Unique ancient wonder at IS militants’ mercy
Islamist militants have seized one of the Middle East’s most prized cultural sites amid Syria’s civil war. How concerned should we be at the desecration of relics from millennia ago?
While crossing the Syrian desert in 1678, two English merchants stumbled on a sight that left them amazed. About half way between the river Euphrates and the Mediterranean Sea, days’ worth of travel from any other signs of human existence, they found a swath of ruins including the huge Temple of Bel, a 1,200-yard Grand Colonnade and the remains of a theatre.
They had discovered the city of Palmyra, where a thriving civilisation had taken root in the first, second and third centuries AD. Its history goes back at least 3,800 years, when it was used as a caravan station and provided an important link on silk trading routes between China, India and Europe.
UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural body, has designated Palmyra as a World Heritage site and described it as ‘one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world’. Thousands of tourists flocked to the site every year to take in its unique mix of Greek, Roman, Persian and local art and architecture before the Syrian civil war.
But Palmyra is now under threat of destruction after being seized on Wednesday by militants from the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS — Daesh). IS have made clear their ideological commitment to destroying artefacts and architecture which predate Islam, which they consider idolatrous. Undiscovered stories buried among the treasure thought to lie under the desert sands may never be told.
IS fighters have glorified in the destruction of priceless relics in several Iraqi cities in recent months. They have ransacked a museum, set fire to a library containing 8,000 ancient texts and blown up, bulldozed and knocked down ruins. One of the cities, Nimrud, dated to the 13th century BC.
The seizure of the city also means that IS has now taken charge of 50% of Syria. Despite attempts to repel it in Syria and Iraq, it continues to grow. Earlier this week, Daesh seized Ramadi, the capital of the Iraqi province of Anbar, giving them a strategic position 75 miles from Baghdad.
Some point out that far more worrying things are happening in Syria and Iraq than the loss of artefacts and relics. Over 200,000 are believed to have died in Syria since 2011, and a similar number in Iraq since 2003. It makes no sense to care more about stone and marble than about human life.
But the loss of these treasures inspires great passion. The Syrian Interior Minister, for example, called Palmyra ‘the inheritance for the nation, and for humanity’. Cultural artefacts testify to human beings’ best qualities and teach us timeless lessons about our relationships with each other and the world around us. These acts of desecration are tragedies.
- Is it reasonable to feel an emotional connection to inanimate pieces of art or architecture?
- How far can the discovery and preservation of objects from the past help us to improve the human race for the future?
- Using the gallery of pictures provided, draw a picture (or map if you prefer) of what Palmyra may once have looked like.
- Think of an inanimate object, such as a building, which you would hate to see destroyed. Write an explanation of why it matters to you.
Some People Say...
“Why are people so worked up over a few relics?”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why are IS doing this? Is there a broader agenda?
- IS are a fundamentalist Islamist group who believe that idols represent false gods and should be destroyed. They believe that this is what Allah has told them to do. Although they are a fanatical cult who only speak for themselves, their success in taking large areas of Syria and Iraq has allowed them to commit atrocities against both people and property.
- How will we know what has happened?
- When they destroyed some of the ancient sites in Iraq earlier this year in places such as Mosul and Hatra, IS put out videos of the destruction. But some experts have questioned whether destruction is IS’s only goal — they may also be looting some items, selling them or parts of them and using the proceeds to buy more weapons.
- Two English merchants
- Few followed the merchants initially as the journey was hazardous, but a further expedition in 1751 allowed drawings and excavations to be made for the first time.
- Temple of Bel
- Also known as the Temple of Baal, this building dates to 32AD. Bel is considered to be the most important Palmyrene god.
- A thriving civilisation
- The emperor Hadrian declared Palmyra a ‘free city’ in 129 AD, meaning it could set and collect its own taxes. The city became a Roman colony in 212 but later that century saw several rebellions against Roman rule. In 634 it fell to a Muslim army. Little is known of what happened there in the following millennium.
- World Heritage site
- This is the status which UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) gives to a site of ‘outstanding universal value’.
- Believed to have died
- The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights believes that the death toll in the civil war which has raged in Syria since 2011 is over 200,000, and possibly far higher; the Iraq Body Count believes that 215,000 have died violently in Iraq since 2003.