“What the earth shall yield”: The Syrian War, Seed banks, and the Coming Apocalypse
By Maud DoyleDecember 28, 2019
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At the End of Days, the Antichrist, al-Dajjal, will come to Syria astride a donkey, and he will walk the earth, converting people in marketplaces. Or he will come to Persia, with one blind eye “like a floating grape,” and he will raise your loved ones from the dead. The world will be consumed by famine. Skies will withhold water, and not a living creature will be left on earth. But on al-Dajjal’s command it will rain, and mountains of bread will block the intersections. The best of believers will be tempted, for he’ll walk in a world made unbearable by human infractions, in which women work alongside men and men dye their hair; animal skins are used as carpets, interest is taken, and ill-gotten gains fund the building of tall buildings; men bear witness to what they did not witness, and affairs of state are managed by fools.
Three months before ISIS conquered Dabiq in Syria in 2014, promising to hasten the triumphant drums of Judgment Day, a gene bank 50 miles to the south of the town mailed 116,000 seed samples to Svalbard in Norway, the mythically impregnable seed bank located high in the North Atlantic, for safekeeping during the war. The bank, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), had also been transferring their seed archives to two of their satellite research bases in Morocco and Lebanon, beyond the reach of the violence. Eighteen months later, ISIS was in power in Dabiq, and Russia had bombed Homs, the Doomsday clock, operated by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, inched two minutes closer to midnight, and ICARDA ordered a withdrawal of several thousand of their seeds from Svalbard to furnish their new research centers with genetic material, and perhaps put off the very apocalypse that pressed in around them.
It marked the first time, and way ahead of schedule, that the seed vault had been opened. A small hailstorm of headlines followed this bank order: “Syrian War Spurs First Withdrawal from Doomsday Arctic Seed Vault”; “Arctic ‘Doomsday Vault’ opens to retrieve vital seeds for Syria”; “Apocalypse Now”; “See the ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault Opened in Response to Syria Crisis,” was National Geographic’s chillingly voyeuristic angle. It almost seemed as though the vault had contained Gog and Magog themselves, and they were now hurtling through the air toward Aleppo (in fact, the seeds were sedately making their way to the new gene banks in Lebanon and Morocco). In the papers at least, it appeared that, woken from its slumber at last by the war in Syria, Doomsday had, quite suddenly, arrived.
At the time, an interviewer, on behalf of the Gregor Mendel Foundation, spoke to ICARDA’s then-director, Mahmoud Solh. “Syria is one of the oldest cultural centers in the world, and especially with regard to modern farming,” she said. “Are you afraid that all of this will be gone when you come back?” As if this war, rather than the innumerable other conflicts that have swept through Syria — not to mention the rest of the world — in the last several thousands of years, might finally spell the end of all that human innovation. It is touching almost, the breathless anticipation of this era’s particular significance. “Is it not late? A late time to be living?” asks Annie Dillard in For the Time Being. “Our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations?” To think of ourselves instead as alive at no particular point, orbiting in an ongoing cycle without meaning or end, is inconceivable. “Who can bear to hear this?”
Long before the arrival of Doomsday headlines, a 1973 study forecast devastating food shortages in the Middle East; it was in response to this early warning that ICARDA was first established in Lebanon in 1977. In the face of Lebanese civil war, ICARDA relocated to Syria, where their geneticists and breeders have since quietly gone about their work. Their seeds, cryogenically frozen in 141,000 individual packets at 20 degrees Celsius, were routinely pulled out of cold storage by geneticists and planted in the surrounding farmland of Tal Hadya, a fertile region occupied by Syrian rebels since 2013. When the war broke out, they were searching — among their vast frozen archive of lentils, wheat, barley, fava beans, and a growing store of peas — for seeds that contained a natural resistance to a virulent wheat stem rust whose spores had been detected blowing over Africa and West Asia, just as they had blown through the Bible. (To stave off the rust and its attendant famines, ancient Romans sacrificed red animals; the same rust destroyed more than 20 percent of America’s wheat crop several times between 1917 and 1935.) If they found resistant traits, these could be bred into new varieties of wheat, in order that the crops might resist the rust at the source.
At the beginning of Syria’s unconscionable war, the gene bank’s staff began evacuating their seeds, driving truckloads of them to Lebanon and Turkey along the back roads. International staff and others were advised to leave Syria when the fighting neared Aleppo in 2012, and 100 local technicians were left to operate a facility that had been run by 435. In 2014, the conflict approached Tal Hadya itself. ICARDA’s trucks and generators began to disappear in the dark. Their fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were hunted and eaten. The area around the station fell under the control of two competing militias, and the staff suffered two kidnappings. Despite these tribulations, between the springs of 2012 and 2014 the remaining staff managed the Svalbard deposit, duplicating 80 percent of their seed collection and shipping it off to Norway.
According to today’s agro-scientists, the seeds sleeping in ICARDA’s walk-in freezers represent the most plausible defense against hunger we have — against the shifting growing seasons, temperatures, and ecosystems; the growing frequency and variety of pestilence; the nearly 11 billion people expected to inhabit the earth in 2100; the exhausted soil; the loss of water; the rising tides; the dust. Land degradation and climatic changes have made the Middle East home to the world’s most significant food deficits, and Syria and Jordan, barring immediate and significant changes, are expected to lose 30 percent of arable land to desertification. (One in seven people in the world could be displaced between now and 2050 by climate change, with the Middle East and North Africa understood to be the epicenter of the crisis.) The genetic traits that line ICARDA’s shelves should enable breeders and geneticists to create more resistant, more productive crops that thrive in conditions in which agriculture has never before been tested.
The End Times, with their promise to upend the status quo, are often exploited as a call to arms. The first issue of Islamic State’s notorious English-language recruitment rag, Dabiq, calls forth the apocalypse as related in the hadith — the vast sea of fragments of things the prophet is said to have said — of Sahih Muslim: “Abu Hurayrah reported that God’s Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, ‘The Hour will not be established until the Romans land at al-A’maq or Dabiq,’” and an army from Medina will ride out to meet them in battle. (The reprinted account leaves out the prophet’s warning, recorded in the same chapter of Muslim, that “[w]hen two Muslims face one another with their swords, both the slayer and the slain will be in fire.” For recruitment purposes, the emphasis on conquest over peace is sufficient.)
This quotation is followed by a section titled “A new era has arrived of might and dignity for the Muslims.” The spread features a testimonial from ISIS’s second-in-command at the time, the late Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, who wrote,
The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace […] after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect — the time has come for them to rise. The time has come for the Ummah of Muhammad (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) to wake up from its sleep, remove the garments of dishonor, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace, for the era of lamenting and moaning has gone, and the dawn of honor has emerged anew. […] Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared.
It is tempting to read accounts of the apocalypse not only as an end to the chaos we call history, but as a story about going home, a return to the divine garden from which we were cast. The Apocalypse appeals because it promises the redress of insufferable wrongs. Victims become conquerors, the powerless are granted a starring role, and the irresolvable traumas of living tip toward rectification.
Eschatological foreboding abounds everywhere these days, but it resonates particularly in the war zones of West and Central Asia. The doomsday invoked by ISIS’s strategists received a great deal more attention than the drought ravaging Mesopotamia and North Africa, but both correspond to a resurgence of apocalyptic feeling across the region. In the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, soldiers claimed afterward that they had seen the Mahdi on his white horse, charging Israeli tanks with his sword. Six years later, in the wake of the Arab Spring and the American withdrawal from Iraq, a Pew survey found that 72 percent of Muslim Iraqis and 83 percent of Muslim Afghanis expected to see the coming of the Mahdi in their lifetime. The figures were only slightly lower elsewhere in the region — only in Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt did the number of expectant dip below half the Muslim population.
After all, the signs are in place: drought, hunger, a battle with Jews in Jerusalem, the rule of tyrants, the burning of Yemen, war between Muslims in what is now Syria and Iraq (and now Turkey), a broader war of nations. Revelations of the Hour are most numerous — and most alive in the popular imagination — at moments when life has become unlivable. Apocalyptic narratives often arrive treading on the trains of minor tragedies — catastrophes on a human rather than cosmic scale. These stories constitute the narratives’ frame, and then those hardships, manmade or predestined, spread like curls of smoke until the whole world is darkened by calamity.
The history of imminent apocalypses is ironically long, though many of the preceding texts, too, take place in what is now called the Middle East. The Apocalypse of Daniel, the first known example of the genre, has been placed in the Hellenistic Levant or Persia sometime in the second century BC and invokes Ephesus, Babylon, and Byzantium (this one is a real barnburner in which a beast has 10 horns that represent 10 kings, each of whom will be overthrown by an 11th horn, which appears suddenly and without explanation). Revelation features seven churches in the holy cities of West Asia and, of course, the Whore of Babylon. The action of 4 Ezra, which moves from a bedchamber to a psychedelic poppy field where Ezra has visions and sleeps for days, is thought to take place in and around Babylon as well, where the Jewish community lived in exile; the Byzantine apocalypses of the sixth and seventh centuries, self-evidently, take place in Constantinople. Perhaps it’s natural that the birthplace of agriculture, writing, and civilization at large, with all its attendant ills, should also herald its end. “Years of drought will drive them, until they will be with you in your houses,” reads a hadith collected in Nu’aym ibn Hammad’s Kitab al-fitan, the book of tribulations, forecasting the migration crisis. “They will say, ‘How long it is that we have hungered while you were satisfied?’”
In some texts, it is God who orchestrates man’s descent from pure faith, while in others it seems the End might have been avoided by adequate repentance, at least for a while. Either way, God’s eventual arrival on the scene, and the impending restoration of a just and ordered world of the faithful, is foreordained. He will come bearing a resolution to the contingencies of history, sweeping up the mess we’ve made of Eden.
If the rise of the genre and its persistence through history is any indication, the belief that life can’t go on as it is may be wired into human experience of trauma and hardship. There must be something else that comes next, something gentler and more just, and so we keep one half-wary, half-hopeful eye on the horizon.
There is, however, a new twist in this old plot: the secularism of the Enlightenment encouraged the removal of God from the apocalyptic equation, placing divine power squarely in the hands of men, and that dictate still holds in the scientific community. Since at least the 19th century, seed banks and botanic gardens have been compared to arks, a refuge that would preserve humanity’s agricultural accomplishments from the metaphorical flood. “It was hoped that the plants that had been scattered at the Fall might be gathered together again,” wrote Richard Drayton wrote in 1996, “Europe thereby securing cures for disease and hunger and, perhaps, a reconciliation with the Creator.” Perhaps unknowingly, Drayton echoed Qur’anic scripture, in which the arrival of Judgment Day is marked by the approach of the divine garden of plenty: “When the Garden has drawn near, then each soul will know what it has readied” (81:13–14).
Geneticists love to remember the heroism of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, one of the world’s oldest seed banks, whose glazed windows look out on St. Isaac’s Square in St. Petersburg. In the winter of 1941, when the Nazis blockaded Leningrad and St. Petersburg starved, the scientists of the Vavilov Institute smuggled duplicate seeds out of the city, away from danger, to hide them in the Urals. In the grimy, imperial halls of the seed bank itself, the scientists who stayed to guard the collection voluntarily starved to death, martyrs surrounded by thousands of peanuts.
Agriculture is an anthropologist’s genesis story. Agriculture’s inception is located, like Eden, between the Tigris and Euphrates, at the end of the Pleistocene, when the ice began to recede and the temperatures began to warm, and the number of humans on earth increased. The Natufians first swung their flint sickles somewhere in the Levant, sometime between 12,500 and 10,000 BC gathering, wild barley. The Epipaleolithic people east of the Fertile Crescent began to raise the wild sheep and goats they had hunted. Rye, lentils, and vetch were gathered and slowly domesticated along the Euphrates Valley of Syria. In 8,500 BC, einkorn wheat was domesticated in Turkey. By 8,000 BC, the people of southwest Asia were dependent on agriculture.
The turning points of agricultural development are also the tipping points of some of the great human tragedies. On Columbus’s return to America, in 1493, he brought with him the seeds of foreign plants — wheat, millet, onions, melon, grapes — and he returned to Spain with seeds native to the New World — corn, tomatoes, potatoes, squash. Agriculture became both the means and end of empire. Arab people domesticated coffee from Ethiopia and introduced it to India, where the Dutch acquired it, and cultivated it in Java. The British planted the Andean cinchona tree in India; the quinine from its bark was used for malarial treatment, which in turn enabled their colonization of Africa. In the United States, the siren promises of a planting a new Eden in the desert west inspired Americans to fulfill the call of Manifest Destiny and its attendant decimation of native populations. In Korea, French Indochina, the Philippines, Mexico, the US government wielded high-yield hybrid seeds on the agrarian front of its campaign against the Red Spread, leading to global monocultures.
Each innovation, in its turn, leads to an attendant catastrophe: decimation of North and South American indigenous peoples, slavery in the West Indies, the brutalization of Africa and the massacre of its people, global warming, and the loss of the genetic diversity we need to combat it. As in the scripture, the satisfaction of immediate returns transforms, through avarice, into an evil force, an Antichrist who promises mountains of bread and will ultimately damn us all.
And yet, geneticists still argue that agriculture and seed banks are the only means to achieve equality, and thereby salvation. In an urgently worded plea for action and investment in the Guardian, Solh warned European leaders about the disastrous implications of climate change in the Middle East. Drought, food shortages, insects, and pestilence, he wrote, will breed a tribe of political disasters on a global scale: poverty, mass migration, civil unrest, catastrophic youth unemployment and its lurking co-conspirator, extremism. “As long as such conditions prevail, these areas will remain ‘soft targets’ for extremist organisations,” writes Solh. “We need to recognize this migration crisis as the canary in the mine.” This version of putting off the apocalypse is, in a way, the exact inverse of ISIS’s (or 12th century Byzantium’s) eagerness to invite it: either use the specter of the Hour to summon recruits to epic battle or use it to develop industries that can make epic battle less appealing. The more bearable the act of living can be made, the less need to rush toward its conclusion. Writes Solh: “The long-term solution is clear: give rural people the ability to remain productive and employed in their own settings.”
In Australia, in the Western and Midwestern United States, in sub-Saharan and Northern Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and other regions of formerly fertile land, dry areas have turned hotter and drier, droughts have grown more frequent and more extreme. Agro-scientists expect that soon enough, all of these landscapes will resemble the water-scarce steppes of Syria. The majority of seed samples from ICARDA’s Morocco satellite — on average 20,000 a year — go to researchers right here at home, like Kansas State University and the University of North Dakota.
That we could potentially put off the apocalypse with the eschatological preparations of a handful of prophetic scientists is just a variation on eschatological faith. News outlets and researchers alike have gladly appropriated the language of the apocalypse to talk about rising seas and winds made of dust, recognizing that the drama of four horsemen can engage a wider readership than incremental temperature increases, no matter how devastating. “Saving seeds is not as sexy as say, saving the dolphins,” laments National Geographic. Scientists are betting that the urgency of an impending end will, like an approaching deadline, enable change, that perhaps desperation can make survival possible.
The Islamic tradition’s end times, like all others, unfurl in endless variation, but also like others — though perhaps less overtly — the world often doesn’t actually end. The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, meaning to reveal, or more literally, to uncover. Technically, “The Apocalypse of John” refers to his description of the future, not his prediction of our demise. Over and over again, what the texts seem to predict is often further revelation, more scripture. Hadith say that Christ will fly down from heaven to kill al-Dajjal with his spear, and “he will dissolve […] as aloes dissolve when the sun hits them.” This is followed by seven or eight years of peaceful rule by the Mahdi, but even this is only the middle of the end, to be followed by a promise described as “a divine shout” against which believers can stop up their ears and live, though they may envy the dead, who at least got to hear what the shout had to say. We may wish our era to be significant, but as climate scientists and others calling for urgent action have found, we often seem unable to contemplate the true end of human life, and perhaps we never really have.
All the great monotheisms’ apocalypses give an account of the descent of the world from righteousness into entropy, and all of them end with a promise: Revelation predicts a gem-encrusted Jerusalem, forbidden to all fornicators; Sura 81 of the Qur’an promises a garden of such sustenance that all want is eliminated; the (apocryphal) Jewish apocalypse called 4 Ezra promises the revelation of 70 hidden books of scripture written with a tongue of fire that contain, presumably, answers to some urgent and unnamable question, perhaps the very question that compels us toward the End. “I, Salathiel, who am also called Ezra,” it begins:
I was troubled as I lay on my bed, and my thoughts welled up in my heart, because I saw the desolation of Zion and the wealth of those who live in Babylon […] And now, oh Lord, why have you handed [your chosen people] over to the many, and dishonored your one root beyond the others, and scattered [us]?”
The final image reverberates: a people uprooted and scattered like seeds.
ICARDA’s withdrawal from Svalbard faded from the news as suddenly as it had come. It enabled ICARDA to stock their research centers in Morocco and Lebanon, and the agricultural Doomsday loomed, once again, in a more distant future. Saving the seeds is not as sexy as saving the world.
For a time, the station at Tal Hadya remained operational, even after it had been seized by rebels belonging to the Salafist coalition Ahrar al-Sham in 2015. It turned out that the leader of the group was a farmer, and the rebels and geneticists struck a deal: in exchange for food and power, the rebels promised protection to local farmers who would continue the work of the research farm and keep the generators running. Ahmed Amri, the head of ICARDA’s genetic resources unit, gave an interview at the time to an environmental news magazine. “We’re very lucky that the rebels realize the importance of conserving biodiversity; it’s one of the activities that has never been interrupted in Aleppo,” he said. “But we cannot predict how each day will be.” The following year, when the Bashar al-Assad’s forces began targeting Tal Hadya, much of the remaining staff packed up the remaining samples and left for Lebanon. The operation of the facility and the farms fell to the employees without the means to leave.
ICARDA deposited duplicates of the seeds they had withdrawn from Svalbard in 2017. The action was hailed as a success which proved that, in the words of ICARDA’s current director general, “we can get one step closer to a food-secure world.” And yet, in January, the Bulletin made its annual assessment of global stability, and, citing nuclear proliferation and climate change, moved the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than it had been since the 1950s. “The [Bulletin] today sets the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight,” read the accompanying statement, “the closest it has ever been to apocalypse.”
ICARDA headquarters’ relocation to Lebanon is a testament to the circular nature of history: the organization is back where it was founded over 30 years ago. Its headquarters once again spread out at the bottom of Bekaa Valley, in Terbol. The square tents of a Syrian refugee camp unfold outside the city, and along the highways fly the green flags, emblazoned with a yellow AK-47, of Hezbollah, to which the valley is also home. Orchards and vineyards have dominated the valley since it served as the breadbasket to Rome’s Levantine empire in the first century BC, and the basin remains a tessellation of greens and golds. The white greenhouses of ICARDA arc in a quiet, orderly row near the station, shadows stretching long as their pale skins flush blue in the evening, while fields of emerald, chartreuse, and viridian quiver at the base of purpling hills. Muhammad councils, according to Muslim, that “[i]f the last hour comes while you have a palm cutting in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.”
Maud Doyle holds a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard. She is a writer based in New York City.
All images by ICARDA - Science for Resilient Livelihoods in Dry Areas.
Header photo credit: Filippo Bassi (ICARDA)
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