By Benjamin Sacks
On Wednesday, 18 July, a suicide bomber detonated his device inside the security offices of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Three of al-Assad’s closest allies were killed. ‘The rebel force’, The Guardian reported, ‘had just detonated a bomb inside the inner sanctum, something that was never supposed to happen in a state rooted in four decades of totalitarian rule and anchored in fear’. No longer a conflict removed from Syria’s cosmopolitan centre, the revolution against the Assad regime has finally hit the heart of this ancient society.
Located in the centre of the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, Damascus has played a pivotal role in the development of Mediterranean, Arab, and Christian civilisations. Damascus’s centrality, its mystique, and reputation as a city enveloped by ancient beliefs, events, and peoples entranced the fledgling Royal Geographical Society. Like their predecessors, RGS explorers crisscrossed the western Middle East, invariably passing through its traditional apex. In 1834, W Burckhardt Barker travelled from Beirut to Damascus and beyond, keeping an insightful diary of his journey. As now, Damascus was a city in flux – except that, in 1834, it was the earth, not reformists, who sought revenge. An earthquake destroyed minarets, damaged the bazaars, killed a dozen locals, and sent hundreds in flight (101). Fourteen years later, Lieutenant Molyneux, of HMS Spartan, recalled another battle involving Damascus – this time, the British officers and local administrators asked the Pasha of Damascus to send forces to recover men and materiel stolen by nomadic Bedouins (123). In 1855, Reverend J L Porter lambasted the Society for the lack of accurate maps of Damascus: ‘No section of has hitherto been so much neglected by the geographer as the environs of Damascus’ (43). Porter, evidently annoyed by the inattention paid to one of the Arab World’s most important cities, took it upon himself to survey and publish new, more exact charts of Damascus and its environs.
H J Mackinder, in his famed ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’, recounted how the Turks seized Damascus to control the vast trading paths of the eastern Mediterranean (431). In the 1920s, as Elizabeth Monroe and Doreen Ingrams demonstrated, Damascus, like Tangiers, was a bastion of intrigue; a strategic middle point between West and East, where European, Ottoman, and Asian empires uneasily bordered one another. Such agents as the notorious Kim Philby operated in and around Damascus and Beirut, feeding information on French, Russian, Turkish, and Arab movements. Of course, Damascus’s political and strategic role took on renewed impetus after the 1967 six-day war between Israel and the Arab states. Israel, W W Harris pointedly recalled, was able to seize the Golan Heights, placing Damascus within range of its artillery. It was a bold statement of Damascus’s position as a vital cultural, political, and symbolic asset.
Martin Chulov, ‘Syria Engame: Who and What Will Emerge from the Ruins?‘, The Guardian, 21 July 2012.
W Burckhardt Barker, ‘Notes Made on a Journey to the Source of the River Orontes in Syria, in September, 1834‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 7 (1837): 95-102.
Lieutenant Molyneux, ‘Expedition to the Jordan and the Dead Sea‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 18 (1848): 104-30.
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‘, The Geographical Journal 23.4 (Apr., 1904): 421-37.
Doreen Ingrams, ‘Philby, Great Arabian Traveller: by Elizabeth Monroe’, The Geographical Journal 140.2 (Jun., 1974): 305-6.
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.