When Christian Sahner ’07 GS visited Syria for the first time, he expected to find the country that he had seen on the news: a police state that would neatly fit its categorization as part of the axis of evil. What he found was far more complex. “There was this constant sense of being watched, of feeling that you were being monitored,” he says. “At the same time, there was this very rich, beautiful culture and wonderful people.” Sahner visited several times over three years, living with a Syrian family, learning to say Mass in Arabic, and experiencing life under an authoritarian regime that would crumble just months after he left for the final time in 2010.
In Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present, Sahner, who currently is earning his Ph.D. in history at Princeton, interlaces his experiences with a history of Syria extending back to ancient times. He wanted to “introduce a new aspect of Syria into public conversation,” he says. “There is much justified focus on militants and Islamic groups, but there’s another plotline — the cultural and religious diversity. A lot of people don’t realize that for many centuries Christians were the majority of the population.”
Among the Ruins was written in the early hours of the morning as a side project to his Ph.D., born from a desire to provide a new perspective on a country that Americans have learned to fear. “Writing the book brought me back to a place that I love dearly but that has more or less disappeared. Many of the people I write about in the book have left the country; others I’ve lost touch with and may be dead. The book is meant to honor them by spreading understanding of Syria. I wanted to show a place other than the war-torn bloody country that Syria has become.”