The long-fears impending destruction of Palmyra, not “just another town on the map,” says the NBC Nightly News, but a site for “erasing history” has been identified as an epicenter of the feared project of cultural genocide of opulent archeological remains–as well as of actual human deaths. After the Islamic State published photographs of the destruction of the World Heritage Site, the recent damage assessment of the city recovered by Syrian forces suggests the preservation of some 80% of ruins, and despite the reduction of several 2,000 year old temples to rubble, after Syrian Army jets helped retake the ancient city. Yet the episode suggested the horror of the loss of ancient fragments that ISIS seems to have decided, with good judgement, to preserve, including its Roman amphitheater, despite the apparent destruction of its elegant Triumphal Arch.
The concentration of destruction of sites that were deemed to be of cultic value–as the Temple of Baalshamin or semitic Temple of Baal, or statues of Athena–seen as heretical, while benefitting from media attention to the survival of ruins to treat them as hostages. But the city offered a stage for conductive provocative assaults,
Maher Al Mounes/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, March 27, 2016
Many objects were, of course, sold on the black market to raise needed funds.
The longstanding difficulties of securing artifacts from smugglers from ceramics to bronze lamps to mosaics illustrating Homer’s Odyssey to medieval illuminations of the Quran, to the destruction of actual minarets, souks, and entire sites of archeological excavation. David Brook’s claim that ISIS has created a wormhole of history that has transported us to a “different moral epoch” as much as a different political landscape, utterly removed from the moral codes he has recently celebrated, affords a prime spot to the destruction of archeological treasures. As much as introduce a “wormhole”–a space-time passageway, theorized by Einstein and Rosen as a theoretical “bridge” that jumped huge distances that connect distances of billions of light years, the topography of Palmyra’s ruins offer something of a historical echo chamber as the fears of the disturbance of its awesome ruins were relayed across the world wide web, as well as an act of unpardonable criminal destruction.
The fears of losing such cultural monuments may reflect deep uncertainties in the possibilities of devoting military forces to protect physical objects from looting and destruction–and to continue to guard them in the face of military–but also reflect the scorched earth policy that the Assad regime has adopted in relation to its own lands. And months after Syrian forces assured the world of the security of Palmyra’s ruins and of the city’s surrounding hills in mid-May 2015, the late-August announcement that explosives have demolished the Baalshamin Temple, a site to worship the Phoenician god of fertilizing rains which once stood some five hundred meters from the city’s amphitheater, has realized deep fears of cultural destruction and become emblematic of the extreme fragility of one’s relation to a historical past. The site, long emblematic of a material presence of the ancient world in the wilds of the Syrian sands, became a theater for the destruction of antiquities, and even of the beheading of an eighty-two year old scholar of antiquities, Khaled al-Assad, whose executed body was strung up and suspended as an object-lesson. The report that the Islamic State purposefully planted explosives in the city’s monumental ruins–“western” ruins in addition to the Assyrian monuments in Nimrud–and the recent images of explosives at the Temple of Baalshamin–offers grounds for the realization of fears to the pledge of an unidentified militant that “whenever we seize a piece of land, we will remove signs of idolatry and spread monotheism.”
Although the capture of the city may have been more closely tied in the mental geography of ISIL figures to Tadmur prison‘s destruction, a site of arbitrary and inhumane detention from the 1970s–“High walls of cold cement/ Control towers/ Mine fields/ Check points/ Barricades and special military forces/Finally… A space of pure patriotic fear,” wrote the poet Faraj Bayrakdar, who had been imprisoned there for some six years, “If the whole of Syria falls/ This prison will never ever fall.” But the French-buiilt prison, fashioned as a panopticon in true Benthamite style, was the in the 1930s in the desert, site of a massive slaughter of members of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hafaz al-Assad’s henchmen and of sanctioned beatings and whippings, whose interiors were first broadcast by the ISIL as they recaptured the site and before they had destroyed it, were almost emblematic of the crimes against humanity of the current regime’s predecessor.
The attention to this site of fear and horror were quickly shifted, however, to the fears of the destruction of the city’s ancient amphitheater, which quickly became an arena of institutionalized violence for ISIL occupiers.
Such growing fears of expectations of destroying a Unesco World Heritage Site that would surely lead to a swift world-wide condemnation–as well as an offense against Syrian culture–were stoked by worldwide media, and must have partly led ISIS to release multimedia images that affirmed the preservation of cultural heritage that lies on the site of the Syrian-Iraq border to calm such accusations. Even as the Director of Antiquities in Damascus has asserted that many treasures have been preemptively removed from the city, a counter-offensive by ISIS was adroitly waged on the world-wide web, as they posted images of intact ruins in the Syrian city–even as the humanitarian crisis in the area grew with air-strikes from the forces of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
But the very images themselves conceal a bit of a debate about what a cultural heritage actually is: as much as ISIS commander Abu Laith al-Saoudi somewhat convincingly assured Syrian audiences that his forces could commit to no violence against a cultural patrimony. “Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it and it will not be damaged,” al-Saoudi clarified that his targets were idols, rather than architecture, as if to lend the veneer of a theological disputatio to their actions: “what we will do is to pulverize statues that the miscreants used to pray for,” he clarified, but “as for the historical monuments, we will not touch them with our bulldozers as some tend to believe.”
Whether the Palmyran monuments would be considered part of Syria’s cultural patrimony or antique architecture is not clear, although the manner that the winged Assyrian bulls or horses constituted part of an Iraqi cultural patrimony–much as the ruins of Palmyra for Syrian–may be very tragically overlooked.
In asking what constitutes a historical monument and what a religious icon, al-Saoudi raises a cultural quagmire and a debate on iconoclasm all too familiar from the sixteenth-century Reformation if itself also inherited from the ancient world–even as he seeks to invest the destruction of a classical heritage with an aura of doctrinal debate.
But the possible preservation of many statues, if indeed taken to safekeeping before the invasion, has not led to any hesitation of using the backdrop of its second-century ancient Roman amphitheater to round up and execute at least twenty supporters of the Syrian state, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, and kill two hundred more. What constitute the Palmyrene divinities–reliefs on funerary monuments? lions and eagles with open widespread wings? images on tombs?–is open to interpretation and will probably not be that closely overseen. The monuments that have remained less vulnerable to air bombardment, weather damage, acid rains, suggest a vulnerability to the widespread but only recently recognized looting of antiquities that have slowly resurfaced on the black market, providing a source of income that has recently rivaled Syrian oil fields as a needed source of cash as other sources are drying up for ISIS–if we trust the record of financial transactions recently found on one of the flash drives of an ISIS commander, which detailed the sales of some $36 million of stolen ancient artifacts that were sold on the black market.
The recent specter of the destruction of tombs outside the city of Palmyra by explosives offered a taste, however, of the destruction that might be waiting to be unleashed.
Is it really true that, as the New York Times reports, the cultural vandalism of tombs and statutes–a destruction whose propagandistic value Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University compares to the choreographed beheadings of captives as designed to appeal to some ISIL supporters–occurred as a cautionary warning to nearby Syrian troops? or a sign of their withdrawal from a region, and the acceleration of demolition in the face of military defeats? The value of the Palmyran antiquities to ISIL, whose sales of antiquities from an Abyssinian monastery in Syria’s Nabek district totalled $36 million, must reveal canny knowledge of the calculus of their value as intact objects. So many antiquities now stand guarded by Syria’s government that a list of Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk has been distributed to border guards, as many looters in ISIS have become amateur archeologists, and, until ISIS troops took the city, a guard was stationed at the amphitheater itself, as if to declare its worth to the state.
The release of some ten photos by the Islamic State showing the preservation of architectural ruins contrast to the familiar photos posted online in February of the destruction of antiquities in Mosul, but seems to be an attempt to repristine their image, despite the brutality of the executions, as Syria’s official news agency, SANA, released file photos of the city’s antiquities that were threatened with destruction, no doubt in an attempt to gain world attention as well as stoke nationalist sentiment as well as horror. The place of antiquities is a delicate one within the propaganda forces that have mobilized behind the war, with ISIS using the destruction of antiquities as a bit of a rallying cry to supplement Jihad, long after it had actually destroyed substantial numbers of churches.
But if the value perceived in the destruction of antiquities may have been feared to make Palmyra something of a poster-child, the videos that successfully cast the ISIS trips as philistines for folks like Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who confessed to be moved to future mobilization by the hopes to defend Assyrian Gods who sport “those curious ringleted beards in the shape of typewriters” and profiled horses, as if they were ready to suddenly sign up for fighting on the frront lines to defend the heritage, or at least give thanks for the oft-criticized custodial role London’s British Museum–which seems to have been Johnson’s real (and openly knee-jerk nationalist) point.
Although Barack Obama and the United States has not openly entered the conflict, the ongoing promises of continued military, economic, and diplomatic assistance has been poised behind the notion of joint Sunni-Shi’ite counteroffensives yet to materialize, but seemed to place us on the brink of war. But Palmyra stands at more than the symbolic epicenter of the war, or as a strategic gain of the extent of “territory” that ISIS (or ISIL) can be said to “hold” as a cohort of alliances: it is a benchwater of how rapidly the Islamic State has spread, and the rapidity with which the Syrian Free Army, without any credible external assistance, has been able to hold agains the two-fronted assault it faces from government and foreign troops, and its effective marginalization to the West.
The expansion of the congeries of ISIS/ISIL-held lands have effectively isolated a front in the northeast from the western fronts against which limited resistance remains, and Assad’s forces have proved to be little effective military resistance.
In a sense, the ruins of Palmyra are enshrined as sources of material contact with the past in the landscape in the engravings from Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tadmor, in the Desart [sic] (London, 1753), based on the surveys taken by the architect and artist Giovanni Battista Borra, informed by Borra’s own close study of Vignola, which are again echoed in the visual composition of many of the images of the local ruins now feared to be facing destruction or destroyed in the global media. Borra’s expertise in such neoclassical views had been honed, interestingly, in his own set of views of Turin, Vedute principali di Torino disegnate in prospettiva, as well as his views of Rome and Tivoli, which his dramatic elevated views of awesome intact colonnade and surrounding ruins echoed.
But Borra’s Palmyran views of Wood’s archeological sites gained an international appeal that provided immediately accessible memories of the elegance of the city’s ancient past and a repertory for neoclassicism. And rather than a prison, their grandeur suggest the odd emptiness of Ozymandian ruins of past grandeur that his own architectural expertise allowed him to recognize.
Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries
Borra’s majestic engravings are romantic, if oddly analytic in their silent statuesque melancholy. They also evoke the tragic prospect of the loss of such sites, whether due to ISIS militia or possible future aerial bombardment of the region from Assad’s Syrian air force if not American troops. While standing at quite considerable chronological remove, their silent beauty serves to underscore an enormous potential tragedy of looting a desert landscape of ancient architecture.
Jonathan Klein/AFP/Getty Images
All too often, however, we are apt to focus on the awe of monuments that have so long occupied the Western imagination–with a legacy this post has rather cursorily tried to map–rather than the humanitarian injustices of the continued displacement of human refugees in the ongoing Civil War, according to images released by Human Rights Watch this April, for which there seems no clear end in sight–especially along the so-called “demilitarized” border between Syria and Jordan.