The destruction by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of the ancient city of Palmyra is an attack on architecture and on history itself, says Dan Cruickshank
Palmyra in Syria has been, since its discovery and documentation by western merchants and antiquaries in the 17th and 18th centuries, a source of wonder and a place of visual and architectural beauty that inspires and inflames the imagination. With its Corinthian colonnades prancing through the desert, tower-tombs with pilastered interiors containing portraits of their ornately coiffured one-time occupants, amphitheatre, triumphal arches and sturdily built temples to ancient and long-dead Arab gods, Palmyra has long been regarded as one of the most evocative and delightful ruined cities from the ancient world.
Before the arrival of Europeans Palmyra’s romantic ruins – conjuring up images of decayed grandeur – had been respected, and certainly tolerated, during centuries of Islamic rule.
The city was not razed when it surrendered to Islamic forces in 634 and during the following centuries the ruins were occasionally robbed for building stone but there was no systemic slighting of temples or tombs for ideological of theological reasons. The temples of the old gods were general meditated upon in philosophic manner by Muslims, who saw them as revelations of the transitory nature of human affairs before the coming of the prophet Muhammad.
I visited the ‘Queen of the Desert’ – Palmyra’s inevitable but revealing sobriquet – in 2007 when making a BBC TV series, Adventures in Architecture. It was an obvious location to choose. There were the sensational architectural remains and monuments of course – wrought in superb sandstone that glows in the desert sun and possesses the vigour and invention that so often distinguishes the classical architecture in provincial cities of the Roman world. But there was also the story of the city’s rich and most individual culture, which evolved during its Golden Age 1,800 years ago, when it thrived as one of the great trade centres of the Middle East.
And then there is the epic tale of Zenobia, the city’s queen, who in 270 had the gall not just to throw off Roman rule but, in an ill-fated rebellion, made a bid to form her own empire from conquered Roman territory, including Egypt. Zenobia seems the embodiment of the feminine power of Palmyra, where the goddess Allat was one of the major deities, where the delicate and maidenly beauty of the Corinthian order was favoured, and where the city’s main street – now named Colonnade Street – curves in gracious, and sinuous feminine fashion in stark contrast to the rigid and right-angular grid that characterises most Roman cities of the time.
Old stones and ancient beauty can be worth dying for
But this architectural beauty, rich history and tradition of toleration did Palmyra – one of the great and until now uncontested cultural treasure of the world – little good when it was occupied last May by the forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Palmyra – only 240km north-east of Damascus – is of great strategic importance, adjoins a major gas field and had been the focus of earlier IS interest. And – as few now doubt – the illegal trade in looted antiquities is one of IS’s major sources of income, making Palmyra, rich in ancient artefacts, a tempting prize.
IS’s seizure of Palmyra shocked and dismayed most of the world. In previous months IS had displayed, with its shocking destruction of antiquities in Iraq, an utterly brutal cultural terrorism. The sudden attacks on the Mosul Museum, on the 2,800-year-old Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, and on the 2,000-year-old Parthian city of Hatra made it horribly clear that IS’s treatment of history was just as intolerant and savage as its treatment of human beings who happen to stand in its way or who do not agree with its narrow world view.
IS is doing far more than destroying ancient works of art that could, to a simplistic mind, be seen as idols. It is also destroying architecture, ancient cities and, in a sense, is attempting to destroy history – memory – itself. Anything that predates the rise of Islam and that does not apparently reflect its initial phase not only has no value for Salafists like IS, but also is an intolerable challenge to IS’s determination to enforce a single caliphate upon the entire world.
So in this deeply depressing environment the immaculate 2,000-year-old temples of Baal Shamin and of Bel, along with three exquisite funerary towers dating from the first century AD in Palmyra have fallen sacrifice – all obliterated by stone-shattering explosions. The Temple of Baal Shamin was an almost perfectly preserved jewel of a classical building – reminiscent of the Roman temple at Nîmes. The Temple of Bel – the single most important building in Palmyra – was similar in conception to the Parthenon and almost as large, but far loftier in proportion. It represented the fantastic fusion of cultures that gives Palmyra such individual diction and artistic vigour. Its external Corinthian colonnade was of Roman grandeur, combined with idiosyncratic Assyrian details; the cella the columns embraced was ornamented with chaste Grecian Ionic engaged columns and piers with a solemn interior, clad with giant Ionic pilasters and containing a recess with a wonderfully carved ceiling (pictured overleaf) incorporating a zodiac in homage of Bel – the great Cosmic God responsible for the destinies of men, whom he regulated through the movement of the stars.
Robert Wood and James Dawkins, when they surveyed the temple for their 1753 publication The Ruins of Palmyra, were amazed by the details they discovered. Their book contains an engraving of this ceiling which, with other views they recorded, did much to invigorate mid-Georgian architecture and inspire such brilliant and inventive architects as Robert Adam and James Wyatt. That this source of inspiration is now lost, in such dreadful and absurd circumstances, is truly heartbreaking. The gods these temples were built to celebrate cannot, in any conceivable way, be seen as virile idols and potential challenges to Islam, although, of course, the buildings were reminders of the wonder of the pre-Islamic world. This alone, for the benighted thugs of IS, was enough to justify such vandalism.
What is to be done? To declare such acts of cultural terrorism war crimes, as Unesco has done, is correct, but futile, unless this declaration is acted upon and the perpetrators pursued. Such pursuit implies engaging IS in land warfare, but this would appear to be no more than rising to its bait and – on recent experience – such warfare could be messy, bloody and inconclusive. But the real question is not whether the world community takes action against IS, but how long is it prepared not to?
In the face of such an implacable foe, suggestions that future cultural targets should be ‘saved’ by being documented by ‘Monuments Men’ armed with 3D cameras and 3D printers is futile and deeply defeatist. Collating images of objects could be a useful tool to counter looting by making stolen items more difficult to sell. But the future creation of accurate replicas of lost buildings is a response more desperate than reassuring and the plan, if implemented, can only encourage IS by suggesting the acceptance of the remorseless expansion of its caliphate.
Is it justified to risk lives to save beauty and history, to save ancient stones? To me this is an irrelevant question. To destroy the past – as IS is attempting – is wicked and wrong. It dilutes the present and robs future generations of the chance to learn from history, to experience the awe and wonder that has thrilled the generations of travellers who have explored such ancient treasures as Palmyra. Of course old stones and ancient beauty can be worth dying for, because they are among the things that inspire, inform and give meaning to life.
Dan Cruickshank is an historian and television presenter, with a special interest in the history of architecture
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