In Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present, Christian C. Sahner weaves lean, perfectly recounted history with equally succinct memoir-styled observations on modern Syria. Sahner is a Middle East historian who attended Princeton University, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and is now completing his doctorate at Princeton. More importantly, he has spent years in Syria and Lebanon, studying, living, and recording his impressions and experiences. His narrative focuses on five key themes: the rise of Islam, the place of Christianity, the emergence of sectarian politics, the autocratic state, and the Lebanese paradigm.
His eloquent observations will be of interest to laymen and history buffs wishing to understand the complex historical factors contributing to Syria’s instability. Students seeking a jumping-off point for pursuing further studies in the region will also find the book raises critical questions crying out for further research. Finally, Western policymakers, baffled by the divergent ideological strands animating regional events, can start here to glimpse the intellectual roots of such incommensurability.
Sahner’s writing engages all the reader’s senses without wasting a word. His precision keeps the story moving at breakneck speed, leaving the reader with essential insights while eliding potentially distracting factual minutiae. The combination is sheer brilliance. The book is especially impressive given the magnitude of Sahner’s intellectual task and the grace with which he accomplishes it.
The Rise of Islam
Throughout his book, Sahner effectively uses metaphor and location to frame broader cultural and religious motifs. He describes the grounds of the Umayyad Mosque sitting at the center of Damascus as a palimpsest representing Syria’s layered history. He uses that image to relay historical tales about the buildings that have occupied the place—an ancient temple, a church, and the grand mosque—and the societies that have worshiped in them. Later, he describes the shrine of Hussein, the “greatest martyr of Shi’i Islam,” as an entrée to examine the Sunni-Shia divide that has riven the region and to probe the Alawi-Iranian-Hizbullah alliance at the core of this fault line in Syria.
Here, a dash more salt on the ideological origins of Islamic fundamentalism might add flavor to Sahner’s dish (though he already serves a full and satisfying plate). The tensions in the region are in part stoked by secular fears of the potential horrors of a Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic State whose ideological origins owe much to advocates of jihad like Ibn Taymiyyah (who died in Damascus in the early 1300’s) and Sayyid Qutb (who was executed in Egypt in 1966 and whom Sahner does address later in the book). These are not promising ideological foundations for a reconciliation between adversaries.
Nonetheless, Sahner repeatedly accesses history and geography to emphasize philosophical points. For example, he highlights the fact that the 'Abbasid empire conquered the Umayyads in 750, destroying the graves of the Umayyad caliphs. In and of itself, the story may seem an unsurprising fact of war. However, he explains that the technique, which the Romans called damnatio memoriae, the condemnation of memory, was intended to obliterate the memory of the deceased. In Syria, and the Middle East more generally, memory is an essential element of identity. Political and religious legitimacy is often based on appeals to the past, so what is preserved—and what is destroyed—is imbued with deep significance.
This significance makes the gradual disappearance of Syria’s Christians all the more lamentable. Sahner takes up that issue in the next chapter.
The Christians of Syria
In transporting the reader to Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of Damascus, he describes the house of Ananias, where scripture tells us that Ananias healed Paul and instructed him in the faith. Sahner also observes that the Christians in Bab Touma have a “tactile sense of the holy.” The references underscore the fact that just as history matters in the Middle East, so, too, does place. Place is a symbol—a symbol for history and a symbol for fact.
This symbolism makes the tale Sahner tells of Christian exodus from the region that much more painful. To preserve place is indeed to preserve memory. Where you fail to do so, you risk forgetting, and in forgetting, losing your way. As Christians and Jews flee the Middle East in increasing numbers, we cannot afford to forget.
Thickening the plot of place and memory, Sahner continues telling engaging tales that shed light on Syria’s modern sectarian diversity. Challenging simplistic assumptions about widespread conflict between Islam and Christianity, he gives a history of church heresies, offering a Christian mirror to the Islamic divisions discussed earlier in the book. But he also succinctly describes how these heretical tangents bore descendant sects existing even today.
Moreover, Sahner makes powerful observations not only through straight story-telling, but also in letting Syrians speak for themselves. At one point, we meet Abdallah, a Sunni Muslim who says, “I would rather live in a place that did not have diversity and was stable, than live in a diverse place that was at constant risk of falling into a civil war.” This, of course, prompts the question: why must diversity lead to such instability? In Abdallah, Sahner says, he saw the banal logic of sectarianism. And it is to that logic that he next turns his attention.
The Emergence of Sectarian Politics
The third chapter begins beautifully:
The road from Latakia to Qardaha wound gently along the Mediterranean coast. From here, the blue waters seemed to race to an endless horizon, to a world still wider than crowded Damascus, over one hundred and fifty miles inland.
This road leads into the mountainous region of Jabal Ansariyya, the home of Hafez al-Asad and heartland of his Alawi community. Sahner’s emphasis here is the domination of the Syrian state by a religious minority: the Alawis, a syncretistic offshoot of Shi’ism that constitutes 12 percent of the Syrian population. Through the Alawi prism, Sahner explores sectarianism more generally. He charts the rise and evolution of the Asad clan, and defines sectarianism as the “activation of religious identity as one of the main principles of social and political life.”
Sahner dispels the easy tropes regarding sectarianism as superficial, untutored prejudices, and provides a description of the complex historical fracturing of Islam that contributes to Syria’s diversity and internal division. He also provides an essential history of the demise of the Ottoman state, which was accompanied by Westernizing reforms that introduced significant tensions into modern Arab countries.
This sequence, I believe, is where his book becomes most profound. Without saying it, Sahner reveals that the easy conclusions drawn about regional sects overlook a more fundamental aspect of humanity: a fallen nature that leads towards certain division. On this side of paradise, we shall always be haunted.
The Autocratic State
From here, Sahner’s narrative delves more deeply into the darkness of sectarianism—the apparatus of the Syrian state and, in particular, Syria’s secret police, the mukhabarat.
The mukhabarat blends into the background of every aspect of Syrian life, yet is painfully apparent when it needs to be. This, of course, is how the game of authoritarian control is played.
Hafez al-Asad was known for his brutality in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood. Infamous stories abound of his putting down their Homs insurrection in the 1980s by killing them, destroying their homes, and then bulldozing over the remaining bodies. Such movements recall Hannah Arendt’s observation in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the most pernicious aspect of the totalitarian state is that it erases any memory of what it opposes. Damnatio memoriae. Just as memory is a tool of legitimacy in modern Middle Eastern society, so is its selective eradication.
Sahner captures the “Janus-faced” nature of the Syrian apparatus, posturing (before the war) as liberal and permissive to the West, even as it operated an elaborate system of prisons, torturing its opponents into submission or death. Yet, the alternative is not so simple.
Here, Sahner asks essential and uncomfortable questions. In speaking of the youth oppressed by Bashar al-Asad who have risen up in rebellion against him, he wonders, if Asad falls, whether they will “build a government that provides people opportunities denied to them under the old system? Or will they build a regime as vengeful and narrow as the one it replaced?”
The Lebanese Lens
The book’s final chapter seeks to illuminate where Syria is headed by examining where its neighbor, Lebanon, has already been. Sahner, who lived in Lebanon for some time, gives a whirlwind history of Lebanon’s numerous sectarian communities, and the brutal civil war that raged there from 1975 to 1989.
In Lebanon, a significant but different place is reserved for memory, if only in the breach. Life is lived by many in a continuous effort to forget the recent horrors. By way of example, Sahner spends some time articulating the horrific acts of the one-time Christian militia commander-cum-politician Elie Hobeika, who is alleged to have orchestrated massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. (For an Israeli perspective on these events and the role of memory in war, see the moving animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir.) Hobeika is, to be certain, a prime example of the extreme temptations of power, and the section might have benefited from an acknowledgement that every side, whether Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, or Armenian, had its Elie Hobeikas. Still, Hobeika’s story is telling and, though different, extreme factions are also emerging in Syria. There, as Sahner observes, the civil war has evolved from the fight for freedom from oppression to a “battle over two visions of the future,” one secular and one increasingly fundamentalist.
Hurtling towards his conclusion, Sahner notes that the war in Lebanon ended when the various factions realized they could not subjugate one another. This observation highlights an important point about the Syrian denouement. By the end, the Lebanese wanted peace more than total domination. In Syria, total domination is still the goal. Absent a dispositive factor emerging on one side or the other, therefore, the prospect for peace remains remote.
Sahner closes the chapter by discussing the importance of martyrs in both Lebanese and Syrian imagery, describing the identically named Martyrs’ Squares in Beirut and Damascus, which commemorate the Arabs executed in both cities for resisting Ottoman powers. Notably, the root for martyr in Arabic carries with it another meaning: to witness.
In this sweeping work of nearly impossible detail, that is exactly what Sahner does. He witnesses to history, and he witnesses to truth. As he says in his epilogue, the purpose of the work is not to predict the future, but to reflect on the past and how it has delivered Syria to its current moment. He delivers his rendition with the passion of a man who loves the place, but the profundity and gravity of one who feels the pain of its tragic dissimilation.
Sahner clearly has a successful career as a scholar ahead of him. He will be the type of professor whose classes alumni remember fondly years later. As for his beloved Syria, its immediate future is far less promising. Still, thanks to great works like Among the Ruins, we will remember.
Brock Dahl holds an M.Phil. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford, writing his dissertation on the collapse of the Lebanese state. He represented the US Department of the Treasury in the US Embassy in Baghdad and on the Afghanistan Interagency Operations Group. He is the author of numerous articles on national security issues as well as a forthcoming novel.