Lebanon, religion, Syrian history

Shi’ah Heterodoxy and the Imam Caliph

The district of Ra’s al-Ayn lies to the south of Baalbek, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; it is a popular destination for the Shi’ah community, as the tree-lined park provides a perfect picnic spot. Families arrive in mini buses with their children, to enjoy fairground, horse and camel rides. For its visitors the allure of Ra’s al-Ayn is the sacred remains of Masjid Ra’s (head) al-Imam al-Hussayn. The mosque derives its name from Shi’ah folklore, which recalls how Hussayn ibn Ali was decapitated and his head taken to the surrounding regions. As the second son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and his wife Fatima, Hussain was a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and the third in a line of infallible Imamah, the mystics who are the mainstay of Shi’ah faith.

The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism claims the mosque at Ra’s al-Ayn was erected in AD681 out of the stone from Baalbek’s renowned Phoenician city, to commemorate the third Imam’s death at the Battle of Karbala, in Iraq. It further claims that the mosque was extended in AD1277 under the auspices of the Mamluk Sultan, Zaher Rukn al-din Baybars. The assertion is credible as the Mamluks did conduct an extensive building programme in Syria, which then incorporated Lebanon. Ironically though, their mosque complexes celebrated the re-establishment of the Sunni Caliphate, following the defeat of the Shi’ah Fatimids who governed parts of North Africa and Arabia from AD909 to 1171.

Though the Abbasid Caliphate had dominated the Islamic empire between AD750 and 1258 it fell into disarray in its later years. Its expanding jurisdiction had caused social upheaval bringing about changes to political and religious doctrine, which not only confirmed the separation of the Sunni and Shi’ah branches of Islam but allowed the latter to flourish. By the ninth century the Abbasids had developed a pragmatic approach to the separation of religion and state, whereby the perception of a divine caliph was emblematic, leaving the Sunni religious leaders (Ulama) to determine religious matters. In AD909, the founder of the Shi’ah Fatimids, Abd’allah al-Mahdi Billah, claimed descent through the house of the Prophet Mohammed, which presented religious as well as political challenges to the Abbasids.

The Fatimids were Ismaili, a denomination that had left the main corpus of Shi’ah following the death of the seventh Imam, Ja’far al-Kazim in AD745. They adhered to the concept of the infallible Imam thus Billah, as a descendant of the prophet, was invested with the authority to govern as Imam Caliph, wich gave him the potential for unbridled power over political and religious doctrine. The Fatimid rule was, by and large, pluralistic but its empire faced many challenges and in its last years it was reduced to little more than a dynasty. Not only had it failed to unite the Shi’ah under the banner of a true Islamic doctrine but its eventual dissolution meant the first Imam Ali ibn abi Talib, would be the only Shi’ah to govern the Muslim empire.

During the early part of the Abbasid period Shi’ah Islam was in crisis, the perceived heterodoxy of the faith failed to attract a majority of the population and the lineage of the the Imam Ali appeared to have disintegrated, causing the Shi’ah Ulama to abandon the caliphate and any hope of establishing an enduring religious doctrine on earth. By AD846 the Shi’ah faith was predicated upon the allegory of a twelfth hidden Imam, who was secreted by God and was not destined to return to earth, until the apocryphal day of judgement. From then on, the Twelvers as they became known, vowed not to participate in political life and would accept any ruler providing they were allowed to worship in peace. However as quietists, their religious practices alarmed the Sunni majority, leaving their communities to live in fear of persecution.

In AD1501 the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Ismail Shah, departed from Twelver orthodoxy, when he declared Shi’ah Islam the official religion of Iran. Over a century later, in AD1687, the theologian, Muhammed Baqir Majlisi attempted to eradicate the mystical elements of the faith. He fostered the ritualistic and fervoured displays seen at the festival of Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussayn. Majlisi hoped the passions awoken in the worshippers would divert any frustrations they felt with the Safavid elite towards the Sunni, who had been responsible for Hussayn’s death. However the esoteric aspects of the religion continued through the philosophy of scholars like Sadra ad-Din Mohammed Shirazi. Mulla Sadra was to have a profound influence on Sayyid Ayatollah Khomeini.

As a mystic, Khomeini affirmed the occultation of the hidden Imam but when, in 1979, he proclaimed Iran an Islamic state, he too departed from Shi’ah orthodoxy. Though Khomeini lacked the status of infallible Imam and caliph he was both a religious and political leader and thus perceived as a threat by the surrounding Sunni states. The political climate was changing and as there is safety in numbers, it is likely he realised its future of the Shi’ah Twelvers was rooted in strong government rather than in religious quietism. Khomeini inspired Lebanon’s Hizb’allah, which combines political will with an adherence to the faith that is poignant for countless Lebanese Shi’ah.

At Ra’s al Ayn, the small lake, lying adjacent to the mosque, is sourced by the spring water. The stone work, which forms its banks and the small island, suggests it may once have been part of a greater Mosque complex. Baalbek has been subject to earthquakes and flooding throughout time and the sight of the spring water flowing down to the Phoenician site and the fields beyond makes it easy to envisage a catastrophe. However precarious its history, the mosque remains a beacon of hope for the Shi’ah of Baalbek as it echoes the mystery of the infallible Imam and a long held adherence to the faith.

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Islamic history, Lebanon, religion, Syrian history

The mixed blessing of the Shi’ah mosque

The history of the remains of the Ra’s al-Imam al-Hussayn Mosque in Baalbek, East Lebanon is tentative but it now commemorates the death of the third Shi’ah Imam Hussayn ibn Ali, son of the first Imam Ali ibn abi Talib and the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Hussayn was slaughtered in Karbala, Iraq, in AD680 by order of Yazid, son and newly appointed heir to the second Umiyyad ruler Mu’awiyah. Hussayn and some of his family had travelled from Medina to Iraq to defend the bloodline of the Prophet Mohammed and thus, the rightful succession of to the Caliphate (or Muslim empire). Hussayn’s death is uncontested and a source of deep regret for all Muslims. However the shrines commemorating his passing are a mixed blessing.

The Imam Hussayn ibn Ali Mosque at Karbala has its gremlins as, over the centuries, the city has undergone many transformations. By the early 20th century seventy five per cent of Karbala’s population was officially Iranian. In 1924 the British protectorate sought to Arabise the region and introduced what amounted to a forced naturalisation programme under the Iraqi Nationality Act. This was consolidated by a series of new measures, which curtailed the rights and privileges of non-citizens and non-Arabic speakers. The Holy Shrine regulations of 1949 and 1950 ensured that their administration was conducted only by Iraqi nationals, a move that ended the Iranian sphere of influence. The situation was reversed by the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now the shrine at Karbala provides an alternative to the pilgrimage to Mecca. The political differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia made this necessary, as many Shi’ah are refused visas for Mecca by the Saudi authorities; requiring them to resort to alternative destinations.

The controversial history of the Ra’s Imam al-Hussayn Mosque is matched by the political intrigue surrounding Baalbek’s Sayyidah Khawla Mosque and its sister, the Sayyidah Zainab Mosque in Damascus. Accounts vary but both Mosques are said to be erected on pre-existing shrines and were completed around 1990. Importantly they are fashioned in the Iranian architectural design similar to that of the Imam al-Hussayn Mosque in Karbala. The Zaynab Mosque has attracted vast numbers of Shi’ah pilgrims to Damascus and as the Mosque is a symbol of solidarity in Islamic society, it is regarded with suspicion by many Syrians.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, its presence has fed into the rhetoric of holy war as the mainly Sunni population is suspicious of Iran’s intentions in the region. The Khawla Mosque stands on the main road leading into Baalbek and adjacent to the ancient Phoenician site. It is not used for prayers and though it does attract visitors, it is doubtful the Khawla Mosque will be the site of pilgrimage, as the origins of its namesake are mythologised, whereas Zainab was Hussayn’s sister. Further Shi’ah politicians are part of a coalition government rather than the ruling party and it is doubtful the Lebanese government, as a whole, would agree to such an inflammatory action.

This is a short extract from a chapter of a book I’m working on.

 

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Syrian history, Western Colonisation

English merchant adventurers, Aleppo (Halab), a centre of commerce and culture

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Why Halab?

This entry describes the rise of the English merchant venturers and their inroads into the Levant. I decided to focus on Halab as a strategic Syrian centre for trade, because it is in the news and of current interest to the reader; because of the contribution it made to English culture; because I had an Armenian friend there whose family own a linen and craft shop that is situated directly opposite the citadel and because I met a man who had lived in Liverpool, renowned for it’s merchant shipping as well as its football team. This was a chance encounter in the old Damascus souk and as he joined me he explained he’d been in the merchant navy and sailed into Liverpool dock where he’d settled for thirty years before returning to Halab.

A backdrop to English colonialism: adventurers, pirates, slaves and seamen

Readers in Britain at least will be familiar with the exploits of maritime ”privateers” Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. Both of whom were granted charter by queen Elizabeth 1st to combat the Spanish fleet militarily, wherever on the high seas they encountered it and to return to England with any riches acquired. Their once romantic image is tarnished by the knowledge that their brutal tactics were those of pirates and that they participated in the slave trade. Their foreign adventures did nevertheless finance the English monarchy, somewhat inhibit Spain’s incursions into what is now Latin America and begin the colonisation of North America by England.

Another kind of adventurer emerged in the 1500s as commercial companies were granted royal charters to trade in various parts of the globe. Currently BBC one is showing ‘Taboo’, which focuses on the East India Company that had an army and virtually owned India. In 1606, king James 1st granted a charter to the joint stock company the Virginia Company of London with the intention of establishing colonial settlements in North America. It was not plain sailing and many battles with the native American population ensued but lines were crossed and the road to globalisation was paved.

the Levant Company and the East India Company, a joint venture

The Levant Company was granted its first royal charter in 1581 and after shaky beginnings it amalgamated with the Turkish and Venice companies and received a second charter in 1592. There was a restriction on the numbers joining the enterprise, which was responsible for setting the terms of entry for new traders. Following many financial wrangles with the monarchy, by 1615 the company held the monopoly on English trade in the Levant but it was not alone.

The East India company was less under the remit of the crown and structured along the lines of a modern corporation, whereby the directors controlled its business dealings. Through the 1630s its directorship was dominated by the Levant Company merchants, whose traders were not as economically successful in the Levant as some other nationalities e.g. the Dutch. This, as Martin Deveck wrote in ‘The Levant Company Between Trade and Politics: or, the Colony That Wasn’t’, might well have been due to the way the company was administered. English commercial enterprise finally came into its own in Syria at the time of the industrial revolution, which spanned the 18th and 19th centuries.

Halab (Aleppo)

Halab has a long cultural and commercial history as it was a cross roads for many of the trade routes. It was part of the silk road, which extended through the Roman empire all the way to China and, as the name suggests, it was where merchants traded in silk, spices and perfumes. As trade routes Halab and Damascus, the modern Syrian capital, were rivals but both survived plagues, earthquakes as well as invasion. Until 637 AD, when it was conquered by Muslim armies, the city was known as Aleppo. As it passed from one Islamic dynasty to another and fended off the Christian crusaders it developed as a cutural centre, which attracted philosophers and poets from all walks of life.

The Mongolian invasion in 1260 curtailed Syria’s trade and this was not properly rejuvenated until it became part of the Ottoman empire in 1516. At that point the black sea ports were incapacitated, which enabled a thriving trade through Persia and Syria of Persian silk and Indian pepper, supplemented by goods produced locally in Halab, these included textiles, woven cloth, cotton, wool as well as soap, vegetables, fruit and nuts. By 1600 the East India Company was granted its charter to trade with the Orient and the company attempted to enter into the Persian markets by way of the Gulf. Needless to say other European traders opposed this, notably the Portugese who used diplomacy and then aggression to prevent it.

Back to the future?, Gulf games

England had set its sights on the Strait of Hormuz part of the Gulf strait, a stretch of ocean where the western powers amassed to attack Yemen at the end of 2015. England fought a battle there with the Portugese and came out on top. As such it acquired access to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen and future sources of oil, though at that time they simply hoped for a through route to India. As Sir Reader Bullard points out England turned its attention to the Levant with India in mind. The route was shorter and guaranteed access when the Russians refused English traders entry through the Caspian sea or the Turkish Ottomans denied them access through Egypt. It wasn’t all plain sailing as you will see if you open the link at the top of the page.

In 1640 the East India Company opened a factory at Basra in southern Iraq and though only open for twenty years England established roots. If readers remember it is Basra where the British troops were stationed after the 2003 invasion. Oil rich Basra borders with the oil well that is Kuwait, the invasion of which was the reason Britain bombed Iraq in 1990. Both countries converge on the Persian Gulf straits as does the lesser known Khuzestan an Iranian territory, which is also oil rich and a possible reason for the Iraq/Iran war that ended in 1980. This conflict too was spurred on by Britain and its allies. Saddam Hussain, the late Iraqi president, laid claim to the Kuwait oil wells and to Khuzestan, which is in Iran but has a large Arabic population.

Halab and its cultural contribution to England/ a very secondary trade

In the early 1600s  the English ambassador in Turkey supervised the commercial and functional duties of the consuls he appointed who were officials of the Levant Company, a situation that continued until 1815. The company employed chaplains and among their number was the reverend Edward Pococke who eventually became the principle professor of Arabic studies at Oxford University. Before this Pococke spent five years in Halab as chaplain to the Turkey merchants, where he learned Arabic and became an accomplished orientalist.

Pococke also collected valuable Arabic manuscripts that are now stored at the Bodleian library of Oxford university. In fact the trade in such oriental treasures was quite a sideline for members of the Levant company and included a biographical work of Taqi al-Ad’din al-Subki who was a critic of Ibn Taymiyyeh, the 13th century theologian who inspires the many Islamic groups operating in Syria at present. For more information see ‘The Republic of Letters and the Levant’ edited by Alistair Hamiltom & others. Haleb also was mentioned in two Shakespeare plays, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’.

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Lebanon, religion, Syrian history

Lebanon an update, Moukhtara, service taxi adventures, new presidents and other gems including some photographs

For more about the Lebanese Maronites and the presidential election controversy see the links below:

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Trouble in Paradise

I listened to the BBC radio 4 programme ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, which I normally avoid like the plague as the rhetoric from said correspondents is often banal, over flowered and worse of all a  propagating exercise to die for. On this occasion I got as far as the BBC middle east foreign correspondent Jeremy Bowen admiring the fact that Syrians ate food prior to the invasion; or at least that’s how I described it to a friend. The comment I emailed to radio 4 was less than generous as I pointed out that it would have been more helpful if Mr Bowen had spoke out against the invasion of Syria at the outset, instead of waiting six years to lyricise about a book on its cuisine.

I am all too familiar with Mr Bowen, his being a fellow countryman of mine but I thought I’d revisit some of his exploits and came across an article saying he was shot at, in 2008, in the Lebanese Mountains. Not realising there were so many skirmishes between the rival dynasties in that year I wondered where in the Lebanese Mountains the incident occurred, as the mountain ranges span almost the whole of the country. It turned out it happened in the Chouf, near a town named Barouk that is said to be the line of demarcation with Bekka Valley.

The shots that Mr Bowen dodged were fired by the Druzes at Hizb’allah who were moving in on the former, thus the action was well justified.  I’m not sure if there is a Shia population in the Chouf but know there is a Druzes population in Bekka Valley. Many Druzes support the Zionists of Palestine and in 2008 tensions were high in Palestine and Lebanon. The attacks on Gaza by the Israelis, which culminated into a full blown war later that year, began in 2006 after Hamas was elected in Gaza and Hizb’allah was battling it out with the Israelis in South Lebanon.

In addition the Lebanese election of 2005 produced a distinct polarisation of its political parties and resulted in the March 8th and March 14th accords, whereby the Maronites were again divided and Michel Aoun supporters joined the Shias and some of the minority parties in support of Syria. There are definite ideological differences between the Lebanese political parties and allegiances do change but surprisingly Mr Bowen, like lots of other western journalists, sees Lebanon as a benign little country, which is manipulated by the outside world.

A more comprehensive examination shows me Lebanon is incredibly war like or at least hard core, probably due to its history and tripartite character as it’s mountainous, tribal and cultivates hashish it appears to have more in common with Afghanistan than with its neighbour Syria. There the people tended to be quieter, more cultured and integrated. Readers may question this in the light of the current situation but there was a lot of provocation as well as the unleashing of extremism on the peope. In addition Syria is decidedly state socialist and as such an enemy of the west.

A travel tale

When I took trips to the Chouf on previous occasions the mini van from Cola bus station went south towards Saidon, did a left turn on the coastal road at Damour and continued winding around the mountain side to its various destinations, including Beit Ed’dine and Deir al-Qamar. In April last year it was different, my visit to the Chouf resulted quite by accident. I got my van from Jisr Mata (airport bridge), we headed off east to Bekka Valley and picked up a number Lebanese soldiers on the way out of Beirut. It was Friday so I suspected they were going home for the weekend; in Lebanon it’s ok to join the army on a part time basis. When we got to the point outside the capital where vehicles take a left turn towards Chtura and the valley, we did a right turn instead and  began to climb upwards.

It was a while before I caught on that our destination was the Chouf and about another hour (due to traffic) before we arrived in a traditional Druzes town recognisable, as people were dressed in the traditional black with white head dresses. I’d walked out of Beit Ed’dine on a previous visit and attempted to get a taxi to Mukhtara but couldn’t spare the money so walked a short distance til I found a small pizzeria run by a couple of Druzes women who shyly made me my tasty Pizza. Otherwise my interaction with the Druzes population is scant.

Mukhtara, Mukhtara

In the van I did say ”this is the Chouf” to some of my fellow passengers but just received sarcastic shrugs, I suspect soldiers returning home for a break are not inclined to attempt small talk, in English, with the one foreign passenger and on that occasion the only women in the van. Of course an alternative explanation is that they thought I was nervous as there is so much talk about kidnappings in Lebanon but I’d guessed we were dropping of the soldiers. I’m not at all sure which town we stopped at but I suspect it was Moukhtara the capital of the Druzes area of Lebanon, as one of the remaining soldiers sat behind me repeating over and over Mukhtara, Mukhtara.

It was only after I’d seen the short film of Jeremy Bowen’s run in with Druzes militants that I realised there may have been some disquiet about our destination among my fellow passengers. After all we were headed for Bekka Valley, never the twain and all that. The last comment was meant to be a joke as some Shias join the Lebanese army as well as the other cultural groups.

Mukhtara is the home of Walid Jumblatt’s palace and Mukhtar is the Quranic name for chosen one, so powerful stuff. I’ve just read a few comments about the Druzes on the internet and believe there is a line of thought, which sees them as victims but not so. The Druzes are the sect to which British prime minister, Lord Palmeston gave arms  in the 1800s so that Britain might wage a proxy war with France in Lebanon. It worked and resulted in a bloodbath some decades later as the French backed Maronites were slaughtered by the Druzes and fled to Syria in a bid for safety. It is the Maronites who control other parts of the Lebanese mountains and a Maronite who is always the Lebanese president. For more on this please see:

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Druzes/Maronite war memorial, Beit Ed’dine

Druzes/Maronite war memorial

New President, new peace deals with Syria

On October 31st 2016, after a two year waiting period Michel Aoun, leader of the Lebanese Patriotic Movement was appointed president of Lebanon. His predecessor Michel Suleiman was president between 2008 and 2014 and was a member of the of rival Maronite party the Lebanese Armed Forces. Its executive chairman is Samir Geagea, another contender for the presidency until he dropped out of the race in early 2016. I don’t want to rehash previous posts but if you follow the links at the beginning of this entry you’ll understand the bloody, sometimes quite literally, rivalry between the two parties.

I believe it is expedient to say here that I believe Mr Aoun will not declare himself prime minister again, the act that sparked the civil war in 1975. The role of prime minister is reserved for the Sunni Muslim and the role of speaker for the Shias. As I recall this rule was introduced to bring the three majority denominations together but hasn’t worked out too well, so hopefully this time it will be different.With regards to the speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal party, he has held the position for 25 years, no wonder Hizb’allah leader Hasan Nazrallah gets upset, mind you I don’t know if he has an ambition to be parliamentary speaker though the rivalry between the two Shia parties almost matches that between the two Maronite parties.

In my view the new president was always going to be Mr Aoun, despite his pro-Syrian leanings, primarily because his predecessor was from the Lebanese Forces Party and Mr Geagea was the other main contender. Having said that in 1975 Mr Aoun didn’t support Syria, rather he was a personal friend of Saddam Hussain, late president of Iraq. Another rather intriguing point is the allegiance struck, last year, between Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada movement and newly appointed prime minister, Saad Hariri, who is in his second term.

When I wtote of the events of 2008 I failed to mention the assassination of Rafik Hariri esteemed leader and father of Saad. At the time Syria was accused of his murder by the west and by Mr Hariri himself but as far as I know the inquiry into the car bombing, which may have caused his death is still underway. Suleiman Frangieh is the grandson of the founder of the Marada movement, also Suleiman who was president at the start of the civil war in 1975. He is the son of Tony Frangieh who was murdered by the Lebanese Forces, led by Mr Geagea, in the late 1970s. Both the Free Patriotic and the Marada movements are part of the March 8th accord i.e. pro-Syrian and presidents run in the Frangieh family. My surprise at Mr Hariri’s support for Suleiman Frangieh stems though, from the fact that the Frangiehs are close personal friends of the al-Assad family.

Developments good for Syria

I know I get carried away with the subject of the Lebanese hierarchy but its important for Syria as it needs Lebanese support badly and at the moment the different faction are trying their best to bowl along together. Other than a few minor spats things are going well there politically, also president Aoun is invited to some talks in Jordan soon. Finally, I believe I’ve written this before but I noticed a Russian envoy visited Saad Hariri in Lebanon just months before Russia went in to bail out Syria and I don’t think it was a coincidence.

A tale from a mountain top, the old man of the hills, the Assassins

By the time Edward 1st (then prince Edward) of England joined the ninth crusade to the holyland in 1271 the battle was over but this didn’t prevent his being wounded by a poison dagger wielded by one of the Assassins or Hashishan (in Persian), the fanatical old man of the Lebanese mountains. The Assassins, derived from the Shia Ismailis, were said to lay in wait for the Christian crusader and who can blame them? In the case of Edward, he’d attempted to join forces with the Mongol Khan, then the ruler of Persia, to defeat the Saracens (Arabs) of Syria. The joint venture failed but the Mongols succeeded in plundering large areas of Arabic territory. Though the assassins may have originated in Persia (now Iran) they had no sympathy with the Mongol invader.

The Assasins have the reputation as one of the most lethal guerrila groups in history and were despised as heretics by by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. They were a persecuted denomination and their leader Hasan-i Sabbah and his people were fierce defenders of their territory. There were remains of an Assassin castle in Syria in 2005 but it may have been destroyed by now. It is likely, that as a guerrila force, the Assassins provide inspiration for Hizb’allah as they battle with the mercenaries in Syria. I suspect the method of combat is somewhat different as the attack by dagger used on Edward 1st was a typical method used by the their fighters.

Some photos of other parts of the Lebanese range, the Chouf, the top of the Lebanese Mountains, the Anti Lebanon range to the east and the mountain above Tripoli

Views from the Chouf

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Views from the the Lebanese Mountains (top end)

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Views of the Anti Lebanon range from Balbek

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Mountain sights, north of Tripoli

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Arabism, Islamic history, Political comment, pre-Islamic history, Syrian history

Tadmor, a history, metamorphosis into empire: Palmyra

see also:

 The Tadmor sahara at dusk and day, Palmyra ruins, Apamea ruins

Radio 4 acknowledges the death of Ba’ath party supporter Khaled al-Assad, curator and archeologist in the ancient Roman site Palmyra, situated in Tadmor, who buys the oil and antiquities from the mercenaries, those fleeing Syria simply want to live

The recapture of Tadmor

While the Syrian authorities focused on the liberation of Halab (Aleppo) a further assault on Tadmor (Palmyra) was  mounted by the British backed mercenaries; a tragedy of enormous proportions. The recapture of Tadmor was inevitable perhaps, as it is of such ideological importance to the Islamic invader and though it was somewhat of a sacrifice it is a terrible blow to the Syrian regime and its president Bashar al-Assad.

The media refer to Tadmor by the ancient Greek/Roman name Palmyra, said to relate to the palm trees that grew there, though as discussed below, this is a moot point. Tadmor is the preferred place name in modern Syria, though there is a new town and no-one lives among the ruins. The bedouin population continued to sell their wares there and at the castle, at least until the uprising and subsequent invasion.

Only a few months ago the ‘Friends of Syria’ site presented a film of a classical concert, featuring a Russian musician, in the well preserved but ancient ruins. Good news as, in previous years, there were reports of the mercenaries sacking the historical site, the subsequent theft of antiquities and of the murder of the curator Khaled al-Asaad, a staunch Syrian Ba’ath Party supporter and Arab nationalist.

It’s crucial to note how many times Syria fell within the domain of the surrounding regions even prior to the Islamic era, as this helps ascertain the intention and motivation of the mercenary forces and their western employers. In short the taking of the historical site that is Tadmor is both of strategic and psychological importance.

Following the old path

When researching the extent of the Assyrian empire for the last post I came across the city of Tadmor on a map, which showed how Assyria had diminished in size between 824 BC and 671 BC. The empire finally dissolved around 609 BC but Tadmor retained its primacy during the neo-Babylonian and Persian eras, which spanned the periods between 626 and 530 BC. and 539 and 330 BC. respectively.

The oasis at Tadmor would have, amost certainly, served as a watering hole for merchants traveling the region in the time of the ancient Greeks and the Hittites (Turkey, Anatolya) both of whom took control of parts of Syria for a time. As a source of spring water Tadmor probably predates empire.

Tadmor lies in the Hims or Homs (depending on dialect) directorate and is the only place I visited in Syria that was truly in the desert. According to the ‘Livius’ web site the word Tadmor is semitic and means something like watchtower, fitting, as according to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Times’, 30/5/2013,  it was the job of the population there to protect the caravans as they passed from one region to another. There are records of looting by nomads in the museum at Mari, an ancient Syrian site to the south east of Tadmor.

What’s in a name?

The Old testament (Book of Chronicles) refers to the city of Tamar and how it was viewed by King Solomon as both a defensive position and a centre for all routes including those to Palestine and Arabia (west and east). He is said to have rebuilt it as doing so addressed both his economic and political concerns. His political motive pertains to the rise of Aram-Damascus, the Aramaean state, which he viewed as a threat to the Israelites.

This is another area of history but information about the Israelites and the Aramaean people is easily accessible on-line. Suffice to say here that Tamar, is a semitic word for date that equates with the later name Palmyra as the word for (date) palm. This too is controversial as the Roman usage may well derive from the Sandskrit for open handed. For more linguistic theories see: Abarim Publications.

The controversy shows that, whether or not Tadmor and Tamar were one and the same, if Tadmor translates as watchtower or what motivated the Greeks and the Romans to change Tadmor’s name to Palmyra; is all open to interpretation.

Palmyra, Zenobia bat (bint) Zabbai queen & warrior

I’ll now present an account of the Palmyrian empire and of the reign of queen Zenobia. I’ve chosen two sources, the first is the aforementioned BBC’s ‘In our Time’ and the second is a site named ‘A Ancient History, Encyclopedia’.

By the time of Queen Zenobia’s reign in 300 AD. Palmyra’s sphere of influence had grown, though it’s difficult from the old maps to determine the extent of its reach. Palmyra splintered off from the Roman empire and queen Zenobia is said to have led a rebellion against the Roman emperor Aurelian. My sources do present conflicting opinions but both agree she was, if nothing else, a formidable character.

Rome was shrinking and Palmyra in its role as a Roman garrison town acted as a buffer state between east and west. This combined with its status as the guardian of the merchant classes and its ability to collect taxes, enabled it to achieve prominence and wealth. Of course Tadmor is no longer a rich town but when I was there it certainly had an air of autonomy about it.

Zenobia married the governor of Hims, Lucius Septimus Odaenthus who, like her, was both a Roman and Syrian citizen and following his death she became the ruler. If Zenobia did not rebel outright her power made the Roman emperor Aurelian wary. In Egypt she became embroiled with a Syrian/Egyptian man named Timagenes, who mounted a rebellion, which Zenobia may well have commissioned. She certainly revelled in the victory as she added some territories to her empire without consulting Rome and also entered into trade agreements with the Persian (Sassanids).

Aurelian eventually marched on Asia Minor where he attacked and ransacked the towns loyal to Zenobia forcing their surrender, until Zenobia’s army reached Syria. Zenobia escaped and blockaded herself between Palmyra’s city walls. Some accounts claim she expected to receive help from the Sassanids and that she eventually attempted to reach Persia but got no further than the River Euphrates before capture.

After her defeat by Aurelius, Zenobia may have been taken to Rome, some accounts say she killed herself beforehand, some that she was executed and yet others that she was tried and acquitted. There is no definitive answer unfortunately.

 

 

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Arabism, Islamic history

The Assad regime is not a dictatorship and Syria is no more a construct than ‘the west’

Mail-on-line view, a farce

I just noticed an internet article by the ‘Mail on line’ carrying the bald headline  ”Syrian dictator Assad welcomes Trump’s victory as it lessens chance that US will target his regime” Unfortunately it was already closed to new comments, unsurprisingly as its readership has the attention span of fleas. One contributor declared that ”President al-Assad is no more an evil dictator than any other Middle Eastern dictator all of whom were put in place by the British in the first place”. I believe some of these commentators are on side politically but still accept the view that the west is supreme in imposing ideology on the world.

Constructs, skewed sociology

Last year at the Slovenian transit refugee camp in Dobova I spoke to an Irish man who was surprised that I didn’t support a Kurdish ”homeland”. He then went on to express the view that not only was the Assad regime imposed by the west but that Syria itself is a western construction. This whole rhetoric assumes that no-one in the eastern world has an ideology but what is ”the west” if not a construct? Before further discussion on this I’ll make a couple of points.

President al-Assad is neither a dictator or over optimistic about Mr Trump’s win

President al-Assad has his reservations about Mr Trump’s win, he says it is promising but that Mr Trump has an administration, which might not agree with his policies.

President al-Assad is no more a dictator than any world leader. As I’ve said over and over, the British Conservative party has been around for almost 400 years and the British elite is the envy of the world, in so much as it rules with a fist of steel but succeeds in coming across as ”democratic”. There is more than one way to govern a country  but one thing that struck me about Syria was the autonomy of each region, it didn’t have the flavour of being centrally governed.

There are secret police but there are in some guise or other in every country. Its presence was justified in Syria because of the two opposing ideologies and like it or not the Syrian Brothers do share an ideology with the invader, the various Islamic mercenary groups who are backed by Britain, I can’t speak for other countries. The situation Syria is in today was always going to happen, thus strong leadership was essential.

What the majority of so-called democratic countries have is an electoral system, where one or two parties, with similar ideologies vie for power at regular intervals. Two amazing and very different examples of an electoral system are Britain and Lebanon. The former consists of a land owning elite and a game player who always supports the same principles but enforces them in a different way; they are the Conservative and Labour parties. The Latter consists of a bunch of land owning dynastic families who, in the words of a Lebanese friend, took them into a civil war (with the exception of Hizb’allah, which was formed during the civil war), took them through said war, took them out of it again and are still there. Mustn’t be too critical as they are co-existing fairly peacefully together at present and long may this continue.

East is east, west is west; not true

True there are four compass points but what we call ‘the west’ is a construction as it pertains only to Britain, America and a handful of European countries, even some of the EU countries formed part of the ”eastern bloc” until a few years back and probably still do in the eyes of the monopoly capitalists. Geographically the term is a nonsense as some African countries are west of Europe, Australia and New Zealand are clearly in the east. The USA is  no more western than latin America, even in the broadest terms, The level of poverty there is tremendous and the majority language is Spanish as it equates with its latin counterparts, which are not viewed as part of the western world.

Herodotus and the west

The historian Herodotus (5th century BC) may have been one of the first writers to differentiate between the occident and orient (west and east). Though Greek he was born in Bodrum, now in west Turkey, which if nothing else demonstrates how fluid our geography is. Herodotus traveled extensively and much of his writing involved accounts of the Persian/Greek wars. The Persian empire then controlled Anatolya now in East Turkey and to Herodotus it had become too large, greedy and powerful. He was proud of the Greek victory, which represented a triumph for western civilisation and for ”freedom in government, speech and thought” Jennifer T. Roberts. Still, as Anthony Kwame Appiah states in his ‘Reith Lecture’, BBC Radio 4, November 8th 2016. Herodotus knew far less about the west as it is defined today than those countries that are now classified as eastern. For Herodotus and for a further thousand years no-one referred to Europeans as a people.

Islam and the West

According to Mr Appiah the term European was first used to contrast the Christian and Muslim faiths or Christendom and Dar al-Islam. This followed the battle for Tour, which in effect halted the Ummiyad Caliphate’s conquest of Europe and though a victory for Christianity it was not defined in terms of a western victory. Mr Appiah describes how Islamic scholars, just like their Christian counterparts, went on to study the scholarship of the Greek classical traditions and indeed that much of this work was preserved by Muslim scholars throughout the dark ages.

 

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Arabism, Political comment, Syrian history, Western Colonisation

The American election and its implications for Syria, the way I see it: a brief history of the Republican and Democratic parties, Mr Trump’s victory looks ”promising” a bit about Iraq, Mosul and Halab compared

Mr Trump’s victory

I’ve commented on so many sites since the American election result, its mad, so I decided to write my view of Mr Trump’s win in order to kick start my blog. This follows nine months of inertia on my part plus its just taken me about three more weeks to finish the entry.

Mr. Trump’s victory does have implications for Syria so I believe I’m permitted to do this.

A short history of the Democrat-Republican Party

The response to Mr Trump’s election win is really peculiar. If you were from another planet it would be easy to believe that the Republican Party had either never held power before or that a victory for Mr. Trump would cause republicanism to fall apart at the seams, neither, of course, is true. The party was formed in 1856 and since, has won 23 out of 38 elections against the democrats.

I don’t wish to write a long history of the American political system so suffice to say both parties originated from one entity known as the Democratic-Republican Party, which took power in 1801 under Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the 1800s alliances changed until the republicans won the 1860 election under Abraham Lincoln.

By this time America ostensibly was free of British rule, though what was to become the Democratic Party, threw in its lot, for a time with the Whig Party that originated in Britain. There were  two important factors that consolidated the split between the republicans and the democrats; slavery and the pending civil war. Interestingly it was the Republican party, which took a stance against slavery.

There were religious differences too as the democrats tended to derive from the more mainstream religions such as catholicism or Lutheran Protestantism while republicans tended towards the more morally inclined Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist religions.

Shock Horror & mass hysteria in the western world; will Mr Trump’s win see the withdrawal of western backed mercenaries in Syria?

The Republican Party has won again resulting in demonstrations across the U.S., just as many people in the middle east are holding their breath. Most people are under the impression that America rules the world, though after my research of the last few years, I’m not at all convinced, which is why I am critical of Britain and refer to it and its cohorts. I do concede however that regardless of who makes the decisions, what is indisputable and indefensible is that America behaves like a school yard bully in its wilful destruction of all who opposes its ideology.

I say this despite an awareness that Russia is doing its fair share of bombing at present but Islamism is far more of a threat to the USSR than to America. This is particularly in the light of its exacerbation in the 1970s when Britain and America used mercenaries to break up the USSR as it existed under communist rule.

Mr Trump’s pending policy to deport illegal immigrants from America coincides nicely with that of the United Nations. The U.N. recently did a deal with Afghanistan whereby many migrants will be returned there from parts of Europe. It is rumoured that the same is true of Syria, that the regime will be ”allowed” to remain in power so that the refugees can return home. Methinks the destabilisation programme has gone so far that the west can no longer cope with the consequences.

There is a concensus among the Syrian displaced that they would return home if it were possible. It is very likely that the regime will protect their right to return but will be powerless to restore the economy to the point it was at prior to the war without substantial foreign investment. Germany is certainly waiting in the wings and Russia too I expect but Syria will have to capitalise and I know it was moving in that direction prior to the invasion.

I just heard my first interview with Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad today and though she is sincere, strong and courageous she is an investment banker and a guaranteed supporter of capitalism. Syrian people are no different to anyone else and wouldn’t be averse to a rise in their standard of living. Still hopefully the war has taught the Assad family not to trust Britain, where the first lady grew up. It beggars belief how Britain nurtured the Syrian Brotherhood when the Assads lived here but they did.

If Mr Trump is to be believed he intends to withdraw armaments from the Middle East, if he does so then many people would return home. Their safety would need to be guaranteed and their economies regenerated, which is unlikely without said investment.

Despite the mass hysteria to Mr Trump’s turn of phrase I doubt that identity politics holds any interest for him but he is right in the thick of the monopoly game judging by his considerable wealth. On the other hand despite the fervour of those who support Trump because there is now hope for a withdrawal of western troops from Syria, president al-Assad has his reservations, wise as the republican administration does have a long term investment in prolonging strife in the middle east.

The democrats plainly have a similar investment but during the last eight years it has got ridiculous and Russia has been drawn into the Syrian war. President al-Assad was pushed into asking it to intervene as the west refused to withdraw their mercenary forces plainly because the oil wealth was flowing free for a couple of years.

Identity politics is highly compatible with neo-liberalism and at the risk of being conspiratorial its the perfect time to rejuvenate the debate through mainstream media as it obscures other debates. For all the rhetoric about black lives mattering and the rest of the emphasis on identity politics, Mr Obama has not managed to gain the respect of black Americans on the estates, since there has been riot after riot including that in Ferguson. Bonny Greer, in her play of that name, presented an interesting analysis, whereby black Americans are polarised between the old revolutionary doctrine of Malcolm X and the new doctrine of Obama supported by the black middle classes. Time will tell as to which will prevail.

Iraq, the Kurds and the onslaught on Mosul, a comment I put on an article on ‘Friends of Syria’ site comparing the situation in Halab with that in Mosul

For the people of Iraq it is a different story as its been too long, The Kurdish population has broken away with Britain’s help. The notional Kurdistan has always been a vision for Britain as it provides a power base for them in Northern Iraq.

There is also a clear Sunni/Shia split in Iraq now and the Shia government was imposed by Britain. The north of Syria could separate, particularly in the East and became annexed to the Iraqi Kurdish region but the can of worms this would open is frightening.

The European idealists who currently support a Kurdish homeland and suggest it would be a utopia completely underestimate the antipathy between the Kurdish and the Arabic peoples, and the lack of Kurdish homogeneity. Please do not be fooled by mosul as the Kurdish, despite recent hostilities with the mercenaries who they traded with a couple of years ago, are helping britain not the Shia forces.

Mosul is a disgrace, its a continuation of the oil war and trust me the residents there will not welcome a victory by Britain and cohorts. The oil merchants were derisive from 2003 and before, they knew the west did not want to help them. Not rocket science as the propaganda had, from 1990, hinged on ridding Iraq of a minority ruling class. Mosul was a rich and powerful region and fearful of the minority Islamist Shia government that Britain and co were about to impose.

The Shia/Sunni split didn’t prevail under Arab nationalism but as a result of their concerns the Mosul oil merchants invited al-Qaida (broad terms) to help them preserve their power and oil wealth.

Halab is a different scenario, no oil wealth but of considerable interest to Turkey, a key ally to the west as it is handy for bombing raids on Syria and Iraq. There is further cause for concern, which is that support for the doctrine of the Syrian Brotherhood was cultivated in the North of Syria through the 1980s and 1990s (that is why the late president Hafez al-Assad clamped down on civil liberties there). The spread of the doctrine was done with help from the British government who appear to support it in Syria and Britain. This is manifest as support for the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) goes from strength to strength.

The British government sent millions of pounds to the Syrian Brothers with freed Quantanamo Bay prisoner Muezzim Begg. His wife is Palestinian but her family was given refuge in Syria. When quizzed about its involvement, the government replied that the situation is complicated but does not deny its involvement. Food for thought as when President al-Assad wins in parts of Syria the problem will continue in other parts, it not all about getting rid of the west, mind you it will help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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