My doctoral research looks at sacred places in Afghanistan, and how places become iconic, blessed, or meaningful for those who inhabit them. I get to study some intriguing things: a mulberry tree with goat skulls attached to its branches, and thousands of nails hammered into its trunk; the resting place of a famous hashish smoker; the grave of a princess, which people secretly visit to write graffiti to loved ones.
I also study the opposite, places we might consider “cursed”: the ruins of a Buddhist monastery; the shells of houses destroyed in war, with collapsed roofs and walls riddled with bullet holes; a grave where a jinn, a mythical being made out of fire, is buried; a desert which blooms with wild tulips in the spring, but whose sands are sometimes blown away to reveal mass graves.
I was recently talking to a friend in Afghanistan about my research interests. “People are dying of starvation over here,” she said, “and you’re wasting your time studying shrines?” I had no answer for her, and had to go away and think about it, rationalising it to myself. How could I justify such a niche research interest, with no immediate way to relieve social injustice, when such terrible things are occurring in the world?
But there is a strange relationship between suffering, violence, conflict, and sacred places. Places of worship are often targets for attack: they’re often symbolic of an old order, and taking control of them can symbolise taking power over an entire region. They are prone to attack by one’s enemies, and often defiled and desecrated. Think of the Bamiyan Buddhas, or the Assyrian artefacts of Nineveh. But they’re rarely forgotten. After conflict, they’re often built over, layer by layer, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
I visited Syria in early 2011, before the war. The Syria that I saw was beautiful, vibrant, and peaceful. I remember storytellers captivating listeners at coffee shops, and shoppers bargaining over clothes in Ottoman-era bazaars. I saw archaeologists dust away ancient bones and sherds of pottery on hilltop ruins, and religious students tiptoe barefoot through the spotless courtyards of medieval mosques. I sat drinking pomegranate juice in the morning sun at my favourite café in the shade of the walls of Damascus’ old city.
I’ve always been drawn to these kind of places. Perhaps one of my favourite memories of Syria was a day spent walking through the majestic ruins of Palmyra (which had flourished in the third century). I imagined caravans of camels and traders making their way through the desert, and embassies visiting from far-off lands. I was oblivious to the fact that, barely a few kilometres from where I walked, political prisoners languished in one of Assad’s most notorious prisons. I was equally oblivious to the future of these ruins – that they’d be destroyed once again, that the impressive temples beneath where I walked would be reduced to dust.
It’s difficult to imagine the devastation of war from watching the news. You have to see its effects, and to talk to people who survived it, to really appreciate how tragic it is. I haven’t revisited Syria since the war began, but I have been to Afghanistan several times post-war, and have often found it difficult to believe my own eyes: walls scarred by bullet holes; rusted ammunition casings; razor wire; entire villages turned to dust; graveyards that continue endlessly through the landscape, dotted with green flags to mark the burial place of a martyr.
War doesn’t end when people put their guns down. The poverty in Afghanistan is surreal, and has to be seen to be believed. When I first landed in Kabul I was shocked to see widows on the street, with sunburned children laying over cardboard in front of them; little girls begging for money in the middle of chaotic and polluted intersections; teenagers with hollow faces and empty eyes, as if they had been robbed of their soul, collecting cans from the gutter to buy heroin. This is painful to watch, and painful to be around. It is painful to feel powerless to change it.
This poverty and suffering will, unfortunately, be the fate of Syria that I’ll confront if I’m able to visit again. I’ll walk into an Aleppo lying in ashes. Many former residents will return, confronted by the ruins of war and sites of violence. They’ll rebuild broken homes and shattered businesses. Those old enough to remember will have a tough time reconciling this reality with the paradisiacal Syria in which they grew up. They’ll tell stories and dream of better times.
When this happens, how will they confront the places of their past they once considered blessed and sacred? Medieval mosques, mountaintop monasteries, and Sufi shrines have been reduced to crumbling brick and rubble. Their walls are riddled with bullets and partisan graffiti. Unspeakable atrocities have been committed in these places of prayer. I don’t think they’ll be forgotten. Like in Afghanistan, they’ll probably be rebuilt. Martyrs from the recent war will become part of the sacred landscape, and stories of violence will be remembered and passed on to the next generation. And if possible, I’ll be there to make pilgrimage to the places I love so much.
Photo credit: IBT