Damascus's Christian heritage has a glorious past, a terrible present and uncertain future
The suicide bombing near a church in Damascus’s Christian quarter is another warning to the world about the fate awaiting Syria’s faithful.
The Greek Orthodox Virgin Mary Church is in Bab Sharqi, on the eastern edge of the old city, where I was four years ago for the feast of St Paul; I even remember a banner by Bab Sharqi gate welcoming “on behalf of the patriarch of Antioch, all visitors to Damascus for the year of St Paul”.
We attended a service at the nearby Maryamie Cathedral on Straight Street and at night visited bars and restaurants, which mostly had a vaguely French, old-world feel to them (except for the Piano Bar on Hananoa Street, which I recall having terrible euro-pop and its Arabic equivalent).
It was for a press trip organised by the Syrian tourist board, which I had obvious qualms about. Syria had one of the worst human rights records on earth, a deeply sinister regime engaged in all sorts of dubious activity abroad, and promoting its tourism was aiding it in some way.
On the other hand Syria at that time had just re-opened relations with the United States, and there was a hope that it could be detached from Iran, and I believed that more interaction and trade (including tourism) with the west might provide the best future for Syrians. The more trade crossing borders, the less chance of boots. Also, I believed then, as I do now, that economic reform should come before democracy; without the rule of law, economic freedom and the middle class that follows, democracy turns into dictatorship or ethnic conflict.
And you’d have to be a total naïve idiot in the Webb tradition not to see that this was a country with all the worst politics. Its guiding philosophy was Ba’athism, a sort of mixture of European nationalism, socialism and fascism, blended in with various local prejudices, creating a Syncretism of all the most terrible political ideas in the world. This was reflected in the Stalinist architecture, the banknotes that idolised non-existent industrial strength, and the idolatry of the ruling family, whose images were ubiquitous (often in a brutally masculine pose that denotes strength in this part of the world but to western eyes screams “massive personal insecurity”).
But I believed then, as I believe much more now, that people did not put up Bashar Assad’s image purely out of fear of him but of fear of what might follow. The country was teeming with Iraqi refugees, and there was a clear sense that in this religiously diverse country the same catastrophe could unfold. If the moustachioed men one saw all around were rather distasteful, then they were preferable to the bearded men who would follow. For in Middle Eastern politics these days, always back the guys with moustaches against the guys with beards.
Listening to the choir of young Christian girls and boys at the cathedral, in the country in which Christian music has its very origins, I remember feeling profound sadness about what might happen one day. All around the 5,000-year-old city, with its windy, ancient streets with images of the Virgin Mary, and tiny old houses and rooms dating back to the first millennium, one really feels the story of early Christianity, but can it last forever?