Another month passes, and another ancient city falls into the hands of Islamic State. First it was Mosul, then it was Nimrud and Hatra, and now it is Palmyra in central Syria. For anyone who cares about the fate of cultural patrimony in the Middle East, this is beginning to feel like a terrifying version of the movie “Groundhog Day” that just won’t end. What motivates Islamic State’s attacks against ancient cities and art, and what is likely to happen in Palmyra?
The latest of Islamic State’s conquests is one of the great gems of world heritage, a sprawling complex of stately ruins 150 miles northeast of Damascus—a place I visited several times between 2008 and 2010. Located in a desert oasis not far from the old frontier between the Roman and Persian Empires, Palmyra became a major caravan depot in antiquity, specializing in the trade of aromatics, silks and spices. So widespread was the city’s commercial network that inscriptions in Palmyrene Aramaic—presumably left behind by traders and soldiers—have been found in such far-flung corners as Yemen, Italy and even Britain. Most significantly, Palmyra was the seat of a short-lived rebellion against Rome between 269 and 273, during which Queen Zenobia established an independent kingdom that stretched from Asia Minor to Egypt.
The riches Palmyra derived from trade led to a building boom, the fruits of which are still evident today. The greatest of the city’s monuments is the Temple of Bel, a massive sanctuary from the first century A.D. dedicated to the Mesopotamian god of the sky. There is also a stately colonnade lined with hundreds of columns, and the Valley of Tombs, where wealthy Palmyrenes constructed mausoleums filled with beautiful limestone statues. Over the past four years, Palmyra has witnessed its fair share of firefights and looting. By and large, however, it has escaped the massive devastation visited upon other historical sites, such as Apamea and Aleppo. The arrival of Islamic State last week stands to change this dramatically.
The following is a cross-post of an item by Christian C. Sahner in the Wall Street Journal.