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.