Sina-cism: Of Antioch and Aleppo

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For decades, the courtyard inside the Lancaster Street entrance to the Worcester Art Museum has featured mosaics from the ancient city of Antioch, whose ruins lie just east of present-day Antakya, Turkey.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

The centerpiece of these treasures is “Hunting Scene” and dates to the 6th century A.D. Excavated from a villa in the wealthy Antioch suburb of Daphne, it shows hunters, some on horseback, in combat with exotic beasts.

“Hunting Scene” is a work of subtle beauty, combining artistic elements from Greco-Roman and Persian traditions. It is just one of hundreds of mosaics removed from Antioch in the 1930s during archaeological digs undertaken by a consortium of museums and universities. Most remain in Turkey, but others are scattered around the globe, where they have helped millions better understand the cultural riches of the Middle East.

Today, visitors to the Worcester Art Museum can see a very different view of another ancient city located barely 75 miles east of Antioch – Aleppo, Syria.

“Veiled Aleppo” features photographs and a short film, “Aleppo’s Descent,” by Italian photojournalist Franco Pagetti, who was embedded with rebels there in 2013.

Aleppo is the largest city in Syria, with a prewar population of some 2.3 million. Today, after four years of civil war, an estimated 40 percent of the city’s eastern half has been damaged. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of residents have fled.

Pagetti’s photographs and film show the grim reality that remains: City squares devoid of life. Apartment buildings crumbled by artillery fire. An injured rebel tended by comrades. In one image, bullet-riddled metal shutters create a field of star-like holes that admit a faint light to illuminate a weary fighter resting inside a shop.

The exhibition’s title derives from the survivalist tactics of residents and fighters who remain in these war-torn neighborhoods. Sheets are strung across streets and alleyways, providing some cover from Syrian government snipers.

The mosaics of Antioch past and the rubble-strewn streets of Aleppo present a stark contrast, but history’s long lens shows that both cities have seen splendor and horror throughout time.

I don’t mention this bloody history in order to excuse those repeating it today, nor do I subscribe to a moral relativism that considers all combatants in war as equally bad. But caution is in order.

Antioch, founded 2,300 years ago, was once the capital of the Western Seleucid Empire, and during Hellenistic times was the third most-populous city in the world. Its history is marked by remarkable diversity – Persians, Greeks, Jews, Romans and many others – and periodic bloodshed, notably during the Crusades, when Christians and Muslims slaughtered one another with zest over a period of some 200 years, from the late 11th century until the late 13th century.

Aleppo, which archaeologists have determined to be much older – it may date to 6000 B.C. – has a similarly contentious history, with Persians, Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims and Mongols having at one time or another perpetrated or suffered atrocities at the hands of one or more of the others.

I don’t mention this bloody history in order to excuse those repeating it today, nor do I subscribe to a moral relativism that considers all combatants in war as equally bad. But caution is in order.

Watching Pagetti’s film, it is impossible to know who these fighters are, which side they were on in 2013, or whether their allegiance may have shifted in the months since. Pagetti himself admits this.

The camera may not blink, but it is still often unclear what we are seeing.

After leaving the museum, I stopped for a sandwich at Shawarma Palace, run by Lebanese immigrant Charles Dalli. Thousands like Charlie – Lebanese, Syrians, Jews, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Egyptians and others – have been coming to Worcester for decades, in search of opportunity and hope. Most have found some measure of both.

We chatted for a while. Charlie spoke about growing up in Lebanon, about its long and bitter civil war, and his sadness at what is unfolding in Syria.

Neither Charlie nor I came up with any brilliant geopolitical solutions to the nihilistic horrors of the Islamic State. Like everyone, we are appalled and know something must be done. That something is probably a mix of military action, hard-nosed diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and lots of time.

I wish life were as simple today as it was once upon a time in Antioch. Instead, I suspect there will be more hard choices, and many more lives lost, before that day when all humans realize something that some humans – including Charlie – already know.

It was true when the murals of Antioch were created. It was true during the Crusades. It remains true today.

“People don’t appreciate what God has provided for them,” he said.

More from Chris Sinacola:

Sina-cism: A true common core for education on high-stakes testing, curriculum standards and what really matters in education

Sina-cism: A run of the Mill situationon free speech and the vacuous nature of many modern campus protests

Sina-cism: I come not to bury Trumpon the spectacular rise of the presidential front-runner and the underestimated crowd that supports him

One thought on “Sina-cism: Of Antioch and Aleppo

  1. Good work, Chris. I appreciate your thoughtful, informative piece.
    Having recently viewed the mosaic and the film, I am familiar with both subjects.
    I found Pagetti’s film both frightening and moving – feeling as if I were embedded with the young soldiers, never knowing when a bullet would take my life. If ever anyone thought war is glorious- viewing this film would certainly disabuse him or her of that fantasy. By the way, I presumed the guerillas were anti-Assad insurgents, but, apparently that’s questionable. Harvey Fenigsohn

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