Back when you could visit Syria, Palmyra was a much-anticipated highlight. World Heritage listed by UNESCO for pristine ruins recalling its history as an ancient Silk Road hub, and as a key outpost of the Seleucid and Roman Empires, Palmyra was not just one of Syria’s treasures, but the world’s. So the news of the past few days of its fate as the latest victim of the Daesh (ISIS) onslaught has prompted dismal recollections of my 2010 visit.
The incomparable Temple of Bel and environs.
Palmyra Oasis and township, 2010.
We arrived in the green oasis, the dusty palms of which give Palmyra its name, with the rosy glow of the sinking sun bathing the incomparable Temple of Bel. Famous Queen Zenobia, who expanded the Palmyrene Empire as far as Egypt in the third century AD, expelling a Roman prefect in the process, rode these same streets; as far back as the second millennium BC those traversing the Syrian desert would welcome the sight of Palmyra’s palms as their caravans took a well-earned break. Exotic fare traded from far-flung corners passed through. Reliefs carved into the Temple of Bel depict foods rare in desert climes such as fish and pineapples. The Valley of Tombs necropolis reminds visitors of the Seleucids’ reign while the remnants of a military complex which fortified the Roman Emperor Diocletian during his tenure still stand watch over the valley.
Diocletian’s fortress and camp stand couldn’t help Palmyra this time around.
What fate for the quaint Temple of Ba’alshamin celebrating the God of heavens, storms and rain?
With the Daesh‘s interpretation of idolatry, or any monument lauding other cultures and religions, what hope for these priceless antiquities which give so much pleasure and inspiration? Already there are reports of executions of local people. And what of those Palmyrese that made our desert visit so colourful and memorable? The motor-cycle riding, budding Bedu entrepreneurs who herded us into manageable buying groups to offload their wares of camel bone jewellery, textiles and scarves; or the Bedouin entertainers who delighted us with evening music and dancing and banquets of goat, rice, lentils and salads in carpeted tents? Are they among the victims? Are the coloured floodlights still shining on Palmyra’s Roman colonnades? Or, like so many of the region’s lives and treasures, have the lights been snuffed out?
The Valley of Tombs would face an uncertain future.
Are the lights still shining on Palmyra’s Roman colonnades?