If you have not yet made holiday plans for the summer of 2019, the Syrian regime may have some options for you. In a statement released last week to the Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik, it announced that restoration and rebuilding efforts were under way to restore the ancient city of Palmyra, in Homs province, and open it back up to tourists next year, following the ruins’s occupation and desecration by ISIS militants.
The plan to revive the almost-perished wonders, which date back to the first century CE when the city was a grand trading outpost under the Roman empire, suggests a certain kind of ambition. No sooner had the news been released than the world’s media outlets rushed to restate the Syrian government’s intentions and the hopes they represented. The articles all followed a familiar tune: an emphasis on the special nature of the site as it existed prior to its seizure in 2015, a record of its loss to the rapacious barbarism of the Islamic State, some including pictures of the two still standing columns of the Temple of Bel – once a testament to the glories of Palmyra past, now signifying the loss of what once was.
Tragedy has an undeniable presence at Palmyra – but not only of the sort suggested by the mournful screeds that have appeared in the pages of the world’s newspapers. If the destruction of buildings and relics of millennia-old merchant cultures is the more obvious cataclysm, its no less potent cousin is the fact that the modern-day city of Palmyra or Tadmor, attached to the ruins, is even more forgotten than the most dilapidated remains of its ancient counterpart. The archaeologist Michael Press has noted how so little of the coverage of the re-opening of Palmyra actually talks about the Palmyra of now: what was endured by the living citizens who still inhabit the modern city, who lost not only buildings and schools and hospitals, but many loved ones.
Cultural heritage has undeniable value, but it is often deployed in order to avoid reflection on the other costs of conflict. In Syria, the prioritizing of cultural heritage and ancient sites over human lives did not evolve suddenly, or even as a backlash against ISIS’s plundering of Palmyra. In a speech delivered at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in September 2014, many months before Islamic State’s assault on Palmyra, then US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at length about the need to protect the world’s historic sites and treasures from destruction. It was arguably a weaponization of archaeology to make the case for war – something Kerry was actively doing later that autumn. His comments on the past were highly selective, leaving out the damage done by NATO and US-led assaults to the archaeological heritage of the region.
As the Oxford historian Josephine Quinn writes in the London Review of Books, a more careful and comprehensive consideration would have noted that Palmyra’s out-of-the-way location was also the site for one of Assad’s most notorious prisons, where his political opponents were stowed away and where nearly 1000 were killed even before the war began.
Palmyra’s promised resurrection is likely to serve the interests of the Syrian regime, that same conglomerate of butchers that has made rivers of its citizens’s blood flow through towns and desert. Popularizing the ‘re-opening’ of Palmyra is not the daft dream of a bungling government hoping for the sudden resumption of its tourist trade. It is an ostensible moral repositioning of a regime that desperately needs re-branding.
The classicist Paul Veyne argues that ‘the temples and artifacts of Palmyra were destroyed because they were venerated by citizens of the West.’ Focusing on the ancient site permits the Syrian regime to offer up the barbarians of Islamic State as the real villains, with their own genocide reduced to a sideshow. In this sordid competition, the murderous terror group that destroyed antiquities and archeological treasures in addition to killing thousands of civilians comes out worse than the regime that merely mowed down its own thousands with utter impunity. This, at least, is the Syrian government’s current wager on Palmyra.
While the quarrel over the worst villain in a cast of villains continues, the suffering persists. The loss to the Syrian people, the still living humans of Palmyra and Homs and Aleppo and all the other ravaged and bloodied towns and cities across Syria, is not simply a matter of historical memory preserved in artifacts. Ordinary Syrians, when talking about what spaces and buildings they miss most from their pre-war life, do not talk about Palmyra, but rather the ordinary homes and neighbourhoods in their towns and cities. Those, of course, are not revered by the world, which would rather concern itself with the reconstruction of the Old City of Aleppo.
Veyne also notes the reason behind ancient Palmyra’s astounding prosperity; the discovery of the shortest route between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates – a rocky, improbable path bridging civilizations. The loss of that discovery, literal and ideological, is the real tragedy of Palmyra, and the list of murderers appended to it includes not just the Syrian regime, the Islamic State and the vast panoply of other groups, but also the West, whose sealed borders would be an affront even to the ancient Palmyrenes.
Main image: Palmyra, Syria, 2006. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: James Gordon
Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon, 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury, 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, The Baffler, The New Republic, The New York Times, and many other publications.