I find it all a bit odd, this concern of ours about the ruins of Palmyra. Sure, the Bride of the Desert may soon be rubble-ised by the nihilists of Isis [Daesh]. But I was ill at ease when I compared the amount of space we gave to the destruction that may await this Roman World Heritage Site after its capture from the Syrian army, to the much smaller and less emotional reports of the execution by Isis of between 200 and 400 men, women and children in the city. Is not a child’s life worth more than a planet, let alone a Palmyrene Corinthian column?
And then along came BBC World with a broadcast that carried a brief account of the murders, including the children, followed immediately – in the same breath, no less – by a far longer report on the danger existentially posed to a bird, the rare bald ibis of Palmyra. Would we, I wonder, have chosen this perspective if British souls were being expunged? “British troops retreat to Dunkirk – many French cows dead.”
I’ve walked through Palmyra, and in the early Eighties bought Iain Browning’s eloquent book on the Roman city of Queen Zenobia (he, like his mentor Denys Hayes, the former Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, mercifully died long before Palmyra was endangered), which recounts the story of the very first European visitors to the ruins. The first expedition in 1678, led by a Dr Huntingdon from Aleppo, was frightened away by armed Arabs – yes, it’s all true, he called them “a Company of Arabian Robbers” – but later trips by Robert Wood and James Dawkins in 1751 and, in the early 19th century, by William Pitt’s wearying and spendthrift niece Lady Hestor Stanhope (who thought herself a second Zenobia) opened Palmyra to the world.
But what is most striking in my copy of Browning’s book – much “foxed” by the damp sea breezes which assault my Beirut bookshelves – are the number of times Palmyra had already been destroyed in antiquity. In 41 BC, the buildings escaped when Mark Antony arrived, only to find Palmyra’s inhabitants had fled east into the land of the Parthians – who had, 12 years earlier, destroyed the army of Crassus (conqueror of Spartacus) and chopped off his head, Isis-style, after his surrender. Only the videotape was missing. About 300 years later, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, fought for her son’s independence against Aurelian – who at first spared the city but then destroyed it when its inhabitants slaughtered the Roman garrison. Aurelian, according to Browning, let his troops “go on the rampage, looting, killing, burning, destroying”. In fact, very much preparing the ground for Isis.
Khalid ibn al-Walid, one of the best soldiers of the First Caliph (a Companion of the Prophet), warned “inhabitants of Tadmor [Palmyra], were you up in the clouds, by God I would bring you down” during the Muslim wars. This time, Palmyra surrendered. In time, the Roman Temple of Bel was turned into a mosque. The Roman ruins were used as a quarry – much as the Coliseum was to become in Rome. Earthquakes broke even more of them. Palmyra was lucky in the Second World War when the Luftwaffe used its local airport to bomb the Brits in Iraq. In 1941, the 8th Duke of Wellington found himself reconnoitring the night-time Roman ruins opposite the Vichy French.
Nothing new, then. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I had coffee in Beirut with Commandant Kevin McDonald of the Irish Army, who has published some thoughtful monographs on hitherto undiscovered archaeological sites in Syria and Chad. A UN officer, he found flint arrowheads lying in the desert beside Polisario cartridges in the Western Sahara. Only recently, he was able to advise a UN colleague in southern Lebanon that a Hezbollah “position” was more probably a cairn thousands of years old. More seriously, he writes that there have been “cases of cultural vandalism” by international soldiers abroad, including the Western Sahara, “spraying graffiti on or near sites with significant rock art that dates to approximately 2,500 BC.”
McDonald advocates a more archaeologically educated military but admits that the deliberate destruction of the world’s heritage passes all boundaries. While the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamian, the Hindus at Ayodhya destroyed centuries-old mosques, and Christian extremists “have hacked down ... artefacts and statues of religious rivals and pagans alike”. I was fortunate enough to walk across the Ottoman Bridge at Mostar (again, with an Irish peackeeper) before the Croats shelled it into the Neretva River.
This was cultural cleansing, an attempt to destroy an entire people’s identity in war. The distinction of the Taliban and now Isis is that they know the value of what they are destroying or threatening to destroy. Palmyra was, for centuries, also a Muslim city. No chit-chat about archaeological education is going to stop the lads in black turbans from trashing the place, although a cartoon in a Lebanese newspaper a few days ago showed a photograph of the Palmyra Roman ruins, of roofless colonnades and broken columns, with a cartoon black-uniformed and armed Isis man holding a mallet. “I’m too late!” he cries. “Somebody has already destroyed it!!!”
I have a suspicion, however, engendered by the Lebanese archaeologist Joanne Farchakh, that there is more than meets the eye to Isis’s cultural vandalism. The destruction of ancient sites is a response to the Islamic Caliphate’s ideological fantasies – but is also used to cover up the pillage and sale of antiquities on the black market.
“The more antiquities appear threatened with extinction, the more the mafias can charge for their booty,” Farchakh says. A vicious circle, then, in which the more artefacts are sold, the greater the threat of destruction and vice versa. To flog off small relics of statues – toes or hands or carved stone – the statues must first be destroyed. Along with oil, in other words, Isis needs and loves the antiquities it destroys.
A grim perspective, indeed. And now we have reports of mass Isis executions in the Roman theatre of Palmyra. So let’s just keep the bald ibis out of this.
By Robert Fisk
Copyright © Independent Print Limited