The site of Palmyra currently contains a combination of magnificent ruins that were built over 2000 years ago, and ruins and monuments that have since been destroyed. This ancient city was once the capital of social and cultural diversity, which was at it’s peak in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (Britannica). Palmyra, which is located in present day Syria, dates back to the 19th century BCE. It’s location was vital to what it would become, as it was in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River. Its great trading location connected the Romans with Mesopotamia, in addition to linking Persia, India, and China (UNESCO). This great city was uniquely bilingual, which reflected its position in trade, as it has inscriptions in it’s tablets and monuments that are in Greek and Aramaic (Romey 2016). In addition to the mix of language, UNESCO also states there was also a mix of Roman and Persian architecture present at the site. With the wide variety of cultures present at this site, there was also a wide variety of dedications to many gods, including those from Phoenician, Babylonian, and Arabic (Romey 2016). Palmyra was known as one of of the best preserved sites for antiquity.
Because of it’s importance in history through it’s blend of cultures, as well as the site’s beauty, it was one of the most popular tourist destination in Syria. Palmyra was visited by about 150,000 tourists a year, until the Syrian conflict started in 2011 (Jeffries 2015).
Before 2011, Palmyra was already on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This was due to several reasons including:
- The weathering of stone blocks that make up the ruins of the site, due to humidity and temperature.
- Urbanization and expansion from neighboring cities. With this also came increased tourism and pollution rise from transportation.
- Looting of stone sculptures from unexcited sites. In addition, looters also caused serious cracking in the foundations of ancient buildings. (Looting became even more of a serious threat once the Syrian conflict began, due to lack of civil control).
In 2014, however, the sites endangerment became more extreme as ISIS gained control of the area.; problems suffered before were completely masked and minimized. Since, ISIS fighters have destroyed many 2000 year old monuments mainly using explosives, including sites such as:
- Lion of aL-Lat, statue of a lion (Denton 2016)
- Arches of the city including it’s Roman columns (Denton 2016)
- Temple of Baal Shamen, which is considered one of the most important religious buildings of the 1st century (UNESCO)
- Arch of Triumph, a history, and non-religious symbol (Barnard 2015)
- The famous Temple of Bel, which was said to be the most beautiful symbol of all of Syria by the Syrian antiquities director, Maamoun Abdulkarim (Jeffries 2015)
In addition, it was made clear that this was an attack on the archeological record and field, highlighted by the fact of the killing of the Syrian director of antiquities, Khaled al-Assad. al-Assad was tortured before he was beheaded, and after had his body hung over a traffic light with a sign that read “apostate” (Wieseltier 2016).
However, in March of 2016, the Syrian army retook control of the Syrian city, and are currently removing explosives and traps all across the area (McKirdy 2016)
In the Past
Unfortunately, destruction of cultural heritage sites is frequent throughout history and throughout the world. During war and conflict, these sites become tremendously susceptible to damage or complete desolation.
During the conflict between Serbians and Albanians in the Kosovo War in 1999-2004, 112 Orthodox churches and monasteries in Serbia were destroyed (Mojzes 2004). These cultural symbols were destroyed by large groups of Albanians with the aim of ethic cleansing. This is an example of the targeting of symbolic and religious structures in the aim of destroying history and identity.
In World War II, German forces were notorious for destroying and looting heritage at sites they invaded, like Poland. In fact, during 1944, the Nazis completely destroyed 85% of the entire capital city of Warsaw (UNESCO). Buildings were left to rubble, including important religious buildings such as churches and the Royal Castle. As unfortunate and devastating as this site was, archeologists can learn from the steps taken to Warsaw after the war ended. Warsaw was entirely reconstructed, with both important historic and symbolic buildings rebuilt, and new areas created as a symbol in itself. Warsaw is a great example for current archeologists, especially in Syria, to see how a historic area can arise from it’s ashes after being annihilated from the ground by an extremist group.
Currently, like in the past, archeologists are moving artifacts and antiquities out of the area as fast as possible. The level of urgency is summed up by the director general of UNESCO when he stated, “the destruction (to Palmyra) is on an industrial scale“ (Harkin 2016).
However, some things are not able to be relocated, like the arches and ancient monuments that have been destroyed. In addition, others simply shouldn’t, which is highlighted by a member of Syria’s Ministry of Information, who states, “to remove it would be to ruin it” (Harkin 2016). Artifacts, such as tombs, have meaning not only through the deceased person, but also to the location that they were stored. Hence, to move it, would be to relinquish some of this meaning. This statement is made so powerful by the fact that it was said when the city in reference was already completely destroyed by 60%.
Luckily for Syria, the damage done to historic sites and artifacts from Palmyra and Syria have not been close to all encompassing. In fact, with the help of almost 2500 people, a majority archeologists, they have kept the overwhelming majority of Syria collections safe, numbering 300,000 objects (Harkin 2016).
Even though these collections are currently safe, looting is still a massive problem in Syria. In order to combat looting, governmental bodies can make it more difficult to import these artifacts. In addition, changing the mind of the public through the media and holding museums more responsible can also improve this situation. Looting in Syria, however, is made especially difficult and important when ISIS demands that looters give them a share of their earnings. CBS News reported in 2015 that ISIS has made hundreds of millions dollars in these transactions.
In March of 2016, CNN reported that Syria’s antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, confirmed that the destroyed ruins will be rebuilt. However, the damage done to this ancient site can never be reversed. The ruins of this site will now forever have a mark in history in which they were demolished by a terrorist campaign.
In an ancient pluralistic state like Palmyra, there was many ways of doing and living, or style and belief. By destroying the symbols and buildings which stood for this, ISIS showed that they aimed to halt cultural diversity, and only have there way as the way of living.
However, the solution to this problem is not simply to help recognize that these sites are important. In fact, according to professor of art history Dr. Branham, one of the reasons why ISIS are destroying these sites in the first place is to show the world how powerful they are by detonating these valuable areas. Further, it undermines the areas for valuing these antiquities in the first place. ISIS destruction is unique in that although the damage is inflicted on these specific sites, it is meant to be observed throughout the world. The damage to these heritage sites is viewed all around the globe through various media outlets. Through this, people are able to feel the loss of heritage of humanity.
Even though Syria may appear to be divided in so many ways with it’s current conflict, cultural heritage is vital as it shows what connects all the different paths together: history. It is a way to understand ourselves, others, and the long history of this species’ culture and where we come from. It is crucial to recapture areas invaded by ISIS to protect these historic sites that bring a sense of identity to not only people in that area, but all around the world.
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