In 2010 visitors to Syria would still have found a quiet and peaceful country, though under the surface resentment seethed against a Ba’athist dictatorship that had ruled the country for almost half a century.
But in March 2011 everything changed for Syrians, as a revolution and civil war turned vibrant cities like Kobane and nearby Aleppo, their suqs, mosques, and richly ornamented houses, into ruins. Both government and rebels sought outside alliances, precariously harnessing the self-interest of foreign powers. To compound matters, ISIS (so-called Islamic State) took every opportunity to advance its bloody campaign. By 2017, 400,000 Syrians had been killed and millions had fled their homes in search of peace and security for their families. Meanwhile, the ruling family and their supporters lived in safety in Damascus, protected and defended by foreign military allies.
In 721 BCE the world changed for Israel as well: Samaria was devastated and shortly after, Jerusalem was attacked. Their leaders too had become indulgent, turning dangerously to Egypt for assistance. The people would suffer for their misguided priests ‘bloated with rich food … overcome with wine’ (Isaiah 28:1b).
This photograph offers a poignant glimpse into modern Syria’s suffering. A Kurdish Syrian woman is returning with her son to her home in Kobane in March 2015, after it was reclaimed from ISIS, and seeing the devastation of her city. The destruction of cities and the direct experience of these events are apparent in both this photo and the words of Isaiah: these ‘documents’ expose us to devastation as they narrate not from a distance, but in close-ups.
International aid to Kobane has been pitiful, and most of the city is still a wilderness. But Isaiah promises something that seems hard to imagine when faced with such catastrophic scenes of devastation: that God will be a spirit of justice and strength (v.6). That in the midst of their loss, a standard of justice and a vision of beauty will appear, holding out hope for a ‘crown of glory’ (v.5) to a people ‘broken and snared and taken’ (v.13c).
After devastation, there may still be a return; a renewal.
Van Dam, Nikolas. 2017. Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I. B. Tauris)
Watts, John. 1986. The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)