As horrifying as the stories coming out of Aleppo have been, I hope you’ve been seeing a lot of them. One of the many issues with how the media covers events like these is how most of us lack the historical context — in other words we know fuck all about Aleppo. Instead of providing some (any) context, outlets typically write from the frame of “the war”, but without even explaining much about the war. For example, most stories about the evacuation haven’t mentioned Kefraya and Fua which are a key element.
It good to see a mainstream media post that tries to convey the unfathomable historical and cultural loss that’s happened in Aleppo so you check out Hassan Hassan’s piece Aleppo: Elegy for a doomed city whose history spans centuries. Whatever you might think of the analysis he’s going beyond the fog of the 24 hour news cycle.
The regime’s attack on the city is no less savage than the destruction of antiquities by Isis[…]The difference between the actions of Assad and that of Isis is only in presentation: while Isis advertises its savagery for the world to see and be shocked by, Assad denies it.
It’s a concise article and so only reserves 71 words for the 13th-19th centuries of Aleppo’s history. It doesn’t mention many things but one is important to how Aleppo has come full circle.
This is Amir Timur or Tamerlane:
These days he’s forgotten in much of the Western world but he used to rule quite a bit of Asia:
To get his empire to that size, he might be considered one of history’s biggest mass murderers. His conquests resulted in an estimated 12.5 million deaths or about 3.4% of the world population at the time. This is on par with WWII which wiped out 3-3.7% of the world’s population.
The above map overlaps with parts of Syria. In 1400, Timur conquered Aleppo. Like today, it was a very important city — strategically and culturally. Like today, the civilians who stayed were seen to be taking a direct stand against the would-be conqueror. And if you think that today’s news coverage, social media and international institutions do absolutely nothing to help civilians, compare the current situation to a contemporary account of Timur’s campaign:
The women and children fled to the great mosque of Aleppo . . . but Tamerlane’s men turned to follow them, bound the women with ropes as prisoners, and put the children to the sword, killing everyone of them. They committed the shameful deeds to which they were accustomed; virgins were violated without concealment; gentlewomen were outraged without any restraints of modesty; a Tatar would seize a woman and ravage her in the Great Mosque or one of the smaller mosques in sight of the vast multitude of his companions and the people of the city; her father and brother and husband would see her plight and be unable to defend her [Aleppo: A History]
It’s not just here that Aleppo has come full circle. The tormentors of Aleppo are indirectly connected. This is the recently-deceased autocrat of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov:
Now you can do any old Google image search for a more modern picture of the dictator. Instead, I found this old grab from a Soviet newspaper, which says Karimov is now the First Secretary to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. This is to show his thoroughly Soviet background. Karimov’s rule has included murder, torture, imprisonment without trial, disappearances, government forces firing on protesters and yes boiling prisoners to death. And no, racist claims about “Eastern brutality” notwithstanding, these are all very Soviet traditions. Karimov had his own style but the taint of the Mother Country is unmistakeable.
When the USSR came apart, the Central Asian republics found themselves needing a new identity as part of the independence process. Much of it revisionist. So in Uzbekistan, who did the state (ie. Karimov) promote a historical revisionist cult around if not Timur? Timur seems to be viewed there as a great Uzbek leader who headed the Uzbek empire at its greatest span. In other words he murdered and enslaved the most foreigners. The idea of Uzbek identity itself is a bit of Soviet-era revisionism and Amir Timur wouldn’t have known what an Uzbek was. Anyway, here’s an Awesome PaintingTM I saw in Tashkent at the “Islam Karimov really really likes Amir Timur” museum:
Karimov’s role model was the man who had committed genocide in Aleppo — the first time round. And here’s a young-ish Karimov with a younger Putin:
I’m not going to go all 6 degrees of conspiracy separation on you and claim Karimov and Putin had some sort of special relationship that creates a causal chain from Amir Timur to Putin. Putin had a relationship with dozens of world leaders. However there are ways that bind them.
Both of them represent the old Soviet mentality applied to the post-Soviet globalised internet-based era. Both are about the surveillance state, power and control, as part of a personal messianic ethno-nationalist quest. Putin more so on the messianic part I think. And if we know anything about history and the capacity of people to justify atrocities, nothing rates quite like noble feels and striving to achieve your nation’s destiny in world history.
Is it any surprise that one’s role model is Aleppo’s first butcher and the other himself is Aleppo’s second butcher?