The Devastation of Palmyra by Islamic State Threatens More Than Just the Ruins

After militant group Islamic State (IS) desecrated several important ancient sites in Northern Iraq earlier this year, the world could only watch in horror and with bated breath as IS captured the modern Syrian town of Palmyra and its adjacent ancient ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The world-renowned ruins have since faced horrifying devastation. Despite mass outrage, including the chief of the UN’s cultural agency describing it as a ‘war crime’, little has or, it appears can, be done about the carnage inflicted by IS on these sites.

The reason this is important is that the ruins are not only of regional but of global significance; preserved in the ruins of Palmyra is both a national and an international heritage. Palmyra is a meeting and synthesis of East and West. In its extensive history, the city has belonged to an astonishing array of cultures: caravans from China, India and Arabia have all passed through on their way to the Roman provinces. Its art and architecture combines Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. The leading French archaeologist, André Parrot, struck by the ruins’ universal significance, said: ‘Every person has two homelands… His own and Syria’.

Archaeological finds in Palmyra date back to the Neolithic but it was not until its incorporation into the Roman Empire in the first century that the city truly flourished, becoming one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.

The sense of the place is perhaps best evoked by Gertrude Bell, the British traveller, archaeologist and poet, who wrote on 20 May 1900 of Palmyra: 

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… And beyond, all is desert, sand and white stretches of salt and sand again, with the dust clouds whirling over it and the Euphrates 5 days away. It looks like the white skeleton of a town, standing knee deep in the blown sand.

On 23 August 2015 it was reported that the Temple of Baal Shamin, built nearly 2,000 years ago and one of the best-preserved and most unique buildings on the site, had been levelled by explosives. This sort of cultural terrorism is an integral part of IS ideology. Just this year IS have ransacked the central library of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, burning thousands of books, and destroyed inimitable artefacts in the city’s museum. In March, IS used explosives and bulldozers on Nimrud and Hatra, two of Iraq’s most precious archaeological sites. Now it seems there is no site safe from the mindless iconoclasm of IS.

The destruction of artefacts for ideological value has catastrophic effects on our understanding of history, but it is nothing new. A similar strategy was articulated by Nazi propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm, who said: ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide’. This ideology is a central part of IS and its practices.

Their destruction has three broad purposes. The first, as specified in the eighth issue of the IS glossy magazine, Dabiq, is that the ancient cultural heritage of Syrians and Iraqis stands as a threat to their own claim to their loyalties and to its legitimacy. The destruction is part of their wider campaign both against polytheism and the worship of, as they see it, false idols and against any ‘nationalist agenda’, favouring, as they do, a unified Islamic state across the whole region.  

Their other motivations are far more insidiously practical. The first of these exists for the same reason as the magazine and the brutal videos of beheadings and summary killings. It is largely for the sake of publicity that IS attacks these ancient sites. Videos shared online attract millions of views, brainwashing and encouraging psychopaths and disaffected Muslims to the IS cause and allowing IS to continue as it does with fresh recruits from around the world. 

Lastly, it is not cheap to run a terrorist organisation the size of IS and a vital source of income is provide by the sale of looted archaeological treasures. The UN believes that this is being done on an industrial scale, adding tens of millions of dollars to IS's wider war economy. According to the Financial Times, the IS trade in archaeological goods has risen because other revenue streams—such as oil—have become less practical. 

So what is to be done? Short of military intervention most argue that it is their income that needs to be hit hardest. Earlier this year the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling on countries to prohibit the trade in illegally removed cultural materials from Syria and Iraq. This can only go so far, however, and experts say the only way to prevent looting is to stigmatise the international market for antiquities - an approach that has proved effective in the fight against poaching. Much like the demand for ivory, looting has to stop with the market. 

Many point out that it is not the destruction of ancient sites that is the greatest tragedy inflicted by IS, but the tremendous suffering and loss of life; more than 240,000 have died in Syria’s conflict since March 2011. This is undoubtedly true, but as Amr al-Azm, the former head of Syria’s conservation laboratories, points out: ‘People without their heritage and history are not a people. Preserving heritage is as much about preserving Syria as preserving its people’. 

The role of artefacts and sites such as Palmyra are powerful. They are tangible evidence of a people that have endured for thousands of years and can continue to do so.

Image: James Filipi