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imageThis week, Palmyra has been very much in the news. Sadly, it is at the centre of the world stage. The destruction caused by religious fanaticism and ignorance seems to know no bounds.

I first came across this ancient city in my teens when, surprisingly, reading Agatha Christie. Everyone is aware of her crime novels and she did indeed use Syria for some of her locations. However many are unaware of her second marriage to the archaeologist, Max Mallowan.

She spent many months each year in Syria and Iraq enjoying her time helping on his dig sites. She wrote a memoir of her time there which is to be re-published this month, entitled “Come, Tell Me How You Live” and includes over 40 long forgotten photos taken in the 1930’s including pictures of Palmyra.

AGATHA CHRISTIE

imageMore than seventy years ago, Christie recorded her arrival in Palmyra, her usually light tone giving way to one of genuine enthusiasm.

After seven hours of heat and monotony and a lonely world – Palmyra! that, I think, is the charm of Palmyra – its slender creamy beauty rising up fantastically in the middle of the hot sand. It is lovely and fantastic and unbelievable, with all the theatrical implausibility of a dream. Courts and Temples and ruined columns… I have never been able to decide what I really think of Palmyra. It has always for me the dreamlike quality of that first vision. My aching head and eyes made it more than ever seem a feverish delusion! It isn’t – it can’t – be real

Christie’s memoir, describes her visits to locations such as the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod which was looted and bulldozed by ISIS in March, the tomb of Sheikh Adi near Mosul and the Baalshamin Temple blown up by ISIS this month.

 A BRIEF HISTORY OF PALMYRA

imagePalmyra is an ancient site with archaeological finds dating back to the Neolithic.

Tadmor (Palmyra) is first mentioned in texts dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE. From the earliest of times Tadmor was an important staging post for caravans travelling between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Arabia. It was a vital link on the Silk route from China, India and Europe.

The Romans expanded their frontier during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and Palmyra became part of the Roman Empire, however, Palmyra retained considerable independence. By the 3rd century AD the city was prosperous and this enabled the construction of the monumental projects that we see today.

In 260 the Palmyrene king Odaenathus defeated the Persian Emperor; he fought many battles before his assassination in 267. He was succeeded by his two sons under the regency of Queen Zenobia. Zenobia rebelled against Rome and began a new history.

The Palmyrenes would convert to Christianity during the fourth century and to Islam in the second half of the first millennium. The Palmyrene and Greek languages were replaced by Arabic.

A small population under the Ottomans were there until 1918. In 1929, the French began moving the villagers into their new homes. The transfer was completed in 1932, and the site was abandoned and available for excavations. Up until 21 May 2015 when ISIS took it over, archaeologists were working on the site!

MURDER OF ARCHAEOLOGIST

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The archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, was beheaded in a square off Palmyra Museum on Tuesday afternoon. This 81 year old had devoted the last forty years of his life to taking care of Palmyra and the antiquities within. Although curating the ruins at the UNESCO World Heritage site and with a degree in History, he had no formal training in archaeology – all his knowledge in this field was self-taught and he was a much respected figure in the archaeological community.

His crime: refusing to divulge the hiding place of many priceless artefacts.

PALMYRA’S BAALSHAMIN TEMPLE ‘BLOWN UP BY IS’

imageThis week we were told by the Syrian head of antiquities that the Temple had been blown up on Sunday. The UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported it happened a month ago.

UNESCO is branding the destruction a war crime.

“The Baalshamin temple is dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and fertilising rains, and was almost completely intact. The oldest parts of the Temple were thought to have dated from the year 17 AD.

The Islamic State group have destroyed several sites in Iraq. They believe any shrines or statues implying the existence of another deity are sacrilege and idolatry and should therefore be destroyed.

IS attacks on historical sites include:-

  • JANUARY – The ransacking of the central library in the Iraqi city of Mosul, burning thousands of books
  • FEBRUARY – The destruction of ancient artefacts in the central Museum of Mosul.
  • MARCH  – explosives and bulldozers used in Nimrod, one of Iraq’s greatest archaeological treasures. Shortly after they destroy ruins at Hatra

The AAAS Geospatial Technologies Project recently released satellite imagery confirming that Nebi Yunis, the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul, Iraq was obliterated by Islamic State last year.

They are of course selective in their destruction, they are looting and selling the majority of the artefacts to fund ISIS. Authorities in New York have recently taken custody of £72 million worth of art.

The illegal trade in the Middle East is the major source of funding for IS and pressure is mounting for a tougher global response.

IN CONLUSION

On several occasions over the past few months, whenever I post an article on twitter regarding Palmyra, I am questioned on why I get angered over this destruction when people are dying?

My answer is simple; both are important. As a person, I am outraged and saddened by the destruction of human lives. But, in my role as a historian, I have a duty to share the significance of archeological artefacts and a priceless heritage site being destroyed by sheer ignorance.

Syria is watching as its cultural heritage is vandalised, looted and destroyed while volunteers are doing what they can to document the damage and save the countries cultural identity from obliteration.

The Czech Historian, Milan Hubl once said  :-

The first step to liquidating a people is to erase its memory, destroy its books, its culture and its history.

Write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was

imageThe cultural cleansing ISIS is trying to achieve deserves condemnation. We need to provide educational resources and documentary evidence to keep the rich and plural histories of Syria and Iraq alive and available, especially to those presently trapped under ISIS’ enforced umbrella of ignorance.

The international community has as much at stake. They are destroying the cultural legacy of the world – a legacy we need for future generations to enjoy and learn from. Without our historical sites and our heritage, we are orphans.

We are merely passing through history and will, all too soon, be history ourselves. In the meantime, we are history’s custodians and bear the responsibility for handing it down to future generations. We have no mandate to stand by as it is destroyed.

I found the following articles from ACADEMIA.EDU useful and recommend them for further reading:

  • Review of A. & M Sartre, Zenobia, de Palmyra A Rome. by Laurent Tholbecq
  • Remarks on Water Supply in Palmyra. Results of survey 2010 by Karol Juchniewicz and Marta Zuchowska
  • Palmyra: Heritage Adrift: Detailed report on all damage done to the archeological site between February 2012 and June 2015 by Cheikhmous Ali
  • Draft Historical Atlas of Syria, sheet 4 – Damascus to Palmyra by Ross Burns
  • A Neo Classical Artist in Palmyra – Louis Francois Cassas Nicholson Musuem, by Ross Burns

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