Nothing beside remains

Josephine Quinn

The Syrian oasis town of Tadmur is close to the middle of nowhere, 140 miles east of Damascus, 125 miles west of the Euphrates, and 20 miles from the nearest village. It’s famous for two institutions established under the French Mandate at the turn of the 1930s. One is the archaeological site now known by the Greek name of Palmyra, until recently one of the most extraordinary survivals from the ancient world. The remote settlement is first mentioned in Assyrian texts of the early second millennium bce. Two thousand years later, its entrepreneurial inhabitants began to draw trade between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia away from the northern route via Aleppo to their own faster but more dangerous desert crossing. By exploiting their longstanding connections with pastoral nomads in the desert, they were able to negotiate safe transit for camel trains under their protection.

The main annual caravan out of Palmyra headed south-east every autumn to the Euphrates, where goods were transferred to rafts that travelled down the river to the Persian Gulf, to be loaded onto ships bound for Indian Ocean ports. The camels would spend the winter in the pastures of southern Iraq, awaiting the return of the ships in the new year, when they would make the long journey back to their oasis. There were other routes south-west from Palmyra to the Red Sea and east to Mesopotamia, and evidence of Palmyrene merchants has been found from India to Rome. Foreign merchants also spent large sums in Palmyra itself.

The settlement became enormous, a desert city of unorthodox art and spectacular architecture, its rose-tinged limestone buildings rising from the grey sand in a shallow basin framed by low hills. It would have been an alien place to a visitor from Greece or Rome, full of strange temples to strange divinities such as the Mesopotamian god Bel, whose enormous sanctuary stood on the south-eastern edge of the city. A building resembling a rectangular Greek temple surrounded by a peristyle of columns stood in a vast Syro-Phoenician colonnaded courtyard. The square courtyard, 200 metres along each side, also contained a large water basin for ablutions to the right of the temple entrance, and the building itself would have looked more peculiar the closer the visitor got: unlike a Greco-Roman temple, its main entrance was in one of the long sides, it had windows in the walls, and was crowned with merlons, Mesopotamian-style step-sided triangles. Inside were still more surprises: shrines at both ends, not just one, for divine images of Bel and other local gods, and three staircases leading up to a roof terrace.

The vast complex marked the start of a colonnaded street more than a kilometre long that bisected the town, with two distinct bends along the way marked by elaborate monuments. The first, after about 200 metres, was an imposing, ornate three-part archway whose wedge-shaped design cleverly concealed a 30º change in direction. Then, 250 metres further on, past the baths, shops and theatre, was a more elegant tetrapylon that marked a minor change of direction and a major crossroads: four pedestals were arranged in a square in an oval piazza, each supporting four thin columns and probably surrounding a large statue.

You could continue from here through the main part of the town, walking towards the western hills past hundreds of bronze statues of local worthies, labelled in Palmyrene Aramaic as well as the Greek language of the eastern Roman Empire, or you could turn right to the sanctuary of Baal-Shamin, the Phoenician Lord of the Heavens. This was a much smaller complex than the one dedicated to Bel but just as distinctive: a busily decorated temple with a deep portico set between colonnaded courtyards to north and south. The building was again built to a basic Greco-Roman design, but inside, the god’s image was concealed behind an unusual tripartite screen.

Circling the city stood isolated funerary towers – upper-class family tombs several storeys high, built in the early years of the city’s prosperity but in use throughout its history. They could each hold hundreds of bodies in individual niches racked up in side passages off the central corridors on each floor, all sealed in place with slabs of stone painted or carved with the likeness of the occupant. Other portraits and scenes lined the internal walls of these cool, cavernous buildings, some still highly coloured as recently as three years ago, in vibrant blues and more gentle reds and greens. The portrait sculpture of Palmyra looks as strange to eyes trained in Mediterranean museums as the religious architecture – the frontal, stylised figures have huge eyes and heavy features, and wear a lot of jewellery. They wear a lot of clothing too, some of them even sporting trousers.

Palmyra was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria in the first century ce, and its whole population had Roman citizenship by the third, but the city never became fully Roman. The inhabitants – perhaps 200,000 of them at its height – continued to call their city Tadmur and to carve inscriptions in their own language. Palmyra was the only city in the Roman Near East to issue coinage that neither named nor depicted the Roman emperor. Palmyrenes can be found in Roman military contexts from Algeria to South Shields, but the city is hardly ever mentioned in Greek or Roman texts, and when it is the information is sometimes decades out of date. Its citizens maintained strong links to the Parthian empire to the east: in the second century ce, a Palmyrene was acting for a Parthian prince as satrap of Bahrain. This delicate balance of power collapsed in the third century when the widow of a local warlord, the self-titled Queen Zenobia, launched a campaign of expansion. She reached Antioch in the north and the borders of Egypt in the south before the Emperor Aurelian sacked her city in 273 ce, destroying its trading networks and reducing it to a minor Roman military outpost.

The temples and columns of ancient Palmyra were an established tourist attraction in the late 19th century. The modern inhabitants of Tadmur lived in mudbrick houses within the walls of the sanctuary of Bel, whose temple had been used as a mosque since the 12th century. In 1929, however, the French colonial authorities announced that the residents would be expelled to a hastily built new village next door, in order to give the site over entirely to excavation and tourism. More of the ancient city emerged from the sands, and some was built from scratch: the theatre was almost entirely reconstructed in the 1950s, and in the 1960s the tetrapylon was re-erected with 15 of its 16 original columns substituted with concrete. By 2011, Tadmur’s 50,000 residents supported more than 150,000 tourists a year.

None of them visited Tadmur’s other internationally renowned institution, a prison built by the French as a military barracks on the other side of the new town. It was taken over as a military jail by the independent Syrian state in 1946, and commandeered in the 1970s as a conveniently remote dumping ground for President Hafez al-Assad’s political prisoners. After a failed assassination attempt on the president by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, paramilitaries led by Assad’s brother Rifaat massacred a thousand inmates. Prisoners at Tadmur were routinely subjected to random acts of brutality, and forced to torture each other, apparently for the amusement of the guards. The jail’s speciality was the German Chair, inherited from Stasi trainers in the 1960s: a metal framework over which prisoners were bent backwards until the shallowest breath was unimaginably painful.

Tadmur Prison was closed by Hafez’s son Bashar in 2001, but in June 2011 it reopened in response to the anti-government demonstrations that were already sliding into civil war. Over the next four years, the people of Tadmur experienced the total loss of the tourist industry, a large influx of refugees from other parts of Syria, and effective occupation by government troops, who caused significant damage to the ancient city, bulldozing a new road through the site and destroying large areas to build positions for artillery, rocket launchers and tanks. Despite their efforts, on 20 May 2015 Islamic State fighters took the modern town and the ancient site.

Their first target was Tadmur Prison. Within days they made a show of freeing the last captives and released a video of the foul interior. On 30 May they blew the building up. At the same time, they imposed their own judicial regime: on 27 May they took twenty men, supposedly government soldiers and supporters, to the ancient theatre where they were shot in front of a conscripted crowd of local men and boys. They then blew up nearby shrines to Sheikh Mohammed ibn Ali (a revered Shia figure) and Nizar Abu Bahaa Eddine (a Sufi scholar), and destroyed modern graves in Tadmur.

In July they arrested Khaled al-Asaad, who had been the director of archaeology at Palmyra and curator of the Palmyra Museum for forty years. He had officially retired in 2003, passing his duties on to his son Walid, but remained a familiar figure on site and in the museum. When the war started he supported local efforts to protect and, where possible, hide the city’s ancient sculpture. The 81-year-old resisted three weeks of torture, refusing to reveal the location of missing antiquities. On 18 August, IS personnel drove him in a van to modern Tadmur’s main square. They decapitated him and suspended his body from a traffic light, placing his head, still with his glasses on, on the ground between his feet. They later restaged this vignette in ancient Palmyra, hanging his body from a column.

On 25 August, photographs emerged of the temple of Baal-Shamin being blown up. On 29 August, another blast destroyed the temple of Bel. Satellite images taken on 2 September confirmed the rumours that three of the funerary towers had been destroyed, and in late September or early October IS blew up the monumental arch on the colonnaded street. They were driven out of Tadmur by Syrian and Russian forces in March 2016, an event celebrated with a concert by a Russian orchestra in the ancient theatre; in December IS reoccupied the site. In January 2017, they levelled the confected tetrapylon and broke up part of the reconstructed theatre. Syrian and Russian forces reoccupied the site in March. Ancient Palmyra now lies in ruins.

Paul Veyne’s short, angry eulogy is dedicated to Khaled al-Asaad. Much of the book is a revision of an introduction to Palmyra Veyne first published 17 years ago, and it isn’t the place to find the latest specialist thinking on the city, or the results of the last excavations before the war. It is, rather, a colourful and very readable account of a city that thrived in the middle ground between political empires and cultural worlds, refocused on its recent destruction and on a single question: why?

The answer may seem obvious: IS believes that the worship of any gods or individuals other than Allah – which includes the maintenance of shrines to the dead – is idolatry, or shirk. The glossy images of the destruction of the temples of Bel and Baal-Shamin published in the September 2015 issue of the IS magazine Dabiq were labelled ‘Destroying the Shirk Temple’. The destruction earlier in 2015 of the Northwest Palace at Assyrian Nimrud, of local Shia and Sufi shrines, and of modern Islamic graves, was justified on the same grounds. For some, at least, this was more than just propaganda: after the government’s reoccupation of the site, it emerged that much of the statuary in the Palmyra museum had been destroyed by IS fighters without any of the publicity given to similar actions at the Mosul museum a few months earlier. Such ideological gestures helped to establish the new organisation’s historical credentials, following in the footsteps of Muhammad himself when he captured Mecca in 630 and destroyed the idols in the Kaaba. They also helped attract new members and supporters.

Veyne’s answer, however, is different. He thinks that IS destroyed the temples of Palmyra because they were ‘venerated by contemporary Westerners, whose culture includes an educated love for “historical monuments” and a great curiosity for the beliefs of other people and other times’, while ‘Islamists want to show that Muslims have a culture that is different from ours, a culture that is unique to them.’ This is an optimistic account of Western attitudes, and the bravery of Khaled al-Asaad and his tireless colleagues shows that respect for other cultures is not a distinctively Western value. Still, the importance of Palmyra in the Western cultural imagination may have been one reason for its destruction, a show of power and defiance in the face of the impotent rage of international institutions. It was also a useful distraction at a time when the military tide had turned, and IS was losing swathes of territory on the Turkish border and in Iraq.

As an aspiring territorial state, however, Islamic State’s primary enemy was not the West. Like the razing of the prison, the destruction of Tadmur’s ancient cultural heritage highlighted above all the weakness of its supposed patron, the Syrian government. Syrian state propaganda had turned ancient Palmyra into a focus of postcolonial national pride: Zenobia’s biography was written by General Tlass, the long-serving defence minister, and her portrait stamped on banknotes. In this context her city was not a model of multiculturalism but a symbol of resistance to Western imperialism, and its destruction sent a message that was less about the West than about the regime in Damascus.