Friday, 15 May 2015

ISIS at the gates of ancient Syrian city Palmyra - can Syria preserve the World Heritage site?

by JD Smith, author of The Rise of Zenobia

With the conflict in Syria, Palmyra is not a place I’ve ever managed to visit, despite having spent years writing about the city. Today, Jihadists from the Islamic State Militants are just over a mile from the Unesco World Heritage site at Palmyra and fears are mounting that they will destroy the monumental ruins.

Palmyra dates back to the first century AD, and is most famous for its infamous Queen Zenobia who in the third century led one of the greatest, most threatening rebellions the Roman Empire ever faced. This is the part of history which captured my imagination and led to years of writing the story of the rise and fall of the beautiful city and determined queen …

Buildings sparkled, towering and elegant, marble paved the streets and fountains threw up streams of water. Locals bustled about their business. Gowns draped women, embroidered and woven with threads of gold and silver, sewn with rare stones, and men wore colourful robes or leather armour, carrying shields and spears and swords. Deep scars marked olive skin, and on their arms warrior bands were found. The raucous noise of the busy city deafened. Not unpleasant, but an exciting, pounding rhythm of a prosperous city. I stepped cautiously, for everywhere seemed so fresh and clean and delicate.

Market traders pulled their wares from the path of elephants, camels and horses. Stalls packed every space. I thought many things a rarity, but found them now in abundance. Silks hung from racks: blues, greens, yellows, reds, golds; every colour in between. Bottles of coloured oils and potions swung from wooden pegs, clinking, swaying, jostling to the city rhythm. Ginger, poppy seeds, aniseed, coriander, cumin, fennel, pulse, cloves, bay leaf, Indian spikenard, costly saffron shouted as being for sale, their names spoken for all to hear, yet I smelled them, rich aromas and head-dulling scents of the east.
(The Rise of Zenobia)

Palmyra was a vital caravan city on the eastern trade route. It was taken under Roman control in the mid-first century but, despite this, its people were of mixed Aramaic and Arabic stock, and the language used a form of Palmyrene: a mixture of Middle Eastern Aramaic and Greek.
According to the BBC, ISIS are attacking the nearby town of Tadmur after making an advance across the Syrian desert. Syria's director of antiquities, Maamoun Abdul Karim said he believed Palmyra would end up destroyed, like other ancient sites in Northern Iraq.
He said: "If Daesh [ISIS] enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction.
"If the ancient city falls, it will be an international catastrophe.
"It will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul." 
In March, ISIS members in Iraq razed 3,000-year old Nimrud and bulldozed 2,000-year old Hatra - both UNESCO world heritage sites. 
The ISIS interpretation of Sharia law sees ancient sites as being idolatrous and sinful.
And this for me is the most ludicrous of views, quite clearly an excuse to cause more unrest, destroying what can never be remade. As if taking lives were not enough the past must also be extinguished. There was a time when Palmyra was at its greatest, an ancient city on a prosperous caravan route, the people living in harmony and many religions mixing happily with one another. Sadly religion seems so often to be an excuse for our actions, rather than a guide as to how to behave in order to live life to the full and in harmony with one another.

I am a preservationist at heart. I cannot bear to see the past slip and slide away from us in any medium. I want to hold it, treasure it and live in it. I am a member of the British National Trust, a restorer of an 18th century English School House, a collector of the old and the wonderful, and a writer who aims to capture in words deeds and actions and places now eroded by time.

I only hope mine and the words of others, photographs and footage, are not the only remains of the desert city. I hope to one day visit the place I have spent so long imagining, and see it in the glory in which it stands at this very moment as I type. I want to see it as L. Double, author of Les Cesars de Palmyre (1877) once did …

When, after a wearisome day of marching across the Syrian desert, the long caravans descry, in the pale clarity of the stars, the uniform horizon become a serrated line of uneven colonnades, of broken walls, of half collapsed palace facades; when the sand seems at last to disappear, not beneath the verdure of an oasis but beneath an accumulation of marbles and worked stones, silence falls among the travellers, even the calling cameleers cease from their marching songs, and there is nothing to be heard but the sand which cries beneath our feet, and the wind which moans afar among the ruins, and the lugubrious plaint of a hungry jackal; it is then that a man, even the lease civilised, feels himself to be small and, despite himself, meditates on the presence of that mighty ruin as on a mighty sorrow.

In short, I want to stand in the beautiful ruins of Palmyra as I once stood in the Coliseum in Rome and remember Queen Zenobia and the times in which she lived.

JD Smith, is the author of Tristan and Iseult, The Rise of Zenobia and The Fate of an Emperor, editor of Words with JAM and Bookmuse, and the mother of three mischievous boys. 

The Rise of Zenobia is available in ebook, paperback and audio. For more information visit:

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully emotive post, Jane. There is little else to say as we watch and wait...