Palmyra has fallen to Daesh again, less than 9 months after it was recaptured by the Syrian Army with Russian help.
I was there just before the uprising, with my mother and friends from academia. This ‘Venice of the Sands’ was the highlight of an epic tour of archaeological sites across Lebanon and Syria. It was even more spectacular than anticipated. I recall posing for a group photograph in front of the Temple of Bel, since obliterated, and enjoyed watching my canny octogenarian mum beat the scorching heat by riding a camel down the main colonnade. When in Palmyra..!
But this war in Syria is like a bad dream. A recurring bad dream. Its monuments have been destroyed and its starving, terrified people little more than pawns in the self-serving agendas of foreign powers.
In the vigorous sweep of history Palmyra has seen it all. Palmyra held prime position on the Silk Road and its merchants grew wealthy and influential along its length. Tadmoreans, Arameans, Assyrians, Seleucids all occupied the site, before Ptolemy took Syria for the Romans in 64 BC. Palmyra was eventually annexed and paid tribute early in the reign of Tiberius, around 14 AD.
Its temples, public buildings and stones stand testament to two millennia of conflict and power struggles. When British and allied troops invaded Syria in 1941 Palmyra was seized and Vichy troops surrendered, granting the allies control of this strategic site.
But this time it’s different.
A suspected chemical attack hit sites near Palmyra last Monday. Cases of suffocation and bodies with no visible injuries have been reported, although unsurprisingly the Russians and Syrians have denied the use of chemical weapons. This looks suspiciously like the use of sarin, a colourless, odourless lethal gas. And if past cases are anything to go by, innocent civilians and children will have become ‘collateral damage.’
Neither side in this ghastly conflict could give a damn about the ancient city. For the Russians, the Syrians, Daesh, and everybody else in this miserable war, Palmyra is a propaganda tool to be paraded in news reports.
Earlier this year Daesh grabbed the headlines when it murdered Khaled Asaad, the elderly scholar who oversaw Palmyra’s ruins and guided international archaeological missions for four decades. Asaad’s crimes, Daesh said, were his roles in taking care of the city’s ‘idols’, and attending ‘infidel’ conferences as a representative of Syria.
And the other side are at it too – grabbing every propaganda opportunity. Valery Gergiev, Putin’s favourite conductor, performed Bach and Prokofiev to Russian soldiers and politicians in a stomach-churning display of bad taste after Russia helped retake the city in March. As Philip Hammond, then UK Foreign Secretary pointed out it was “a tasteless attempt to distract attention from the continued suffering of millions of Syrians. It shows that there are no depths to which the regime will not sink.”
So, now what?
No doubt the city will be retaken again. The Russian military machine ‘in support’ of the Syrians has been momentarily distracted as it pulverises Aleppo. But Palmyra’s too much of a headline grabber to leave alone.
What then? Swan Lake in the ruins once the sarin has dispersed? Or perhaps Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony, with its pounding timpani to remind us of those artillery shells and barrel bombs?
Even after the dust has settled there’s going to be a tasteless battle to seal the legacy of the conflict. Will the bomb craters and shattered buildings stand as testimony to the wrack and ruin brought about by the meddling of the Turks, Saudis, and Qataris in Syria’s conflict?
The so-called international community is going to ride roughshod over the wishes of the Syrians. UNESCO is now so partisan and political that it believes only it has the wisdom to dictate the terms of the rebuilding and restoration so desperately needed. The Afghanis learned this the hard way – they want to rebuild their pulverised Buddhas at Bamiyan but UNESCO has threatened to remove their world heritage status if they attempt to do so. UNESCO believes ruins should be left as ruins.
This is the same UNESCO that refused to allow the temporary expatriation to safety of Kabul museum artefacts, only for them to be later destroyed by the Taleban.
Few of the international powers and their international institutions come out of this sad story with much credit.
This once proud city, the jewel of the Silk Road, home to merchants and princes, is now little more than a smashed-up plaything for the scheming diversions of Syria’s neighbours and so-called friends.