The recapture of the ancient desert city of Palmyra by Syrian government troops this week was significant for many reasons.
On the warring front, the takeover inflicted the biggest military defeat on the city’s occupiers, ISIL, for more than two years. A brutal, backward organisation that has made headlines around the world for its wanton cruelty in Syria and Iraq that has encouraged thousands of disaffected young Muslims in the likes of Britain and France to join its ranks, and has inspired terrorist atrocities across the world, ISIL’s ejection from Palmyra was welcome news. It was only too bad that this was accomplished by Damascus’s forces.
Yet the terror group’s defeat in this desert oasis was also a triumph for the world of history – and experts in antiquities could be forgiven for watching nervously as Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s forces moved in. Indeed, other than indulging in human violence that has shocked even the most seasoned observer of global warfare, ISIL has also gained a terrible notoriety for destroying all things ancient, beautiful and irreplaceable.
When the erstwhile Roman city of the 3rd century empress Zenobia fell to ISIL in May last year, the extremist group set to work stamping its own authority on the structures. They destroyed the Temple of Bel – a 1st century building that had been one of the best preserved of Palmyra’s ancient relics. They also obliterated the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph (pictured). And as if to make their disgust of Syria’s Unesco World Heritage Site completely unambiguous, ISIL also killed the man who had forged a long career and reputation out of protecting the ancient citadel. Khaled Al Asaad, the retired, 81-year-old head of antiquities in Palmyra, was beheaded when he refused to cooperate with ISIL militants as they looked to destroy more of the city’s priceless artefacts.
Last year, and as ISIL set to work dynamiting pillars, temples and anything else that enraged their sensibilities, speculation abounded as to their motives. University College London’s Mark Altaweel, speaking to the BBC in October, contended that ISIL was looking to obliterate “unreligious” relics.
As the dust begins to settle over this historic place, attention is now turning towards the city’s future. Many have promoted the notion of returning Palmyra to its former glory, or more specifically to where it was just before ISIL began its grim project. As a staging post in the city’s long and varied history, the destruction visited upon Palmyra in the 21st century was far from its finest moment. A glimpse at its past, however, reveals an extraordinary existence that now appears to have been – at least in part – preserved for future generations.
The name of Palmyra – meaning City of Palm Trees – was bestowed upon the citadel by its Roman rulers in the 1st century. Also known as Tadmor in Arabic, it was mentioned years before then, in ancient texts dating as far back as the 2nd millennium BC.
Early rulers included the Assyrians and Persians, and it evolved into an integral part of the old Silk Route – linking East and West. With the expansion of Roman frontiers, Palmyra took on a new role as part of their empire, and the people profited, allowed to conduct their affairs almost without interference from Rome.
In 129AD, Palmyra become a so-called “free city” after the visit of Emperor Hadrian, who increased its power by allowing it to control taxation. Almost a century later – in 212AD – Emperor Caracalla granted Palmyra the status of Roman colony. This decree by Caracalla, himself born of a Syrian mother, boosted Palmyra’s profile and wealth – and excused its citizens from paying imperial taxes. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Palmyra revelled in its position as a busy trade route, despite instability raging in the Mediterranean.
When Odaenathus, a Palmyrene noble, crowned himself king of Palmyra and defeated the army of one of Rome’s regional rivals, the city’s stature rose even further. Odaenathus saw his own power balloon when Rome bestowed on him the title of “Governor of all the East” in 256. A little more than a decade later, the city’s most colourful era began, when Odaenathus was assassinated. This saw the rise of his second wife, Zenobia, who assumed the reins of the city. Rome was not amused at this turn of events – not least because Zenobia was suspected of being the instigator of her husband’s untimely passing. The queen appeared unmoved by Rome’s refusal to endorse her new career path, and she turned warrior when she defeated a Roman army that had intended to put her in her place. Zenobia wasn’t finished there, and after further conquests, she declared independence from Rome. Yet in bringing Syria, Palestine and some of Egypt under her command, the rebel queen had overreached. Rome was not prepared to forgive or forget her past transgressions, and after Emperor Aurelian defeated Zenobia in 271, she was captured and taken to the Eternal City.
While Zenobia was eventually freed – apparently later marrying a Roman senator and living out the rest of her days near Rome – the city of Palmyra was not so lucky. Zenobia’s fall from grace saw the City of Palm Trees fall too, and after another uprising in 273 – to which Aurelian responded by razing Palmyra to the ground – it assumed the role of Roman outpost.
In 634, Khalid ibn Al Walid took the city on behalf of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr – the first successor to the Prophet Mohammad. Thereafter, Palmyra almost vanished from the pages of history.
It re-emerged from its slumber in the late 17th century when English merchants came across the site. In the following decades, interest in this desert oasis gathered pace, with travellers leaving the likes of Damascus 210 kilometres away to visit and study its ancient artefacts. Work on unearthing Palmyra’s true value to the archaeological world began in the 20th century, and carried on after the Second World War.
Today, and with ISIL's contribution to Palmyra's history having lasted just 10 months, debate is raging about its future. The general will to restore Palmyra after ISIL's ill-fated custodianship is in no doubt. In a piece for the British newspaper The Guardian earlier this week, Syria's director of antiquities, Maamoun Abdelkarim, indicated his desire to "breathe life again into Palmyra", after describing how "life had stopped" when ISIL first set foot on this pearl of the desert.
Bolstering Abdelkarim’s position is Russia, which has put Palmyra’s restoration on a historical par with the reconstruction of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) after the Second World War. Italy’s former culture minister Francesco Rutelli has also put in his sixpence worth, announcing ambitions to reconstruct Palmyra’s fallen relics via a method of digital “printing” – as have private enterprises, such as Britain’s Institute for Digital Archaeology. Its founder, Roger Michel, vowed to “use technology to disempower [ISIL].” Michel is currently constructing a 3D-printed replica arch from Palmyra’s ruined Temple of Bel, which will be unveiled in London and New York later this month.
Yet in this apparent rush to make Palmyra a noted piece of historical worth again, difficulties are rife. One is who owns what. London’s outgoing mayor, Boris Johnson, issued a rallying cry for British involvement in any move to restore Palmyra, which before war overcame Syria was home to 70,000 people. But with Russia’s direct involvement in backing Assad’s forces leading to their recapture of the desert city, Moscow surely has the upper hand in any game of restoration wars.
Historical precedence also makes Palmyra’s future uncertain. Should the verbal enthusiasm for raising Palmyra from the ashes not materialise, then it could go the way of Iraq’s post-2003 looted monuments. Indeed, together with Palmyra, one could add a whole list of other sites and shrines across both Syria and Iraq that, shattered by years of war and ISIL’s hand, could also use the guiding influence of the world’s restoration experts.
Talk of 3-D machines may, for all their practical advantages, leave the world’s history lovers cold. After all, what’s Palmyra without its authentic structures but a pale (if highly sophisticated) imitation of the real thing? That said, in the current circumstances, the city that once reverberated to the footsteps of the warrior queen Zenobia would surely benefit from a good helping of 21st-century technology. Once the current war is over, Palmyra’s modern “rebirth” might mark a regional triumph almost befitting its glorious ancient past.
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