Palmyra: A time of loss

This week we found out that ISIS has blown up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, the millennia-old Syrian UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of many destructions of ancient Syrian structures that carry special sadness for me. I lived in Syria for two years, and had the good fortune to visit Palmyra’s spectacular ruins on a couple of occasions. I saw bas reliefs of veiled women from pre-Christian times, set beneath corinthian columns and other classical features–features I suddenly recognized from San Francisco Victorians that mimicked the architecture of antiquity. I saw a mélange of influences from the Roman empire and peoples further east. I learned about Queen Zenobia, one of the few rebels who came close to resisting imperial hegemony. The sprawling site was a window into a rich and complex heritage that belied simplistic ideas about Middle Eastern history. For all these reasons, the ruins appear on Syrian banknotes: they are a symbol of the nation, a stand-in for its old soul.

Tom Holland writes eloquently about the news of the temple’s annihilation in this fantastic column in the Guardian:

The temple of Bel was (and how it stabs the heart to be obliged to use the past tense here) a monument fit to be ranked alongside the Parthenon or the Pantheon as one of the supreme architectural treasures to have survived from classical antiquity. Built soon after the absorption of Palmyra into Rome’s sphere of influence, it was dedicated in 32AD, at a time when Tiberius ruled the empire, and Jesus still walked the Earth. …

The very process of constructing the great complex, by giving to the various tribes who inhabited the oasis a common purpose, seems to have played a key role in fostering a shared sense of identity among them. As the focal structure of the city, and a cult centre open to all, Bel’s temple served as a fitting symbol of what the Palmyrenes were gradually becoming: a single people.

Every thriving polity has its Palmyra, I believe. That shared treasure that reminds a group of diverse people that, despite our differences, there are some things we stand beneath together, in awe. As a Californian, I feel that way about Yosemite, about the redwoods, and the giant sequoias. What would it be like to see those things destroyed? (Maybe we don’t have to wonder: biologists are now intensely studying the Big Trees and asking whether this exceptional drought–and similar episodes that are likely to become more frequent this century–could be their undoing.)

The annihilation of one of the most remarkable features of this site gives me the feeling that we are living in a time of great loss. In a way, it should only be a footnote to the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and the displacement of millions more, in the country’s civil war. But it is also a sort of apt headline for a heedless violence so vast it is hard to describe.

From a far distance, most of us are all but powerless to do anything about it. The best we can hope for, I think, is to seek an opportunity for greater understanding out of this incredible turmoil. And try to apply those lessons in our daily lives and our nearby communities.

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