ISIS Takes Palmyra: another ancient city stands on the brink

The capture of the ancient settlement of Palmyra in Syria by ISIS terrorists has understandably led to great concern that yet another of the Middle East’s precious archaeological sites is about to succumb to destruction. Everywhere ISIS has gone, historic monuments and heritage sites have been ransacked and destroyed as the group continues its barbaric attempts to destroy history.

It is unknown whether Palmyra's historic ruins have been damaged yet by ISIS
It is unknown whether Palmyra’s historic ruins have been damaged yet by ISIS Source: CNN

A biblical city with an almost unrivalled history, Palmyra has played host to numerous civilizations. It was part of the Roman Empire until a short-lived revolt under Queen Zenobia in the 3rd century led to a Palymrene state. It was reestablished as an important regional city under both Christian and Muslim rulers, including the Byzantines, the Ummayads and the Mamluks until finally coming under Ottoman influence.

Until the recent civil war, excavations at Palmyra were ongoing and regularly uncovered a variety of objects hailing from its multitude of rulers, in addition to thousands of tessera from the Roman era. Its location at the base of a triangle between the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs gave it strategic and mercantile importance. Today, its location puts it in the heart of a merciless battlezone that is likely to cause its final destruction.

Palmyra has never failed to impress its visitors. In the late 17th century, a British traveller made the following remarks:

We had the prospect of such magnificent ruins, that if it be lawful to frame a conjecture of the original beauty of that place by what is still remaining, I question whether any city in the world could have challenged precedence of this in its glory. (Edmund Halley, Philosophical Transactions: Lowthorp’s Abridgment Vol III)

In 1751, another visitor was similarly overawed:

The greatest quantity of ruins we had ever seen, all of white marble, and beyond them, towards the Euphrates, a flat waste, as far as the eye could reach, without any object which showed either life or motion. It is scarcely possible to imagine any thing more striking than this view: so great a number of Corinthian pillars, mixed with so little wall or solid building, afforded a most romantic variety of prospect. (Robert Wood, Ruins of Palmyra, 1753)

Robert Wood's 18th century depiction of a temple at Palmyra Source: University of Washington Libraries
Robert Wood’s 18th century depiction of a temple at Palmyra
Source: University of Washington Libraries

Despite changing hands on numerous occasions and witnessing some significant damage, Palmyra was never razed from the map. It appears as if its striking ruins and tangible heritage prevented its conquerors from carrying out such a grisly task. Unfortunately, ISIS is unlikely to prove so acquiescent. Whilst the human toll of the current conflict in the Middle East is undoubtedly more serious, the destruction of history – in a place where it began – is truly saddening and a testament to the forces of evil now operating there.

Francois Volney claimed that ‘the effect of such a sight’ as Palmyra ‘is not to be communicated’, although he tried his best:

The reader must represent to himself a range of erect columns, occupying an extent of more than twenty-six hundred yards, and concealing a multitude of other edifices behind them. In this space we sometimes find a palace of which nothing remains but the courts and walls; sometimes a temple, whose peristyle is half thrown down; and now a portico, a gallery, or triumphal arch. Here stand groups of columns, whose symmetry is destroyed by the fall of many of them; there we see them ranged in rows of such length, that similar to rows of trees, they deceive the sight, and assume the appearance of continued walls. If from this striking scene we cast our eyes upon the ground, another almost as varied, presents itself; on all sides we behold nothing but subverted shafts, some entire, others shattered to pieces, or dislocated in their joints; and on which side soever we look, the earth is strewed with vast stones half buried, with broken entablatures, damaged capitals, mutilated frizes, disfigured reliefs, effaced sculptures, violated tombs, and altars defiled by dust. (Volney, Travels in Syria, 1788)

The Temple of Bel
The Temple of Bel

Amidst the chaotic remains of Palmyra, one never knew what they might find. Sadly, now, we may never know.