Are frontiers meant to make us safe? Or are they always intended to be insecure, a reminder of our own fragility on the edge of the world? You might ask the 100,000 people of Kilis – both the Turks and the Syrian refugees – since they live on a fault line that stretches from the Crusader castle at Ravandra, with its dentist’s nightmare of jagged, broken walls high above the mountains, to the narrow streets of the old town which is enduring a gentle peace after months of Isis rocket fire from across the Syrian border that killed 21 of its civilians this year. Three of them were Syrian refugee children.
It is an instructive, humbling spectacle to see how kindly the Turks here treat the thousands of refugees who come to beg in the narrow streets of the old town with its 16th century Islamic schools and mosques. When a Syrian peasant woman approaches our table in a small Ottoman restaurant, the locals step forward to give her coins. A grubby child, accompanied by his mother and her baby, is handed cheese rolls. It puts to shame the liars of the Brexit campaign and their hatred of the foreigners who supposedly threaten little England.
Here in the tiny promontory of Kilis, the statistics feel somehow more dreadful. Turkey looks after 2.7 million Syrian refugees. It makes you realise what mean bastards we are in Europe after last year’s million refugees – not all of them Syrians – poured in among us. And in the UK, of course, we’ve taken in just over 1,600 – and promise homes to a pathetic 20,000 more. The only equivalence you can find is that Turkey’s pound is falling after the tens of thousands of arrests that followed July’s attempted coup at almost the same rate as sterling is crashing after Theresa May’s contemptuous speech a week ago. Perhaps she has more in common with President Erdogan than we might think.
But this is to place mice in the context of history. There are other, more sobering thoughts as you drive along the Turkish-Syrian border. I’ve spent weeks on the other side, driving along the smashed and cratered roads of Syria, the empty Turkmen and Sunni villages which the Syrian army is trying to recapture. And only 50 miles to the south is the martyr city of Aleppo, too far away to hear the bombs, close enough to see the effect. The refugees are still coming, and the camp on the border road is growing larger. Yet here the newly surfaced Turkish highways are wide and clean, the astonishing new mass of ten-floor, well-painted apartment blocks rising with pristine grace scarcely three miles from one of the Middle East’s most terrible wars.
The fields of olives and apples and grapevines and corn, as carefully groomed and regimented as any army, remind me of the northern Syria I know better and – it’s always this way with frontiers – I have to shake myself to remember that this is the same landmass, that it’s only we humans that chop it up into political bits. That’s why southern Lebanon is almost identical to Galilee, why Turkish Gaziantep and its hills to the west look like the mountains above Syrian Lattakia, why the land around Lebanese Tripoli feels like Syrian Hama. God did it. We didn’t.
But we knew how to divide it. Take little Kilis. A thousand years ago, it became part of the eastern Roman Empire and was regularly exchanged between Romans and Arabs. Arab raids gave way to the Crusaders until the Seljuks took it. The Mamluks were driven out by the Ottomans, and for many years Kilis belonged to the district (sanjak) of Aleppo that burned so brightly in history – as it burns so blackly today – and even an Egyptian pasha took over the town for eight years.
And then – here’s a remarkable irony for us today – the British marched into town on 6 December 1918, the remnants of Allenby’s army which had fought its way from Cairo through Jerusalem to Aleppo in the First World War. It’s all recorded in the former town house of Neset Effendi who built his home in the 1920s and modelled it on a friend’s home in Aleppo. Yes, that’s how close local history can be.
Unless you wish to forget the war crime of all war crimes in this area. For unrecorded in local history – and you certainly won’t find it in the brochure – the Armenians of Kilis were deported on 28 July 1915 at the start of the Armenian genocide in which a million and a half Ottoman Christians were done to death. A few were apparently put on freight trains – an ancient, rusty track still runs east of Kilis to Gaziantep – while others from the larger towns were dispatched south into the Syrian desert, just beyond the present border wire, to be slaughtered, mass raped and starved along the 50 miles that stretch from Kilis and Gaziantep to Aleppo.
Their bones still lie – quite visible if you’re on the southern side of the frontier line – in the lands which are now fought over by Isis, Kurds, Turkish troops, Turkmen militias, supposed “Free Syrian Army” operatives, a few of those US Special Forces heroes of Hollywood fame, and – further away – by Syrian troops led by the general whom Assad calls “The Tiger”. And maybe this is the moment for a few updates in the current war diary. If the pro-Turkish version of the FSA managed to take back land from Isis this year, the last week has seen Isis slowly recapturing villages on the other side of the border. At Karkamish (beloved of T E Lawrence), the Kurdish YPG (a branch of the PKK which Turkey has stamped long ago with the “terror” label) are now beyond the Euphrates. Turkmen loyal to the Turkish state (and thus the army, I suppose) are also in front of the Kilis border.
Safe for the moment, perhaps. This little district has always been an Erdogan/AKP stronghold and at 2am on 15 July this year – as they tell you here – every mosque, at the very same moment, called the people onto the streets to defend their country. Forget Syria. It was Turkey that was suddenly in danger. In Gaziantep, the people flocked to the local commercial airport to prevent its seizure by army rebels.
Far away – in reality only 10 miles – a small Turkish family, hired by the state, must have heard all this. They guard the great Crusader keep of Ravandra and it’s worth a visit even though the touristic stone steps and electric lighting and new walkways were suddenly suspended in 2012 when the Syrian war drove every foreigner away. After clambering 500 feet to the top, you can peer through the arrow slits just as our European ancestors did 1,000 years ago. For they too had to keep an eye, didn’t they, on the Muslim hordes.
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