Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Erasing Syria’s heritage

By destroying the ancient temples at Palmyra the Islamic State group is leading an assault on the world’s cultural heritage, writes David Tresilian from Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

News that the Islamic State (IS) group had occupied the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria spread consternation worldwide, stoking fears that the group would now carry out the kind of destruction at the site for which it has become known in neighbouring Iraq.

Such fears became reality at the end of August when the group released videos on the Internet showing the destruction of the ancient temples of Bel and Baalshamin at Palmyra, apparently part of a deliberate campaign to destroy the ancient site that dates back at least to the 1st century CE.

Reports said that the temple of Bel, one of the best-preserved and most impressive buildings at the site, was destroyed by explosives on 30 August. The temple of Baalshamin, equally impressive and, like the temple of Bel, dating back to the 1st century CE, was blown up by explosives on 23 August.

On 4 September it was reported that IS had blown up at least three and possibly seven ancient tower tombs at Palmyra dating to 44 to 103 CE. One of the tombs was that of Elahbel, built in 103 CE and one of the best preserved. It stood four storeys high and had an underground level.

IS terrorists had earlier reportedly murdered the director of the Palmyra site, Syrian archaeologist Khaled Al-Assaad, after he refused to provide information that could assist them in looting the ancient remains.

Since the group’s takeover of large parts of northern Iraq and eastern Syria last year there have been frequent reports of archaeological sites and museums being looted or destroyed and their contents sold abroad.

There was immediate international reaction to the group’s latest atrocities, with Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural arm, describing the destruction as a “war crime” and “an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity as a whole.”

“The destruction of Palmyra constitutes an intolerable crime against civilisation,” Bokova said. “The systematic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intention of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, identity and history.

“Such acts are war crimes, and their perpetrators must be [held] accountable for their actions,” Bokova said.

Commenting on the destruction in interviews with the press, Mamoon Abdel-Karim, director-general of the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), said the temple of Bel “was the most iconic and most beautiful in Syria, and we have lost it.”

Said Abdel-Karim, “We have lost all hope. We have lost all hope that the international community will resist, and we have lost hope of any international movement to save the city.” In the absence of international action to save Palmyra from IS, the whole city will be destroyed, Abdel-Karim said, adding that IS operatives are plundering the site to sell objects found abroad.

Since it took over northern Iraq and eastern Syria last year, IS has been responsible for attacks on ancient sites in areas under its control, even making the destruction of antiquities and monuments part of its worldwide propaganda effort by releasing videos on the Internet.

In February this year, the group released a video showing activists destroying objects in the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq, including irreplaceable Assyrian works. In April, a further video was released showing the destruction of the northwest palace of ancient Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, also in northern Iraq.

In both cases, the voiceovers of the videos said the group was destroying the ancient remains in order to combat what it said was “idolatry”.

The group has also been destroying the Islamic heritage of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. In January it was reported that IS had destroyed mosques, mausoleums and Sufi shrines in Mosul, along with the shrines of the prophets Seth, Jonah and Daniel.

It has reportedly destroyed a number of Christian churches in or around Mosul and blown up parts of the mediaeval Tal Afar Citadel. In August, the 1,500-year-old Mar Elian Church in the central Syrian town of Qaryatayn was destroyed. Pictures released on the Internet have shown the destruction of other Islamic and Christian sites.

Palmyra has been registered as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1980, and it is one of six such sites in Syria. According to UNESCO’s description of the site, the ruins of Palmyra, “rising out of the Syrian desert in an oasis northeast of Damascus, are testament to the unique aesthetic achievement of a wealthy caravan oasis under the rule of Rome from the 1st to the 3rd century CE.”

The city flourished during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, when it was part of an important trade route connecting the Roman and Mediterranean world to Asia. It was at this time that many of the city’s outstanding monuments, including the theatre, colonnade and monumental arches, were built.

Owing to its position as a frontier city on the borders between the Roman and Persian Empires, Palmyra’s population was always mixed and came from various religious and ethnic backgrounds. While Greek and Latin were the official languages, Aramaic was more widely spoken, and the city’s inhabitants followed a variety of different religions.

“Like most cities in the Roman Empire, there was a local pantheon of gods, in Palmyra’s case dominated by the god Bel and his acolytes,” wrote French historian Maurice Sartre, an authority on the ancient Near East, in the French newspaper Le Monde after news of the IS occupation of Palmyra broke in May.

“But gods from Mesopotamia can also be found at Palmyra (Nabu), as well as from sedentary Syria (Baalshamin and Atargatis), Phoenicia (Astarte and Shadrapha) and the desert Arab tribes (the female warrior god Allat). Greece and Rome are not absent either, seen in reliefs of Hercules found at the site and of the goddess Athena identified with Allat,” he added.

Palmyra achieved a wider fame in the late 3rd century CE, when Zenobia, the city’s queen under Roman suzerainty, rebelled against Roman rule and temporarily conquered the Roman province of Egypt, killing the Roman prefect. She ruled Egypt and much of the Near East until 271 CE, when she was defeated by the Roman Emperor Aurelian and taken to Rome in triumph.

Palmyra had fallen into decay by the time it was taken by the Arabs in 634 CE, and it was renamed Tadmor in Arabic. A fortress was built at the site in 1230, and this was extended and restored in 1630 by the local Ottoman-era ruler Fakhr Al-Din. Its remains can be seen above the classical site today.

After the outbreak of the conflict in Syria in 2011, Palmyra was spared much of the destruction seen in other parts of the country, possibly because of its remote location. It was reported in January 2015 that minor damage had taken place at the site as a result of armed clashes and that funerary busts and sculptures had been looted from surrounding tombs.

However, with the capture of the site by IS in May, Palmyra also began to feel the effects of the conflict in the country, culminating in the destruction of the ancient temples in August and the tombs in September. According to observers, it now seems likely that IS will continue its destruction of the site.

In his comments on the IS occupation of Palmyra, Sartre said, “Islamic State in Palmyra is like Islamic State in the Louvre. To destroy Palmyra would be like destroying the Mont St Michel [in France] or the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.”

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