Why Palmyra Should Matter To The West

The genocidal ghouls of Isis are tearing down a precious piece of our civilisation. This is the price we pay for not standing up to barbarism

In the annals of civilisation, the year 2015 will be remembered chiefly for one event: the razing of the ruins of Palmyra, on the orders — we may assume — of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State. Much has been written about the tragic circumstances of this atrocious act of demolition, for which such terms as iconoclasm or vandalism seem inadequate: the slaughter of Syrian prisoners in the amphitheatre by child recruits; the public decapitation of the octogenarian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who for four decades had been custodian of the desert city; and finally the latter’s systematic looting and destruction, beginning with the great temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, followed by many of the funerary towers and their precious tombs. By the time you read this, the colonnades, arch, theatre and citadel may have gone too. Unless they are stopped, the eradication of Palmyra will continue until nothing but rubble remains.

Certainly no leader in the West has attempted to call a halt to the savagery, for example by the despatch of commandos, such as the Delta force that killed the Isis “oil minister” Abu Sayyaf and about 50 other jihadis in Syria last May. According to Walid al-Asaad, son of the murdered director of antiquities, Isis commanders are squatting in his father’s house — a sitting duck for US or British special forces. No doubt any operation to save Palmyra would have risked damaging the ruins — though now they are being smashed anyway. David Cameron dare not risk losing another parliamentary battle over Syria. To have committed even a handful of troops to save Palmyra, rather than to rescue refugees, might have implied that buildings mattered more than people. No politician dares risk a charge of lacking compassion. Hence one of the greatest surviving relics of antiquity has been sacrificed without a fight.

The story of Palmyra’s rise and fall, an arc that spanned the first three centuries of the Christian era, has fascinated modern historians since Theodor Mommsen, who was the first to supplement the testimony of the Historia Augusta with evidence from inscriptions and archaeology. According to the Hebrew Bible, Palmyra was founded by Solomon, but this claim is considered dubious and the city’s origins are shrouded in mystery. What is known is the source of its prosperity: an oasis on the caravan route from Damascus to the Euphrates, Palmyra grew so rich that its engineers were able to build vast underground reservoirs and aqueducts to make agriculture possible.  The temple complex was on a scale to rival those of Athens and Jerusalem, attracting pilgrims and merchants from across the Near East. Its art and architecture merged Graeco-Roman classicism with Jewish, Syrian, Mesopotamian and Persian motifs to create an inimitable and unusually well-preserved confluence of oriental and occidental cultures.

Having been granted not merely the privileges of a Roman colony but the status of a semi-independent monarchy to defend the eastern marches of the Empire, Palmyra finally overreached itself under Queen Zenobia. One of the most remarkable women in history, she was born in 240 AD and claimed descent from both Dido of Carthage and Cleopatra of Egypt, but in her conduct more closely resembled Boadicea of Britain. Gibbon tells us that she was “esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex”, spoke four languages and was so renowned for her chastity that “she never admitted her husband’s embraces but for the sake of posterity”, i.e. postponing sex until her monthly fertile period. Widowed by the assassination of her husband, the warlike Odenathus, she unwisely heeded the advice of Cassius Longinus, an elderly Hellenistic philosopher, to declare independence. The motives of Longinus are unclear, but we are told that in Palmyra he lacked the books to which he had been accustomed elsewhere; so perhaps he coveted the library of Alexandria, the largest in the ancient world. Having broken free of Rome, defeated its army at the head of her troops, and seized control of Egypt, its richest province, Zenobia styled herself Queen of the East.

Provoked by her insurrection, the Emperor Aurelian marched on Palmyra. After defeating Zenobia twice, at Antioch and Emesa, and braving the Syrian desert, Aurelian surrounded the city. Of the protracted siege that ensued, during which he was wounded, the emperor wrote back to Rome: “The Roman people speak with contempt of the war which I am waging against a woman. They are ignorant both of the character and of the power of Zenobia.” As hopes of relief from Persia faded, Zenobia attempted to flee by camel but was captured. Palmyra soon surrendered. Aurelian treated the vanquished Palmyrenes leniently, but was stern with their queen and her entourage. “The courage of Zenobia deserted her in the hour of trial,” writes Gibbon. He castigates her dishonourable betrayal of her “friends”, while lavishing praise on Longinus for embracing a true philosopher’s death. “Without uttering a complaint, he calmly followed the executioner, pitying his unhappy mistress, and bestowing comfort on his afflicted friends.” But Zenobia’s life was spared. She suffered the indignity of being led in triumph through Rome in chains of gold. Her subsequent fate is obscure, but according to one account she so impressed Aurelian with her dignity in defeat that he granted her freedom and a villa in Tivoli, where she married a senator, had several daughters and presided over a literary salon. Among her descendants may be St Zenobius, a Christian bishop who lived in Florence two centuries later.

Gibbon, however, sides with the sage against the warrior queen: “The fame of Longinus . . . will survive that of the queen who betrayed, or the tyrant who condemned him.” There are two things wrong with Gibbon’s account. Firstly, he is so prejudiced against what he sees as Zenobia’s inconstant lack of manly fortitude — not only was she a woman, but an oriental woman too — that he fails to put himself in her shoes. Lacking a convenient asp about her person, she did not have Cleopatra’s option of suicide, even if she had wanted it. It was natural for a queen to value her own life more highly than those around her (monarchs, then and now, do not have “friends”) because she embodied Palmyra: their sacrifice was necessary for her survival — and Zenobia was nothing if not a survivor. By choosing captivity over death Zenobia was obeying raison d’état. What of “the sublime Longinus”? He was not, as Gibbon supposed, the author of the celebrated treatise On the Sublime, which had been written two centuries earlier. In fact, none of Cassius Longinus’s works has survived; if he is remembered at all, it is mainly due to his ill-fated association with Zenobia. Moreover, despite his grey hairs, Longinus may have been justly served by her denunciation and his execution. Like Plato and Aristotle, he appears to have been an early example of that baleful phenomenon: the intellectual who meddles in politics. In the case of Longinus, it was Palmyra that paid the price for his decision to turn the lady he served into the vehicle of his ambition.

For Aurelian had not finished with Palmyra. Returning to Rome, the emperor was enraged to hear that its people had risen again and massacred his garrison. The emperor retraced his steps and this time he laid waste both to the city and its citizens. Palmyra’s temples were ransacked and the noble metropolis was left a smouldering ruin. The year was 273 AD.

Palmyra never recovered. As Gibbon observes, “it is easier to destroy than to restore. The seat of commerce, of arts, and of Zenobia, gradually sunk into an obscure town, a trifling fortress, and at length a miserable village. The present citizens of Palmyra, consisting of 30 or 40 families, have erected their mud huts within the spacious court of a magnificent temple.” Gibbon knew this because he had read and learned from Robert Wood, the British antiquarian who had recently visited the site and in 1753 published a pioneering description of what he had found there. The story of Palmyra’s rediscovery is as interesting as any other part of its long history, and even more momentous. For it was thanks to Wood’s great work, The Ruins of Palmyra, and especially to its engravings of the superb drawings of Giovanni Batista Borra, that the genius of Palmyra was to extend its influence throughout the Western world.

Who was this antiquarian, or archaeologist avant la lettre? Born in 1717 in County Meath, Ireland, the impoverished son of an Anglican clergyman, Wood was educated at Glasgow University and read law at the Middle Temple before becoming a “travelling tutor and an excellent classic scholar” (in the words of his friend Horace Walpole). Already well travelled in Europe and the Middle East, in 1749 he embarked with two wealthy young companions, John Bouverie and James Dawkins, on an expedition to Greece via Rome. Their purpose was, as Wood put it, “to read the Iliad and Odyssey in the countries where Achilles fought, where Ulysses travelled, and where Homer sung”. Borra was engaged as “architect and draughtsman”. Bouverie died during the two years of the party’s travels around the Levant, but in March 1751 Wood, Dawkins and Borra arrived in Palmyra. They remained for two weeks, making notes and copying inscriptions, while Borra amassed numerous sketches in pen, ink and wash. Then the expedition moved on to Baalbek, where they did the same, before returning home.

Two years later The Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tedmor in the desart [sic] appeared in London. The most impressive study of an ancient city that had been published hitherto, it included 57 folio plates plus explanatory notes, seven pages of inscriptions, a dissertation on ancient Palmyra and a journal of the expedition. Some of the plates extend over several pages and are so beautiful that copies of the first edition with the illustrations intact are today extremely rare. But what made Borra’s drawings so important was their photographic precision. Unlike his more famous contemporary Piranesi, whose depictions of ruins are primarily intended to be picturesque, under Wood’s tutelage Borra devoted himself solely to archaeological accuracy. They thus provided perfect templates for architects and designers to adopt.

Critical opinion throughout the republic of letters was unanimous in praise of Wood, and a French edition followed immediately. Four years later, a second, similar volume followed: The Ruins of Balbec, otherwise Heliopolis in Coelosyria, again to general acclaim. Only two decades later, after both Dawkins and Wood had died, would Gibbon sound a discordant note when he appended a sour footnote to chapter 17 of his Decline and Fall, claiming that Wood had “disappointed the expectation of the public as a critic and still more as a traveller”. Later in his History, however, Gibbon admitted his debt to Wood, acknowledging “the magnificent descriptions and drawings of Dawkins and Wood, who have transported into England the ruins of Palmyra and Baalbec”.

The story of the reception of Wood’s scholarship and Borra’s images deserves a book in its own right. Almost immediately, imitations of Palmyrene colonnades, capitals, reliefs and other architectural features became ubiquitous in neoclassical architecture and design, especially in Britain and the American colonies. One of Wood’s friends was the architect Robert Adam, who incorporated motifs from Palmyra into such great country houses as Syon, Osterley, Kenwood and Harewood. In the newly independent United States, there are ubiquitous echoes of Palmyra, most prominently where Jefferson copied the Temple of the Sun for the east portico of the Capitol in Washington. Even the eagle used in the Great Seal is also borrowed from a soffit in the same temple. Indeed, the debt is so extensive that a major Anglo-American exhibition is overdue. It is time that the great museums and libraries of London, New York and Washington joined forces to highlight what has been lost in the destruction of Palmyra.

Robert Wood’s life did not end with his books on the desert cities. He went into politics, became under-secretary of state to Pitt the Elder and spent a decade as an MP for one of his patron the Duke of Bridgewater’s pocket boroughs. But his political career was most notable for his pursuit of John Wilkes, the radical journalist, politician and campaigner for civil liberties. Wood was only a minor player in the battle between Wilkes and the British government, but he scarcely covered himself with glory. In 1763 he seized the papers of Wilkes on the orders of Lord Halifax, secretary of state, only to be fined £1,000 after Wilkes brought an action for trespass — a notable blow for liberty in which Wood found himself on the losing side. As under-secretary to Lord Weymouth, Wood again pursued Wilkes. The irony is that Wood had more in common with Wilkes than he did with the philistine ministers whose cause he defended. For Wilkes, like Wood, had spent time in Rome among the dilettanti who gathered there, chief among them Winkelmann, the historian of antiquity, and the artist Mengs, who had painted Wood’s portrait.

The only minister Wood served who shared his passion for antiquity was the aged Lord Granville. It fell to Wood to bring the preliminary articles of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years’ War, to Granville as the Lord President of the Council lay on his deathbed. Wood offered to return later, but Granville quoted Sarpedon’s speech from the Iliad, pointing out that great men must prove their merit with great deeds. He insisted that Wood should read him the text of the treaty and gave it “the approbation of a dying statesman, as the most glorious war and most honourable peace this nation ever saw”. In later years, Wood returned to his first love: his Essay on the Original Genius of Homer, with a Comparative View of the Ancient and Present State of the Troade was published posthumously in 1775, with engravings of the drawings done by Borra in the region around Troy during their travels there a quarter of a century before. After his death in 1771, Wood’s works were not forgotten. Still quoted today is Horace Walpole’s prophetic tribute, in a letter of 1774: “The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and a Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveller from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul’s, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra.”

Palmyra itself, meanwhile, remained in a state of suspended animation for another century before another British traveller encountered it in the Syrian wilderness. Gertrude Bell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s new film Queen of the Desert, was not merely the adventuress portrayed by Nicole Kidman, who falls in love with a married consul (played by Damian Lewis), but an accomplished archaeologist, Arabist, diplomat and spy, who played a big part in the creation of modern Iraq and founded the Iraqi Archaeological Museum in Baghdad. In May 1900 she wrote to her stepmother, Florence, about her arrival, after passing “the famous Palmyrene tower tombs”, in Palmyra itself: “I wonder if the wide world presents a more singular landscape. It is a mass of columns, ranged into long avenues, grouped into temples, lying broken on the sand or pointing one long solitary finger to Heaven. Beyond them is the immense Temple of Baal; the modern town is built inside it and its rows of columns rise out of a mass of mud roofs . . . It looks like the white skeleton of a town, standing knee deep in the blown sand . . . Except Petra, Palmyra is the loveliest thing I have seen in this country.” Her friend and brother officer T. E. Lawrence echoed her, in words that are inscribed on a plaque in Palmyra: “Nothing in this scorching, desolate land could be so refreshing.” Agatha Christie, who stayed there in the charming old Hotel Zenobia (now destroyed along with the ruins whose visitors it served), gushed: “It is lovely and fantastic and unbelievable, with all the theatrical implausibility of a dream . . . It isn’t — it can’t be — real.”  

It is unbearable to think that the unique urban landscape Gertrude Bell, Lawrence of Arabia and Agatha Christie described a century ago no longer exists. But Walpole’s thought experiment, in which a traveller from Lima “gives a description of the ruins of St Paul’s, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra”, no longer seems such a remote fantasy. The same atavistic theology that now justifies the levelling of the Temple of Bel also encompasses the destruction of churches and synagogues on an even grander scale. We need to recall Gibbon’s similar jeu d’esprit when he considers what might have happened if Charles Martel had not stopped the advance of Islam into Europe at the Battle of Tours: “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the truth and sanctity of the revelation of Mahomet.”

The full significance of the demolition of Palmyra thus only emerges when we consider what it implies about the perpetrators’ attitude to Western civilisation. Ruins that had stood for nearly 1,800 years mean less than nothing to the genocidal ghouls of the new Caliphate, whose aim is to throw history into reverse and annihilate even the memory of all non-Islamic cultures. By harnessing the resources of Western culture — not only military technology but above all using the internet as a propaganda tool — the marauders of Isis have forced themselves into the forefront of our consciousness. Islamism is the face of nihilism in our time. The paralysis of the Western democracies when confronted with such radical evil is not unprecedented — we did not stop the Holocaust or the Cultural Revolution either — but what is new seems to be the brazen self-aggrandisement of the perpetrators. The great crimes of the 20th century were largely hidden from the world while they took place. This time, Isis has forced us to watch the agony of a civilisation. Whose civilisation is it? Ours — for the ruins of Palmyra belong to our cultural heritage no less than their architectural progeny, the English country house or the Capitol. The casual murder of Khaled al-Asaad in front of the antiquities that had been his life’s work recalls the death of Archimedes, who according to Plutarch was slain in Syracuse by a Roman soldier because he would not look up from his geometrical diagrams in the dust. Yet the Roman general, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, was apparently furious, having given orders that Archimedes was not to be harmed.

The Romans often behaved in a barbaric way — for example, by reducing Palmyra to a ruin — but they were not barbarians. The Islamists of the new Caliphate glory in their barbarism. They also have a growing number of admirers and apologists here. Once Isis has finished with Palmyra, the media caravan will move on to another oasis of death, with a new horror show to fill our screens. But the voyeuristic atrocities we are witnessing in Syria and Iraq are a foretaste of what the future has in store for the West — including Britain — unless we act now.

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