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Liberating Syria

Visiting archeological sites in Syria can arouse within one a rather sharp and distinct feeling of trekking along the same paths traveled a century ago by the field archaeologist, and later colonel in the British Army, T.E. Lawrence. Indeed there are a number of still-visible “Lawrence of Arabia” footprints to be found here—both in Damascus as well as deep in the Syrian countryside.

In Damascus, for instance, one may marvel at the Khan As’ad Pasha, the majestic 18th century residence of the Ottoman governor of Damascus—As’ad Pasha al-Azem—whose palatial domicile today houses the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions. Most foreigners like to spend time at Azem, and Lawrence was frequently there as a guest of Emir Faisal, a son of Sharif Hussein, of Mecca. It was Faisal’s irregular troops that Lawrence fought alongside while sabotaging the railway lines of the overstretched Ottoman forces and significantly contributing to their defeat.

As Ottoman domination crumbled, in no small measure due to the Arab revolt around Damascus, Lawrence tried in vain to salvage something for the Arabs, whom he loved and admired even if he sometimes expressed his affection for them in an elitist English orientalist turn of phrase. By the summer of 1917, it had become clear to both Lawrence and Faisal that the four-century rule over Arabia by the Ottoman Turks was about to collapse, thanks in no small part to the revolt and the bravery and sacrifices of those who joined it. Also clear to Lawrence, if not to his friend Faisal, who was a bit naïve on the subject of Western history, was that his country, England, a pillar of the “Big Four” at the Versailles Peace Conference, conference which included the President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, France’s Georges Clemenceau and the Prime Minister of Italy, Vittorio Orlando was planning once again, and not for the last time, to stab the Arabs in the back and renege on the very promises that Lawrence had been commanded to deliver.

Photos of Lawrence and Faisal hang today on the walls of what was Lawrence’s bedroom and office at the Azem Palace—and it is clear from his facial expressions that Lawrence sensed what was coming to Syria and Palestine. Before he died, in a motorcycle accident shortly after his return to England at the age of 46, Lawrence increasingly discussed what he regarded as his personal failure, during the closing years of the war, when he told friends and family that he had failed to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain, according to Lawrence, was an abject betrayal of the promises of independence he had made to the Arabs and for which he felt personally responsible.

This observer crossed paths with Lawrence, in a manner of speaking, once again a few weeks ago, at Palmyra, the archeological and UNESCO World Heritage site which lies across the Syrian desert to the northeast of Damascus. The area was recently liberated from Islamist jihadists, and it was here I came across the words of Lawrence himself, inscribed on a plaque: “Nothing in this scorching, desolate land could look so refreshing...Moslem story-tellers ascribe the building of Palmyra to the Jinn commandeered by Soloman...”

Frankly, this observer is reluctant to demure from Lawrence’s description, but in the many years since he spoke those words, it has become clear that the “Tadmor” (Arabic and Hebrew name for Palmyra) referred to in the Torah is not the Tadmor of Syria, but rather refers to a different site, one now lost to the sands of Palestine, if it ever existed at all. Lawrence in fact would probably be sorely vexed to learn that his words linking Palmyra to Soloman are today being misused by cheap, tawdry, Zionist land seekers prowling to assert a bogus claim over Palmyra in Syria as part of God’s putative philanthropy, with the expectation, undoubtedly, of swallowing more Arab land for the ever-expanding Eretz Israel. But the misuse of Lawrence’s quote at Palmyra for political purposes is a subject for another Syrian update.

Lawrence and Lamb also crossed paths (again in a manner of speaking that is) on 5/15/14 in the course of this observer’s six-hour excursion up and around the medieval fortress known as Krak des Chevaliers (Castle of the Kurds—who reportedly first inhabited the area in the 11th century). The Syrian Arab Army recaptured the castle and the nearby village of al-Hosn from rebel forces on March 20, 2014. Both the castle as well as the village of 10,000 had been seized by rebels (aka ‘takfiri terrorists’), with the “Krak” sustaining extensive damage from especially violent clashes in 2012 and again in July and August of 2013. My excellent companion and government guide during my day at the Krak was “Mohammad,” a Syrian army security commander with 40 troops under his command. The detachment has been stationed inside the fortress, this so as to keep anyone from attempting to retake it “by a nighttime sneak attack,” I was told.

Apparently a history buff, Mohammad’s first comment, as we began to ascend the steep three floors of medieval steps, was to quote—who else?—T.E. Lawrence.

“We are walking in the footsteps of Lawrence,” he informed me as we made our way, gazing from time to time at the marvelous, gothic ceilings. “He called this fortress—” then, to my surprise, reciting from memory: ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world, and a castle which forms a fitting commentary on any account of the Crusading buildings of Syria.”

Many historians have agreed with that assessment by Lawrence, including Hugh Kennedy, who wrote that “the defenses of the outer wall were the most elaborate and developed anywhere in the Latin east...the whole structure is a brilliantly-designed and superbly-built fighting machine.”

Indeed, Krak des Chevaliers is considered one of the greatest and best preserved castles in the world due to its unique architecture in terms of its defense facilities, building materials and decorations. In 2006, the castle was inscribed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage sites along with its “sister fort,” the Citadel of Saladin, further north in Lattakia.

Among the approximately 400 damaged or destroyed antiquity sites that are now back under government control, Krak des Chevaliers is viewed by locals as a sort of “success story” because, for sure, it is still standing! A major restoration project was begun in April, and is now well underway, with the effort being directed by fifteen fulltime restoration specialists, who in turn are assisted by volunteers. Government officials, including the Ministers of Culture and of Tourism, drop by from time to time and praise their work, and a “Krak des Chevaliers reopens to the public” event is scheduled for 6/1/14. Whether many foreign tourists (or any at all) will be able to attend the gala happening is dubitable.

But hopefully conditions will allow for the return of tourists to the country at some point soon. One of my traveling companions the day I feasted my eyes on the Krak was a Syrian tour operator who pronounces himself more than willing to pitch in and help rebuild the tourist industry, Syria’s second largest foreign-exchange earner, which in 2010, prior to the outbreak of the conflict, brought in more than $1.5 billion.

Less fortunate than the castle is the formerly picturesque village of al-Hosn, which too was packed with rebels, and where current conditions now rival those in some parts of the cities of Aleppo and Homs for complete and total destruction. This observer did not see one bird, one feral cat, or even a fly in what locals call “the village of death.” Two weeks ago, a four man unit from Mohammed’s battalion at Krak did discover two hold-over rebels hiding out in the rubble. They killed them on the spot.

After 12 centuries of invaders trying to conquer this land, and a number succeeding—such as when the Muslims took it from the Christians in the seventh century employing the time tested ‘surrender or starve’ tactic—things have a way of getting rebuilt and repaired. And this time will likely be no different.

This observer’s purpose in visiting Krak was to detail the damage caused by 18 months of fighting over the fortress. The notes I made on my trip on 5/15/14 include the following:

  • Complete destruction of the staircase and halls in front of the internal building of the fort.
  • Partial damage in the façade of the Hall of the Knights, including some damage to the decorations and arches inside the Hall.
  • Traces of fire behind the church and damage to the library hall, opposite the leader's tower, and a part of the staircase leading to the roof of the library hall.
  • Damage in the façade of the King's Daughter’s Tower and partial destruction in the wall between the tower and the roof of the church.
  • Partial destruction in the entrance to the stairs in front of Qalawun Tower; damage and destruction in some parts of the tower itself.
  • Damage to one wall of the warehouse adjacent to the main offices of the castles overlooking the courtyard.
  • Destruction of a part of the pillar supporting the ceiling of the library tower opposite the tower of the knights.
  • Severe damage in the office of the Ottoman House, as well as the administration offices.
  • Partial damage and destruction of some walls in several places of the castle, including minor damage in the outer wall of the castle.
  • Surface damage caused by domestic fires built by rebels for heating and cooking, this by the dozens of rebel families that occupied different areas of the vast fortress.

To this observer it is clear that the Syrian public and their officials, in all 14 of the country’s governorates, are committed to the complete restoration of their nation’s peerless and incomparable archeological heritage sites as soon as security conditions permit.


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