“And when, on a gentle spring morning after several days of siege, that host streamed through a breach in the walls of Damascus, murder and pillage ensued that scarce abated with the sunset.”
No, this isn’t a prediction. It is from a novel I wrote about eighth-century Syria, Iran and Iraq.
I hate being a prophet.
If we (Europe, Russia, the U.S.) all stick our military hands into Syria, there will be plenty of quiet chuckles echoing through the Arab world: “Welcome, you idiots, to exactly where we wanted you. Now do the dirty job for us.”
To understand what is happening in Syria, one must look at the larger picture. And that larger picture is the ancient and bitter Arab-Iranian rivalry, today manifested in the Arab world’s attempts to nip off bits of the Iranian sphere of influence, this particular bit being Syria.
When the conflict began, there was no America. There was no Europe, not really (we have to wait for Charlemagne to be born). The eastern Roman Empire was half alive, half gobbled up by the Arabs. And Iran -- well, it had been wiped out as an enlightened, ancient empire a century before, in 651. After that, the Arabs took a long rest on the borders of Sogd (modern-day central Asia, with its capital in Samarkand), which they began to conquer only in 712.
Why the rivalry? Why did the conquerors (the Arabs) so loathe the conquered (the Iranians)? That’s where the eighth century comes in. A hundred years after the Arabs destroyed Iran, their own empire, which stretched from Spain to the Chinese border, was a teetering wreck, being devoured from the inside by rivalries and bad government.
Then, in 747, a revolt began in Iran that would eventually overthrow the Umayyad dynasty, replacing it with the Abbasids. The Abbasids would go on to build Baghdad and rule the huge Islamic caliphate for 500 years -- until the arrival of Genghis Khan and his Horde.
Yes, the Abbasids were Arabs, but their scribes, builders and literati were Iranians and the Arabs who cared to learn from them. As a result, the Iranians gradually all but took over their conqueror’s empire from the inside.
What an exquisite revenge -- an ancient nation that refused to give in, even when it was impossible to hold on.
Are there echoes of this stubbornness in current Iranian negotiating behavior regarding nuclear proliferation? There are. One needs to understand the roots of this ancient nation to appreciate how the Iranians negotiate against all odds -- just as they did in the eighth century, refusing to believe they were finished. And no, they won’t give in today.
Here is the crucial bit: The Arab-Iranian divide is far more than cultural. In the eighth century, subjugated Iran was also abandoning its ancient religion -- Zoroastrianism -- and creating its own, unique strand of Islam, Shiite, that stood in opposition to the dominant Sunni strand favored by the Abbasids.
This novelist can tell you that he has been there, back in eighth-century Damascus, and the streets were drenched in blood.
One thousand two hundred sixty-six years have passed. Unfortunately, little has changed.
(Dmitry Chen is a Russian-born author of eight novels, including “The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas,” which has just been published in English. It takes place in eighth-century Syria, Iran, Iraq and Sogdia.)
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