The grainy satellite image is harrowing. Where the inner area (cella) of Palmyra’s first-century AD Temple of Bel can be made out clearly on the older picture, only a chalky, smudged outline remains on the new. The portal in front of the western entrance can just be seen still standing. But the inner sanctum — with its exquisitely carved Zodiac ceiling — has been razed to the ground.
In a fusion of zealous iconoclasm and cynical propaganda the militants of Islamic State have destroyed one of the most treasured artefacts of the ancient Near East. Its ongoing assault on the ruins of Palmyra, evidenced by recent revelations about the demolition of three tower tombs and aptly described by Maamoun Abdulkarim as “the destruction of a civilization”, bodes ill for the remaining splendours of the ancient city.
Across the globe digital images of Palmyra proliferate. The destruction of our shared “cultural heritage” is sorely lamented; the fanatical intolerance of Islamic State contrasted with the culturally eclectic polytheism of the ancient world.
Centuries of discovery
Suspended above a doorway in the Allard Pierson Museum on the Oude Turfmarkt in Amsterdam is a much older depiction of Palmyra. The painting sheds light on the meaning of this shared “heritage” and the importance of Palmyra.
This late 17th century oil painting by the German artist G Hofstede van Essen depicts a vast panorama of ruins, amid which the Temple of Bel stands prominently to the left of the picture, at the end of the colonnaded street. This is, in fact, the first surviving image of Palmyra. It dates from an early expedition to the ruined city undertaken by a group of European merchants who had trekked across the Syrian desert with an Arab guide in 1691.
Among these early travellers was an English clergyman called William Hallifax, who was in Syria serving as a chaplain to the small community of English merchants who then lived and worked in the city of Aleppo. Hallifax’s account of his voyage provides us with a perceptive account of the Temple of Bel as it stood in the late 17th century. At this point, the temple was still inhabited (this remained the case until 1929 when the locals were resettled in the new town by French archaeologists).
Entering the temple compound, Hallifax was confronted by “thirty or forty families, in little hutts [sic] made of dirt”. Surveying the site, Hallifax noted correctly that the outer walls had been rebuilt from older fragments for defensive purposes by the Mamlukes. Passing through the portal into the cella, he was struck by the ornate carvings which amazed him as they would another three centuries of visitors:
I never saw Vines and Clusters of Grapes cut in Stone so Bold, so Lively, and so Natural, in any place.
Hallifax interpreted the Arabic inscriptions on the inner walls — “wrote in flourishes and wreaths, not without art” — as evidence of the building’s reuse as a mosque (The IS demolitionists may be unaware that they have also destroyed some of the oldest extant Islamic inscriptions, dating back to 728-9 AD). Above all, he was awed by the Zodiac ceiling (“a most exquisite piece of workmanship”) before which he paused in the quiet of the inner sanctum of the temple. It was here that the ancient Palmyrenes worshipped their trinity of deities — Bel, Yarhibol, and Aglibol — so odious to the uncompromising monotheism of IS.
The Palmyrene puzzle
Hallifax’s description prompted a wave a interest in Palmyra in late 17th and early 18th-century Europe. In the pages of learned journals scholars conjectured on the dating of the monuments recorded by Hallifax and puzzled over the mysterious Palmyrene script — a cursive version of Aramaic then unknown in the West. In England and the Netherlands, books about Palmyra began to appear, fusing Hallifax’s brief observations with the tales of the legendary Queen Zenobia that had been passed down to early modern readers through classical and Byzantine sources.
It was not long before another expedition to Palmyra was undertaken. In 1751 a party of English and Italian explorers led by James Dawkins and Robert Wood returned to Palmyra (a feat memorialised in a painting by the Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton). For 15 days the party surveyed the ruins and inscriptions, while their draftsman, Giovanni Battista Borra, produced meticulous drawings of the site. One view of the Temple of Bel shows the dwellings seen by Hallifax, with the soaring columns of the peristyle towering above them.
Wood’s The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) reproduced these illustrations as a series of fine prints. The book was a huge success, and inspired the Neoclassical movement in architectural design. Details from the Temple of Bel were reproduced on the ceilings of country houses across England. There is a sad irony now in reading Wood’s observation — to which Palmyra was the exception — that “it is the natural and common fate of cities to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins”.
A shared heritage
Hallifax, Dawkins, and Wood were the forebears of teams of historians, artists, and archaeologists — Russians, Germans, Americans, and French — who would pass through Palmyra during the 19th and 20th centuries, uncovering more of its temples and mapping its tombs and inscriptions with even greater precision. Following Syrian independence, this mantle passed to scholars such as Khaled al-Asaad, the head of antiquities at Palmyra, brutally murdered by Islamic State while attempting to prevent the destruction of the antiquities he had spent his life studying and conserving.
All of this work was undertaken for different reasons — among them, certainly, personal ambition and the accrual of prestige to the emergent imperial powers across the Middle East. But it would be cynical to see these endeavours solely in an imperial light. Explorers of and writers on Palmyra over three centuries have been united by a desire to understand the past and by a sense of the haunting beauty evoked by Palmyra’s unique fusion of Hellenistic and Eastern artistic styles.
More than 300 years of enquiry have forged a shared heritage — a deep sense of value common to generations dead, living, and to come. It may well be that the memory of these sites now outlives the ruins. But the destruction of the ruins is a tragedy, which betrays the past and will impoverish the future.