With news agencies today reporting that ISIS is just outside of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites is at risk of destruction. As the New York Times stated, Islamic State forces advanced yesterday into the outskirts of the 2,000-year-old Palmyra. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting today that violent clashes are breaking out in the area about 130 miles northeast of Damascus, with deaths on both sides.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to the UN cultural agency, “offers the consummate example of an ancient urbanized complex.” Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, said yesterday that Palmyra “has already suffered four years of conflict, it suffered from looting and represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world.” As such an essential place of history, it’s worth looking at what’s at stake.
Palmyra, along with its adjacent modern settlement of Tadmur, is an oasis in the desert, and was a stopping point for caravans in the ancient world. This made it a major cultural crossroads, with the Roman, Greek, and Persian influences still visible in the towering colonnade that once stretched almost a mile with 1,500 columns and a monumental arch, and its incredibly intact Temple of Baal. Inside the temple are Corinthian columns along with carvings of the Zodiac and the seven planets that were known to the ancient world. Everywhere in the about 50 hectares of Palmyra are ruins of religious sites, burial complexes, and ancient infrastructure. Palmyra, this “place of the palms,” connected the lands to the east with the Mediterranean, and it was at its height a wealthy metropolis of art and trade. Beyond this vital moment for our ancient heritage, UNESCO also points out that its rediscovery by Western travelers back in the 17th and 18th centuries had a major influence on the revival of classical architecture styles that continue today.
Already this year ISIS has wrecked cultural artifacts at the Mosul Museum, the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, the archaeological site of Hatra, and other West Asian sites. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Palmyra is now not just at risk of that deliberate destruction, but also irreparable damage from mortar fire and airstrikes as ISIS and the Syrian government engage with the ancient site stuck between them. This isn’t the first time in recent memory that Palmyra has been at risk, as the Guardian points out back in 2013 from February to September rebels occupied the site, but they “did not share the fanatical devotion of ISIS to demolishing all of the region’s pre-Islamic heritage.”
Antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim of Syria reportedly told the AFP: “We can protect the statues and artifacts, but we cannot protect the architecture, the temples.” Smaller finds from the site kept in museums are already being secured, but it’s that in situ architecture that is most in danger of disappearing, and that visible history of trade between cultures still remarkably preserved 2,000 years later.