For most of us who got used to the flood of catastrophic news from Syria, it might be hard to imagine how different Syria looked in the past. Syria was a country where various faith communities lived in mutual respect of each other, forming a colourful mosaic of cultures and beliefs. Before questions of faith could separate them, Syrians would always emphasize the fact that they all share the same culture.
The American punk rocker Jason Hamacher first went to Syria in 2006. At that time, there were protests in the country around some cartoons published by a Danish newspaper that depicted Mohammad, which is considered a taboo by Muslims. When he arrived in Syria, the musician and photographer witnessed a joint TV address by the Archbishop of the Syrian-Orthodox Church and the Grand Mufti of Aleppo. Both of them had joined hands to urge people to calm down. Later, Hamacher learnt that the two religious leaders were friends for more than thirty years. “This is when I understood that the interreligious dynamic in Syria was far more nuancend than what we think in the West,” says Jason Hamacher.
Hamacher is one of the last to have created a cultural archive of musical recordings, photos and videos, showing us how Syria used to be like. However, the 39-year-old is not an anthropologist, but a punk rock drummer. After two decades of playing in various bands of the American punk scene, he went to Southeast Turkey and read William Dalrymple’s book “From The Holy Mountain.”
Raised by a Christian minister, Hamacher was particularly captured by Dalyrmple’s description of a Syrian church where ancient Christan chants from the early days of Christianity are still sung on a daily basis. When he asked the British author for recordings of these chants, he was told that there were none. Instead Hamacher got the address of the church in Aleppo. Speaking to the Archbishop of the Syrian-Orthodox Church in the USA, he learnt hat no one until now had ever taped up these chants.
“I immediately asked the bishop if I could do the recordings,” says Hamacher. After presenting his project to the Syrian embassy in the US, Hamacher set out for Syria. He would return to the country numerous times until 2010, developing a profound connection with its people. “The deep level of hospitality in Syria really touched my heart. How people naturally included me into their lives was overwhelming,” Hamacher recalls.
Hamacher’s first recordings in the Syrian-Orthodox church contain chants believed to date back to the year 190. The church in Aleppo is one of the few where this particular chanting known as the style of Edessa – that’s the ancient name of today’s Turkish city Urfa – is still done. The chants, which are part of the daily church lithurgy, are performed in the Syriac language, which in turn is an Aramaic dialect. “First hearing an Aramaic prayer in a Syriac monastery in Southeast Turkey was a life-changing experience for me,” Hamacher says.
In Aleppo, Hamacher also made recordings of Armenian and Chaldean chants. Having spent most of his time in Syria with Christians, he set out to learn more about the various Islamic traditions. He was introduced to the “Nawa” Sufi ensemble, a group of dervishes who used to gather in the courtyard of a 500 year-old house just outside Aleppo’s souq. Rather than being members of a traditional Sufi order, they were ordinary people from all walks of life who had a shared interest in mysticism. Their aim was to recreate the ancient Sufi traditions of Aleppo in the 21st century. The chants, which Hamacher published on his first album “Nawa,” are recited in the “Muwashsha” style, which is particular to the Sufis of Aleppo. Just as with the Syrian-Orthodox chants, no one had ever recorded their singing before.
“As an artist I interacted with the communities in a completely different way than academicians or journalists would. I connected to them through art, beauty and stories. I tried to create a bridge between all the academic material on Syria and the people back home who are not interested in that part of the world,” says Hamacher.
Apart from audio recording Hamacher also conducted several photo projects. When the war broke out in 2010 Hamacher stopped working on anything related to Syria for about two years. “I didn’t want people to think I was using the war,” Hamacher says. When the war entered the city of Aleppo, things changed for Hamacher. “People started asking me: ,You went to Aleppo – so is that how it is like? At that point I knew that I had to show them how Syria was really like.”
This is when Jason Hamacher founded his label “Lost Origin” as a home for the tracks he had recorded. He realized he was probably the only one who managed to collect all this cultural material until only weeks before the war started. Many of the traditions collected within the “Lost Origin” project were considered endangered even before the war.
Hamacher’s albums received a worldwide press echo and he feels a responsibility towards his Syrian friends to represent their Syria, the Syria he came to know – from a cultural perspective, not a political one. Jason Hamacher already received requests for access to his archives by various cultural organizations that are planning the reconstruction of Syria. Is that wishful thinking? Hamacher doesn’t want to lose hope: “If the people of Dresden can live in their city now, this can be also possible for Aleppo. I would love to go back one day and get my own kids to see the city.”
This article was originally published at Qantara and has been slightly modified to suit this blog.
Cover photo: Jason Hamacher/Lost Origin Productions