Such deep and abiding affinities [between Christendom and the Muslim world] demonstrate that so-called conflicts between East and West — whether past or present — are political or ideological constructs that have no real basis in deeper cultural and religious fact. Beyond and apart from the controversies highlighted by contemporary observers (and acerbated by modern nationalistic concepts originally alien to Islam) there has always been a tradition of cultural exchange, tolerance and mutual understanding — even during conflictual situations such as the invasion by the Crusaders. It is this ‘subterranean’ tradition of multicultural symbiosis and of tolerant pluralism, as exemplified by the cultural history of Syria, which needs to be brought to light again, in order to overcome stereotypical prejudices that aggravate any real or imaginary conflicts that may still exist.

Among the regions and countries of this world, Syria has been blessed with a particularly rich cultural and architectural heritage. Throughout history, its strategic geopolitical position meant that it became a territory disputed between East and West. At the same time, Syria also acted as an important bridge between Asian and Mediterranean civilisations, encouraging many forms of cultural, artistic and commercial interchange to take place. Here, the early generations of Muslims — inspired by the Qur’anic message but still unfettered by a heavy material heritage — created the basis for new cultural expressions and gave rise to a sedentary Islamic civilisation that absorbed and transformed many of the physical forms and structures inherited from it predecessors and infused fresh meaning into them.

Another, even more fundamental reason for the underlying inner affinity of the two civilisations is to be found in the shared point of origin of the three monotheistic religions of Islam, Christianism and Judaism. All are linked to a common ancestor — Abraham — whose mythical presence has survived in the citadel of Aleppo.

The long record of hostilities between Christendom and the Muslim world, between European and New-Eastern kingdoms, should not obscure the fact that both civilisations were built upon a shared Mediterranean heritage — a legacy that extended from Greek philosophy and ancient scientific traditions to a variety of architectural and ornamental features inspired by late Roman architecture. During the early medieval period, these elements were subject to different but related interpretations in the two cultural systems that were to dominate the Mediterranean world for centuries. Another, even more fundamental reason for the underlying inner affinity of the two civilisations is to be found in the shared point of origin of the three monotheistic religions of Islam, Christianism and Judaism. All are linked to a common ancestor — Abraham — whose mythical presence has survived in the citadel of Aleppo. Islam, the most recent of the three revelations, has always acknowledged and confirmed the older religious traditions and has also provided, through its various regional cultures, successful models for religious and ethnic coexistence.

Such deep and abiding affinities demonstrate that so-called conflicts between East and West — whether past or present — are political or ideological constructs that have no real basis in deeper cultural and religious fact. Beyond and apart from the controversies highlighted by contemporary observers (and acerbated by modern nationalistic concepts originally alien to Islam [click here for the Aga Khan’s views on the Islamic concept of statehood]) there has always been a tradition of cultural exchange, tolerance and mutual understanding — even during conflictual situations such as the invasion by the Crusaders. It is this ‘subterranean’ tradition of multicultural symbiosis and of tolerant pluralism, as exemplified by the cultural history of Syria, which needs to be brought to light again, in order to overcome stereotypical prejudices that aggravate any real or imaginary conflicts that may still exist.

Through the work of its various institutions, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has always attempted to act as a connector between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in terms of its cultural initiatives, and between ‘North’ and ‘South’, as far as social and economic development projects are involved. While these activities have long been concentrated in Pakistan, India and East Africa, new initiatives in Central Asia (Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and in the Arab world (Egypt and Syria) have been added in recent years.

In Cairo, the conversion of a thirty-hectare barren site at the heart of the historic metropolis into a major urban park has become the catalyst for an innovative and far-reaching urban rehabilitation process in the adjacent quarters of the Fatimid city. In Syria, good progress has been made with the conservation of three major citadels as cultural and tourist assets and as resources of civic pride. Moreover, an urban area development project around the citadel of Aleppo has been launched in cooperation with the local authorities, and further adaptive reuse projects for landmark buildings in the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus are under discussion with the Syrian government. These activities have been complemented by initiatives in the fields of health care, early childhood education, agriculture and micro-credit undertaken by other AKDN institutions in the areas of Aleppo, Masyaf, Salamiya and Lattakia.

I am grateful to the Syrian authorities for their vigorous support of the conservation projects on the three citadels described in the present book and I am sure that these buildings, now returned to their full splendour, will reinforce Syria’s unique cultural heritage record.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

SOURCES

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