to the needs of civil order. The notion that all the necessary corrections will follow in reasonable course upon the establishment of the democratic method, just as they did among us, is now being tested – in North Africa, in Egypt, in Arab Palestine, in Lebanon, in Syria, and in Iraq. So far, the tendency overall has not been towards civility, but rather towards ever-enlarging enthusiasm for restoration of the imagined virtues of the first Muslim Caliphate. Perhaps we shall see another cycle of authoritarian regimes; but sooner or later the outcome must be anarchy.
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