Volume > Issue > Briefly: July-August 2017

July-August 2017

Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria's Great Merchant City

By Philip Mansel

Publisher: I.B. Tauris & Co

Pages: 250

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Brian Welter

Philip Mansel’s Aleppo chronicles the past half-millennium of this age-old settlement, from when it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire to its current dire situation. Long a peaceful trading center that put politics on the back burner, Aleppo enabled Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, and Jews to live together. These different peoples tended to live in their own quarters, Mansel points out, but never in ghettos.

Aleppo is aimed at the general reader interested in geography, history, and culture. The short chapters in the book’s first part offer historical insights, such as the development and presence of the British and French empires. The second part, a kind of popular history, contains a selection of eyewitness accounts from travelers over the past 500 years. These writers touch on flora and fauna (or lack thereof), architecture, social customs, and, of course, trade. Both parts highlight the importance of geography to economic development. Aleppo’s chief limitation was not being on the sea, yet this circumstance saved it from Western navies, and its Christian inhabitants were never seen as a potential fifth column, as was the case in port towns.

Aleppo’s close proximity to Mosul opened up exchanges from India and the Silk Road. Mansel portrays Ottoman rule as beneficial: “Conquest had made Aleppo Ottoman; trade made it a world city.” Aleppo’s diversity fit the Ottoman aim “to incorporate different peoples and religions in its administrative and financial structures,” such as by making local Christian and Jewish leaders responsible for tax and law enforcement in their respective communities. Aleppo served the empire well, fostering business and good relations among the different peoples.

Mansel’s selected historical accounts provide background on Aleppo’s relationship with Constantinople and other locales, giving a sense of how it fit into its region and the wider world. Aleppo was, aside from a brief period, never a capital. Mansel calls it a perpetual second city; its population sometimes was third only to Cairo and Constantinople (in the Ottoman Empire). Aleppo punched above its weight, never intellectually or culturally but economically, in the relatively easy lifestyle it afforded its citizens. Perhaps this comfort explains why its inhabitants so loved it yet why it never achieved the same political or cultural status as Baghdad and Damascus. Aleppines, made more practical by trade, developed no high political or religious expectations.

Aleppo’s particular nature made it stand out to visitors. Gertrude Bell, writing in 1911, notes the city’s special role in this part of the world. To compare Damascus with Aleppo, she observed, “would be to set side by side different conceptions of civilization. Damascus is the capital of the desert, Aleppo of the fertile plain. Damascus is the city of the Arab tribes who conquered her and set their stamp upon her; Aleppo, standing astride the trade routes of northern Mesopotamia, is a city of merchants quick to defend the wealth that they had gathered afar.”

Aleppo’s bourgeois lifestyle allowed for various freedoms, including women-run businesses and the right of Christians both to buy Muslim-owned property and build new churches. Intrareligious fighting — Sunni against Shia, Orthodox against Maronite — seemed more common than interreligious tension. “Muslim courts also provided a neutral background on which Christians from different sects could conduct their internecine disputes,” Mansel notes. As another example of religious harmony, a given guild could include Jews, Muslims, and Christians, though frequently one religious group would gravitate toward a certain organization.

Despite its mercantile nature, nowhere is Aleppo criticized for being money-hungry. It seemed to achieve a balance of sorts. A bit of culture was on offer, though some selected writers discount Aleppo as a center of learning. Mansel does observe an informal literary scene in which “Christians as well as Muslims were scholars of Arabic literature and grammar. Christians contributed to the Arabic literary revival for which the city became famous” in the early 18th century. Being business-oriented did not mean people were cheap and tawdry. Locals, especially the wealthy, had gardens and courtyards. As French influence grew in the 19th century, Parisian culture took on a special role. As for music, Mansel quotes one writer who called the city “the cradle of Arab music” where “Sufi brotherhoods maintained traditions of poetry and music, both classical and popular.”

The lack of religious or philosophical dogmatism helped to maintain peace among the various sects and to keep the faith simple. Aleppo’s Paris-educated Greek Catholic archbishop, originally from Damascus, was quoted in Bell’s 1907 work as saying, “There is much knowledge, but little faith in France, while in Syria, though there is much ignorance, religion rests upon a sure foundation of belief.” Serenity and moderation came from rejecting revolution; this saved Aleppo from various upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Violence, or the potential for it, of course existed. Though generally peaceful and tolerant, Islam was deeply rooted. Francis Vernon, writing in 1785, warned his British readers against interacting with Muslim women, as this could lead to violence or penalties — probably exacted within conservative family structures. Also, the Janissaries, who claimed to be former soldiers or the families of former soldiers, were a source of much corruption. Yet Vernon found it curious how Aleppo could exist for years “without any legal master, or administration of justice, protected only by a miserable guard of police, and yet that the town should be a safe and quiet residence.” Trade was the great moderator of ethnic and religious passion. The city seemed to offer everyone a full and fitting place.

Mansel offers a short chapter on Aleppo’s recent, hellish history, opening with a quote from a Syrian during the neighboring civil war of 1975-1990: “Lebanon is the engagement party. Syria will be the wedding.” Learning the story of Syria’s great merchant city gives one hope that its dignity will return.

A Godly Humanism: Clarifying the Hope That Lies Within

By Francis Cardinal George

Publisher: CUA Press

Pages: 214

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Christopher Beiting

Seldom has such a promising work been let down by such a misleading dust jacket. Reading the blurbs on the back cover and flap, it’s difficult to tell exactly what the late Francis Cardinal George’s final work, A Godly Humanism, is supposed to be about. A spiritual memoir? A theodicy? A consideration of the nature of “church”? Someone on the design staff at the Catholic University of America Press seems to have taken pains to make vague the content of this book, but at least he got the right cover image: Botticelli’s painting of St. Augustine in his cell. Interested readers should take that as their clue to what this book is really about: a consideration of the Catholic intellectual tradition and a guide for Catholic intellectuals on how to live up to it. A Godly Humanism was near and dear to Cardinal George, who worked on it assiduously during the last days of his life, completing it just a week before moving on to his eternal reward. Consider it, then, to be the last lesson offered by a learned and wise churchman, whose advice to Catholic intellectuals is full of great depth and wisdom but can be summed up briefly as: “Be like the guy on the cover.”

A Godly Humanism is predicated on one major assumption: There is something deeply wrong with academia in the Western world today, a problem that has multiple causes and manifestations. Simply put, academia is struggling with the consequences of the divorce of faith and reason, the “de-Hellenization” of higher education that Pope Benedict XVI treated so magisterially in his 2006 Regensburg lecture. There are many causes for this situation. Protestantism from Luther onward had a strong anti-philosophical element in it, and universities and schools founded on the Protestant tradition, once a mainstay of higher education, have had their often-weak philosophical basis shaken by the double onslaught of Darwinism and biblical higher criticism in the 19th century, from which they never really recovered.

Furthermore, modern secular universities often continue to buy into the mistaken Enlightenment-era notion that faith and reason are fundamentally opposed to each other, and that the former has no place in the academy. The good cardinal is critical of the rise of German-style research universities in the 19th century, in which compartmentalization of knowledge achieves much but also makes a synthesis of knowledge, particularly of faith and reason, virtually impossible. “The disjunction of the curriculum is a far more powerful source of relativism than any doctrine preached by any member of the faculty,” George explains. And all of these factors are made worse by one of the major intellectual problems of modernity: moderns, particularly Americans, labor under the delusion that truth destroys their liberty. As such, they prefer to cling to an ideal of liberty and abandon the very idea of the pursuit of truth, all the while ignoring the fact that by doing so they usually wind up losing their liberty along the way. Any kind of order that is not based on truth will collapse as surely as the Soviet Union did, George notes, and the more Western society divorces itself from truth, the more likely it is to share a similar fate.

What, then, is to be done? Cardinal George laments the mess in the academy, which he, as an outsider, views as both self-created and unnecessary. I say outsider because the cardinal’s solution to the problem is a return to the Catholic intellectual tradition that built the West’s universities in the first place. In particular, he stresses the importance of a pursuit of both faith and reason, noting that the complementarity of the two is at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Catholics are really the only people out there with a tradition of defending this unity of faith and reason, and we need to be doing more of it.

Cardinal George singles out the intellectual work of recent popes, particularly St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as his models and guides. From such a vantage point, it is obvious that he would be critical of the modern secular university, but he is critical of other popular educational alternatives as well. A faith-based institution like Yeshiva University, where students pursue divinity studies in the morning and secular subjects in the afternoon, is not enough for the cardinal, since an education like this winds up keeping faith and reason compartmentalized and not interacting.

Other practices in which Catholic institutions engage, such as maintaining offices for mission, establishing Catholic Studies programs, or using the offices of student or residence life to maintain the Catholic character of the school, are all fine in their way but are not enough to do what is necessary. Rather, what Catholic schools truly need is a firm institutional and faculty commitment to the complementarity of faith and reason. Catholic faculty members should be competent scholars but also serious disciples of Christ and the Church (and aware of the Catholic intellectual tradition) and active in the Catholic community. They should also understand that disciplines and departments are artificial things, and that the pursuit of a unified faith and reason will involve a great deal of interdisciplinarity, which is no easy thing in practice. In contrast to the ideals of novelty and universality that animate the secular university, a Catholic faculty must accept the importance of history and culture.

All too often, Catholics forget that ours is a received religion, born at a particular time and place and developed in a specific way, and that all of these things matter. So does the fact that the Church has a tradition and an authoritative Magisterium formed by it, and that Catholic intellectuals owe allegiance to that tradition and Magisterium. Cardinal George is the first to admit that efforts to realize all this have been made more difficult by blunders involving the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, to which he devotes an entire chapter. But he also notes that “in this country…liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project” that has, in contrast to other places in the world, come to view the liberating power of the Church as nothing more than another source of oppression.

By way of contrast, George’s model for the Catholic scholar, St. Augustine, created one of the most important intellectual syntheses in history. George’s hope is that a reformed Catholic academy, committed to the unity of faith and reason, will produce a new intellectual synthesis — a “godly humanism,” if you will — like unto the neo-Thomism of the past century. But even if the Catholic academy achieves nothing more than a revival of the old-fashioned, natural-law tradition, well, that’s what St. Paul had to work with, and look at all he did.

Misleading dust jacket aside, A Godly Humanism would make an ideal semester reading and reflection project for faculty and staff at Catholic colleges and universities, or for anyone interested in a spirited defense of the Catholic intellectual tradition.


By Robert Harris

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Pages: 285

Price: $26.95

Review Author: Hurd Baruch

Can an NOR reader resist a novel about the intrigues of a papal election? What a fine canvas the occasion presents for an insightful study of the spiritual shepherds of millions of believers and the social and theological currents that tug or buffet the Church from every side! Had I not been sold by the book’s title, I would have been by the glowing review in The Wall Street Journal, which praised the book as a thriller and the author as “a master storyteller and accomplished craftsman” who “marries a searching moral imagination to his rare ability to tell a compelling tale.”

The story commences in an unspecified year with the untimely death of the Pope (unnamed, but clearly meant to be thought of as Francis, for he too had taken up residence in a small room at the Casa Santa Marta instead of in traditional quarters at the Apostolic Palace). Happenings are seen through the eyes of the dean of the College of Cardinals, who, by virtue of that position, is in charge of the conclave of cardinals under the age of 80, called to Rome to elect a new pope.

What would we expect to see in such a novel? The cardinals are, after all, human, and some of them are ambitious to succeed to the Petrine office or to be appointed to prestigious positions by the candidate they support. Naturally, there is electioneering, with each of the main wings of the Church represented by one or more stock candidates: A conservative Italian cardinal who speaks fluent Latin, loves the Tridentine Mass, and is hostile to the effects of Vatican II; a conservative African cardinal who represents the tantalizing possibility of the first “black pope”; a liberal who is not considered liberal enough; a liberal who is so liberal that he is willing to consider almost anything, including women priests; and a centrist — actually, two centrists, an avowed candidate “who managed somehow to combine a bland personality with a passionate ambition,” and the non-candidate dean himself, for whom “neutrality had been the leitmotif of his career.” For better or worse, the book is a “page-turner,” so the characters aren’t developed more than superficially.

To these perfunctory candidates the author has added a true “wild card”: a Filipino who is serving as the archbishop of Baghdad. He shows up right before the conclave, claiming to have been named a cardinal in pectore by the late Pope (and therefore an appointment not disclosed to anyone). He is known by reputation — but not personally — to cardinals from Asia and Africa for having served poor and marginalized groups under perilous circumstances on both continents in years long past, and his credentials are accepted.

Much verbiage is devoted to minutiae of the settings where the action takes place (the Casa Santa Marta, which houses the cardinals, and the Sistine Chapebpand to the rules for the conclave. These details, from the sparse furnishing of a bedroom to how the cardinals sit for meals at tables according to their language group, set the scenes, but, of course, it is the interactions of their eminences that hold the reader’s attention.

Conservatives say what you’d expect them to say; likewise the liberals. The avowed centrist candidate is silent, while the man in the middle, the dean, shocks everyone with his pre-conclave homily at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica immediately before they are sequestered. He sets aside his text of platitudes and says, “The one sin I have come to fear more than any other is certainty. Certainty is the great enemy of unity. Certainty is the deadly enemy of tolerance.”

That’s not a confession one would expect of a man who had risen to the position of dean of the College of Cardinals. If that is really how cardinals running the Vatican think, drift is unavoidable and the faith is in great peril. However, as the WSJ reviewer conjectures, the author, Robert Harris, “is not, I think, a Roman Catholic.” And so, one hopes that the dean’s mindset reflects only what Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron has posited: “The secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright.”

The dean’s confession is hard to square with the mystical states into which he enters, after which he comes out with a firm resolve for actions requiring great moral certainty. Harris’s ambivalence about the dean’s character calls to mind Walt Whitman’s lines in his Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In any case, while the cardinals discuss the candidates, and voting takes place with measured formality, changing the fortunes of one then another, the driving force of events is not reasoned debates about the personal merits of candidates or where they would like to steer the Church. Rather, it is the result of explosive revelations about certain cardinals. These do not enter from the outside but by detective work on the part of the dean within the sealed confines of the conclave, bringing to light facts not known before by him or the other electors.

Discoveries about the two leading candidates are believable insofar as they concern human failings, but they do require a willing suspension of disbelief on two counts. First, although the dean purportedly enters the conclave desiring only to be neutral, he quickly abandons that neutrality and seeks to end one candidacy and then another, right when those cardinals are on the threshold of being chosen. Second, in his endeavor to discover facts and press on to their consequences, he even breaks the conclave rules, which it is his sworn duty to enforce.

With some 40 pages to go, affairs appear to be coasting to a predictable ending when they are derailed by a terrorist bombing at the Vatican. The dynamics of the conclave are scrambled and the papacy is up for grabs again. Voting resumes and proceeds to a point where it seems that the end has come and only a few pages of anti-climax are left. But Harris has one more trick up his sleeve. At the end he pulls out the “wild card,” the Filipino, whose interjection into the tale was otherwise inexplicable. Once more, the meddlesome dean brings about a personal revelation — one far more shocking than anything that has come before. The revelation sounded to me like the 13th chime of a crazy cuckoo clock: incredible in itself and tending to cast doubt on the preceding 12 chimes. It is so bizarre that it prompted me to reflect on how contrived and improbable were the other plots based on the dean’s detective work.

While the secular press may hail the author’s “searching moral imagination,” I suggest that the ending is better ascribed to an immoral imagination. At the least, it is un-Catholic, if not anti-Catholic. Page-turner or not, resist this one.

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