Palmyra, Syria – often known as the pearl in the Syrian desert, Palmyra has been the symbol of one of the most outstanding examples of ancient architecture for the past two millennia. Located approximately halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and Euphrates River, the “city of palms” was the meeting point between the Roman and the Mesopotamian Empires, as well as providing a direct trade route from Europe to the Far East; Persian and Greek-Roman values intersected to create one of the most important and monumental cultural centers of the ancient world. The city, which had reached its utmost prominence during the 2nd and 3rd century AD, continued to be inhabited until 1923, where the French Mandatory Rule moved people to nearby village Tadmur, allowing the ruins of Palmyra to be excavated and studied by archaeologists. Indeed, the site represented a distinctive and one-of-a-kind mix of local Syrian traditions, influenced by Roman culture; it embodies the identity and unity of Syria and its past. From the Greek agora (a square dedicated to public gathering) and the Roman colonnaded 1100m street that ran through the city, to Egyptian mausoleums and sarcophagi, to the Temple of Bel, Palmyra is indisputable testimony of the congregation of ancient civilisations, the celebration of Syrian and Persian culture and its assimilation with the Roman Empire. Nothing on Earth celebrates our humanity quite like the city of Palmyra.
Yet the unthinkable happened in 2015; the extremist terrorist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who had taken control of the city earlier that year, released pictures of dust clouds rising above the Temple of Ba’al Shamen as they bombed the extraordinary monument. The world sat in devastation and outrage as further satellite pictures were taken by the UN that depicted the ruins of the Temple of Bell, the Roman amphitheater, and the famous columned street and agora. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980, its attack was immediately classified as a war crime by the institution’s director, Irina Bokova, who state that its destruction was “an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.” The demolition of the tetrapylon, a monument which identified a major road intersection on the colonnaded street, was particularly symbolic for Bokova; indeed, she declared that as an architectural emblem of the “encounter and openness of Palmyra”, ISIL specifically targeted it in order to deprive the Syrian people not only of their past, identity, and culture, but also of their future. Indeed, one of the fundamental needs for human beings is identity; by equating the city of Palmyra to the cultural fabric of Syria, the destruction of the ancient site can be seen as a direct attack to the people of Syria. Removing the intrinsic values that make up the identify of Syria creates completely new issues when the country moves to reconstruct itself in its post-conflict rebirth. Indeed, Bokova summed it up perfectly by stating “this is why the protection of heritage is inseparable from the protection of human lives, and we must all unite to put this at the center of all efforts to build peace.”
The act of attributing significance and purpose to material objects and symbols in a post-conflict situation is very common. When communities are processing trauma, a great deal of comfort can be found in places and monuments that people relate to and see themselves in, legacies where your own values and cultures can be reflected in; indeed, in the first Syrian guidebook to Palmyra published in 1966, it was described as “our great Arab national heritage”. Seeing that chain being suddenly and so violently broken, link by link, has been devastating and desolating for the Syrian community. It is not thus surprising when, after seeing the fabric of their identity being so brutally annihilated, the country has been prone to internal division and totalitarianism, split between factions such as the Kurds, the Free Army, and extremist Islamic groups. In a post-conflict community, there are very few things to latch on to to provide some sort of consolation or solace within the people; ISIL knew this and specifically used cultural cleansing to “wipe the slate clean”, remove the sense of belonging that was grounded in material objects to leave the people stranded. Nothing makes this clearer than ISIL’s own words: “Syria is not for the Syrians”, but rather just a place to establish their own caliphate. By 2017, as the city fell to ISIL once more, there was very little hope for the conservation of one of the most significant cultural heritages in Syria and in the world. The loss of identity and belonging was so powerful it began to feel like a true humanitarian catastrophe.
However, lights can be found at the end of even the darkest tunnels. In March of 2017, after the removal of ISIL occupation and the re-establishment of the Syrian government provided the opportunity to shed light on the main hurdles to overcome in the reconstruction of the fabric of Syrian identity. The call for the restoration of Palmyra has been spear-headed by Talal Barazi, the provincial governor of Homs Governorate (where Palmyra is located), with the financial help of UNESCO member states such as Italy. Barazi highlighted the significance of reconstruction of the artifacts and historical and cultural value of Palmyra by stating, “this is the world history, and it belongs not only to Syria.” Indeed, the reopening of Palmyra would not only be monumental for the people of Syria, but it would also signal a new start for the rest of the world; an invitation for people to come and visit one of the most popular tourist sites pre-2015. In 2018, $150,000 was provided by UNESCO for its “Emergency Safeguarding” project to restore the Portico of the Temple of Bel, as well as the conservation of 2000 year old statues and sculptures. Daria Montemaggiori, who is part of the restoration team at Rome’s Central Restoration Institute, said that “the work of restoration allows us to erase the act of violence.”
Restoration work does however come with a multitude of challenges and considerations to be made. Some arguments against it state that the devastation that ISIL caused is part of Palmyra’s history, and thus should be maintained as such to protect the integrity of the site, just as the first city of Palmyra was destroyed by the Romans in 273 AD. Rebuilding the ruined monuments and artifacts could severely infringe upon the authenticity of Palmyra and its identity. However, this specific case goes beyond any of these analyses. Post-conflict reconstruction of such a significant cultural heritage site such as Palmyra should be inclusive of all sects, ethnicities and religions of the people of Syria. Palmyra belongs to the people of Syria, its communities who have found identity and belonging within the historical site. Its reconstruction would aid in the repairing of the collective memories that tie Palmyra to Syrian culture. Excluding the agency of the people themselves, the community to which the site belongs, would be extremely damaging to the symbol of Palmyra and what it represents to its people. Indeed, rebuilding Palmyra, which was destroyed with the intention of attacking the identity and culture of Syria, could symbolise an act of resistance by the people, specifically against the idea of erasing their history and their future. The post-conflict restoration of Palmyra, if done right, would thus be a message of renaissance of the Syrian people, their identity, and their culture.
Greta is an International Relations student at the War Studies Department, King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.