National Geographic : 2014 Mar
damascus 35 civilization, offers one of the few hopes for sav- ing Syria. Given the country’s arbitrary colo- nial borders and contentious modern history, Damascus, for many Syrians, comes as close as anything to embodying a shared national idea. For centuries Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Jews have traded, worked, and lived together here, not without conflict but with a common relish for city life and business. (Only a few Jews remain; most left after the founding of Israel, when the government began viewing them with suspicion.) Later, after 1970, waves of Alawis, a long-oppressed group from the coastal moun- tains, came to Damascus, drawn to new oppor- tunities under the rule of President Bashar al Assad’s family, which hails from their sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Those who live in Damascus and love it best stand united in their desire to preserve it. Even as a once peaceful popular movement for political rights, dignity, and justice takes on an uglier sec- tarian tone—deepening fears of another Sarajevo, another Baghdad—people here say they cannot imagine attacking one another. Yet Damascenes are divided on who most threatens their world. Just beneath a carapace of fear—of the rebels, of the government, of foreign intervention, of gen- eral chaos—bubble political views so divergent that it can be hard to picture how the gap might be bridged. (Small wonder that few in the city are willing to have their full names printed.) “Every stone is a heritage—every sculpture, every roof, every fountain,” says Ghazi H., a secular Christian in his 30s who has spent much of his life in the Old City. His schoolmates of all religions used the Umayyad Mosque court- yard as a study hall. As a teenager, he explored a Muslim quarter newly opening to the outside world: Cafés proliferated, boys and girls walked together without incident—although older people looked askance at them. As an adult, he salved boredom by hunting for “hidden treasures”—a courtyard in a boarded-up man- sion, a small carving on an old house. But how people define the Old City’s heritage depends on their political outlook, and it is darker and more complex than most acknowledge, Ghazi says. “Everyone uses history to make their own points.” Anne Barnard is the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times. Photographer Andrea Bruce has worked extensively in the Middle East. Grief floods the faces of mourners at the funeral of a relative. According to his family, 29-year-old Elias Francis was driving to a job interview in Jordan when he was kidnapped—a constant hazard in Damascus these days. His body, bearing signs of torture, was later found and sent home.