How did you get the idea to study the relationship between interwar Aleppo’s Christians and the Syrian Arab nationalist movement?
I was enormously privileged to work as an English teacher in Damascus in 2010–2011, where many Syrians welcomed me into their homes and friend groups. I left Syria two months after the first protests in Dara’a. Since then, I have always sought ways to stay connected to Syria, even as so much of it was destroyed by the war.
My specific PhD research topic grew out of my research for my master’s degree at the University of Chicago. The work of Keith Watenpaugh and the late Peter Sluglett helped me to see what a uniquely diverse city Aleppo is and was, a city that didn’t fit very well into the Syrian “box”. Syria only came to exist as a modern nation-state in the twentieth century, and it was not a foregone conclusion that Aleppo would be part of it. My master’s thesis was about the Christian response to the 1925 uprising against French rule in Syria. In my research, I discovered that the French had decided to reward Aleppo for not revolting by holding an election in the city, an election that they hinted might lead to the city gaining autonomy from Damascus. Syrian nationalists convinced most Aleppines to boycott the election, but Aleppo’s Christians and Jews voted anyway. This got me thinking about how religious identity affected people’s political behaviour differently in different cities during the French occupation of Syria (1919–1946).
Can you describe your thesis questions and the methodology you use to approach those questions?
I begin by very deliberately setting aside the national frame. We have a tendency to think, “Well, they were Syrians – they probably all wanted the same thing”, but this is precisely the time when who was and was not Syrian, and what that meant, was being decided in the first place! “Syria” as we know it today did not exist as a centralised state until 1936. Before then, the French were regularly shifting the number of states in the region. There was the State of the ‘Alawis, the State of the Druze, the Sanjak of Alexandretta, the State of Damascus, and yes, for a time, the State of Aleppo! Certainly, many people in Aleppo wanted to be part of making Syria real – and not always for noble reasons – but many others did not.
From there, I proceed to bring religion into the story. Many scholars focus on how the French manipulated religious differences to rule Syria, but those differences have a history too – the French did not create them. My approach is to try to examine how religious and national identities shaped each other during this formative period.
Early on in my research, I realised that, besides French and Arabic, the Armenian language would be crucial for my work. Because tens of thousands of Armenians from modern-day Turkey sought refuge in Aleppo after the Armenian Genocide (1915–1923), over half of all Christians in the city were Armenians. Thanks to some amazing teachers and friends, including some Armenian students at the Graduate Institute who were so generous with their time, I was able to learn enough Armenian to read Armenian newspaper articles and books from Mandate Aleppo.
A major hurdle was my inability to go to Aleppo for research, due to wartime conditions. But since the beginning of the war, a wonderful collective of local scholars in Aleppo, called the “Historical Documentation Center”, has been digitising old newspapers and books from the city and uploading them to the internet. Thanks to their work, I was able to read sources that I never would have found otherwise. Ultimately, I relied on state and private archives in France, Geneva, Jordan, Austria, Armenia and the United States.
What are your major findings?
One of my findings is a revision of our understanding of the relationship between the Armenian refugee community and the French authorities in Aleppo. Many works on Mandate Syria assume that the Armenian genocide survivors were totally dependent on the French, and that the French were able to use them as a tool against Syrian nationalists. I show that, in fact, the Armenians were not very useful to the French at all, and despite this managed to extract major concessions from the French. This feat allowed them to rebuild and preserve their communities in Aleppo in the wake of the Genocide.
Beyond that, I argue that religious identity was an inescapable factor in the politics of Aleppo’s Christians. Historically, they had had fewer rights and privileges than Muslims. In the seventy years that came before the French occupation, multiple governments tried to make Christians equal, but the Christians also saw something they had not seen in centuries – large-scale massacres of Christians by reactionary forces, massacres that happened over and over again. The major political question for Christians was how to end this cycle of false liberation and violence – how to gain equality, or at least be safe. Many prominent Christian intellectuals in Aleppo argued that supporting the nationalist movement, led by powerful Muslim landowners, against the French was the best way to ensure that Christians would have a safe place in Aleppo in the future. But Christian church leaders, and the majority of ordinary Christians in Aleppo, were seemingly not convinced. And because Christians represented over a third of the city’s inhabitants, and Aleppo’s Muslims weren’t too keen on Syrian nationalism to begin with, they were in a position to do something about it. So they voted against nationalist political parties, they refused to sign nationalist petitions to the League of Nations, they organised their own antinationalist petitions, and they even created a paramilitary movement to challenge the nationalists in the streets. This last movement, ironically, only ended when the French and the nationalists worked together to suppress it. Not coincidentally, this was in 1936, which is when, with French support, something like Syria as we know it today was unified under a government in Damascus for the first time in history. For Syria to emerge as a centralised nation-state, Christian political agency in Aleppo had to be destroyed.
Finally, I argue that, when it came to getting Christians on board, Syrian nationalists were sometimes their own worst enemy. They were preaching the gospel of a secular nation, “Syria”, united by Arab identity. To make that nation real, they couldn’t be a Muslims-only club – they had to have Christians with them. When Christians were reluctant to cooperate, nationalists often resorted to threats, even violence. I call this the “nationalists’ dilemma” – their desperate need to have good relations with Christians often led them to do things that made their relations with Christians worse.
If we are using the national frame to look at these events, it is all too easy to view Aleppo’s Christians as being disloyal to Syria. We have to remember that Syria did not exist yet. Many Muslims wanted Aleppo to be part of Turkey at this time; some Muslims and Christians wanted Aleppo to be independent or autonomous. Many others just didn’t want the leaders of the nationalist movement – i.e., the same Muslim landowners that had caused them so many problems over the years – to rule them again. Tara Zahra’s important work on “national indifference” is relevant here. Ordinary people were thinking about what was best first and foremost for them, for their families and for their communities, not for some abstract ideal of nationhood. There were real grievances between Christians and Muslims, and proclaiming that they were all part of one “nation” was not enough to solve them.
What could be the social and/or political implications of your thesis?
Traditionally, historians try to keep their work pure of social and political implications. But obviously, historians are always influenced by current events, and that is especially true for me. I postulate in my thesis’ conclusion that the events I describe – the violent suppression of dissent against the nationalist movement in Aleppo, and the incorporation of Aleppo’s Christians into the Syrian Arab nation by coercion, not by agreement – helped lay the foundations for sixty years of authoritarian rule, and eventually, civil war in Syria.
If there is any “lesson” to be drawn from my work, it is for people who are active in politics to be more creative and generous in how they think about the nations they are part of. I mean that in two ways – in their understanding of who is “in the club” of the nation, so to speak, and in their understanding that different people carry different memories and thus, different concerns and even fears about their nation. These are obviously not only lessons for Syrians. My own country, the United States, is in the midst of a prolonged and violent dispute over what it really means to be “American”, and which memories can be legitimately incorporated into that identity. My hope is that both Americans and Syrians can find a way to deal with the often-unpleasant truths about our national pasts, and recommit ourselves to a community based on pursuit of the common good, and not based on language, race, religion, or other factors that are used to exclude and oppress people.
What are you doing now?
I have taken a position working in communications for an NGO called Christian Solidarity International, which promotes religious freedom and human dignity for all people, and brings humanitarian aid to persecuted religious groups. I am also working on several private research projects about interwar Syria.
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Joel Veldkamp defended his PhD thesis in International History in August 2021. Professor Cyrus Schayegh presided the committee, which included Professor Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, supervisor, and Mr Keith David Watenpaugh, Professor and Director, Department of Human Rights, University of California Davis, USA.
Citation of the PhD thesis:
Veldkamp, Joel. “The Politics of Aleppo's Christians and the Formation of the Syrian Nation-State, 1920-1936.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.
Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can access the PhD thesis from this page of the Institute’s repository. Others can reach Dr Veldkamp at email@example.com.
Banner picture: The Armenian Genocide memorial at the Forty Martyrs Armenian church in Aleppo, Syria. Excerpt from an image by hovic - old aleppo album, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.