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Submitted by Olivia Kroth…
The destruction of Palmyra at the hands of ISIS stands out as one of the most barbaric deeds during the eight-year proxy war that western governments unleashed against Syria. Known as the ‘Venice of the Sands’, the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra – located at the edge of an oasis of date palms and gardens – was a wealthy caravan centre from the 1st to the 3rd centuries after Christ, sometimes independent and at other times under the control of Rome. During the past few years, members of ISIS managed to damage or even completely destroy some of the most significant monuments in ancient Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The antique site has not been restored yet, due to the ongoing proxy war in Syria, which is secretly spurred by western states’ financial and military aid for ISIS. Russia is taking the lead as a driving force of restoration in Palmyra.
Before the outbreak of the proxy war, in March 2011, Palmyra’s UNESCO heritage site was one of the top tourist attractions in the Middle East. Since then, parts of the heritage site have been damaged constantly and one monument after the other has disppeared. Syrian government officials say they transferred about 300,000 artifacts to safe places in recent years.
UNESCO, the UN heritage agency, has called the destruction an “intolerable crime against civilization”. UNESCO General Director Irina Bokova exclaimed: “This destruction is a war crime, an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity. This blow against cultural heritage shows that cultural cleansing led by violent extremists is seeking to destroy both human lives and historical monuments in order to deprive the Syrian people of its past and its future. This is why the protection of heritage is inseparable from the protection of human lives, and we must all unite to put this at the centre of all efforts to build peace.”
As Syria’s loyal partner and ally, Russia has taken the lead in restoring the ancient site of Palmyra. In the coming months, Moscow will share its files on restoring Syria’s Palmyra with UNESCO, including a 3D model, Russia’s Defence Minister and President of the Russian Geographical Society (RGO) Sergey Shoigu revealed in an interview with TASS, Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Sergey Shoigy explained: “Combing through our archives we have uncovered photos of Palmyra, taken in 1872 by the first Russian travellers who arrived there. Now we are putting together an album, in which we want to show what was there and what has been damaged or destroyed. This endeavor is needed to understand what to do next. Therefore we are creating a 3D model of Palmyra. Soon we will send these files to UNESCO so that they can assess the overall volume of restoration works” (TASS, 19.03.2019).
Palmyra is an oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus. Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. First mentioned in archives in the 2nd millennium BC (before Christ), Palmyra became an established caravan oasis during the times of the Roman Empire, from the first to third centuries AC (after Christ). It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilisations in the ancient world.
A grand, colonnaded street of 1100 metres’ length forms the monumental axis of the city, which together with secondary colonnaded cross streets links the major public monuments including the Temple of Baal, Diocletian’s Camp, the Agora, Theatre, other temples and urban quarters. Discovery of the ruined city by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in its subsequent influence on architectural styles.
In 1980, Palmyra became part of the UNESCO World Heritage, due to the following criteria: “The splendour of the ruins of Palmyra, rising out of the Syrian desert north-east of Damascus is testament to the unique aesthetic achievement of a wealthy caravan oasis intermittently under the rule of Rome from the 1st to the 3rd century after Christ.
The grand colonnade constitutes a characteristic example of a type of structure which represents a major artistic development. Recognition of the splendour of the ruins of Palmyra by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries contributed greatly to the subsequent revival of classical architectural styles and urban design in the West.”
The primitive barbarians of ISIS are certainly not able to value the architectural and cultural achievements of former times, as they are destroying one part of Palmyra after the other, claiming the “destruction of idolatry”. Religious tolerance is an alien concept to these savages, just like the idea that our global human heritage needs to be preserved for future generations.
The vandals of ISIS are too fanatic, too uneducated, too uncouth to understand that these structures from the past provide fixed locations for national narratives, constructed in the present, and are symbols for the future as well.
In August 2015, the Temple of Baal was severely damaged by ISIS. This temple of the Mesopotamian deity Baal formed the centre of religious life in Palmyra and was dedicated in 32 BC. It showed a wonderful synthesis of ancient Near-Eastern and Greco-Roman architecture. The temple had a rectangular shape and was oriented north-south.
The northern chamber was known for a bas-relief carving of the seven planets, surrounded by the twelve signs of the Zodiac. It also showed a procession of camels and veiled women. In the court there were the remains of an altar and a basin, a dining hall and a building with niches. In the northwest corner lay a ramp, along which sacrificial animals were led into the temple area. After the devastation by ISIS, only the arched main entrance into the temple is still intact, as well as its exterior walls and the fortified gate.
In the Semitic languages, Baal was a name for “Lord” or “Master”. He was probably a weather god, with power over lightning, rain and wind. The dry summers of the area were explained as Baal’s time in the underworld. His return in autumn was said to cause the storms which revived the land. Thus, the worship of Baal was connected to the region’s dependence on rainfall for its agriculture. Anxiety about the availability of water for crops and trees increased the importance of his cult, which focused attention on his role as a rain god.
In the same month of that year, August 2015, the hordes of ISIS also destroyed the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra. Have these architectonic jewels been lost forever? Following the recapture of Palmyra by the Syrian Army in March 2016, the director of antiquities Maamoun Abdelkarim stated that the Temple of Baalshamin along with the Temple of Baal would be rebuilt, using the surviving remains.
The temple of Baalshamin’s earliest phase dates back to the late 2nd century BC. Its altar was built in 115 BC. It represented a fusion of ancient Syrian and Roman architectural styles. The temple’s proportions and the capitals of its columns were Roman in inspiration, while the side windows followed the Syrian tradition. The side walls were decorated with pilasters.
Baalshamin was another Semitic God venerated in Syria. The name means “Lord of the Heavens”. His attributes were the eagle and the lightning bolt. He formed a triad with the lunar god Aglibol and the sun god Malakbel.
In Palmyra archaeologists found the limestone relief “divine triad”, dating back to the 1st century BC. It shows Baalshamin in the middle, surrounded by Aglibol on the left and Malakbel on the right. The three deities wear breastplates with lamellas. All three hold a sword decorated with gems in their left hand. The right hands are missing. We do not know if they made a gesture of blessing or if they held a spear. In the background there is an inscription in the old alphabet of Palmyra.
The necropolis of Palmyra also became a victim of ISIS attacks. In September 2015, the terrorists blew up a total of six funerary towers, including the three best preserved. They destroyed the tower of Kithot (44 AC), the tower of Iamblichos (83 AC) and the tower of Elahbel (103 AC). Outside the city limits lie various burial grounds, which are named after their location as the north, southeast, southwest and western necropolis in the “Valley of Graves”.
According to the inscriptions these sepulchres were erected between 9 BC and 128 AC. The funerary tower of Elahbel was the largest tower. In these sepulchres, where numerous dead found their final resting place, four storeys were connected by narrow spiral staircases. The exterior of the tower tombs was usually plain. Inside, however, they were richly decorated with architectural and sculptural ornaments.
Just one month later, in October 2015, ISIS blew up the Monumental Arch, also called the Arch of Triumph or Arch of Septimius Severus. It was built in the third century AC, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, which lasted from 193 to 211 AC. This arch linked the main street of the Colonnade with the Temple of Baal.
The Monumental Arch consisted of a large gateway in the centre, flanked by a smaller opening on both sides. It was decorated with ornate stone carvings, including reliefs depicting plants or geometrical designs. The reliefs on the Monumental Arch were described by UNESCO as “an outstanding example of Palmyrene art”. It was one of the most lavishly adorned monuments of the ancient desert town.
Appalled by so much destruction, the famous Russian maestro Valery Gergiev gave a concert in the ruins of Palmyra, on the 5th of May 2016. He conducted the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra from Saint Petersburg at Palmyra’s Roman Theatre. The conductor led the orchestra through pieces by the Russian composers Sergei Prokofiev and Rodion Shchedrin. Russian soldiers, government ministers, journalists and many interested Syrian spectators were present.
The maestro described the concert as a protest against the barbarism and violence exhibited by ISIS terrorists, who had used the Roman Theatre to execute prisoners. On this occasion, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin addressed the audience by video link from his Black Sea residence in Sochi. He called terrorism a contagion, of which the world needed to rid itself.
“I regard the concert as a sign of gratitude, remembrance and hope,” he said, adding that everybody should be grateful to “those who fight terrorism without sparing one’s own life.” The Russian President called on people to remember “all victims of terror” and to “hope not just for the revival of Palmyra as cultural heritage of humanity but also for the rescue of modern civilization from this terrible menace – international terrorism.”
“The concert in Palmyra is a highly spiritual response to those who wanted to destroy Syria, to split the country along national and religious lines,” Konstantin Dolgov, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs human rights chief, wrote on Twitter (RUSSIA TODAY, 05.05.2016).
The concert was titled “Pray for Palmyra. Music revives ancient remains”. Its date coincided with the handover of Aleksander Prokhorenko’s remains for burial. The Russian special forces officer died in Syria, surrounded by ISIS terrorists. He was killed in April 2016, when Palmyra was recaptured by the Syrian Army, while Russian air strikes provided support.
Back in Russia, maestro Valery Gergiev gave an interview, in which he called the concert in Palmyra a ” humanitarian gesture. An act of sympathy and support. People there have experienced terrible events. We heard explosions in Palmyra at a distance of several kilometres, while we prepared for our rehearsal. The theatre has about two thousand years of history. It is superb, beautiful, a magnificent architectural ensemble, worthy of humanity.”
This concert, however, did not impress ISIS. The terrorists continued on their rampant path of destruction. In December 2016, ISIS destroyed the Tetrapylon, a monument marking a major road intersection along the colonnaded street of Palmyra. It was a testimony to the grandeur of the era around 270 AC, during which Queen Zenobia had reached the height of her power.
Tetrapylon were monuments which the Romans placed at the intersections of major streets. They had four openings and were associated with the worship of Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways. The Tetrapylon of Palmyra was a striking example of this form of Roman monument. Each of the four groups of pillars supported 150,000 kg of solid cornice. It was one of the rare structures in Syria, where pink granite columns were employed. The granite came fron Assuan in Egypt.
Septimia Zenobia (240–274 AC) was a Queen of the Palmyrene Empire. She was a cultured monarch and fostered an intellectual environment in her court, which was open to scholars and philosophers. Queen Zenobia was tolerant toward her subjects and protected religious minorities. She maintained a stable administration, which governed a multicultural and multiethnic empire. Her rise and death have inspired historians, artists and novelists. Zenobia has become a patriotic symbol in Syria.
In the Russian Empire, Empress Catherine the Great was likened to “Queen Zenobia, the powerful ruler of the Palmyran Empire, who conquered Egypt and a large swathe of Anatolia. In the time of Pushkin, Russian writers further developed the allusion, drawing more generally upon the reputed beauty and cultural richness of Roman Palmyra”, Gilbert Doctorov notes in his interesting essay, “Civilization returns to Palmyra – while the West scoffs” (GLOBAL RESEARCH, 08.05.2016).
The Roman Theatre, where maestro Gergiev and the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra had played, was severely damaged by ISIS, in January 2017. It dates back to the 2nd century AC. The theatre was constructed in the centre of a semicircular colonnaded piazza, which opened up to the South Gate of Palmyra. The main entrances were 3,5 metres wide, leading to a stone-paved orchestra with a diametre of 23,5 metres. The orchestra was bounded by a circular wall with a diametre of 20,3 metres. The proscenium wall was decorated with ten curved and nine rectangular niches placed alternately.
When ISIS recaptured Palmyra at the beginnning of 2017, they completely destroyed the facade of the theatre, according to Mamoun Abdulkarim, Director of the Syrian government agency of antiquities and museums. Syrian authorities reported that satellite images showed signs of intentional destruction.
Mikhail Piotrovsky, a scholar of Arabic and director of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, said that it was an act of reprisal in response to the classical concert staged by Russia. Drone footage shot by the Russian Ministry of Defence showed that the theatre was partially destroyed. The central part of the stage suffered severe damage.
Palmyra was retaken by Syrian government forces, in early March 2017. The Syrian authorities hoped that tourists could return soon but nothing has come of it yet. Restoration of the damaged sites had to be postponed. The governor of Homs, Tar al-Barazi, told the press that Syrian Palmyra would be ready to welcome its first tourists in the summer of 2019 (TASS, 15.08.2018). Due to the ongoing war, however, his hopes have been crushed. Some western powers and their proxy ally ISIS seem to have a geopolitical as well as a military interest in keeping the pot boiling.
The director of Russia’s Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg offered expertise to help restore the ancient Syrian city. “Restoring Palmyra is the responsibility of all of us,” Mikhail Piotrovsky told TASS. “Restoring Palmyra is a long-term task, and it is essential that we take our time,” he said, estimating that up to 70 percent of the ancient historic site could have been damaged or destroyed. He noted that Russia has “plenty of experience with restoring destroyed historic monuments”, notably after World War II (TASS, 02.06.2016).
Rebuilding, reconstructing, recreating and restoring cannot be carried out when a war is still ongoing and should not be rushed. Yet one thing is clear: the victorious side will decide how to carry out this post-war work in Palmyra. Surely the Syrian Government, with Russia’s help, will authorize the plans and supervise their implementation.
Meanwhile, the world is waiting for the restoration of the UNESCO World Heritage site in Syria and the Russian saying is still valid: “Pray for Palmyra”.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.
Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com