Palmyra (the place not your local kebab house) has been in the news a lot lately. The ruins of this ancient city lie in the middle of the Syrian desert and are currently occupied by ISIS militants who have hit headlines for blowing up temples, beheading the archaeologist who looked after the site and using the ancient theatre to hold public executions.
It also hit the news with people upset that the destruction of these buildings and ruins apparently engenders more press coverage and outrage from the West than the deaths of countless civilians have beforehand, who wring their hands asking, “do we care more about buildings than people?”
Having visited the site in 2008 just after finishing my degree I figured I would share my thoughts on why the destruction of these sites is a big deal, which I admit is also partly as an excuse to use some of my old photos which, as the site is further destroyed, I guess start to assume the role of being actual historical sources…
First I would suggest that it is disingenuous to suggest that the headline coverage of the destruction of these temples suggests people in the West care more about buildings than people. The plight of civilians in Syria can hardly be said to have gone unreported, numerous articles have reported on the terrible conditions that have to be endured by some civilians trapped in towns besieged either by the regime or the rebels, and numerous column inches have expressed outrage at the use of barrel bombs by the regime and chemical weapons by some of the rebels. It is not a zero sum game, there is space for reporting on both.
But there is, I believe, something uniquely distressing about the destruction of these ancient sites which makes them deserving of headline coverage. Starting off with the purely practical point of view, this, and some of the other ruins around the country are places that in a peaceful united Syria would be a major tourist draw, with all the economic benefits to the country that would bring.
But perhaps less practically, to me as a historian, they represent a physical embodiment of our shared past and our shared ideas. This goes beyond the fact that they represent a rare shared heritage belonging equally to all the different religious and ethnic groups in Syria, they represent a shared heritage of the world as a whole, that of people coming together to live in communities which 2,000 years later still look remarkably similar to our own. It had houses, water distribution systems, streets, shops, theatres, public squares and various places of worship. It was a centre of trade and commerce sat between two great civilisations, that of Rome and Persia. Like our modern cities they places people would come to looking for work, they would worship different gods and languages and ideas would be exchanged and spread. When I visited Palmyra in 2008 I got a tremendous feeling of the strength of the human condition, our ability to adapt and flourish across the globe through the centuries, despite all the various natural and man-made disasters thrown up in our way. Did the craftsmen and city planners who commissioned and build these structures 2,000 years ago ever dream they would still be standing, their fine carvings still being admired 2,000 years later? They represented a continued existence that I found a source of strength and they exuded a sence of permanence, the absence of which we often bemoan in our modern lives where our phones becoming outdated within months and where even our own modern monumental buildings, skyscrapers, come with at most a 100 year lifespan and usually much less.
And the fundamental similarity of these ancient city sites with our own more modern urban environments is also a clue I think to the fact that whatever time period you may look at, or whatever part of the globe you choose to focus on and for all the apparent cultural differences you may see on the surface, we are at heart, reassuringly similar. You don’t always get that from just reading written sources or accounts of the past. Its much like how I found with my own travels. Reading an account of life in Uzbekistan or Burma can often leave you focused on the differences between that place and our own countries and cities, but upon visiting them and seeing for yourselves the familiar buildings and services on offer you realise those differences are not as fundamental as you once thought. We are creatures that seek out others to live in communities to help us achieve the basic wants we all seem to look for in life: shelter, companionship security and entertainment.
An attack on Palmyra is an attack on that idea, an attack on a window into our common heritage. It is a blow for ignorance and divisiveness. We should rightly mourn the tragic deaths caused by the fighting in Syria and push to find solutions to this crisis, but equally, we should feel no shame in mourning the passing of these buildings and expressing outrage at those who in the name of hate would seek to destroy a heritage that unites.