The Plain of Dead Cities A Syrian Tale

Review :

This is a book about a man who is in love with antiquity. It is as if this man has taken for the love of his life a place where continents and where history has trampled out its greatest epics of conquest. Bruce McLaren is a wandering man who finds fascination in the ruins of Syria. He has taken as his quest traveling to all four corners of this beleaguered nation which has seen over 5000 years the likes of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Ptolemy and the rise and fall of great civilizations from the Fertile Crescent along the Euphrates to the oasis cities of the Syrian Desert, to the Alawiyin Mountains and the snow-capped, cedar bedecked slopes of the peaks of Lebanon. He is in love with pre-war Demascus, which he finds to be a beautiful ancient city bearing the monuments and architecture of the civilizations which have claimed it over the eons. He speaks highly of the oasis city of Palmyra ensconced in the midst of the desert. He finds extremes in Syria and by living in extremes he finds romance: "Life lived in extremis, swinging over vast terrains of the soul, this is life best lived. To live safely is not to live at all. Live life in extremes and your life will be filled with romance." This is precisely what McLaren does: he seeks the extreme situations presented to him as a traveler in Syria and dives into the middle of it. I see this author as a kind of modern Odysseus who is comfortable facing extreme situations and addressing them with high intelligence, craft, resourcefulness, wit, endurance and courage. The narrative is full of great quotes emanating from a man contemplating great spans of time: "As if it weren't enough that poor humanity has to grapple with the impossible question of the meaning of life. We also have to live with the impossible idea of eternity and wrestle with the inconceivable nature of time... Reflecting on the nature of time forces me to confront my own existence.. That is not for the meek so I must steel myself." McLaren is a man on the move: "My mind is calmed by movement." And there is a certain undeniable grace with which he moves throughout this war-torn nation and through his narrative of his travels in Syria where "there is no safe passage whichever direction I choose." The first two-thirds of this book describe the beauty of Syria and the final third describe his venture headlong into the chaos of war. The net effect is that the beauty and romance serve to heighten the effect of the tragedy which he encounters first-hand before he manages to escape into Jordan. The reading about his experiences in war and capture in Homs is gripping beyond belief and should not be missed by anyone who wants to understand the forces shaping the chaos of the Syrian conflict. "I tread intrepidly forward. If this is my last day, then let it be so." In McLaren one senses shades of Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War: he is a writer truly engaged in the war of existence and his literature shines by virtue of his courage in the engagement. I really cannot recommend this great book more highly. Read this book!

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