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Recorded for eternity: One of Giovanni Batista Borra’s pioneering drawings as they appeared in Robert Wood’s “The Ruins of Palmyra”

In the annals of civilisation, the year 2015 will be remembered chiefly for one event: the razing of the ruins of Palmyra, on the orders — we may assume — of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State. Much has been written about the tragic circumstances of this atrocious act of demolition, for which such terms as iconoclasm or vandalism seem inadequate: the slaughter of Syrian prisoners in the amphitheatre by child recruits; the public decapitation of the octogenarian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who for four decades had been custodian of the desert city; and finally the latter’s systematic looting and destruction, beginning with the great temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, followed by many of the funerary towers and their precious tombs. By the time you read this, the colonnades, arch, theatre and citadel may have gone too. Unless they are stopped, the eradication of Palmyra will continue until nothing but rubble remains.

Certainly no leader in the West has attempted to call a halt to the savagery, for example by the despatch of commandos, such as the Delta force that killed the Isis “oil minister” Abu Sayyaf and about 50 other jihadis in Syria last May. According to Walid al-Asaad, son of the murdered director of antiquities, Isis commanders are squatting in his father’s house — a sitting duck for US or British special forces. No doubt any operation to save Palmyra would have risked damaging the ruins — though now they are being smashed anyway. David Cameron dare not risk losing another parliamentary battle over Syria. To have committed even a handful of troops to save Palmyra, rather than to rescue refugees, might have implied that buildings mattered more than people. No politician dares risk a charge of lacking compassion. Hence one of the greatest surviving relics of antiquity has been sacrificed without a fight.

The story of Palmyra’s rise and fall, an arc that spanned the first three centuries of the Christian era, has fascinated modern historians since Theodor Mommsen, who was the first to supplement the testimony of the Historia Augusta with evidence from inscriptions and archaeology. According to the Hebrew Bible, Palmyra was founded by Solomon, but this claim is considered dubious and the city’s origins are shrouded in mystery. What is known is the source of its prosperity: an oasis on the caravan route from Damascus to the Euphrates, Palmyra grew so rich that its engineers were able to build vast underground reservoirs and aqueducts to make agriculture possible.  The temple complex was on a scale to rival those of Athens and Jerusalem, attracting pilgrims and merchants from across the Near East. Its art and architecture merged Graeco-Roman classicism with Jewish, Syrian, Mesopotamian and Persian motifs to create an inimitable and unusually well-preserved confluence of oriental and occidental cultures.

Having been granted not merely the privileges of a Roman colony but the status of a semi-independent monarchy to defend the eastern marches of the Empire, Palmyra finally overreached itself under Queen Zenobia. One of the most remarkable women in history, she was born in 240 AD and claimed descent from both Dido of Carthage and Cleopatra of Egypt, but in her conduct more closely resembled Boadicea of Britain. Gibbon tells us that she was “esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex”, spoke four languages and was so renowned for her chastity that “she never admitted her husband’s embraces but for the sake of posterity”, i.e. postponing sex until her monthly fertile period. Widowed by the assassination of her husband, the warlike Odenathus, she unwisely heeded the advice of Cassius Longinus, an elderly Hellenistic philosopher, to declare independence. The motives of Longinus are unclear, but we are told that in Palmyra he lacked the books to which he had been accustomed elsewhere; so perhaps he coveted the library of Alexandria, the largest in the ancient world. Having broken free of Rome, defeated its army at the head of her troops, and seized control of Egypt, its richest province, Zenobia styled herself Queen of the East.

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