Thursday, April 8, 2010

Syria and Lebanon

My trips to Syria and then Lebanon complete my tour of primarily mid-eastern countries since I came to work in the Gulf in 2007. A visit to Syria without one to its close neighbor Lebanon would have been inadequate. Their histories and (prehistories) are intertwined and their relationship today one of wary economic interdependence. Refik Hariri’s assassination on 14 February, 2005 when explosives equivalent to around 1000 kg of TNT were detonated as his motorcade drove past the St. George Hotel in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, left not only a crack in the window of the cafĂ© where just minutes before he’d been photographed for the last time, but increased the fault lines in the relationship between the countries. The investigation, by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, into his assassination is still ongoing and was reported on daily in the newspapers while I was there. At that time they predicted going to trial by year-end 2010. Preliminary indications are the Syrian government may be linked to the assassination. Shortly after the assassination, Syrian troops were withdrawn from Lebanon.

Today Syrian day laborers flow into north Lebanon by bus, look for work, and return to Syria at the end of the day. There are no entry requirements. Those who do not gain work on a given day can be seen sitting around the town. Since the cost of the bus is slight and the workers can go without lunch or accommodation, the investment is small and the potential gain worth the risk.

Reaching back in time, some of the oldest towns in the world are in Lebanon and Syria: Byblos, Batroun, Sidon, Tripoli and Tyre in Lebanon; Ebla and Ugarit in Syria. Hellenistic Greece and Rome left their marks: Palmyra, Apamea, and Bosra in Syria, Baalbeck in Lebanon. Crusader and later castles document the first half of the 2nd millennium: Msaylha and Beaufort Castles in Lebanon, Crac des Chevaliers, the medieval fortress of Aleppo, and Saladin’s Castle in Syria. Despite the abundance of mosques, such as Umayyad in Aleppo (Syria) and the Great Mosque in Sidon (formerly the Church of St. John of the Hospitalers, a 13th c. Crusader compound), Christianity has left its mark: from the 11th c. St. Simeon, the Castle of the Templars, and a number of towns a short drive into the mountains from Damascus where Aramaic is still spoken. The richness of Christian sites and heritage in these countries wars with the common (American) perception of Islamic strongholds.

Finally, the myriad caravanserai (or khan), many still in use today, dotting these countries bear striking testimony to the importance of trade especially to Turkey, Italy (Venice), France, England and Holland from the eastern Mediterranean. One of the khans is called Banadiqa Khan, using the Arabic work for Venice. Aleppo was the far distant trading center mentioned by Shakespeare in Macbeth and Othello. It was the meeting place of several important commercial roads becoming the trading link between Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. Aleppo is also the site of the Hotel Baron, seen in the slideshow on post 18th c architecture below, where both T.E. Lawrence and Agatha Christie were frequent guests. The upper right hand window belongs to the room regularly accommodating Christie and the bar looks much as did in the early 20th century. Syria and its history are tightly woven into western blood and history.

Three recent articles demonstrate the richness of the past as well as the dangers inherent in it. In The Peninsula Qatar we read of plundering rampant in Lebanon.
Lebanon has a wealth of antiquities, but we have lost so many of them and we will continue to lose even more because of theft and lack of professional excavations,” a history and archaeology professor based in Lebanon said, requesting anonymity for fear of a backlash from authorities.
“Lebanon is still a popular ‘transit country’ for such smuggling,” said Rana Andari, who manages the archaeological collection at the culture ministry’s Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA). “Police bust at least 20 attempted smugglings inside Lebanon annually, and that’s not counting what goes on at the airport and border crossings,” she said.

But preserving the historical heritage is far from a national priority in Lebanon. “The problem is that whoever is caught gets away with a small fine,” Andari added. “Lebanon’s laws are lax compared to countries like Jordan or Egypt,” which recently toughened their punishment for antiquities trafficking with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
A dearth of government funding and an ineffective legal system has meant that the historical past of a country is being pillaged, neglected or destroyed.

Meanwhile from Syria we read in the New York Times of excavations at Tell Zeidan.

Archaeologists have embarked on excavations in northern Syria expected to widen and deepen understanding of a prehistoric culture in Mesopotamia that set the stage for the rise of the world’s first cities and states and the invention of writing.
In two seasons of preliminary surveying and digging at the site known as Tell Zeidan, American and Syrian investigators have already uncovered a tantalizing sampling of artifacts from what had been a robust pre-urban settlement on the upper Euphrates River. People occupied the site for two millenniums, until 4000 B.C. — a little-known but fateful period of human cultural evolution.
Scholars of antiquity say that Zeidan should reveal insights into life in a time called the Ubaid period, 5500 to 4000 B.C. In those poorly studied centuries, irrigation agriculture became widespread, long-distance trade grew in influence socially and economically, powerful political leaders came to the fore and communities gradually divided into social classes of wealthy elites and poorer commoners.
Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, a leader of the excavations at Zeidan, said the site’s northern location promised to enrich knowledge of the Ubaid culture’s influence far from where the first urban centers eventually flourished in the lower Tigris and Euphrates Valley. The new explorations, he said, are planned to be the most comprehensive yet at a large Ubaid settlement, possibly yielding discoveries for decades.
There are several reasons for excitement over the Zeidan excavations. Warfare and ensuing unstable conditions have locked archaeologists out of Iraq and its prime sites of Mesopotamian antiquity. So they have redoubled research in the upper river valleys, across the border in Syria and southern Turkey. And Zeidan is readily accessible. Having never been built upon by subsequent cultures, it is free of any overburden of ruins to thwart excavators.

And recently in Newsweek there is striking news of the excavation of the earliest temple ever (ca. 9,500 bce) in neighboring Turkey, now believed to be constructed by hunter-gatherers and predating the development of a farming and urban economy.
The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture – the first embers of civilization. In fact, [Klaus] Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became the ember – the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed. [The site] lays art and religion squarely at the start of that journey.

It was gratifying to visit many of the early sites and even more gratifying to see word of new finds that will, in time, help us to better understand the development of civilization and history of early man. The news of the lack of protection of Lebanese sites and finds is very unfortunate and disturbing in these days when most countries are working to protect their patrimony and demonstrate their proud heritage.

I include some images and brief commentary from my Syrian and Lebanese trips in the four slideshows accessible below. They are loosely grouped: pre-19th c and post 18th c architecture and elements, nature and, acknowledging the constance presence remaining from and imnportance of early trade, caravanserai and shops. [Tips for viewing slideshows: preferable to use full scree but then use teh escape button to return to smaller scree and subsequently the back button to return to the blog.]

Pre-19th century architecture and elements
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Post 18th century architecture and elements
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Caravanserai and shops
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Friday, March 5, 2010

Qatar-US Partnership

A story that demonstrates the Obama administration's continuing commitment to build mutual understanding between the US and the Muslim World makes hardly a mention in the US press.

In today's Gulf Time, we read a locally prepared (that is, no wire service) report on Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, speaking at the residence of the US ambassador to Qatar. The complete story can be found here.

I quote a couple pieces here:
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Tamara Wittes, was speaking at US Ambassador, Joseph LeBaron’s residence yesterday, where she told reporters that the US would be continuing to work with organisations in Qatar and the region to promote political participation and offer assistance regarding issues on local agendas.
Wittes explained that she is also visiting Qatar to follow up Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s recent visit to the country and her participation in the US-Islamic Forum – something she argues indicates the US administration’s commitment to broader participation with the region and the Muslim world.
Speaking about the current partnerships between the US and Qatar, Wittes mentioned the sister school network, which presently includes two schools from Washington and Boston, who have joined with the Doha Independent Secondary School and the Yarmook Preparatory School for Boys.
She explained that a group of some 15 students from the US will be visiting Qatar later this month to continue the development of the relationship between the schools, which have already been conducting video conference and partaking in other forms of communication.
A number of other partnerships include one between the US-based Solitary Centre and the National Human Rights Committee, which will be looking at improving labour conditions and rights for workers in Qatar. The National Democratic Institute will also be working with the Municipal Council to assist with local governance and related issues.
“These are all examples of how the US is working to support ongoing relations between Qatar and the US, and the creation of partnerships between government, businesses and civil society,” she argued.
Referring to Barack Obama’s work in the region, she claimed that efforts in the Muslim World depend on three ‘pillar stones’: mutual respect, mutual interests and mutual responsibility; a commitment to universal values, including a commitment to human rights; and the US commitment to broadening engagement with Muslim communities and governments.
And the deputy assistant secretary argued that these commitments have been exemplified by the administration’s ongoing efforts in Qatar and the rest of the region.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Women, World War II and Loss

In early January, within days of each other, two women who played strong roles during World War II died, one at 98 and the other at 100. It is unlikely that they knew each other. Their deaths were reported in the New York Times and more about their efforts can be found in publications cited in the obituaries and linked below.

Freya von Moltke, who died January 1 at 98, worked with her husband, Count Helmuth James von Moltke, to form part of the core of Nazi resistance. As reported in the obituary, it was a perilous act of resistance, as many as half the dissidents were later executed. From the obituary we learn that
Women who joined their husbands to oppose Hitler treaded the same dangerous ground as the men. Mrs. Moltke could have faced the death penalty simply for serving food and drinks to the conspirators. Her husband relied on her first impressions of people to make life-and-death judgments. She contributed ideas, particularly on legal issues, her area of expertise.
In an enduring contribution, she gathered up Kreisau circle documents and letters from her husband and hid them in the estate’s beehives. In 1990 she published them as “Letters to Freya.” The papers have proved valuable to scholars for their gripping portrayal of heroic, almost certainly futile resistance, as well as for their glimpses at daily life in the Third Reich.

She was the last living active participant in the group. Her husband was captured and killed by the Gestapo in 1945. In one of the last letters from her husband, he indicated that he would “gladly accompany” her “a bit further on this earth. But then I would need a new task from God. The task for which God made me is done.”

Less than two weeks later, on January 11, Miep Gies, known for her protection of Anne Frank and her family, died at 100. From the obituary we learn that
Every Aug. 4, the anniversary of the raid on the annex, Miep and Jan Gies remained at their Amsterdam home. They withdrew from the world and reflected on the lost. …
In her diary entry on May 8, 1944, Anne Frank wrote how “we are never far from Miep’s thoughts.”
In her memoir, Mrs. Gies told of her emotions when she finally read the diary. She wrote: “The emptiness in my heart was eased. So much had been lost, but now Anne’s voice would never be lost. My young friend had left a remarkable legacy to the world.
“But always, every day of my life, I’ve wished that things had been different. That even had Anne’s diary been lost to the world, Anne and the others might somehow have been saved.
“Not a day goes by that I do not grieve for them.”