In civilisation’s development, geographical location dealt Syria a bad hand. The ancient (and historically contested) region of Aleppo is hemmed in by a powerful Turkey to the north. To the west, an unstable Iraq straddles the Syrian Al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor governorates. Damascus, Syria’s capital, lies at an apex between Palestine, a hostile Israel, the eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia, and Jordan. Its centrality, claimed J L Porter FRGS in 1856, had been consistently underestimated by contemporary Western geographers (p. 43). A century and a half later, Syria’s violent upheaval would have not then likely surprised Porter. This is a landscape scarred by time and space, culture and religion. It was – and remains – one of the ‘geographical pivot[s] of history’.
It comes as little surprise that the Royal Geographical Society was involved in the surveying and analysis of Syria and its environs. Some research, as that undertaken by Dale R Lightfoot, takes on a decidedly geological twist, exploring the ancient (but still occasionally used) underground aqueducts (known as “qanat Romani” in Syria) that typify the region’s long-standing quest for water. His archaeological work provides a fascinating backdrop to Hussein A Amery’s more contemporary review of the Fertile Crescent’s ever-rising need for irrigation and drinking water.
Yet Syria’s strategic location has also piqued interest in the Royal Geographical Society’s historical role as an arm of imperial power. Under the efforts of Major Thomas Best Jervis, the Royal Geographical Society gained valuable experience in 1830s India, providing information to military and civil authorities (Heffernan 1996: pp. 505-506). ‘War’, as Michael Heffernan reminded us, ‘has been one of the greatest geographers’ (p. 504). During the First World War, the Royal Geographical Society ‘remained on an emergency, wartime footing’, benefiting in particular from T E Lawrence’s new surveys of Damascus and the Syrian plains (p. 515). The so-called ‘road to Damascus’ took on important overtones in the inter-war shuffling of European colonial designs in the Middle East, with Syria at its’ centre (see Farmer 1983: p. 73).
Echoes of Syria’s current chaos can be found in W W Harris’s classic ‘War and Settlement Change: The Golan Heights and the Jordan Rift, 1967-77′. Written when Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights from Syria was still fresh in international minds, Harris investigated both sides’ respective claims on the region, as well as hinting at Syria’s domestic instability, supposedly quashed by the then-nascent Ba’ath Party movement. What remains constant through these accounts is the sense of Syria’s often dangerous position at the intersection of local and international desires.
J L Porter, ‘Memoir on the Map of Damascus, Hauran, and the Lebanon Mountains‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 26 (1856): 43-55.
H J Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot of History (1904)‘, The Geographical Journal 170.4 Halford Mackinder and the ‘Geographical Pivot of History’ (Dec., 2004): 298-321.
Dale R Lightfoot, ‘The Origin and Diffusion of Qanats in Arabia: New Evidence from the Northern and Southern Peninsula‘, The Geographical Journal 166.3 (Sep., 2000): 215-26.
Hussein A Amery, ‘Water Wars in the Middle East: A Looming Threat‘, The Geographical Journal 168.4 Water Wars? Geographical Perspectives (Dec., 2002): 313-23.
Michael Heffernan, ‘Geography, Cartography and Military Intelligence: The Royal Geographical Society and the First World War‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.3 (1996): 504-33.
B H Farmer, ‘British Geographers Overseas, 1933-1983‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 8.1 The Institute of British Geographers 1933-1983: A Special Issue of Transactions to Mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Institute (1983): 70-79.
W W Harris, ‘War and Settlement Change: The Golan Heights and the Jordan Rift, 1967-77‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 3.3 Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World (1978): 309-30.