Storm over Syria

Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.

Aleppo has been besieged eight times over the past 1400 years. In 637 during the Byzantine-Arab wars; in 1124 during Baldwin II’s reign of Jerusalem; in 1260 during the Mongol invasion of Syria; in 1400 during Timur’s conquest of Syria; in 1850 when a massacre was carried out by Muslim rioters against Christians and Ottoman forces bombarded the rioters; in 1918 during World War I; in 1980 during the Islamic uprising in Syria; and in 2012–16 during the current Syrian Civil War.

“There was a time when the outcrop of rock that looms over the city of Aleppo, measuring approximately 160 x 280m, was just an attractive grass-covered plateau. According to Ibn al Shihna, Aleppo’s chief judge (qadi) in the 15th century, this was where the patriarch Abraham climbed up on his nomadic wanderings to enjoy the view and milk his sheep. A cuneiform text from 2500 BC mentions a shrine built on the hill and dedicated to a storm god, Hadda. Archeologists have found the foundations of a temple on the plateau from around that date,” lamented Jonathan Steele in “Syria’s war-scarred citadel of Aleppo: a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 2” (The Guardian, 24 March 2015).

Aleppo is a survivor and, even today, after the eastern side of the city has been pulverised its streets are filled with rubble and twisted metal, residents are returning, trying to find a way of eking out a living. They are seeking shelter, food, and water. If today’s gods appear to have abandoned them, some may remember the old storm gods, who were regarded as divine and were on the side of the ordinary people.

Adad, or Hadda, was the storm and rain god of ancient Mesopotamia. The name is recorded in Ebla (Tell Mardikh), southwest of Aleppo, where in the mid-1970s Italian archaeologists discovered a horde of 1800 clay tablets dating back to 2300 BCE.

Adad was both the giver and the destroyer of life. His rains caused the land to bear grain and other food, hence his title Lord of Abundance. His storms and hurricanes, evidence of his anger against his foes, brought darkness, want, and death. Under Aleppo’s Great Mosque are the remains of a temple to the storm god, who by the 8th century BCE was reckoned one of the most important gods in the region.

Whatever happens next, Aleppo and its people will weather the present storm as they have done for centuries. But the black clouds over Aleppo are nothing to the gathering storm over Syria. This year, next year, or in a decade’s time, there will be a reckoning and it will be tragic. Not for Assad, whose days are numbered, but for thousands of young people and children whose lives have been devastated by the conflict.

Assad’s regime has employed artillery, air power, bulldozers, sectarian massacres, and ballistic missiles to force Syrians out of areas held by insurgents. The regime has been propped up by Iran, Russia (which has just signed a 49-year agreement to maintain control of the strategic Syrian port of Tartus), and the mostly Alawite Shabiha mafias led by extended members of the Assad family and which have been responsible for some of the worst brutality against the Syrian opposition. Doubtless we know very little about the war crimes they have committed.

This is not to ignore or to whitewash some actions of the Syrian opposition, which according to Amnesty International has also been responsible for war crimes. But it would be naïve to suppose that Assad and his regime will not eventually face retribution . When it comes, it too will be brutal. The storm clouds over Syria are not dissipating but gathering.

Detail of main panel with representation of Storm God (left) and King Taita (right).

Detail of a panel with the Storm God (left) and King Taita (right) from the Temple of the Storm God in the Citadel of Aleppo.

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