By Isabelle Sagraves
On March 27, 2016, the ancient city of Palmyra was recaptured from the Islamic State by Syrian forces, but the city that they recaptured was not the same as the city that was lost. After ten months of ISIS occupation, the ancient city and its inhabitants have suffered greatly. Evidence of massacres and torture has been found throughout the city, among the ancient stones and ruins of a past civilization that demonstrated tolerance and diversity. Ironically, its face has been marred by the injustice and cruelty of the Islamic State; yet perhaps through its repair, Palmyra has demonstrated the chance of real cooperation and solidarity in Syria.
Palmyra is a city of exceptional historical significance, and it has existed for millennia. Since its establishment as a major trade city in the second century CE, it has stood as a location of cultural exchange. It has been home to Arabs, Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout its long and complex history, and it is often described as a home for pluralism and religious tolerance in its heyday. UNESCO writes on their website, “Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria. 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 civilizations in the ancient world.” This crossroads is demonstrated in Palmyra’s fascinating and unique architecture and artifacts, which demonstrate Greco-Roman influences mixed with Arabic, Aramaic, and (later) Muslim traditions. Palmyra is currently a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes temples, more than 1000 columns, and a large necropolis.
Today, within the context of ISIS’s advances throughout the Middle East, Palmyra is also important because of its strategic location. Located on a major highway through Syria, Palmyra gives access to a large part of ISIS’s territory, so its recapture has cut off an important route linking ISIS’s heartland to other regions it could potentially move into. The joint attack by Syrian ground forces and Russian air strikes have constituted a significant victory against the Islamic State.
However, during their ten month long occupation of the city, ISIS managed to destroy many of the precious artifacts that UNESCO protects. ISIS adopts a strict interpretation of Sharia law that advocates for the destruction of false idols, which, to them, include historical monuments. Two extremely significant destroyed monuments include the Temple of Baalshamin and Arch of Triumph, both of which date to approximately two thousand years old; many other monuments that have been destroyed were directly linked to the Muslim faith, such as a tomb of one of Muhammad’s cousins. Clearly, however, artifacts were not the only things destroyed during the past ten months: a mass grave has been uncovered with more than forty bodies, including women and children. Evidence of torture has also been found throughout the city, and countless people have fled the city to surrounding regions where they are living as refugees.
Western leaders have been rather quiet in response to this event, perhaps because of their limited involvement in the successful recapture. Contrastingly, Putin has been vocal, and, in a statement, claimed “I hope that this pearl of world civilization, or at least what’s left of it after bandits have held sway there, will be returned to the Syrian people and the entire world.” He has also pledged to fund the rebuilding of the destroyed sites. Additionally, many archaeologists and other historians around the world have taken this situation and used it to advocate for cooperation in the reconstruction process, perhaps a cooperation that could symbolize a united and strong anti-ISIS front. Maamoun Abdulkarim, the Syrian antiquities chief, claimed that the rebuilding of these destroyed sites could constitute a “message of anti-terror”.
The importance of Palmyra as a symbolic location cannot be underestimated. ISIS used it as an effective symbol as its ruined buildings served as the backdrop for many propaganda messages. The anti-ISIS forces can also harness the symbolism behind Palmyra through the rebuilding process. The rebuilding of Palmyra can be used as a powerful demonstration of cooperation and solidarity against the Islamic State, but it also has the potential to become propaganda for Putin or Assad if they are the only ones involved. In this way, it may become important for Western countries to speak up about this event and to asist in the reconstruction of an ancient city that once symbolized a vibrant community of coexistence and tolerance.