Author: JONATHAN GORNALL
Some 1,400 years ago, a prince of Anglo-Saxon Britain was buried with his worldly goods in a once-sacred spot in what would eventually become the English county of Essex. The burial chamber, constructed between A.D. 575 and 605, was excavated in 2003. Last month, after 16 years of restoration and research, the collection of objects designed to accompany the grave’s occupant on his journey to the afterlife finally went on display at Southend Central Museum. Among a remarkable collection of 110 artifacts, perhaps the most significant is one that was created not in ancient Britain, but in distant Syria.
Along with the coins, cauldrons, drinking horns, weapons and other items recovered from the grave, archaeologists discovered an almost perfectly intact copper alloy vessel that once held drinking water. A distinctive band of three decorative discs bearing reliefs of two Christian saints identified it as having been made in the ancient Byzantine city of Sergiopolis, near modern-day Resaf. The two saints, Sergius and his brother Bacchus, were martyred for their faith in A.D. 305. Archaeologists speculate that the flagon was brought back to Britain by pilgrims who visited Sergiopolis, the city named after the Christian martyr. However it got there, 17 centuries later the flagon bears witness to historical connections largely forgotten in the febrile isolationist atmosphere increasingly commanding the political narrative in Brexit Britain and much of Europe.
In the divisive Brexit referendum of 2016, Essex voters responded enthusiastically to the toxic blend of misinformation and anti-immigrant scaremongering that powered the Leave campaign to victory. The county directly northeast of London was home to two of the five UK districts with the highest percentage of Leave voters, with more than 70 percent backing Brexit.
The referendum took place at the height of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, which was ruthlessly exploited by the UK Independence Party (UKIP). A UKIP poster unveiled days before the vote, showing a long line of refugees under the headline “Breaking point — the EU has failed us all,” was condemned for inciting racial hatred. One politician at the time said the Leave campaigners “are now exploiting the misery of the Syrian refugee crisis in the most dishonest and immoral way.” That year, more than 5,000 people seeking a new life in Europe drowned in the Mediterranean. Later, UKIP’s leader would claim it was the poster that tipped the vote in favor of Brexit. The compassion generated in Britain nine months earlier by the photographs of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach appeared to have evaporated.
The referendum took place at the height of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, which was ruthlessly exploited by the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Today, issues of national identity are driving the rise of far-right nationalist parties in more than a dozen countries across Europe, while Britain continues to grapple with the political fallout from its Brexit vote. But something unexpected has happened in Essex, and in other parts of Britain that opened their doors to refugees post-Brexit, following a decision by the government to resettle more than 20,000 Syrians in the country by 2020. The flagon isn’t the only product of Syria that has found a new home in the unlikely setting of Brexit Essex. Across the county, dozens of refugees have been building new lives with the support of local communities and councils. Among them is Zak Al-Halak, 34, his wife Ghaliya, 25, and their three young children, whose harrowing journey took them from their war-ravaged home in Talkalakh, western Syria, to the Essex seaside town of Brightlingsea.
“We would like to thank the people of Essex so much for welcoming us here,” Zak told the local newspaper in 2017, with evident amazement at the warmth of their reception. “Everyone is very kind and friendly toward us… and we thank God for that.”
These are the human faces of a curious and uplifting trend that has emerged since the Brexit vote; that communities that have the most experience of immigrants are likely to be the least opposed to migration. As the think tank Demos put it: “Contact with minorities takes the edge off negative preconceptions.”
A simple flagon now on display in the heart of what appeared, after that referendum, to warrant being labeled one of Britain’s most anti-immigrant communities, conveys a forgotten message of history: That human beings, from the north of Europe to the heart of the Middle East, were connecting for centuries before today’s manipulation of differences for the sake of political expediency. Together, the flagon and the ancient Anglo-Saxon prince who once owned it also tell us the true history of the British people, not the one manufactured by the crude and cynical sloganeering of politicians.
Archaeologists believe the prince buried in Southend-on-Sea may be Seaxa, the brother of King Saebert, who ruled the kingdom of the East Saxons from 604 to 616. There was nothing “British” about Saebert’s line, nor even about Essex, a county that derives its name from the East Saxons, Germanic tribespeople who migrated to Britain from northern Europe in the 5th century. In their wake came the Nordic Vikings, who left their own mark on the DNA of the “British,” followed in turn by the Normans, a cross between the Frankish tribes and the Norsemen who overran them in the 9th century. Modern Britain, in other words, is not a bastion of racial purity but the product of a story of continuous migration that exposes the fragile nature of the Anglo-Saxon identity to which many in the UK cling as a badge of nationalistic honor.
The flagon now on display in a small municipal museum in Southend-on-Sea offers mute testimony to a common past that cannot and should not be co-opted for divisive short-term political gain. And, for a small community of refugees building new lives 3,500 kilometers from their homeland, it serves as an unexpected and welcome physical connection to the ancient culture they were forced to leave behind.
- Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. Copyright: Syndication Bureau