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22nd October 2015

The destruction of Palmyra is a very human tragedy

Alex Daniel argues for humanity’s sake, that we shouldn’t underestimate the tragedy of IS destroying an ancient city and the heritage it represents

Imagine a dear family heirloom. Perhaps it’s a wedding ring, a clock or an old diary—something that’s been passed through the generations, symbolic of your family, their happiness, and their achievements. Maybe it’s something that makes you feel secure, or reminds you that you will always have that small group of people to whom you’re related, connected with, and from whom you descend. Maybe it’s just something that gives you a sense of collective identity. Now imagine a stranger stamping on it, burning it or throwing it in a river—not only destroying the object, but spitting in the face of this heritage. This is what is happening to Syrian culture with the destruction of Palmyra; IS is destroying the past and all that it means.

The most recent act of historical extermination—at the time of writing this—is the blowing up of the Triumphal Arch, the centrepiece of a grand portico that led to the great temple. This monument was of great cultural significance and actually was of a fairly unique style—even at the time of its construction, one that was distinctive to the region, based along the shores of the Euphrates River that runs through Iraq and Syria.

Possibly the most striking feature of the site, was the Temple of Bel. 15 metres high and consecrated to the Mesopotamian sun god, it was the best preserved building of its type. It displayed a unique synthesis of Greco-Roman and ancient near-Eastern architecture that could not be found anywhere else; classical columns adorned with ancient near-Eastern friezes and masonry. It was awe-inspiring and incredibly significant, as a cultural landmark and as a piece of monumental art, not only in Syria—but in its part of the world. It was blown up in August.

Shrines to gods such as Bel are what keep our knowledge of ancient religious practices alive—imagine how many films wouldn’t have been made if we didn’t know about Zeus and Poseidon from all those Greek temples. It seems small, but the cultural point is that it would be tragic if this knowledge about regional ancestry dies out. It is fascinating to the foreign eye to observe and learn about something like this, which is not only beautiful, but also truly, truly unique. Yet, more to the point, for the people who live in the neighbouring modern city of Tadmur, this is their culture. This is their heritage and they are losing it.

A child born tomorrow in Tadmur will never see the legacy of this site, and might not ever be taught in school that this ancient city was known as the ‘Venice of the Sands.’ They may not know that it was a major trading site in the deep web connected to Silk Road, and how it became exceptionally wealthy under Roman rule. They may never see the huge diversity that shaped the place; it has been under the influence of religions including Christianity, Greek and Roman Paganism, Judaism and Islam—along with the worship of Mesopotamian and Arab gods which were native to the area.

IS are ridding the land of any ideology which predates their own, and Syria is all the poorer for it. People may grow up never to have known anything other than the institutionalised violence, sexism and fanaticism that the group has come to represent, all because the history of this city is considered ‘idolatrous’.

There are, of course, those who label it crass that the media even covers the loss of some ancient ruins while the loss of human life in the same area is growing to the point of abstraction. Perhaps we have heard about bombings, beheadings and needless brutality so much over the past few years that we have become inured to it. Maybe now, in our internet-age boredom, we have simply moved on, and are now bemoaning the loss of a few stone pillars because it’s different news.

I strongly dispute this logic. They are different kinds of loss, that evoke entirely different types of mourning. It is astonishing that people are able to, in some way, communicate with the words, deeds and intentions of their forebears of two millennia through these priceless monuments to civilisation. And yet this is what is being cut loose with the systematic destruction of Palmyra—a connection between generations. ‘Blocks of stone’ these temples, arches and libraries may be, but they stand for much more. Just because the tangible loss is comparatively small, the intangibility is bigger.

Consider this—the Colosseum in Rome has stood for 2,000 years, the Parthenon for nearly 2,500, and the Great Pyramid in Giza over 4,500. These are testaments to humanity. Palmyra is of the same ilk and was first mentioned in the early 2nd millennium BC. When it is destroyed, the people whose memories that lived on in its spectacular architecture, inscriptions and art are forgotten. And this humanity dies.

These are not just the bitter rantings of a Classics student whose academic niche is slowly being wiped out by IS; cultural eradication on this level is, without a shadow of a doubt, a very human tragedy.

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