13/04/2021 by Sarah Amawi
Palmyra is one of the most iconic world heritage sites. ‘Historically established around the third millennium B.C., acting as a major trading path on the infamous Silk Road’, Palmyra – otherwise known as Tadmor in Arabic – has always been one of modern Syria’s most visited and cherished tourist sites. This huge and complex heritage site has witnessed several civilizations throughout history from Romans to Arabs and Persians.
The main issue at hand in our modern days is the latest destruction Palmyra underwent around the years 2011- 2015, in the beginning of the war in Syria, when ISIS – the so-called Islamic State – took over Palmyra and claimed it to be part of their new state. ‘By 2015, several media reports confirmed ISIS’s destruction of several parts of Palmyra’s statues, including the statue decorating the entrance of the Lion of Al-lāt temple, dated back to the first century A.D., in addition to the remains of the Temple of Baalshamin and several other temples’. Although destruction and reconstruction have somewhat been common and normalized parts of reigning over Palmyra, there are several other considerations to be taken into account in the process of rebuilding or reconstructing an archeological site or parts of it in our modern world. Palmyra’s Monumental Arch, also known as the Arch of Triumph, which was destroyed by ISIS alongside other temples and ruins, were promptly reconstructed after the Syrian Army recaptured the area.
This article aims to investigate the questions and elements that come into play when thinking about the significance of reconstructing a heritage site such as Palmyra, both in the present and the future, and the discourses of authenticity involved. Beginning with a brief timeline of Palmyra, followed by an outline of the site’s 2015 destruction caused by the so-called Islamic State, eventually addressing the reconstruction of Palmyra and some of the resulting discourses concerned with the specific notion of Palmyra’s reconstruction and future.
Palmyra has been a heritage site of huge significance to several civilizations since its foundation, which was further reaffirmed by its inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1980 and on the list of World Heritage sites in danger in 2013. Founded around the third millennium B.C. around a natural oasis surrounded by palm trees, the site was given the name Tadmor, which is interpreted to mean “date palm”. Tadmor began as a Mesopotamian settlement during the third millennium B.C., before being taken over by the Arameans during the second millennium B.C., until Arabs settled there in the first millennium B.C. ‘It is believed that Arabs fused with the existing population at that time, and they even had learned to speak the local Palmyrene dialect’.
In the last few decades B.C. Syria was conquered by the Romans. Nonetheless, Palmyra maintained its significance and autonomy, becoming a commercial partner to Rome. It was fully conquered by the Roman Empire around 14 A.D., until the Persians were able to establish control over Palmyra after two centuries of Roman rule. It is important to highlight that, by this time, Palmyra had started undergoing destruction and rebuilding several times during different ruling periods. For example, during the war with the Persians, around 273 A.D., the first city of Palmyra was destroyed by the Romans and was rebuilt during later years. During the following four centuries, Palmyra was part of the Roman Empire again and then part of the Byzantine Empire during which time Palmyra was established as a Christian city. From the 6th century onwards, Palmyra was ruled by Arab caliphates, maintaining its trading significance as part of the Silk Road with a unique location connecting modern-day Asia and Europe, aiding Palmyra in gaining wealth and prominence as “merchants ran trade caravans through the Silk Road”.
This lasted until the Timurids – a Turco-Mongol tribe – destroyed Palmyra during the 1400s. Again, Palmyra was rebuilt, although not to its former glory: it became a small village and was later occupied by the French until 1932. Palmyra was no longer inhabited as the French authorities moved people from the city to start archaeological diggings.
The fact that Palmyra was destroyed and rebuilt several times in history due to different wars and reigns influenced its architecture of Greco-Roman style merged with Persian and Arab influences. In fact, all these civilizations contributed to the great ruins that survived long after these civilizations had disappeared. The Baths of Diocletian, the Triclinium of the Agora, the Temple of Baalshamin, the Funerary Temple, the Tetrapylon and many more significant remains of this grandiose city were built by the Romans, the Arabs, the Arameans, which are, to this day, not fully preserved.
Palmyra under ISIS rule and its recapturing
Since the war began in Syria in 2011, ISIS began seizing cities and sites all over the country. In 2015, more specifically on 23rd August, an event took place in Palmyra, which had a global echo, as several media channels confirmed that ISIS was destroying Palmyra’s ruins as part of cultural cleansing against what ISIS saw as iconoclasm and religious infidelity among other factors. In this vein, Professor Whitmarsh (2015) wrote in The Guardian that Palmyra “offers antiquity’s best counter example to ISIS’s fascistic monoculturalism” and was therefore a clear target of their violence.
International pleas were made to leave heritage sites unscathed amid war and conflict. Nonetheless, several heritage and historical sites in Syria were destroyed to the ground. Further, Khaled Al-Asaad, Palmyra’s chief archeologist, was beheaded after being taken as a hostage by ISIS due to the fact that he refused to disclose the location of hidden antiquities and treasures at the site. Several monuments and artefacts were destroyed, such as the Baalshamin Temple, the Temple of Bel, and, later, the Arch of Triumph built by the Romans.
Palmyra was recaptured by the Syrian Army on 27th March 2016. Soon after, replicas of some of its destroyed temples and significant pieces such as the Arch of Triumph were built by the Oxford’s Institute of Digital Archeology, after Russia, Germany, and the UK showed interest and contributed to the project. Regarding the debate of the perceived authenticity of a reconstructed site such as Palmyra, concerns were expressed regarding the type of material used in the construction of the Arch of Triumph, and how it could or could not reflect the same degree of historical authenticity. The characteristics of the replica do not match the characteristics of the original piece according to several researchers and journalists.
Further, building such replicas may have dangerous ramifications regarding the destruction of cultural heritage: “the dangerous precedent suggests that if you destroy something, you can rebuild it and it has the same authenticity as the original”.
There is a common argument within this field that the speedy reconstruction of Palmyra was used for political gains at that time, mainly by Russia, and that heritage is usually used as a propaganda weapon during wars”. Nour A. Munawar further argues that Russia and the West see Palmyra as part of European heritage. They also view the heritage of the Near East as part of “Europe’s story” and as the origin of the Western civilization. According to Munawar, this could represent the primary reason for the interest of the West, including Russia, in reconstructing the historical site.
This is not such a strange notion; several arguments have been raised during the past few decades regarding this issue. For example, Charlesworth highlights that urban reconstruction’s deeply political nature has been increasingly acknowledged. Conflicts contribute to imbalances by changing the structure of power in societies. Similar to the manner in which destruction can erase and change narratives, so can reconstruction, as the winner in any conflict can influence the reconfiguration of any heritage site.
In my opinion, heritage belongs to its stakeholders, and the major stakeholder in any heritage site is the diverse people and communities of a given place or nation. The reconstruction of any heritage site should go hand in hand with the people’s collective memory and their cultural ties to their heritage. Excluding people from this conversation leads to the disconnection of the site from its people or, worse, the inability of the site in question to reflect the identity of the people, partially or fully. Munawar further argues that the post-conflict reconstruction of a heritage site, and specifically Palmyra, should be inclusive of all sects, ethnicities and religions of the Syrian people, making it part of society’s reconciliation.
The rebuilding of an important historical site could represent a community’s act of resistance; especially resistance against ongoing attempts to erase their memories. She brings an example of Palestinian refugees’ acts of resistance to the attempts at deleting their history and memory, represented by their insistence on the reconstruction of the streets of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon following the exact patterns these had before their destruction.
In the case of Palmyra, reconstructing this site represents resistance against the narrative ISIS wanted to impose by destroying it. It is a way for Syrians to reclaim their own narrative of this space, which represents all civilizations which inhabited and passed through Palmyra. It is merely owning their identity and regaining the chance to pass it on to generations to come.
While some people might argue that the reconstruction of a site destroyed by war feels ‘prosthetic’ as it masks the true crimes that have taken place, I am of the opinion that the continuous preservation of historical sites is a necessity. Although rebuilding ‘unauthentic’ replicas of the original pieces and sites left by ancient civilizations could lessen the historicity of the site, it is vital to see the future value this act holds. 2000 years from now, future civilizations will come to Palmyra and see remnants and remains from our current time alongside other remains from 4000 years from then. As far ahead as it might seem, preserving heritage sites holds more than the reconstruction of a few bricks and walls; it means preserving our collective memories, our ties to geographical places, and reflects to future generations the significance and importance we placed on our history to preserve it for them.
In the end, all we strive for as humans, is to leave our footprint behind.
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