Essays

Why Do We Care About Palmyra So Much?

Replica Palmyra Arch at Trafalgar Square (via Garry Knight on Flickr)
Replica Palmyra Arch at Trafalgar Square (via Garry Knight on Flickr)

On Thursday, May 5, the ancient theater of Palmyra hosted a classical music concert, called “Praying for Palmyra: Music Revives Ancient Ruins.” The Mariinsky Theater Orchestra of St. Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev, performed pieces by J.S. Bach as well as Russian composers Rodion Shchedrin and Sergei Prokofiev. The orchestra played to an audience of Russian and Syrian soldiers, UNESCO officials, journalists, and schoolchildren, and was broadcast worldwide via a live feed from RT. Before the performance, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the audience by video monitor, citing “our hope not only for Palmyra to resurge as a historic relic, but also for our entire civilization to rid itself from this terrible evil, international terrorism.”

In April, a British and American organization called the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) unveiled a reconstructed Triumphal Arch from Palmyra in Trafalgar Square, London. The arch is 2/3 scale, and carved from Egyptian marble using 3D technology. The installation was only temporary; the dismantled arch is set to go on a world tour, stopping in Oxford and New York before being set up permanently next year in Palmyra, near the original arch.

But why recreate the arch and set it up in Western capitals? Why perform European art music in the ancient theater? The organizers suggest that each event is a show of solidarity with Syrians, but these gestures — Western groups drawing attention to ancient remains, primarily for Western audiences — seem like odd ways to accomplish this. Is there another way to explain these events?

It may help if we consider the arch against the background of the history of European and American interaction with Palmyra.

Palmyra (Arabic Tadmur) was rediscovered by the West in 1691. In that year, a group of merchants from the British Levant Company reached the site after an aborted attempt 13 years earlier. There may have been earlier European visitors, but this was the pivotal moment — especially for the English-speaking world. Previously, Palmyra had only been known to the West from classical texts. Archaeological excavation was then unknown, so the glorious remains of these ancient Middle Eastern cities were thought lost (as Charles Addison put it in the 19th century). Yet here was the majestic Palmyra, preserved as if in a bottle. The group was astonished. One member, Rev. William Halifax, described their reaction in a report published in 1695 (in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London). We read that the Temple of Bel has the ”most Magnificent Entrance” and “seems to have been one of the most glorious Structures in the World.” The buildings have an “Air of Delicacy and Exquisiteness in the Work”; never had the group seen stone carving “so Bold, so Lively, and so Natural, in any place.” Halifax sums up the feelings of the group on the site even more boldly: “I question somewhat whether any City in the World could have challenged Precedence of this in its Glory.”

The first image of Palmyra, from 1691 (published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 19, 1695) (click to enlarge)
The first image of Palmyra, from 1691 (published in ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 19’ 1695) (click to enlarge)

The Orientalists in England were excited by news of the ruins. Among them was the astronomer Edmund Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame), who quickly published an important article — one that played a key role in eventual decipherment of the Palmyrene language. Gradually more Europeans visited the site, especially after an expedition led by scholars Robert Wood and James Dawkins in 1751. Wood’s account of their visit, featuring careful drawings of the ruins by Italian architect Giovanni Battista Borra, was highly influential on the emerging neoclassical style in Europe. Suddenly, façades and ceilings modeled on Palmyra’s buildings sprang up all around, in public architecture and private homes alike. Some weren’t satisfied with mere copies of Palmyrene craftsmanship, but wanted an authentic piece of Palmyra for themselves. Museums and collectors bought them from dealers; visitors purchased them at the site as souvenirs from the residents of the village. Some enterprising tourists dug up artifacts for themselves. Halifax’s report marked the beginning of what became a Palmyra craze.

But for all the superlatives from Halifax and subsequent awestruck visitors, for all the fascination with the ancient art and architecture of the site, the response to more recent parts of Palmyra was just as negative. The medieval castle is “a work more of Labour than Art,” according to Halifax; it is not worth the effort to climb up to it. In general, the post-classical architecture is a waste of time. European travelers had even less respect for the modern village. Reading almost any 18th or 19th century traveler’s account or travel guide, we can check off so many of the same Orientalist clichés: the women are “dirty and repulsive,” the men “idling,” the children naked; all of them are “spoiled” by tourists (as if they are children, or maybe pets). The villagers are either a convenience or a nuisance — they are defined entirely by their usefulness (or not) to visitors. The streets of the village are narrow and filthy, and the “miserable hovels” or “huts” are “obstructions” to the ruins and “disfigure” them. Visitors are “obliged” to go through the modern houses to enter the cella; but Baedeker’s guide to Palestine and Syria assures us that the residents did not mind strangers walking into their homes and climbing up on the roofs for a better view. There is always a clear contrast drawn between the modern village and the ancient ruins: as Halifax put it, “Certainly the World it self cannot afford the like mixture of Remains of the greatest State and Magnificence, together with the Extremity of Filth and Poverty.” From this perspective, the demolition of the village in the early 1930s — and the removal of its inhabitants to a new town adjacent to the ruins — represents the fulfillment of the wishes of two-and-a-half centuries worth of visitors to the site.

Advice from Baedeker’s (Palestine and Syria, 1st English edition, 1876)
Advice from Baedeker’s ‘Palestine and Syria’ (first English edition, 1876)

Why do we care so much about these ruins, while paying so little attention to the more recent past or present of Syria? Perhaps because we can assimilate these classical remains to our own past.

In past centuries, European visitors to the ruins often saw their own nations as successors to the greatness of the ancient Middle East, and specifically to Palmyra. The French philosopher Constantin Volney’s expressed this idea by setting his book Ruins (1791) in the remains of Palmyra. On speaking of his European home, Volney’s protagonist says, “I recalled her fields so richly cultivated […] the magnificence of her monuments, the arts and industry of her inhabitants, what Egypt and Syria had once possessed, I was gratified to find in modern Europe the departed splendor of Asia.” Volney’s book was popular: among others, Thomas Jefferson was taken with it — the English translation just quoted is his. Robert Wood, meanwhile, saw Great Britain as an 18th-century Palmyra: both were important trade centers, with the sea substituting for Palmyra’s desert. For Wood, Palmyra’s history served as an example for Britain’s own present and future. This sense of succession was expressed visually in Palmyra ceilings: Europe’s architecture, like its trade and its power, was directly descended from the ancient city.

a) Borra’s drawing of the Temple of Bel. Borra shrank the houses so that the ruins would stand further out – figuratively climbing on top of the roofs of the houses for a better view (Wood, Ruins of Palmyra, plate 21). b) The modern village in the Temple of Bel enclosure, c. 1900-1920 (photograph courtesy of Matson Photograph Collection, via Library of Congress)
Giovanni Battista Borra’s drawing of the Temple of Bel. Borra shrank the houses so that the ruins would stand further out, figuratively climbing on top of the roofs of the houses for a better view (Wood, Ruins of Palmyra, plate 21)

All of this fostered among Europeans (and later, Americans) a sense of ownership of the site. Wood was frustrated that he was sometimes prevented from carrying off marble pieces of Palmyra by the “avarice or stupidity of the inhabitants” — for Wood, these pieces belonged more rightfully to him and his European companions than the current inhabitants. Back home, he was afterward known as “Palmyra” Wood — even though he spent a mere 13 days of his life in the town. This association was commemorated for posterity in a painting by Gavin Hamilton (itself the basis of an engraving by John Hall), showing Wood’s and Dawkins’s “discovery” of the site. In this composition, Wood and Dawkins alone are dressed in Roman togas, while the rest of the entourage is marked as Arab by their exotic Middle Eastern dress. The two classical figures are thereby linked to the classical ruins — specifically the triumphal arch, to which they point.

How differently do we view Palmyra today? When we ignore threats to heritage in other parts of the world, while obsessing over the ruins of Palmyra; when we call for intervention to save the ruins without once mentioning the human victims of the war; when we focus only on classical (or Christian) ruins at the expense of Islamic shrines and monuments, which form the majority of ISIS’s targets; when we insist that Palmyra is global heritage and belongs to all of us; when we lecture Syrians about how to restore (or not) their damaged ancient sites; when we proclaim that the legacy of Palmyra is all around us, in the West, in the form of neoclassical architecture, what are we doing but staking a claim to our inheritance? We are the real heirs of Palmyra, not the people who live in the adjacent town still known by that name (which we ignore).

So it is very fitting that the orchestra that performed at Palmyra last week was from St. Petersburg — known since Catherine the Great’s time as the “Palmyra of the north.” The Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, like many other museums around the world, is building a model of the site (a “virtual reconstruction”) for its Palmyra hall, which is full of artifacts carried off from the site. The director of the museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, has advocated for the rights of culture — and the right to view cultural monuments — to supersede individual or national rights in some cases. Does this mean that the right to view Palmyrene artifacts in foreign museums takes precedence over the rights of Syrians, of modern-day Palmyrenes themselves?

This brings us back to the replica arch. It is worth remembering that the original was a Roman triumphal arch, the same triumphal arch to which Wood and Dawkins pointed to in Hamilton’s painting. And so we now have our own triumphal arch, set up last month in Trafalgar Square. This placement is no accident: as Roger Michel, executive director of the IDA, put it, “the reason we’re doing this on Trafalgar Square is that when you set the arch against the neoclassical columns of the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column, there’s a reason why they all look the same: our past is their past.” The arch opens directly onto the neoclassical façade of the National Gallery, placing it squarely within the canon of Western art represented by that façade and the artwork inside. What better symbol could there be of how we insert ourselves into Palmyra’s legacy, of how we usurp its inheritance?

We in Europe and the US insist that we are part of the legacy of ancient Palmyra. But perhaps we should be more concerned with the legacy of our modern interaction with Palmyra and its inhabitants.

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