When I first went to Palmyra 10 years ago it was in my view, the most beautiful and evocative ruined classical city from the ancient world. When it came under sustained and brutal attack from so-called Islamic State from May 2015 until March 2017 I, like most with a care for art, architecture and history, were appalled. After so called Islamic State was finally ejected I wanted to return to see the true extent of the damage and discover what could be done.
I joined forces with Don McCullin, the veteran war photographer whose passion for Palmyra matches my own, and secured a commission from the BBC Arts, with Adrian Sibley acting as director.
Our subsequent foray into the heart, body and soul of Syria, undertaken early in 2018, is told in the BBC Four film The Road to Palmyra (on Monday 7th May, 9.00pm). We managed to get to all the locations we hoped to visit, gain entry to museums long closed to the public to see shattered and salvaged collections of ancient art, and we met people with extraordinary stories to tell.
Don took photographs he had failed to capture on his previous journeys to Palmyra and I explored the major structures attacked by so called Islamic State and was able, in conversation with Syrian experts, to take a view about future possibilities. I was able to confirm that the Temple of Bel has been hit very hard with many of its precious carved stones utterly shattered. Authentic and large-scale reconstruction is hard to imagine. The Syrian expert that I met on site Dr Ahmed Deeb from the Government’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), claimed that 40% of the temple’s stones are in good condition and re-usable. Contemplating the mound of rubble that was the temple, it was hard to see how this optimistic reading was arrived at. I suggested that, in this case, rather than attempting a complex reconstruction using new stone, it might be more meaningful to leave this ruin as a statement about man’s inhumanity to history. The DGAM man looked thoughtful for a moment and said, they already have many ruins in Syria and that reconstruction will be attempted. A fair point, but one that also reveals the very direct political aspect of this story. President Assad’s regime presents itself as the protector of Syria’s heritage (a reasonable claim since it does appear to have saved much) and evidently wants to repair Palmyra to represent its triumph over so-called Islamic State and as a token of Assad’s determination to stay in power.
More happily the Temple of Baal Shamin and the Monumental Arch, although gravely damaged, are not obliterated in the same manner as the Temple of Bell. Reconstruction of these two structures is entirely feasible. The Tetrapylon - the four ways facing gate in the centre of Colonnade Street and formed by four groups of four columns - was blown up by so called so called Islamic State as its parting gesture. It lies in ruins, but it was almost completely reconstructed in the 1960s, incorporating numerous original stones although fifteen of its sixteen columns were made of steel reinforced concrete. As a spirited evocation of the past it can rise again, similarly the upper portion of the Roman theatre that so called Islamic State blew up, had only been put back as part of a 1980s recreation, so can go back once again.
Don and I were horrified to discover the fate of the funerary towers to the west and south west of the city, in the Valley of the Tombs. The six best of these ancient repositories of the dead of Palmyra- some with wonderfully ornate architectural interiors, have been levelled to the ground, and are now no more than heaps of stones. Subterranean tombs - the hypogea - I discovered that the best of these, the AD 2nd century Hypogeum of the Three Brothers, had been used by so called Islamic State as a bomb-proof barracks and canteen, its wondrous polychromatic frescoes - showing winged victories and portraits of the dead - had been covered by whitewash. More brutally, the painted images of Achilles and of the beauteous Trojan youth Ganymede being carried to Olympus by Zeus in the form of an eagle had been scrapped away by the heartless, followers of so-called Islamic State.
But what is to be done now? The sites of the toppled temples should be treated as crime scenes. Every day that passes the evidence is disturbed and reconstruction becomes more difficult. With utmost urgency the tumbled stones must be secured, protected and conserved, documented and sorted. But while much of the world remains at loggerheads with Assad and his regime it is difficult to see how this can happen soon. UNESCO, which has designated Palmyra a world heritage site, went briefly to the city in April 2016 but has no plans to return soon. It views it as too dangerous, and with EU, UN and US sanctions in place against Assad’s regime it is hardly likely that money and expertise will soon be made available to secure and rebuild these immensely important buildings.
Russia has the opportunity and the expertise but has yet to take significant action. And the politicising of the ruins by Assad’s regime, the determination to use them for propaganda simply makes things worse. Yet money from the international community is going into Syria, generally via verified Non Government Organisations (NGOs), for humanitarian aid - mainly to fund hospitals and train nurses and doctors. This is splendid, and perhaps presents a model for action in Palmyra. NGOs can go where governments fear to tread, and if money can be raised for humanitarian aid then why not for heritage? These two are not opposed but related. Man lives by more than bread alone. Medicine can save the body but heritage - beauty, history - can save the soul, can give people pride and identity. It is for this reason, among others, that so called Islamic State assassinated beauty and history in its attempt to destroy the identities of Syria and Iraq. After the assaults of so called Islamic State these ruins must not now be allowed to fall victim to transient politics. They are far too important and their reconstruction must not be seen as a gesture towards the healing of the shattered Syrian nation - indeed as a balm for us all.