Inevitable Destruction of Syria’s Heritage: the death of history

The destruction of a famous minaret dating from the Umayyad Dynasty in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, is a sad but unsurprising development in the increasingly bitter civil war that is tearing the country asunder.

Built on the site of a great 8th century Umayyad Mosque in 1090, the minaret dominated Aleppo's historic skyline
Built on the site of a great 8th century Umayyad Mosque in 1090, the minaret dominated Aleppo’s historic skyline
Now it lies in ruins
Now it lies in ruins

I warned in this blog a couple of months ago that the increasing intensity of fighting in Damascus and Aleppo had the potential to destroy some of Syria’s golden historical heritage. Whilst global attention has understandably remained trained on the awful civilian death toll and general suffering experienced by the population, the wanton destruction of one’s own culture is another destabilising factor that will not only increase the general misery of a proud people but make the country all that harder to rebuild.

The felling of regionally significant buildings such as the minaret at the Ummayad Mosque in Aleppo is in itself a crime against humanity. It is the eradication of history, of culture, traits that define national identity and societal unity. How is a population to share a future when it can no longer relate to a shared past?

In recent months, similar events have been seen in Mali, where Asar Dine philistines have destroyed some of the wondrous contents of Timbuktu’s famous shrines and libraries. The dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 is a further example of how radicalism, extremism and deluded ambitions have destroyed icons that, regardless of their religious affiliation, were important symbols of national prestige.

Non-Islamic heritage sites, such as Our Saidnaya Monastery, have also been damaged by fighting in Syria
Non-Islamic heritage sites, such as Our Saidnaya Monastery, have also been damaged by fighting in Syria

In Syria, extremism flourishes from both the Al-Assad regime and elements of its rebel challengers. Concern is not for nation, people or history; it is for power, control and suppression of any dissenting element at any cost.

UNESCO heritage sites abound in Syria; indeed, the notion of a Syrian land and people is almost as ancient as any other contemporary state. During the Middle Ages it was an important centre of Islamic learning and, as Europe slumped in a religiously-repressed Dark Age, the Middle East became the cultural and educational capital of the world. Within that, Syria almost predominated. The Ummayad had their capital at Damascus in the seventh and eighth centuries and their successors, the Abbasids, contributed further to Syrian heritage with the construction of libraries and educational institutions. The Seljuk Turks built great mausoleums and mosques for their rulers, many of which remained standing throughout Mongol rampages, Ottoman rule in the Early Modern period and European incursion in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Their survival has testified to the survival of Syria. For how much longer are we going to be able to say that?

How long for Damascus' Umayyad Mosque?
How long for Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque?

Tanzanians Refuse to Compromise on Agricultural Prowess

A minor news item this week; twenty houses were burnt down near the town of Liwale, Tanzania as protests by irate cashew nut farmers got out of hand. Having not been paid a price agreed for their crop last year, the farmers turned on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and set fire to supporters’ properties.

Tanzania has one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and its economic potential is quite considerable. Cloves from Zanzibar, gold and nickel mines in the country’s interior, and a growing industrial base centred around food and metal processing, Tanzania is not lacking in exports. Like most African countries, however, Tanzania retains a strong reliance on primary production, particularly agriculture.

In this, the country is particularly proficient, achieving a level of ‘industrialised agriculture’ not seen in many neighbouring countries until recent years. The predominant reason for this is the legacy of German colonisation.

In 1885, the founder of the bluntly-named Society for German Colonization, Carl Peters, arrived in Tanzania where he signed alliances with several indigenous tribes in the hope of establishing a German protectorate. Despite sporadic opposition from some native tribes, which would persist throughout German rule, German East Africa came into being after Britain agreed to waive its claim to the territory.

German East Africa, 1888
German East Africa, 1888

Within only a few years, the Germans effectively created a Tanzanian economy that had not existed under a territory divided into separate polities and chieftains. Massive rubber, sisal and coffee plantations were created under efficient German management and ruthlessly-exploited native labourers. By the outbreak of WWI, Tanzania was an important cog in the German Empire. Its produce supported the German armies on the African Front, whilst allowing the colonial authorities to live on in deluded splendour at their mansions in Dar-es-Salaam.

Of course, Germany lost the war and Tanzania came under Belgian and, ultimately, British rule. In addition to their agricultural revolution, the Germans had introduced gold mining to Tanzania with some success. This would persist under the British only to become an almost redundant industry by the end of WWII. It would take an influx of foreign investment in the 1990s, and the discovery of nickel, to resurrect mining as an important economic contributor to Tanzania. Also, the Germans introduced what was a fairly sophisticated education system to the Tanzanian people during their short rule. This was not developed by the British, whose general desire to keep the subalterns firmly in their place negated any inclination to promote educational development.

One thing that has always remained, however, is intensive agriculture. The cashew nut was first mass-harvested under German rule and continues, along with sisal and coffee, to make up a large proportion of Tanzanian agricultural exports. Whatever wrongs colonial rule perpetrated in Africa, there are examples such as this that prove some facets of European rule were beneficial. Without the Europeans it is arguable that Africa’s development would be even more stunted than it is today.

Tanzanian sisal plantation - early 20th century
Tanzanian sisal plantation – early 20th century
Today, little has changed
Today, little has changed

The passion with which the Tanzanians farm their crops today is testified to by the cashew nut farmers’ protests. The government may be double-crossing the farmers over prices in an attempt to drive more workers into industrial jobs, where foreign investors seek to take advantage of a cheap and plentiful workforce. But for many Tanzanians, the land is all that they know and they continue to farm it under the influence of their former German rulers.

Chinese Incursion into India Points to Forgotten Territorial Dispute

The seas of East Asia are the centre of today’s global territorial disputes. Whether it be the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea – where China, Japan and Taiwan claim sovereignty – or the South China Sea – where a myriad of overlapping claims lead to regular diplomatic spats – it is this region that seemingly threatens to embroil China in a conflict with its neighbours.

The news, then, that India has protested at an incursion of Chinese troops across a disputed border in Ladakh province, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a timely reminder of one of the Chinese’s most incendiary border disputes.

There are two main border disputes between China and India. Aksai Chin is the first, forming a mountainous buffer zone between the neighbouring giants and which India claims is a part of the Ladakh province encroached upon in the past few days by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

The Aksai Chin dispute
The Aksai Chin dispute

The inhospitable nature of Aksai Chin did not stop a Chinese invasion force crossing into the disputed territory in October 1962 to inflict a swift rout upon the defending Indian forces, whose death toll climbed quickly amidst the harshness of winter. After India provided the Dalai Lama with sanctuary in 1959, Sino-Indian relations deteriorated rapidly and the border dispute was both a convenient excuse for conflict, whilst also providing a potentially beneficial strategic outcome for the Chinese. The Chinese extended their tentative claim line into what Indians considered their territory, before declaring a unilateral ceasefire.

Despite the bitter cold, the flats of Aksai Chin are conducive to warfare
Despite the bitter cold, the flats of Aksai Chin are conducive to warfare

Simultaneously, the PLA had advanced into the other disputed border zone. This territory forms the northern part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, formerly the North East Frontier Agency of British India. As is so often the case, it is the former colonial authorities who lie at the heart of this particular dispute. During their 19th century incursions into the depths of India, the British claimed the region of Arunachal Pradesh and negotiated a border – known as the McMahon Line after its proponent – with Tibet, negating to inform the Chinese, who laid claim to part of the territory.

Arunachal Pradesh dispute
Arunachal Pradesh dispute

Even deep into the 20th century, and under communist rule, the Chinese were still rankled by what they saw as a deep territorial injustice as the McMahon Line was retained as an international boundary for a newly independent India.

Chinese forces cross the McMahon Line
Chinese forces cross the McMahon Line

On the 1st October 1967, almost exactly five years after the Sino-Indian War, the Chola Incident occurred. This one-day skirmish stemmed from PLA troops crossing the McMahon Line into the province of Sikkim, resulting in ten Chinese and four Indian deaths.

In mid-1987 a less intense skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops took place in the very far northeast of India in the Sumdorong Chu Valley. A restrained affair, it resulted in no fatalities but was confirmation once again of the fragile peace existing across the former British dominion border.

In exchange for recognising Sikkim as a province in 1993, India officially accepted Tibet as an autonomous region of China and a ‘line of actual control’ was agreed across their disputed borders. The passage of time, coupled with the economic importance of the Sino-Indian trading relationship, has seen the preservation of the line of actual control, despite Indian claims that the Chinese have violated it 500 times since 2010.

This accusation, coupled with China’s recent serious incursion, It is testament to the forces of nationalism, history and the vast size of both countries and a reminder that such events are always likely to reoccur. Removed from their political masters, the army generals on the Himalayan frontier between China and India can act with a degree of impunity, aware that the quashing of their ambitions will take at the very least time if not great resources and political persuasion.

Whilst wary eyes are cast towards the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula for the potential flashpoints of regional conflict, a thought should be spared for the precarious balance of power along the old McMahon Line. It would only take a slight miscalculation of judgement for Asia’s two biggest powers to be brought to the brink of war. Whatever economic interdependence may exist between the two states could be dashed by the wants of sovereignty and nationalism.