Among the Ruins

Syria Past and Present

October 2014 9781849044004 240pp


As a civil war shatters a country and consumes its people, historian Christian Sahner offers a poignant account of Syria, where the past profoundly shapes its dreadful present.

Among the Ruins blends history, memoir and reportage, drawing on the author’s extensive knowledge of Syria in ancient, medieval, and modern times, as well as his experiences living in the Levant on the eve of the war and in the midst of the ‘Arab Spring’. These plotlines converge in a rich narrative of a country in constant flux — a place renewed by the very shifts that, in the near term, are proving so destructive.

Sahner focuses on five themes of interest to anyone intrigued and dismayed by Syria’s fragmentation since 2011: the role of Christianity in society; the arrival of Islam; the rise of sectarianism and competing minorities; the emergence of the Ba’ath Party; and the current pitiless civil war.

Among the Ruins is a brisk and illuminating read, an accessible introduction to a country with an enormously rich past and a tragic present. For anyone seeking to understand Syria, this book should be their starting point.


‘In his beautiful patchwork of recent experience and academic history, [Sahner] gives a truly original portrait of contemporary Syria without shirking the social problems, physical ugliness or political realities many Westerners often want to deny … Sahner gives a long historical arc, going back to pre-Islamic, Byzantine Syria, before going on to produce a moving and highly readable account of the country today. His close attention to the buildings and geography of Syria, together with accounts of his many friendships, bring the country into sharper focus than textual sources alone can do.’ — The Times Literary Supplement

‘[E]rudite historical analysis … [Sahner’s] perspective is rewarding indeed, both in questioning and shaking many of the narratives supplied to us by sensationalist media reports, and in providing a deeper understanding of the origins of the current conflict … While Sahner’s historical knowledge is evident, so too is his compassion for the people he meets … [A] considerate treatment of a topic that has been widely misconstrued elsewhere.’ — Insight Turkey

‘A uniquely vivid evocation of Syria’s past and a prescient record of its present state, this deeply humane book draws on subjects from all walks of life. Sahner has a gift for presenting them against a past that is as varied and as ancient as the country itself. We are brought to the edge of the precipice over which, alas, a magnificently diverse society appears to have stumbled. We will be both better informed and wiser for reading it.’ — Peter Brown, Rollins Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University

‘Sahner’s appreciation of Syria’s long and important history provides a useful backdrop for understanding today’s tragic conflict in the region, much of which is unfortunately erasing that physical history. This accessible book makes important connections between Syria’s past, present and future.’ — David W. Lesch, Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University, San Antonio and author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad

A veritable pleasure to read and enlivened by a travel writer’s eye for telling detail, Sahner’s account of his travels through Syria is combined with a reflection on the causes and course of the revolution. Elegantly written and judicious in its opinions, it will make a useful primer for those seeking to place Syria’s current predicament in historical perspective.’ — Andrew Arsan, University Lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History, St John’s College, Cambridge

‘Compact and to the point, [Among the Ruins] documents the long history of Syria’s cultural and religious past in concise but approachable language … Sahner’s work illustrates not only why the current sociopolitical upheaval came about but also why it is important to all countries.’ — Library Journal

‘With an academic expertise in late antiquity in the Middle East, Sahner gives even the seventh and eighth centuries important proximity. In light of the re-emergence of nihilistic and extremist language from the likes of the Islamic State, which promotes a distorted version of Islam’s past, Sahner’s history is all the more important.’ — The Cairo Review

‘Sahner’s writing engages all the reader’s senses without wasting a word. His precision keeps the story moving at breakneck speed, leaving the reader with essential insights while eliding potentially distracting factual minutiae. The combination is sheer brilliance. The book is especially impressive given the magnitude of Sahner’s intellectual task and the grace with which he accomplishes it.’ — Brock Dahl, The Witherspoon Institute

‘This excellent little book, a mixture of “deep” history and travelogue, is essential reading for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of the current situation in Syria and the Middle East, beyond newspaper headlines.’ — LSE Review of Books

Among the Ruins is a readable and interesting account of Syria’s history for non-specialists. … [T]he importance of this book and the historical and cultural diversities which it recognises and explains are placed in an even more acute, modern perspective when one considers the recent wanton destruction of historical and cultural sites by Islamic State forces.’— Asian Affairs


Christian C. Sahner is an historian of the Middle East. He graduated from Princeton University and the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He is completing his doctorate at Princeton, focusing on the role of non-Muslims in Islamic societies. Sahner’s writing has been published in The Times Literary Supplement and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

Request an academic inspection copy Request a press review copy
Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.