The Russian Love Affair With Palmyra Resumes

The Syrian desert city now recaptured from ISIS has a long affinity with St Petersburg, and the Hermitage will be vital to its restoration

Rachel Polonsky

After ISIS: A beheaded and mutilated statue in the museum of Palmyra. Syrian and Russian forces recaptured the city on March 27 opposite: (©JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty)

The ruins of Palmyra in Syria’s eastern desert have long been part of Russia’s heritage, just as they are part of the heritage of Western civilisation. A week before Islamic State was driven from the city in late March, the director of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, spoke to the Russian daily newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “If the result of our military operation in Syria is the liberation of Palmyra, we will never find anything more beautiful in all the annals of Russia’s history in the Near East and the Holy Land,” he said. “Forgive me for the solemnity, but it is true.”

Since the late 18th century, St Petersburg has been known as the “Palmyra of the North”. Under Catherine the Great, classicism became the city’s dominant architectural style. Voltaire, who corresponded with Catherine, called her the “Semiramis of the North” after the legendary Assyrian queen. Other French admirers compared the Russian Empress with Zenobia, another semitic warrior queen, famed for her beauty and learning, who ruled Palmyra in its prime in the late third century. Under Zenobia, the caravan oasis at the edge of the Roman empire had a population of more than 200,000, a mix of Arameans and Arabs, pagans and Jews. Palmyra’s mingling of Graeco-Roman, Arab and Persian influences gave the city a distinctive aesthetic manner, embodied in the limestone funerary reliefs that can be seen in museums around the world, including the Hermitage. Their proud frontal style adumbrates the icon painting of Christian Byzantium. The iconoclasts of Islamic State, who hate any representation of the human face, took sledgehammers to the few reliefs that were left in Palmyra’s museum after its hurried evacuation in May 2015.

In 270 AD, Zenobia extended Palmyra’s power across Roman Arabia and Egypt and into Anatolia all the way to Ankara. She had overreached. The Roman emperor Aurelian pushed her armies all the way back to Palmyra, besieged the city and took Zenobia prisoner. Catherine the Great’s success as a martial empress was more durable, though she never accomplished her “Greek project”, a grandiose plan, revealed to Voltaire, for the liberation of Constantinople and the expulsion from Europe of the Turks, whom she blamed for the destruction of the classical world.

Russians of a certain age remember learning the history of the ancient world from a mid-1970s Soviet textbook with a picture of Palmyra’s magnificent Arch of Triumph on its cover. Like the Temple of Bel, to which it led along a Great Colonnade, the arch was blown up by Islamic State in 2015. Its double façade, which cunningly masked a 30-degree bend, is imitated in the great arch of the General Staff headquarters on St Petersburg’s Palace Square, built to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Its eastern wing is now part of the Hermitage.

One of the most important antiquities in the Hermitage is the Palmyra Tariff, an inscription dating from 137 AD in both Greek (Palmyra’s language of trade and diplomacy) and the Palmyrene dialect of Aramaic. The Tariff was discovered in 1881 by Prince Semyon Abamelek-Lazarev, a wealthy Russian industrialist, orientalist and amateur archaeologist of Armenian lineage. The limestone slab gives an unrivalled glimpse into the economic life of a wealthy trading city at the crossroads between the Roman empire and Persia. It records that for a camel-load of unguent exported in goat-skins, the Palmyra tax collector would exact 13 denarii; for a slave, the levy was 22 denarii. Abamelek-Lazarev negotiated with the Turkish government through the Russian Embassy in Jerusalem for permission to bring the stone back to St Petersburg for study. The Ottoman Sultan made a gift of the Tariff to the Russian Tsar and it arrived at the Hermitage in 1903, having been cut into four parts for the difficult journey by rail from Damascus to Beirut and across the Black Sea to Odessa.

Prince Abamelek-Lazarev’s monograph, Palmyra: An Archaeological Study, appeared in St Petersburg in 1884, under the imprint of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. “At the end of 1881 and the beginning of 1882 I travelled in the East,” he begins, “in those lands that are important in memory and miraculous in nature, where the dawn of all that is great in world history first lit up. ‘Ex oriente lux’: there lies the cradle of religion, science and art. It is there that the most ancient, stately and magnificent monuments are preserved, testaments to the glorious past.”

European visitors to the “mysterious, magically beautiful” Palmyra were still rare at that time. Abamelek-Lazarev was particularly drawn, he writes, by Palmyra’s association with Russia’s own mysteriously beautiful capital. He carried with him scholarly books by French and British explorers who had come to Syria before him, including Robert Wood and James Dawkins’s pioneering, exquisitely illustrated work of 1753, The Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tedmor in the desart [sic], to which he often refers. Before reaching Palmyra, Abamelek-Lazarev spent a day at the town of Quaryatain, where he enjoyed the gracious hospitality of a wealthy local sheikh. There he recorded a Greek inscription which referred to a Bishop Moschos of all the Christians in the ancient Arabian kingdom of Nabatea. There was still a Christian community in Quaryatain when Abalemek-Lazarev visited, with its own priest and a schoolteacher. Some pages later, he wonders about the fate of the Christians of Quaryatain and Palmyra when those towns were destroyed during the Islamic conquest of Syria in 634 AD by the first Muslim Caliph, Abu Bakr, and the majority of Syrians converted to Islam. Since that time, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in Quaryatain. When Islamic State seized the town last summer, the fanatics bulldozed its 1,600-year-old monastery, dedicated to the third-century Syrian Saint Elian, a native of the city of Homs, who was martyred in 284 AD for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. They filmed themselves exultantly breaking open St Elian’s stone sarcophagus and scattering his remains. The town was liberated, with Russian military assistance, at the beginning of April, just a week after Palmyra. Its inhabitants are returning to rebuild.

The Genius Of Palmyra      

Before taking up his position as director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky trained as an Arabist, becoming a distinguished scholar of the Koran and early Islamic history. He has led archaeological expeditions to Yemen, another Arab nation now ravaged by war. Over the next few months, he plans special events in the Hermitage to celebrate the ancient cultures of both Yemen and Syria. He discussed his vision for Palmyra with me.

Rachel Polonsky:
What do the ruins of Palmyra mean to the city of St Petersburg?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: For the people of St Petersburg, the loss of Palmyra was a personal, emotional event, a tragedy. Palmyra means a great deal to us. It is not just a tourist destination but something deeply symbolic. The genius of Palmyra is like the genius of St Petersburg, where architecture flows together with nature. At around the same time that Palmyra was discovered by European travellers, Peter the Great was building St Petersburg. Palmyra is an architectural miracle rising out of the desert. St Petersburg is an architectural miracle rising out of the swamps. The parallel with Palmyra was made even in the time of Peter, but under Catherine it became popular in Russian poetry. Like Palmyra, St Petersburg was a marvellous city ruled by a woman, the “Zenobia of the North”.

What will Palmyra symbolise for Russia, now that it has been liberated?

On the one hand it will symbolise vandalism. Great monuments of art were deliberately destroyed and there were public executions in the ruins, both of Syrian soldiers and of Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s former director of antiquities. There is also joy that Russia was part of the liberation, because this was a rare example of force being used in part in defence of culture, and that is important for everyone. There is now a possibility that the kind of international solidarity that did not come together in the military operations may be achieved in the work of restorating Palmyra’s monuments.

What part will Russia play in the restoration?

As always the restoration will be an international project, a Unesco project. Unesco knows how to do these projects. I have already discussed it with the Director-General of Unesco, the brilliant Irina Bokova. Specialists from Russian museums and archaeological organisations will participate, and Russia will no doubt give financial assistance. It will be an opportunity for international solidarity both specifically in the task of saving the monuments, and also symbolically. Solidarity around the protection of monuments is very important.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has applauded the liberation of Palmyra and expressed a hope that British archaeologists will be involved in its restoration. Do you expect a British contribution? Have you had any contact with British archaeologists to discuss joint projects relating to Palmyra?

First of all, I was very glad that Boris Johnson spoke out. He is probably the only mayor in the world who really understands what Palmyra means, because he has a deep knowledge of Roman history, so it was very gratifying. Of course British archaeologists will take part. We museum folk have had many discussions since Palmyra was seized — about things we could do before it was liberated, like gathering materials for display and speaking out about what the city means. We all demanded that something should be done, that Palmyra should be protected and saved. British, French, German archaeologists and curators, we all discussed it and made various declarations. My German colleague Hermann Parzinger and I spoke out very forcefully and said that Palmyra could have been saved at the point when Daesh [Islamic State] was on its way there. They could have been bombed in the desert but the US-led coalition did not want to bomb them because it would have helped the current Syrian government. To some extent I think our discussions were heard. Once an evil force like Daesh starts destroying cultural monuments — whether in Iraq or Syria or in the National Museum in Tunisia — international forces must set to work protecting culture, not just their political ideals.

Russian sappers have been de-mining Palmyra. When do you think archaeologists will be able to visit the site?

It is hard to judge right now. They have de-mined a lot but we don’t yet know the extent to which the historic city has been mined. It will probably take months before Palmyra itself is safe, and there is still fighting going on nearby. As soon as it is safe Unesco will assess the situation and organise preliminary work on the site, probably first with Syrian archaeologists and then with everyone else.

It has been claimed that the Syrian army looted and damaged Palmyra even before the arrival of Daesh. Will Russian forces be able to to protect the site now?

I don’t think that the Syrian army would have looted Palmyra. It is, after all, a Syrian city. They defended the city and they fought to liberate it. The Russian forces were the only outside forces in the Near East over the past few years who have done anything to liberate cultural monuments and not just bomb. Russia has done something important by serving the ideals of culture and not just of politics. It came as a surprise that Russia freed Palmyra from people who had seized it before Russia even came on the scene in Syria.

What can Russian experts and the Hermitage Museum in particular contribute to the restoration of Palmyra?

We can do whatever Unesco asks. Our archaeologists can help to put together a detailed plan of what remains and where every stone is lying, so that we know where to put it back. The whole conception of the restoration project needs detailed discussion. It will be very complex, bearing in mind that this is not just a tourist attraction but a historical monument. Nothing superfluous must be done. We also have stone restorers who can help restore the unique Palmyrene funerary reliefs that were destroyed by Daesh’s iconoclastic acts of vandalism. We will also continue to talk about Palmyra. Our museum has designed a computer game inspired by the Tariff called “Palmyra Market”, and we are making 3D reconstructions of the destroyed monuments. Now that people know about the current situation, it is important that they can learn about the city in detail, so we will continue developing educational activities for ourselves and for others.

Can the demolished monuments be reconstructed?

They were already ruins. We can, crudely speaking, put the stones back where they were, but we should not do more than that. There are good examples of this kind of restoration in the Near East, like Baalbec in Lebanon. On the basis of that work, I am sure that it will all be done very delicately and that there will be nothing superfluous.

What is your approach to restoration, as someone who has witnessed the long process of restoring the palaces outside Leningrad/St Petersburg after the Nazi blockade? And how should Palmyra commemorate what happened there over the past year?

Precisely because of our own experience of rebuilding the palaces of Leningrad, we believe that restoration can and must be done, and that it must be a symbolic act, not a purely historical one, to show how good conquers evil. The restoration will have to tell the complex history of Palmyra, and also tell as much as possible about what the city suffered during the Daesh occupation. But it must all be done within a framework of very careful, unhurried, academic work. This is how it has been done and still continues to be done in St Petersburg after the damage from the war. The work is still going on today. It is not the kind of work that can be done in a hurry, and it has to be done in accordance with all the academic rules.

In the context of a horrifying war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, including countless non-combatants, why do ancient ruins matter?

This is the most important question. Many people have asked this question. First of all, in the Second World War many more people died. It was even more terrible and the protection from destruction of monuments was a very important aspect of the war effort. Ruins matter because they are our culture, they are our memory. Without memory human beings are not human, they are like animals. Culture has rights which exist alongside human rights. As the great 20th-century Russian scholar Dmitri Likhachev said, culture has rights of its own. Culture gives meaning to human existence. You can say, what do ruins matter? They matter because they show us what it means to be human.

Palmyra was a meeting place of east and west, a crossroad of civilisations, of rival empires, a city on the silk road linking China with Imperial Rome? At this time of painful and dangerous alienation between Russia and the West, does Palmyra’s long and complex history have any lessons to teach us?

I really hope so, although people don’t usually learn anything. Palmyra is a meeting place. That is another reason why St Petersburg is called Palmyra, because it is also a place of confluence between East and West. In the context of Palmyra maybe the world will show greater solidarity than in the war against Daesh. Maybe there is a possibility of building bridges, because the alienation which exists in the world right now is very acute.

Does Russia see itself as having a special role to play in the Near East? In the 19th century, under the Ottoman Empire, Russia was responsible for the protection of Christians in the Holy Land. Recently, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met in Havana and issued a joint declaration drawing attention to the plight of Christians in the Near East. Does the need to protect Christians from Islamists play any role in Russian attitudes to the military operation in Syria?

Of course it does, yes. Russia has often got itself involved in wars for the sake of ideals, in particular in relation to the protection of Christians and fellow believers, and the protection of holy places, and not just in the Near East. In the past it was bound up with imperialism, but the protection of Christianity was always very important. And so it is in Syria, and, in particular, in the fight for Palmyra, because I am quite sure we will keep going from there. We have set ourselves the task of protecting Christian shrines in the Near East, and protecting living Christianity, because if there is no living Christianity in the Near East, there will be none anywhere else. That is where Christianity’s roots lie. Without the existence of living Christians and Christian shrines in the place where Christianity originated, it will gradually die out everywhere. This is a very important civilisational role. Christian shrines should be preserved alongside cultural monuments and Muslim and Jewish shrines, as has always been the case. We try to keep talking about this all the time. Perhaps people are beginning to hear us a little.

Can you see any good come out of the devastating story of Palmyra’s destruction?

That depends to a significant extent on us. Some people will say, forget about Palmyra, what is so important about Palmyra, why do you talk about it so much? But we have to talk about it so that on a subconscious level people will understand that you cannot touch monuments, that they have to be protected, that they are more important than our immediate concerns and interests. Even if no one hears, perhaps they may hear on a subconscious level, the message may make its way into their inner unconscious memory. It really depends on how the intelligentsia throughout the world uses this as an opportunity to advance culture, and not just to quarrel once again about who is clever and who is a fool.

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