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An ancient cure for war-torn Syria

Shift in thought

As the conflict escalates in Aleppo and Raqqa, many Syrians are preparing for peace by rekindling the country’s legacy as the place that first gave evidence of divine worship and the idea that diverse people can live together.

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The ancient ruins of Palmyra, central Syria.

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For five long years, the world’s impression of Syria has been one of uprisings, civil war, refugees, failed peace talks, and the Islamic State setting up its capital in the city of Raqqa. Now the largest city, Aleppo, may fall soon to Russian-backed forces of the brutal Assad regime. On Sunday, US-backed fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces launched an operation to retake Raqqa. The conflict has splintered an ancient and diverse society, killing about 400,000 and displacing nearly half of the population.

Amid the flux and fatalism of war, however, many Syrians, along with help from Germany and others, are working to eventually reunite the country in the hope that a peace deal will keep Syria intact. Their core message: As a birthplace for civilization 5,000 years ago – one where beliefs about divinity developed – Syria helped demonstrate the idea that different groups of people can live in harmony. It can do it again.

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Rather than allow one group to hold control in the future – such as the Iran-backed Alawite minority or a Sunni terrorist group – peace planners want to rekindle the legacy of Syria as a place that was often inclusive. Its population is more diverse than Iraq, yet its people have long identified with the ancient civilizations that came and went but left behind artifacts and ideas that were blended into modern Syria, one that often set a model of peaceful coexistence.

“The great diversity of identities, religions and cultures that defined Syria in the past must be maintained,” said Stephan Steinlein, state secretary of Germany’s Foreign Office, last month. For all of the destruction, he added, it is important for Syrians to have hope that their country, with its incomparable cultural heritage, “will one day rise from the ashes.”

Germany is supporting many exiled Syrians, such as architects and archaeologists, with the aim that they will restore the country. “Syria needs a young generation of Syrians who will return home and rebuild when the horrors of war have ended,” Mr. Steinlein said.

The Islamic State’s attempt to obliterate the ancient sites of Syria, such as in Palmyra, has pushed many exiled Syrians to recall and embrace the benefits of their heritage. In Toronto, for example, the Aga Khan Museum opened an exhibit this month entitled “Syria: A Living History,” that uses some 50 objects from world museums to reveal the overlay of civilizations from the Bronze Age to the Christian and Muslim eras. They display the multiculturalism that pervaded Syria.

The show’s objects reflect an openness and sharing of different cultures over millennia, the kind of traits that curator Nasser Rabbat says can help save Syria. They are reminders of Syria’s legacy as the originator of diverse human settlements. He believes an appreciation of Syria’s ancient past may be its best hope for defining its future. War does not need to be the lasting impression of modern Syria.


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