Under cover of night a woman slipped through the lines of besieging troops who had surrounded the city of Palmyra in eastern Syria. The battles had been long and bloody. Many had fled before this point, but she had remained, only now persuaded to leave and live to fight on. Among the dense palm groves that had given her city its name, she found camels waiting to take her to the River Euphrates and on to safety. No one had seen her. She was like a ghost to the enemy sentries blockading the gates. Few amongst the defenders of the city knew she had gone. The next day Palmyra would fall.
Just over 1,700 years ago the Palmyrene Queen Zenobia had defied the power of the Roman Empire to carve a kingdom of differing peoples out of much of the Middle East, from southern Turkey to Egypt. Part Arab, part Jew, part Greek, she had led one of the most celebrated rebellions against Rome in its empire's history. Palmyra, with its soaring arches, long colonnaded streets and glittering waterways had been the center of this Empire, plumb at the crossroads of East and West, straddling the most important trade route from China to Britain. Wealthy, magnificent, beautiful, an improbable mirage in the Syrian desert, and on that night in 272 a city of moonshine and ghosts.
It's still an improbable golden mirage rising from the sandy plains to the east of Damascus. Temples, an almost intact theater, and its distinctive pillar-lined streets were virtually empty of visitors when I went there ten years ago with my partner. The Hotel Zenobia, remembering its long-lost queen whose name lent a touch of undeserved glamor, was the only place to stay on the site, a cold-beer welcome after a long drive. Then you could wander the ruins in the moonlight with no one to disturb you; just a dog barking in the nearby town, a lone motorbike following the single road with its headlight then leaving the place to silvery peace; ghosts of the ancients flitting from their tombs on the hillside to revisit places they lived and loved in. It was the most magical spot I had yet been to.
The Romans had razed much of this to the ground after Zenobia's rebellion, but then rebuilt it, repenting of their philistinism, just as magnificent as before. Now another force threatens to do the same. They will smash the statues of smiling Palmyrenes, proud in their hybrid dress of Roman toga covering Persian trousers and fancy piled-high hairdos, statues that tell of their love of jewellery and finery of every kind. They will bulldoze those cool colonnades and dynamite the exquisite theater. No doubt they will reserve particular venom for the temples of Palmyra's gods. They will destroy Palmyra to spite civilization, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
The so-called Islamic State has done this before, in Nimrud, in the library of Mosul. They have also murdered and raped their way across a swathe of Iraq and Syria. They have terrorized thousands and wallowed in it, a brutal, ignorant swarm from the dark, swelled by the feral and the feckless of our own countries. They're not the first to glory in blood and war; they won't be the last. But Palmyra is different: one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest ancient site in the entire Middle East. Maybe no ancient stone is worth a human life, maybe you can't compare the wanton destruction of antiquities to the breaking of bones and severing of veins and sinews, to the extinguishing of the spirit, but stones such as these are the sum of human existence beyond any single human life. They are part of our long story, some say a crucial part. No decree will rebuild Palmyra if it falls, and now that the Syrian army has withdrawn no human power can protect it, and we will all be diminished by its going.
When Zenobia fled across the desert that night long ago, she entered into legend, a legend that haunts her city and its monuments, threads through its streets and dyes its stones. She had dared to face down the greatest power on earth; a woman who claimed descent from Cleopatra, she had fought side-by-side with her soldiers and for a time she had won. In the absence of anything else, I might wish Zenobia would rise up from the sand and hold out a mailed fist to repel those faithless fighters of IS. It seems no one else will.Suggest a correction