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The July 1860 pogrom against Christians in Damascus: Many Christians were protected by Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairei (© Culture Club/Getty Images)

Throughout the conflict in Syria I have been in correspondence with Marwa al-Sabouni, a young Syrian architect who wrote to me after reading my Aesthetics of Architecture. I had made the case for the priority of aesthetic over functional values, and for the deep connections between moral and aesthetic judgment. The argument had struck a chord in Marwa, who had witnessed the damage done to the fabric of her home city, Homs, by high-rise slums outside the walls and pseudo-Islamic kitsch for the posh elites.

Homs is an ancient settlement in which many religious confessions have lived side by side in warren-like streets, churches and mosques often sharing their walls, and houses piled up against them. The consecrated togetherness of the ancient Levantine city, Marwa believes, was expressed in its architecture, just as its subsequent fragmentation can be witnessed in the buildings that have gathered people up in mutually hostile blocks of concrete. What is cause and what effect in the current conflict is by no means clear: but the meaning of the new styles of building is written all over them, namely alienation and the loss of home.

Marwa and I write to each other often about this and other matters, and eventually, to my surprise, Marwa sent me the draft of a book — The Battle for Home — expressing her sentiments and observations and asking for my opinion. I encouraged her to publish what is, to my mind, the most powerful account of why architecture, planning and the spirit of settlement lie at the heart of the Middle Eastern conflicts, and why the importation of foreign ideas of planning and the “international” building types have been such a social and political disaster.

In her article in this issue of Standpoint
, Marwa addresses the role of the Western powers in precipitating the original Syrian civil war, when Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, and merchants and diplomats were probing the region to find the communities that could best further their colonial ambitions. She tells only part of a highly complex story. But it is a story that we need to revisit, since, as she tells it, the cause of the war was not the rise of religious antagonism so much as the loss of neighbourhood. In her perspective the confessions could understand, live with and love each other as neighbours, but lost everything when neighbourhood was taken away. Their peace was shattered in part by outside powers arbitrarily raising one community above another, and one district against its neighbour. The destruction of the silk trade, which devastated the countryside and transferred land from resident farmers to outsiders; the religious missions that favoured the Catholic communities and conferred on them administrative privileges, the effective partitioning of Mount Lebanon between the Druze and the Maronites, the first under British protection, the second under French — all such meddling in a place that had enjoyed a persistent, though delicate, equilibrium had led to a civil war in which outside interference was a far more important causal factor than any deep religious divide.

Marwa writes as a patriotic Syrian who has seen her country torn apart. She happens to be a Sunni Muslim; but in her view the command to love your neighbour as yourself lies on Christian and Muslim alike, and should be understood literally. We are commanded to protect and support those whom we encounter as neighbours. This commandment should be at the root of architecture, as it is at the root of everyday life. It is our duty to build and maintain neighbourhoods, and when we cease to do so, the result is not only an aesthetic disaster, but a moral disaster too. We have seen this abundantly in Syria. And we should learn the lesson in Britain too.
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