Syria conflict risks wiping out country's future – and its past
We may reflect how 'the battle for Syria's history' has been fought many times before
With the Syrian government now flaunting its total control over Damascus – the "final battle" trumpeted by the rebels having been, for the moment, won by their antagonists – Damascus may at least be spared the cultural destruction visited upon much of the rest of Syria.
Krak des Chevaliers has been shelled after rebels sought sanctuary in this most glorious of Crusader castles, Syrian troops have taken over the castle at Palmyra and bombarded the Citadel of al-Mudiq, looters have used bulldozers to carry away the great Roman mosaics of Apamea. But the treasures of Damascus remain intact.
Salafists among the armed opponents of the Assad regime would presumably have no qualms about destroying the tomb of Saladin and the green silk cover bestowed upon it by Kaiser Wilhelm, nor what is said to be the headless corpse of John the Baptist beside the "built-on-air" Omayad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus. But the problem for all autocracies in the Middle East – and let us not forget the undemocratic gentlemen of the Gulf – is that they must sew their own presence into their country's history.
No institution does this more assiduously than the Assad Library, the vast ochre-stone bunker-block above Omawiyin Square, in front of which sits a vast iron sculpture of President Hafez al-Assad – father of President Bashar al-Assad – in an equally vast iron chair and holding a very large iron book open in his right hand. The Assad Library is not exactly on the tourist trail but I have been inside its 22,000sq miles of concrete galleries and prowled around its 19,300 original manuscripts dating back to the 11th century, its 300,000 volumes, its computer centre and its state-of-the-art halls for ancient manuscript repairs. Even books banned by the regime are open for Syrian students. They include, needless to say, the works of Michel Aflaq, the secular-socialist Baath Party co-founder who died in exile in Iraq but whose memory will evoke little love among the regime's armed opponents today.
The Assad Library has a director of "cultural activities" – a faint smell of Eastern Europe pervades this title – and when he took me round the galleries years ago, you could understand how the regime was trying to bind the Baath Party into the old caliphates, a complete collection of Hafez al-Assad's speeches since 1970 alongside a computerised set of every Syrian and Palestinian film since 1948 and a mass of 12th and 13th-century Arabic literature. In the manuscript department, six inches from my face, was a philosophical work – in gold and blue Farsi script – by Bin al-Marzouban al-Azerbaijani, handwritten in western Iran in 1066. Just as Harold was preparing for his martyrdom at the hands of William of Normandy, Azerbaijani was finishing his text, which, nine centuries later, would be placed on a database at the Assad Library.
I filled my notebook with these scraps of history in this most Baathist of memorials. A 1649 French translation of the Koran, a 1671 Bible in Latin and Arabic, a 500-year-old Arabic dictionary, the collected speeches of the Caliph Ali, dated 1308, and a 1466 study of how an Arab warrior should ride his horse and at the same time fight with his sword and spear. As I wrote later, the Assad Library is clearly intended to provide a continuity that connects the Caliphate with the Baath, the ancient Islamic philosophers with Hafez al-Assad and his family, as carefully as the women in the archive repair room bind together the torn pages of 15th-century books.
And we may, I suppose, reflect how the "battle for Syria's history" – I am quoting Bashar, of course – has been fought many times before, how mass cruelty existed in a cultured and refined society, how the Arab exegesis on cavalry fighters was studied by our own kings and cavaliers. Richard I, of course, knew these lands too well, while Edward II – foully murdered at the age of 43 – might have found some ghastly relevance in the atrocities of Syria's tragedy; Richard III and Henry VIII were no more believers in democracy and human rights than King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
But that was then, as they say, and this is now; and when the innocent die in what all the world – save the Syrian government – calls a civil war, history takes a back place, save for its usefulness in the hands of propagandists and mountebanks. And we return again to the old and painful question: how dare we fear for the treasures of history when the youth of Syria is bleeding to death, when children's shrouded corpses are being put into the earth of Aleppo? What do the battlements of Krak des Chevaliers count against the torment of Idlib and Hama and Homs and – for a few days – Damascus?
But Syria's heritage – our heritage, too – does matter. It will be the property of Syria's future inhabitants, whoever wins this deplorable, slovenly, cynical battle today. Its message of cultural renewal and of theological persistence and philosophical persuasion is as relevant now as it was 900 years ago. Whoever "wins" – and civil wars rarely have clear winners – should study those manuscripts to learn about human folly. Including their own.