Rescuing Ancient Seeds From a War-Torn City

One of the world’s most important seed banks has left Syria, and it won’t be returning.

A rebel fighter in Aleppo's Al-Ezaa neighborhood (Hosom Katan / Reuters)

Aleppo, Syria, has as good a claim as any to the title of “world’s oldest city.” It is certainly among the longest to be continuously inhabited. There are hints that nomads camped out just north of Aleppo, as early as 11,000 B.C. People used to say that Abraham had climbed its highest hill, to survey the surrounding landscape. Alexander the Great conquered Aleppo in the 4th century B.C, and made it an outpost in his empire. It would later become a hub on the Silk Road, where trade routes from Mesopotamia, China, Europe, and Egypt converged.

What is a city, if not a place of convergence? For the bulk of our existence, we humans have been wanderers, lovers of open land and sky. Cities tricked us out of this way of life. They seduced us with convergence, with hundreds, thousands, even millions of people, all living in one place. When scholars debate the site of the world’s first city, they are yearning after our cultural origins.

Recent human history can plausibly be described as a great experiment in urbanism. We used to roam, then we settled, and condensed into nodes. For thousands of years, the pace of these changes was slow, but in our current era, urbanization has accelerated. Hundreds of millions of people have moved into cities during this past century. Theirs is the largest migration in human history, and by a wide margin.

Everyone who lives in a city makes some impression on it, however faint. These impressions accumulate, over time, making cities into places of memory, into places where libraries and museums thrive. The architecture of a city is itself an archive, even when the buildings are crumbling into ruins. Such ruins have a “mute and shattered eloquence” all their own, according to my colleague, Leon Wieseltier:

[They] lift the past out of history and into time … They are proof of the astonishing multiplicity of answers to life’s questions that have been created by our tirelessly self-interpreting kind. We restore them and we display them as a cosmopolitan way of regarding particularities, as an expression of our humane respect for the resourcefulness of the spirit over time.

The city of Aleppo is not ruined, not entirely, but it has been devastated by the Syrian civil war. As Jonathan Steele noted in The Guardian earlier this year, Aleppo’s ancient citadel, a UNESCO site which sits atop the city like a crown, “has the grim distinction of being the world’s only ancient fortress that is back in action today as a garrison and artillery battery.” Many of the city’s residents are fleeing.

Among those fleeing are Aleppo’s scientists. Until recently, the city was home to ICARDA, a seed bank, one of many in a system that spans the globe. These seed banks collect and store hundreds of thousands of seed varieties, encompassing nearly every plant ever cultivated by humans, going back to the dawn of agriculture. Someday, we may need these seeds. Nature is always changing. We don’t know what will grow next year, and what won’t. Seed banks constitute humanity’s agricultural memory.

ICARDA, in Aleppo, specialized in a particular kind of agricultural memory. It collected seeds from crops adapted to arid environments, be they deserts or drought-afflicted scrub lands. If climate change continues, there might be many more of these places on Earth’s surface, someday soon.

The central backup drive for the world’s seed-bank system is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a steely compound tunneled five-hundred feet into an icy peak in the Norwegian Arctic. The compound is designed to hold more than a million seeds, all deposited by other seed banks. And it’s designed to withstand a wide range of global disasters, including nuclear war, or an asteroid strike. Even if its refrigeration systems fail, its seeds can survive for centuries in the deep chill of the mountain’s interior.

Back in 2012, I interviewed Cory Fowler, the founder of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Fowler told me about a new shipment they’d just received from ICARDA. Civil war had recently broken out in Syria, and the ICARDA team was worried its power could be knocked out, and with it, the facility’s refrigeration systems. ICARDA ended up shipping seed samples representing 87 percent of its collection to Svalbard for safekeeping. The scientists themselves relocated to Beirut.

“The fact that this shipment is coming up right now in some ways points to the utility and value of the seed vault,” Fowler told me at the time. “One would not expect a seed bank, even in Syria, to be a target, but unfortunately there is a recent precedent: Seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed or severely damaged over the course of the wars there.”

Yesterday, it was announced that ICARDA would become the first seed bank to request a withdrawal from Svalbard, to restore its collection. This is as it should be. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is supposed to shield our collective human inheritance from temporary catastrophes. It’s good to see ICARDA getting back on its feet.

But ICARDA’s new seed bank won’t be in Syria. Its staff is currently deciding whether to build a new facility in Morocco or Lebanon. And that’s too bad. Some of humanity’s very first farms were founded in Syria, during the late Neolithic. As Syria’s oldest, largest city, Aleppo was a natural home for a seed bank. It’s a shame to see it stripped of so resonant an institution of cultural memory. Especially when it has endured so much, during all these millennia.