A History of Syria with Dan Snow; Howard Goodall's Story of Music

Instead of starting TV night with our on-going series, we started with a documentary about Syria - watching it first because it was bound to be depressing viewing. A History of Syria with Dan Snow was a This World documentary that looked at the historical underpinnings of the current civil war, to put it into some sort of context. I'm sure I'm not going to manage to get everything right in my summary and being a current & politically charged subject I'm more conscious that errors may offend, I'll still try & give some sort of feel for what Snow told us.

He started with a little bit of geography - showing us where Syria is on the map, and pointing out that it's at the point of contact between Asia, Europe & Africa. So trade flows through the region, and empires butt heads across the region. In some ways the 5000 year history of the region could be summed up as "the Syrian people got screwed over by one big empire after another". Snow only name checked the Egyptians & Assyrians, and got down to business properly with the Romans. Syria was a wealthy province under Roman rule, due to its location and the trade routes running through it. And the people converted to Christianity when the rest of the Empire did (if not before) - Syria was an important centre for Christianity until the Muslim conquest, and there is still a sizeable Christian minority in the region to this day. Snow visited a church service in Damascus, and talked briefly to a priest afterwards who was keen to stress his view that all Syrians were important regardless of religion, sect, ethnic background. Which was an optimistic way to start the programme.

Syria became part of the expanding Muslim empire very early on and then the capital of the (Sunni) Umayyad Caliphate was in Syria. The majority of the people living in Syria today are Sunni Muslims, and Snow said that the time of the Umayyads is looked back to as a kind of golden age for Syria by the Sunnis. He skipped lightly over the next few hundred years when Syria was first ruled over by an Egyptian centred Muslim empire, and then by the Ottoman Turks. The only key point from this era that he mentioned was the Crusades & the way they have shaped Arab feelings about Western intervention in the region. The next period he discussed in depth was the British Empire's turn at screwing over the Syrians - this was during the First World War when the British allied with the native Syrians as a way of destabilising the Ottomans. This is the time of Lawrence of Arabia, and the war ends with the Arabs convinced that the British have promised them their own independent state - only the British had also promised most of the territory to the French & guess which promise gets kept? The French rule over Syria was imperialist & brutal, and there was a rebellion (which ultimately failed) in 1925. Snow talked to the daughter of the man who lead that rebellion & she talked about how she feels the current rebellion is the spiritual successor to her father's rebellion.

Syria became independent in the 1930s, and the programme skipped lightly over the next period until we get to the seizing of power by Hafez al-Assad - but first it back-tracked to explain another bit of older history that is important to put this into context. Most of the Muslims (and indeed most of the people) in Syria are Sunnis, but the largest minority group is a Shia Muslim group of people called the Alawites who make up about 12% of the population of Syria. The division between Sunni & Shia Muslims goes back to immediately after the death of the Prophet, and has continued ever since. In Syria (and the region around Syria) the Alawites have been particularly persecuted - Snow was telling us that almost within living memory members of this group were unable to find work because of their religion. Assad was an Alawite, and rose to prominence via the military at a time when the Ba'athist political party were gaining in strength. Through two military coups (first that put the Ba'athists in power, then that put Assad himself in power) he took control of the country. Snow interviewed a Ba'athist political figure, a woman who is an advisor to the current government and was an advisor to Hafez al-Assad's government. She emphasised the secular nature & policies of the Ba'athist party, dwelling on how Assad put schools into all the villages, and that women could get an education. What she didn't mention was that the Assad regime was a tyrannical police state. Snow also interviewed a couple who had lived in Hama, a Syrian town, during the 1982 massacre that the government perpetrated there - theoretically to quell Muslim Brotherhood led insurrection, but actually tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Assad's Russian connections were also important - during the 60s he'd been an army leader at a time when Israel was flexing her muscles. And he gained a reputation as an Arab strongman, who'd helped the Arab world to recover it's pride after defeat by Israel. I'm fairly unclear on the details of this bit to be honest - but the take home message was that Assad's regime had both the backing of parts of the Arab world, and the backing of the Soviets as a counterpoint to the US backing of Israel.

So that's almost all the pieces of the situation lined up - the last bit that's needed is that once Hafez al-Assad died, his son Bashar inherited the presidency. He seemed at first to be likely to reform the police state nature of the Syrian state, and hopes were high that he'd move the regime towards a more open & democratic (and Western-friendly) state. But this was not the case, and he continued with his father's policies - and methods.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was then the spark that lit the tinderbox. Snow's interview with the couple from Hama also talked about this - they and their sons had been involved in the first protests, but are now living as refugees away from the fighting in Syria. One of the sons was saying that at first the protests were about wanting democracy, then once people started being killed it was about overthrowing the regime. The programme then cut back to the woman in the government who was saying that they had reacted to armed insurrection the way any government would - that the rebels were preventing the normal business of the country so the army had to be sent in to protect the state. With interviews with people on both sides of the conflict Snow showed that however it started it's fragmented down the fault lines that history has provided - Sunni vs Alawite, secular vs religious, to name a couple. With the ordinary people being caught in the middle of it.

Sobering to watch - it seems like a situation where there's so much history and ill-will on both sides both recent and dating from centuries ago that it's hard to see how it can be resolved.


To follow that up, we watched the fifth episode of Howard Goodall's Story of Music as something lighter weight to cheer us up before sleep! This was titled "The Age of Rebellions" and covered the period from the death of Wagner (in 1883) through to just before the First World War. Goodall opened by talking about how after the death of Wagner instead of several pseudo-Wagners continuing on with his style of music instead you have a movement away from a Wagnerian style - rebelling against it, if you like. Goodall seemed quite gleeful about this :) So we heard some bits from Satie, Faure and other French composers of that era. Goodall also talked about Mahler in this segment & discussed how his symphonies & songs were a move to a more personally emotional music. Rather than writing some abstractly sad piece & calling it something general like "Nocturne" Mahler wrote songs about specific subjects like the death of a child.

Another of Goodall's themes for the programme was the influence that folk music had on the classical music of the time - Mahler, for instance, incorporated the sounds & rhythms of the Jewish folk music of his upbringing. It was in Russia where this was a really striking trend. Previously Russian music had looked to the West rather to its own traditions of music, but in the late 19th Century this was to change. One of the major players in this change was Mussorgsky - and his music was different because he was not formally trained, and so didn't know the "rules" that he was busy breaking. Not all of the composers influenced by Mussorgsky were Russian - Debussy heard Mussorgsky's music at the World Fair in Paris. Debussy was also influenced by other music he heard there, like the Javanese musicians, and he incorporated these non-Western rhythms & tonalities into his music.

This breaking of the previous rules for composing music encouraged others to experiment even further. The ballets of Stravinsky (like Firebird & the Rite of Spring) with their overlayed rhythms & polyrhythms were a result of this experimentation, as was the dissonance & emotionality of Strauss's opera Salome. We were shown a little of Salome & I don't think I've any desire to see the whole opera ;)

The last segment of the programme was devoted to the new mainstream music that was beginning in this era - the blues and later ragtime and the beginnings of jazz. Goodall talked about how the blues and the spirituals grew out of the African-American's musical traditions, both from the music that they remembered from their African origins & the Christianity they were converted to once in America. Goodall said it was controversial to suggest that there were any other influences on this music, but that he believed there were also traces of the music of European immigrants (in particular railroad workers) and also the Chinese railroad workers.

As this new music became more mainstream classical music began to decrease in popularity. Goodall told us that the reaction of classical composers was to write music that appealed to a sense of nostalgia. The music of Elgar is a part of this nostalgic music. And the programme ended with Goodall pointing out that this nostalgia was for the sort of elite lifestyle that was just about to end with the outbreak of World War I.