Mon, Sep 07, 2015 - Page 9 News List

‘The heart of Palmyra has been ripped out of the city’

The Islamic State is destroying the ‘Venice of the Sands’ piece by piece — and worse atrocities may be yet to come. Will the brutal organization erase the memory of Syria’s extraordinary history?

By Stuart Jeffries  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

“At length we stood on the end of the col and looked over Palmyra,” wrote British traveler, archeologist and poet Gertrude Bell on May 20, 1900. “I wonder if the wide world presents a more singular landscape. It is a mass of columns, ranged into long avenues, grouped into temples, lying broken on the sand or pointing one long solitary finger to Heaven. Beyond them is the immense Temple of Baal; the modern town is built inside it and its rows of columns rise out of a mass of mud roofs. And beyond, all is the desert, sand and white stretches of salt and sand again, with the dust clouds whirling over it and the Euphrates five days away. It looks like the white skeleton of a town, standing knee deep in the blown sand.”

Bell, the so-called “Queen of the Desert” — whom Nicole Kidman plays in a new film directed by Werner Herzog — was entranced by what she saw. She wrote that “the stone used here is a beautiful white limestone that looks like marble and weathers a golden yellow like the Acropolis.” As she rode on a camel into town, she passed the “famous Palmyrene tombs,” “great stone towers, four stories high, some more ruined and some less, standing together in groups or bordering the road. Except Petra, Palmyra is the loveliest thing I have seen in this country.”

Bell was admiring what has become known as the “Venice of the Sands,” the ruins of an ancient city that, between the first and third centuries AD, rose in splendor as an oasis of date palms and gardens in the Syrian desert, sometimes independent and at other times under the control of Rome and which, for 1,500 years, remained one of the best preserved sites from antiquity.

Later scholars have gone further than Bell in praising the city.

“Among the great cities of antiquity, Palmyra is comparable only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece,” said G.W. Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

However, since last Monday, the view Bell savored no longer exists. The splendor Bowersock hymned is fast disappearing. Ancient Palmyra is, seemingly, turning Ozymandian and being integrated with the surrounding desert, as the buildings that made it worthy of being a UNESCO heritage site are reduced to rubble. Last Monday evening, after comparing satellite images taken before and after an explosion in Palmyra, the UN Training and Research Agency confirmed the destruction of the main Temple of Bel (also known as Baal or Ba’al) and a row of columns nearby.

Ross Burns, adjunct professor of ancient history at Macquarie University in Sydney and author of two works on the archeology and history of Syria, explained what the world has lost.

“This is one of the most important of the great temple sites of the Roman eastern provinces. The central shrine, or cella, stood in an enormous colonnaded courtyard. The shrine itself was also surrounded by a columned portico on all sides and was blown up with great proficiency. The only part that appears to be standing is the remarkable western doorway into the shrine, which was a spectacular entry with a richly decorated frame that sloped inwards as it rose in an Egyptian-influenced style,” Burns said.

Burns said the temple’s shrine and courtyard were relatively large, reflecting the early Roman period’s tradition of enormous pilgrimage complexes, including the original Temple of Jupiter in Damascus, its even larger counterpart in Baalbek and the Jerusalem Temple built by Herod the Great.

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