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After ISIS: A beheaded and mutilated statue in the museum of Palmyra. Syrian and Russian forces recaptured the city on March 27 opposite: (©JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty)



The ruins of Palmyra in Syria’s eastern desert have long been part of Russia’s heritage, just as they are part of the heritage of Western civilisation. A week before Islamic State was driven from the city in late March, the director of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, spoke to the Russian daily newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “If the result of our military operation in Syria is the liberation of Palmyra, we will never find anything more beautiful in all the annals of Russia’s history in the Near East and the Holy Land,” he said. “Forgive me for the solemnity, but it is true.”

Since the late 18th century, St Petersburg has been known as the “Palmyra of the North”. Under Catherine the Great, classicism became the city’s dominant architectural style. Voltaire, who corresponded with Catherine, called her the “Semiramis of the North” after the legendary Assyrian queen. Other French admirers compared the Russian Empress with Zenobia, another semitic warrior queen, famed for her beauty and learning, who ruled Palmyra in its prime in the late third century. Under Zenobia, the caravan oasis at the edge of the Roman empire had a population of more than 200,000, a mix of Arameans and Arabs, pagans and Jews. Palmyra’s mingling of Graeco-Roman, Arab and Persian influences gave the city a distinctive aesthetic manner, embodied in the limestone funerary reliefs that can be seen in museums around the world, including the Hermitage. Their proud frontal style adumbrates the icon painting of Christian Byzantium. The iconoclasts of Islamic State, who hate any representation of the human face, took sledgehammers to the few reliefs that were left in Palmyra’s museum after its hurried evacuation in May 2015.

In 270 AD, Zenobia extended Palmyra’s power across Roman Arabia and Egypt and into Anatolia all the way to Ankara. She had overreached. The Roman emperor Aurelian pushed her armies all the way back to Palmyra, besieged the city and took Zenobia prisoner. Catherine the Great’s success as a martial empress was more durable, though she never accomplished her “Greek project”, a grandiose plan, revealed to Voltaire, for the liberation of Constantinople and the expulsion from Europe of the Turks, whom she blamed for the destruction of the classical world.

Russians of a certain age remember learning the history of the ancient world from a mid-1970s Soviet textbook with a picture of Palmyra’s magnificent Arch of Triumph on its cover. Like the Temple of Bel, to which it led along a Great Colonnade, the arch was blown up by Islamic State in 2015. Its double façade, which cunningly masked a 30-degree bend, is imitated in the great arch of the General Staff headquarters on St Petersburg’s Palace Square, built to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Its eastern wing is now part of the Hermitage.

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