Ancient Syrian Sites: A Different Story of Destruction

Hugh Eakin,
New York Review of Books.

Among the major turning points of the Syrian conflict, few have been laden with as much symbolism—or geopolitical posturing—as the recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016. After a weeks-long campaign by Russian bombers and Syrian regime soldiers, the withdrawal of ISIS forces from this extraordinary desert oasis was celebrated as bringing an end to an infamous reign of barbarism.

Syrian Army soldiers at the ruins of the Temple of Bel after retaking the destroyed ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State militants, April 2016

Syrian Army soldiers at the Temple of Bel

Connecting Rome and the civilizations of the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia and the empires of the East, Palmyra had been one of the great trading centers of antiquity; for centuries, its incomparable ruins had stood as monuments to Arab glory and Levantine cosmopolitanism. Over the previous ten months, however, the jihadists had reduced to rubble its most important shrine, a soaring, exquisitely decorated first-century-CE temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel, who was central to Palmyra’s religious cult.

ISIS also blew up a second temple, dedicated to the other supreme Palmyrene deity, Baalshamin; it toppled the triumphal arch on the colonnaded main street, which may have commemorated a Roman victory over the Parthians in the late second century CE; demolished several of the city’s distinctive tower tombs; and sacked the archaeological museum at the site. Most chillingly, it executed the eighty-one-year-old Syrian archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, who had for decades been in charge of the site.

At the end of his moving new book, Palmyre: L’irremplaçable trésor, which is dedicated to al-Asaad, the French archaeologist Paul Veyne describes one of the extraordinary artworks on the Temple of Bel that was lost:

Last July…one could still have seen, in bas-relief, a procession of people coming to venerate the god Bel. At the front approached the men, but behind them, huddled together, as if immobilized by the artist, were a group of women veiled from head to foot in an arabesque of billowing fabric, a beguiling and astonishing cluster of wavy silhouettes blending into each other…. It’s an abstract composition…[in which] the artist has suddenly broken with the logic of his subject and with realism. This image has no equivalent that I know of in ancient art…. What seems likely is that the sculptor, faced with all the possible styles inspired by the West and the East, has decided to amuse himself by inventing his own.

The frieze was destroyed, along with nearly all of the temple itself, in August 2015.1

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