Our world of travel is shrinking fast – much thanks to the onward march of ISIS/ Daesh through the Middle East & across North Africa. When I scroll back through my photo archives to look at the archaeological and cultural wonders of these regions (recorded during the digital age at least, as many of my earlier pics slumber in fat files of 35mm slides), I realise what we’ve lost. Worse still is the human loss in bomb / suicide / gun attacks on European cities, in Tunisia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan – the list just gets longer and longer. (Read too my earlier post on Krak des Chevaliers, Syria’s great crusader castle – before and after the ongoing civil war.)
This post was prompted by what could be cause for celebration: the retaking of Palmyra, the archaeological jewel of Syria. But as it was by Assad’s government forces, no one feels much like applauding the dictator, in cahoots with his equally despotic ally, Putin. So we watch from afar (emotionless? dumbfounded?) as marginally more acceptable troops pick their way through the remains of this famed “pearl of the desert”, a vast 2000-year old site of Greek and Roman temples, colonnades and tower tombs.
It is evocatively remote; barely a couple of centuries ago much of it was buried in sand. On one side unfolds an oasis, on the other stretches flat stoney desert – once sprinkled with Bedouin tents and the odd roadside café. In 2008 at least, they all seemed to be called Bagdad Café as Iraq is just over the horizon. The eponymous 1987 movie somehow felt unrelated.
Last weekend, when the barbaric IS were finally driven out, their trail of destruction could be assessed. It includes the beheaded chief archaeologist and the loss of three major structures. It’s said the museum itself was badly ransacked and damaged while being used for prisoners, so no doubt the statue below, for example, is no more. Other than that though, the latest TV footage of Palmyra reveals less destruction than expected.
The stunning Roman theatre remains intact, after months of being used as a backdrop for bloody executions. Ironically, when I visited Palmyra in 2008, we coincided with an annual arts festival. A large influx of wealthy Qataris who had driven up from the Gulf in a convoy of gleaming 4WDs to race their camels at Palmyra’s 5-km long track – a major ‘cultural’ event. As a result the hotels, including ours, were packed with Qataris in blinding white dishdash who passed us in the corridors as if we were invisible – not a glance. Somehow we managed to wangle a pass for the races – which turned out to be pretty unusual as the jockeys were actually little robots actioned by remote control…
The festival kicked off the night before with an Arab rock concert in the Roman theatre, sound and light blazing across the colonnaded stage for a largely male audience. Surprisingly my partner and I gatecrashed quite easily by strolling behind the stage – so much for the bouncers and Assad’s secret services who manned the gates. And yes, he too was there, greeted at the end by rapturous applause and frenetic chanting of “Bashir! Bashir!”. No doubt engineered or paid. My photo – blurred due to low light – gives an idea of the paradox.
However luck was not in store for Palmyra’s two most spectacular temples, the Temple of Bel and that of Baalshamin (in order below) as well as the soaring Triumphal Arch. All three were mindlessly blown up by Daesh.
And the people who lived in the desert town? It seems they have all fled, or are perhaps killed or abducted by IS, giving rise to the description ‘ghost-town’. It makes me wonder what happened to the ones I encountered there, like the date-seller below (Palmyra’s oasis was renowned for its succulent fruit) or the friendly, tattooed Bedouin shepherdess with whom we communicated just outside Palmyra.
And although the strategic 13th century castle, Qalaat Ibn Maan, that sits high above Palmyra was symbolically retaken by Assad’s forces a few days ago, I wonder how many years it’ll be before tourists can sit up there on the ramparts, dreaming of ancient times as they watch sunset paint the sky over a sea of glorious stone.