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As a civil war shatters a country and consumes its people, historian Christian C. Sahner offers a poignant account of Syria, where the past profoundly shapes its dreadful present. Among the Ruins blends history, memoir and reportage, drawing on the author's extensive knowledge of Syria in ancient, medieval, and modern times, as well as his experiences living in the Levant As a civil war shatters a country and consumes its people, historian Christian C. Sahner offers a poignant account of Syria, where the past profoundly shapes its dreadful present. Among the Ruins blends history, memoir and reportage, drawing on the author's extensive knowledge of Syria in ancient, medieval, and modern times, as well as his experiences living in the Levant on the eve of the war and in the midst of the "Arab Spring." These plotlines converge in a rich narrative of a country in constant flux - a place renewed by the very shifts that, in the near term, are proving so destructive. Sahner focuses on five themes of interest to anyone intrigued and dismayed by Syria's fragmentation since 2011: the role of Christianity in society; the arrival of Islam; the rise of sectarianism and competing minorities; the emergence of the Ba'ath Party; and the current pitiless civil war. Among the Ruins is a brisk and illuminating read, an accessible introduction to a country with an enormously rich past and a tragic present. For anyone seeking to understand Syria, this book should be their starting point.


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As a civil war shatters a country and consumes its people, historian Christian C. Sahner offers a poignant account of Syria, where the past profoundly shapes its dreadful present. Among the Ruins blends history, memoir and reportage, drawing on the author's extensive knowledge of Syria in ancient, medieval, and modern times, as well as his experiences living in the Levant As a civil war shatters a country and consumes its people, historian Christian C. Sahner offers a poignant account of Syria, where the past profoundly shapes its dreadful present. Among the Ruins blends history, memoir and reportage, drawing on the author's extensive knowledge of Syria in ancient, medieval, and modern times, as well as his experiences living in the Levant on the eve of the war and in the midst of the "Arab Spring." These plotlines converge in a rich narrative of a country in constant flux - a place renewed by the very shifts that, in the near term, are proving so destructive. Sahner focuses on five themes of interest to anyone intrigued and dismayed by Syria's fragmentation since 2011: the role of Christianity in society; the arrival of Islam; the rise of sectarianism and competing minorities; the emergence of the Ba'ath Party; and the current pitiless civil war. Among the Ruins is a brisk and illuminating read, an accessible introduction to a country with an enormously rich past and a tragic present. For anyone seeking to understand Syria, this book should be their starting point.

30 review for Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    4.5 stars! This is almost a must read for folks seeking to understand what's currently happening in Syria. I'll be writing a 1000+word reflection paper on this for my Christians of the Middle East class and will post it here when I'm done. Sara Henchey Brosnan Reflection Paper on Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present by Christian C. Sahner HI613 4/7/2017 The Syrian Civil War has cost lives, destroyed buildings (including churches and UNESCO world heritage sites), and deeply affected Christian and 4.5 stars! This is almost a must read for folks seeking to understand what's currently happening in Syria. I'll be writing a 1000+word reflection paper on this for my Christians of the Middle East class and will post it here when I'm done. Sara Henchey Brosnan Reflection Paper on Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present by Christian C. Sahner HI613 4/7/2017 The Syrian Civil War has cost lives, destroyed buildings (including churches and UNESCO world heritage sites), and deeply affected Christian and Muslim communities, as well as the relationships between those communities. I was made more deeply aware of the nature of what has been lost by reading Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present by Christian Sahner. Christianity in Syria has a rich history. Chalcedonian and Oriental Orthodox church communities significantly impacted Christian theology, liturgy, and devotional practices. One striking example of the role Christianity in Syria has played in the development of Christian devotional practices is the life of St. Symeon Stiles. St. Symeon Stiles was an early and extreme Syriac practitioner of monasticism. He ascended a 30 foot tall pillar, and stayed there for 37 years, dispensing guidance to the crowds who visited. After Symeon’s death, a pilgrimage complex site was built, known today in Arabic as Qal’at Sim’an, “The Fortress of Symeon” (Sahner, pp. 46-50). This complex, located near Aleppo, is a UNESCO designated World Heritage site, and is cited by Sahner as an example of “Syria’s ancient Christian past” (Sahner (pg. 50). Over the course of the Syrian Civil War, control of the site has changed several times, making it impossible for pilgrims to visit the site. In May of 2016, the facade of the church and the pillar itself were damaged by a Russian air strikes (Spencer, 2016). Christians in Syria have also played an important role in the linguistic heritage of the church. Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic closely related to the language used by Jesus, is used in the liturgies of Syrian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Maronite churches. During his time in Syria from 2008 to 2011, Sahner visited Maaloula, an Aramaic speaking village located 35 miles from Damascus, several times (Sahner, pp. 62-65). Like Sahner I was moved by the villager’s pride in their connection to an ancient past “in which Syria remained a major center of global Christianity” (Sahner, pg. 64). The village is also close is to both the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mt. Takla, and the Greek Catholic monastery of Mar Sarkis (Sahner, pp. 62-65). In September of 2013, there was heavy fighting between government and oppositions forces in Maaloula. Residents were forced to flee and among the damaged buildings were the Mar Sarkis and the Convent of St. Thecla. While some residents have returned and restoration work is underway, the toll is obvious (BBC, 2013). In addition to the the historical richness he explores, Sahner also shows us a current day Syria with a diversity of Christian communities, as illustrated by the village of Maaloula and by the Bab Touma neighborhood in Damascus. Straight Street is the main east-west thoroughfare through the city of Damascus, and contains the house of Annais where Saint Paul was baptized. Walking down the Bab Touma portion of Straight Street, Sahner describes seeing Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Greek Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Latin Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Maronite churches in close proximity, where many Christians “dismiss denominational differences as insignificant” (Sahner, pg. 56), and intermarry and take communion at each others churches. I agree with the Lebanese Catholic priest Sahner quotes, that relationships between Christian believers such as those in Bab Touma are “a message to the world, of overcoming Christian difference” (Sahner, pg. 56). Bab Touma like most neighborhoods in Damascus has not been spared by the violence of the Civil War (Al Jazeera, 2016). On the piece on Palestine we watched, I was struck by the assertion made by one of the interview subjects that “Religion is the living community of believers” (WHHY, 2014). Violence in or near historic sites and present day Christian neighborhoods, illustrates how the Syrian Civil War is cutting off Christianity from its ancient past by wreaking havoc on living communities of Christian believers. Overall, as presented by Sahner, Christians in the Syria prior to the Syrian Civil War enjoyed friendly relationships with their Muslims neighbors, both Sunnis and Alawis, “In many ways, when I lived in Damascus the Syrian of religious cooperation was more real than the Syria of sectarian strife we have come to know since the onset of the war” (Sahner, pg. 73). Christians in Syria prior to the Civil War also tended to enjoy security and prosperity. Such were the positive fruits of the Baathist regime that ruled Syria since 1963. It was a regime dominated by a particular religious minority—the Alawis—who in turn cultivated the support of other minorities to offset the strength of the Sunni majority. " (Sahner) Although relationships between Christians and the Sunnis, Christians and Alawis, and Sunnis and Alawis were all friendly prior to the Syrian Civil War, they were also guarded and contained underlying currents of sectarianism, papered over by secular authoritarian rule. Many Sunnis resented minority rule they viewed as unjust and embarrassing. Since the uprising, both the regime and the Sunni opposition have relied on more militant and/or more fundamentalist groups from outside Syria (Sahner, pp. 107-109) While the main conflict in Syria is between Sunnis and Alawis, Christians have been collateral damage, and because of the “alliance of minorities” have been identified with the regime by the opposition. Both Sahner and Award explore the responses of Syrian Christians to the increasing sectarianism in their country. The most dangerous response is for Christians to also become increasingly sectarian or confessional, emphasizing the “otherness” in their identity and demanding representation in any post-Civil War government on the basis of that identity. Awad sees this exclusivist confrontational identity increasing among Syrian Christians (Awad, 2017). A sectarian government would only be a temporary solution and tensions would eventually boil over again. Christians, as a small minority group, would again be collateral damage, and their numbers would again decrease. The first question that came to my mind as I journeyed with Sahner through the streets of Damascus was “How many of these beautiful places he describes, are still there, undamaged?” The answer is not many. As I began to write this paper, I read about the latest chemical bomb attack in Syria and viewed pictures of its victims. I have no idea if those affected were Muslim or Christian. That particular attack, along with the examples I examine above, are symptoms of a broken society that causes pain to people and their identities. Works Consulted Al Jazeera. “Syria: Mortar bomb hits Damascus cafe, several killed.” 24 Jul. 2016, www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/syria-... Accessed April 6, 2017. Awad, Najib. “Christians in Syria.” At the Edge of Empire: Christians of the “Middle East.” Hartford Seminary. Hartford. 3 Apr. 2017. Talk. BBC. “Battle for Syria Christian town of Maaloula continues.” 11 Sep. 2013, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24... Accessed 6 Apr. 2017. Sahner, Christian C. Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present. Oxford University Press, 2014. Spencer, Richard. “Syrian monastery where St Simeon sat on a pillar for four decades damaged by missile attack.” 13 May 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/13/s... Accessed 6 Apr. 2017. WHYY. “The Plight of Christians in the Middle East.” March 24, 2014, whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2014/03/24/th... Accessed 6 Apr. 2017.

  2. 4 out of 5

    AC

    This is a good book, and I recommend it. Sehner is a PhD candidate at Princeton, with a focus on late Late Antiquity. Apparently, he is a student of Peter Brown, and is working on the lines of cultural frontiers between Syriac Christians and their new Islamic overlords (in the 7th - 8th centuries). In this course of his work, he spent several years in Syria, and thus had some first-hand observations of the situation before the Civil War broke out -- and then he spent 2011-2012 in Beirut, watchin This is a good book, and I recommend it. Sehner is a PhD candidate at Princeton, with a focus on late Late Antiquity. Apparently, he is a student of Peter Brown, and is working on the lines of cultural frontiers between Syriac Christians and their new Islamic overlords (in the 7th - 8th centuries). In this course of his work, he spent several years in Syria, and thus had some first-hand observations of the situation before the Civil War broke out -- and then he spent 2011-2012 in Beirut, watching the conflict unfold 'from afar', as it were. This book is part history, part memoir/observation, part a historian's analysis of current geopolitical affairs. Sehner, who won a Rhodes, is evidently quite brilliant, and it is his intelligence that makes this work -- better in its parts than in its whole -- worth reading. He argues that the Civil War in Syria is, indeed, sectarian, but that their are many other layers involved and that one must not forget those in judging the situation. He is not ideological. A very nice little book, though not exactly the general introduction to the conflict that I was looking for.

  3. 5 out of 5

    David Krueger

    Listen to my interview with the author at: http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org... Listen to my interview with the author at: http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org...

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alavvii

    Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present by Christian Sahner is part history and part travelogue, based on the author’s time living in Syria and Lebanon between 2008 and 2013 learning Arabic and studying Byzantine and Islamic history. Sahner contextualizes the sectarian nature of the current Syrian conflict by discussing Christianity in Syria and the subsequent Islamization of the region several hundred years following the Arab conquests, the Ottoman millet system, European colonialism, and the r Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present by Christian Sahner is part history and part travelogue, based on the author’s time living in Syria and Lebanon between 2008 and 2013 learning Arabic and studying Byzantine and Islamic history. Sahner contextualizes the sectarian nature of the current Syrian conflict by discussing Christianity in Syria and the subsequent Islamization of the region several hundred years following the Arab conquests, the Ottoman millet system, European colonialism, and the rise of Arab Ba’athism, all the while bringing up interesting stories from his interactions with modern Syrians and Lebanese from a variety of different confessional groups, linking Syria’s past to its present. The discussion on Alawi ascendancy and the Lebanese Civil War was particularly helpful in understanding the current Syrian conflict and similar conflicts between Shia and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, and other groups in neighboring countries such as post-war Lebanon and Iraq. Like in these other countries, sect/religion is closely tied into identity, and in turn politics/power. The regime’s emphasis on a shared Syrian heritage and Arab nationalism, while downplaying their own Alawi roots, allowed Muslims, Christians, and Alawis to live in relative peace in modern times until the Arab Spring, when peaceful protests were brutally suppressed by the state, allowing long held sectarian tension to violently explode in the current conflict. Because the book was released in 2014 the author does not leave a solid conclusion on what might happen in Syria, however this book is must reading for anyone hoping to understand Syria before and leading up until modern times.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Deb W

    It's a meandering track that touches upon history, culture and the present, gliding smoothly across the surface lulling the reader into glimpses quickly replaced by others, without seeming direction. Not for the reader with an actual desire to make connections, decipher events in contexts, or gain a meaningful understanding of Syria. It's a meandering track that touches upon history, culture and the present, gliding smoothly across the surface lulling the reader into glimpses quickly replaced by others, without seeming direction. Not for the reader with an actual desire to make connections, decipher events in contexts, or gain a meaningful understanding of Syria.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Crosby

    A well-written and nicely-illustrated academic work on Syria, past and present.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Henk-Jan van der Klis

    No present without the past. That goes for many countries, as well for Syria. Historian Christian C. Sahner went to the Levant to learn Arabic, until war broke out in 2011, and Lebanon proved to be more safe. Rather than jumping to conclusions, pick a favorite party or religion (though himself being American and Roman Catholic), Sahner breaks down his analysis in five themes or eras each having lasting effects in present times. First the role of Christianity in society, with roots Byzantine Chri No present without the past. That goes for many countries, as well for Syria. Historian Christian C. Sahner went to the Levant to learn Arabic, until war broke out in 2011, and Lebanon proved to be more safe. Rather than jumping to conclusions, pick a favorite party or religion (though himself being American and Roman Catholic), Sahner breaks down his analysis in five themes or eras each having lasting effects in present times. First the role of Christianity in society, with roots Byzantine Christendom, replacing the many gods Roman and pagan cultures worshiped by monotheism. Then the arrival of Islam from the 7th Century and the various streams and factions. A logical third theme is the rise of sectarianism and competing minorities, not necessarily religious in nature. Ethnic backgrounds and political preferences each have consequences. The emergence of the Ba'ath Party and rise of the Assad family and its regime in Syria. Last but not least the civil war that was not an Arab Spring, nor a revolution. Sahner spoke to many local people from different backgrounds, plots everything in historical frames, but hesitates to write a conclusive end to his research, as the war raged on and Assad is still in power. Among the Ruins blends history, travelogue and memoirs in words and color pictures, looking for hope for tomorrow in the midst of ruins from the past. Anyone interested in the bigger picture of today's developments in Syria, can use this book as reference.

  8. 4 out of 5

    John

    Curious about Syria because of its prominence in news of late, I picked up this book, thumbed through it, and noted many "I" pronouns. Here might be some interesting first-person accounts, thought I, and indeed I found it so. Author, a scholarly young American, studied in Damascus in 2008-10. He intertwines personal experiences living and talking with people with historical travel and research. He reports a Babel of diversity, Janus-faced political leadership and a highly circumspect populous. T Curious about Syria because of its prominence in news of late, I picked up this book, thumbed through it, and noted many "I" pronouns. Here might be some interesting first-person accounts, thought I, and indeed I found it so. Author, a scholarly young American, studied in Damascus in 2008-10. He intertwines personal experiences living and talking with people with historical travel and research. He reports a Babel of diversity, Janus-faced political leadership and a highly circumspect populous. There are surprise contradictions, such as tomb of Christian-revered John the Baptist inside a Muslim mosque, a discovery that harks back to Syria's Christian past. Do I better understand things going on in Syria and the region? Yes, and the author's free-flowing writing style is a plus.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    Interesting insights from a young scholar who happened to be in Syria off and on during the last decade as things started to go downhill. Actually, we were both in Damascus for the first time the same summer, so if nothing else I appreciated an eloquent expression of my own warm memories of the city and country. Veers more toward memoir with historical insights than any analysis on the current situation there.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Denise Porter

  11. 4 out of 5

    Joanne

  12. 5 out of 5

    Erasmus

  13. 4 out of 5

    Eric

  14. 4 out of 5

    David

  15. 5 out of 5

    Frank Housh

  16. 5 out of 5

    Yaman Hukan

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

  18. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

  19. 4 out of 5

    Chris Hambleton

  20. 4 out of 5

    Stan

  21. 5 out of 5

    Beth

  22. 4 out of 5

    Franco

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nithin

  24. 4 out of 5

    Maureen Flatley

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mike Rockett

  27. 5 out of 5

    Finn Cottam

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cameron

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alice

  30. 4 out of 5

    Steve

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