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The Battle of Palmyra

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Office of the Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Damascus.

This observer has met dozens of Syrian patriots these past few years while traveling across this ancient crucible of civilization to chronicle Syria’s Endangered Heritage. Among them, two Syrians particularly stand out. They are Syria’s indefatigable Minister of Tourism Becher Riad Yazji and Dr. Maamoun Abdel-Karim, the General Director of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). I met with each of them again this past week, just as the Palmyra crisis was unfolding and both are indeed not only Syrian, but also international patriots, given their work–day and night– to preserve and protect the global heritage of all of us.

With respect to Dr. Abdel-Karim, who even knows when the gentleman last got some sleep, as he has become the international go-to source on the current fast moving and potentially catastrophic developments at Palmyra (Tadmor).  It is here, just 200 miles northeast of Damascus, and fewer than 20 miles from raging Da’ish (ISIS) fighters who have stunned the world and terrified the more than 70,000 citizens by invading eastern Homs.The jihadists are currently closing in on the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra.

Islamic State members reportedly were driven out by Syrian forces on 5/16/2015. Soon after, five civilians were reportedly killed by an ISIS mortar strike near the National Museum of Palmyra and more than 350 fighters, from both sides of the continuing assault have been killed this past week.  On 5/18/2015 Brigadier General Haidar Ali Asaad, the head of the Syrian Palmyra military operations was reportedly killed, while defending Palmyra, once more raising fears about the fate of the ancient city’s archeological treasures.

Every 30 minutes Dr.Abdel-Karim seems to takean assessment call from staff at the Palmyra Museum, where this observer has spent time and was given tours last year of its breathtaking collection of antiquities, some having been recovered from looters, with the help of INTERPOL along with modest, but not enough, help from the neighboring governments of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordon.

Just posted videos on the Protect Syrian Archeology website show the fighting on 5/15/2015 between the Da’ish and the Syrian army near the Citadel.  The day before, 5/14/2015, the UK Guardian presented a report showing ISIS jihadists at the gates of Palmyra, while the UK Telegraph published a series of high-resolution photos two days ago. According to the provincial governor, Talal Barazi, Da’ish has now brought up reinforcements from the Euphrates Valley to the east.

Da’ish has also carried out successive attacks on the outskirts of Palmyra, seizing full control of the town of Al-Sukhna that lies on the Palmyra-Deir Ezzor Highway 65 kilometers northeast of Palmyra and subsequently attacking Al-Sukhna, Al-Amiriyah, the Al-Amiriyah storehouses and dozens of checkpoints around Al-Sukhna, managing to take complete control of the towns within 10 hours, according to sources at the scene. In nearby Amriya, Da’ish is reported to have executed 23 family members of Syrian government workers on 5/16/2015 and the same source reports Da’ish executed 26 people in al Amriya and nearby al Sukhna on 5/14/2015. Both villages are about 45 miles (70 kilometers) northeast of Palmyra.

As of mid-afternoon 5/18/2015, the threatening situation at the archaeological site is eerily calm. For the moment.  A source at the scene reports that the Syrian military has forced ISIS militants to withdraw to the borders of the archaeological site and fighting is raging outside Palmyra with heavy artillery exchanges in the west of the town. Dr. Maamoun has just reported to us that ISIS has not entered the city yet, and added that “we hope these barbarians will never enter…if the militants make it to Palmyra, it will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra, and Mosul.  If that happens, a major chapter in Middle Eastern history and culture will be yet another casualty of this tragic conflict.

British historian Tom Holland describes the Palmyra site as “an extraordinary fusion of classical and Iranian influences intermixed with various Arab influences as well and the destruction of Palmyra wouldn’t just be a tragedy for Syria, it would be a loss for the entire world.” This is because Syria’s cultural heritage isn’t just about Middle Eastern history. Syria is a wellspring of the global culture of all of us. The consequences of its destruction could not be more ominous in terms of conservation and the identity of our specie.

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The ruins of Palmyra, the “Venice of the Sands”. Photo: AFP.

Palmyra, is known here as the ‘Venice of the Sands”, an appellation applied by Thomas Edward Lawrence and others because like Venice, this magnificent city formed the hub of a vast trade network, only with the desert being its sea and camels its ships.   Among the massive ruins at Palmyra this observer was shown a plaque taken from T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom where the archeologist-soldier wrote:  “Nothing in this scorching, desolate land could look so refreshing.”

Crime novelist Agatha Christie, who accompanied her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan to the site, called Palmyra “lovely and fantastic and unbelievable.” And so it is–as of this afternoon (5/18/2015). But another world wonder may well be on the brink of destruction. Palmyra is in the crosshairs of militants fighting with the self-proclaimed Islamic State who three months ago severely damaged archeological sites at Nimrud and Hatra across the border in Iraq.

Da’ish and like-minded jihadists deny that their destruction of archeological sites in this region are acts of vandalism or terrorism.  Rather, they argue that what they are doing is honorable religiously. It is obligatory “idol destruction.” In a recent article in its online magazine Dabiq, it is claimed that archeological sites like Palmyra must not be excavated and restored, but rather viewed with “disgust and hatred” and destroyed because they are pre-Islamic. ISIS propaganda claims the Islamist militants should be supported, even praised, for destroying idols or false gods and that their ‘work’ with bulldozers and jackhammers are following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed, who smashed pagan statues in Mecca.

Among the greatest architectural monuments at the Palmyra site endangered at this hour is a wide, colonnaded street over half a mile long and the Temple of Baal, as well as a theater and the Agora. In addition, a Roman aqueduct and huge necropolises are on the outskirts.

According to UNESCO, “From the first to the second century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.” The site “represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said on 5/15/2015. “I appeal to all parties to protect Palmyra and make every effort to prevent its destruction.” The site has already suffered four years of conflict; it suffered from looting and represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world.”

A major watering hole and the resting place for merchants’ caravans on the old Silk Road, the trade route linked China and the Mediterranean. Palmyra grew rich levying tolls on traders passing through with spices and silks and slaves that it became known as the Bride of the Desert. But right now, today, yet another world wonder in Syria is on the brink of destruction.

Why Palmyra, matters

Palmyra is perhaps the last place anyone would expect to find a forest of stone columns and arches, according to Kevin Butcher, Professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick and a specialist in the Roman Near East, “Travelers in the 17th and 18th centuries were repeatedly astonished by what they saw: a vast field of ruins in the middle of the Syrian desert, roughly half-way between the Mediterranean coast and the valley of the River Euphrates.”

As noted above, the main reason for the site’s prosperity is that ancient Palmyra sits at the edge of an oasis of date palms and gardens.  It was a vital watering place on a trade route from the east and its very name “Palmyra” refers to the date palms that still cover much of the area. Its Semitic name, Tadmor, is a derivation from tamar, meaning “date palm.”

According to Professor Butcher, from modest beginnings in the 1st Century BC, Palmyra gradually rose to prominence under the aegis of Rome until, during the 3rd Century AD, the city’s rulers challenged Roman power and created an empire of their own that stretched from Turkey to Egypt. Palmyra was a thriving trade hub to rival any city in the Roman Empire its remains, including the ancient theater, drew thousands of tourists annually before March 2011.

Locals speak proudly about Palmyra’s Queen Zenobia, and this observer has met more than one young lady whose parents gave them her name. Zenobia fought against the Roman Emperor and also defeated the invading Persians. In the middle of the third century, when the Sasanians invaded the Roman Empire and captured the Emperor Valerian, it was the Palmyrenes who defeated them and drove them back across the Euphrates. In the context of today’s regional Geo-politics Zenobia takes on added symbolism.

Palmyra was a great Middle Eastern achievement, and was unlike any other city of the Roman Empire. It was simply unique, culturally and artistically. In other cities the landed elites normally controlled affairs, whereas in Palmyra a merchant class dominated the political life, and the Palmyrenes specialized in protecting merchant caravans crossing the desert. This observer has been honored to examine the well-preserved remains of edifices, such as the great sanctuary of the Palmyrene Gods, the Temple of Bael), a grand colonnaded street and a theater which as of today, still stands.

Palmyra has its own unique identity. The Palmyrenes were proud to adorn their buildings with monumental writing in their own Semitic script and language rather than relying exclusively on Greek or Latin that was used elsewhere in the empire. As Professor Butcher instructs us, Palmyra developed its own artistic style, and its own take on Classical architecture. Decorative patterns on its buildings and its inhabitants’ styles of dress speak of widespread connections with east and west. Chinese silks have been found adorning mummies in Palmyrene tombs. Theirs was a cosmopolitan culture with an international outlook. Only small parts of the site have so far been excavated. Most of the archaeology lies just beneath the surface rather than deeply buried, and it is particularly vulnerable to looting. While gazing at the Temple of Bael some while back, this observer’s military escort pointed to a shovel and told me if I were to dig “anywhere around here” as he swept the horizon with his outstretched arm, I would find priceless treasures.  Archeologists have only scratched the surface of the great expanse of Palmyra.

The next few days will be a test for world powers, a chance to take action before the crime against humanity is allowed to happen. The global community must take the decision without further delay to protect and preserve Syria’s and all of ours shared global heritage.

Some of what can and must be done immediately:

All political and religious leaders in the region must stand up and remind the world that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage at Palmyra or anywhere else.

A late report from Washington has it that U.S. President Barack Obama is considering an NSA recommendation that Special Forces “boots on the ground” at least be discussed and that the US may direct its war against Da’ish to save Palmyra. Some argue that what US forces did in Baghdad, standing idle and watching as the National Museum was looted must not be allowed again in Syria.  While US forces on the ground would likely be widely opposed and is in fact unnecessary,  to date the government of Syria and its regional allies have not challenged the US led air strikes against Da’ish, neither in both Syria nor in Iraq. These strikes should for a limited period of one week and under UN control and used on a limited basis solely to stop the Jihadists from destroying this irreplaceable cultural heritage site.

There exists ample international customary law and international conventions in force, including Chapter 7 of the UN Charter that allows and even calls for action on the facts of the Palmyra emergency. The UN Security Council has the resources and the responsibility to act and its 15 member states must not veto a resolution that is expected to be submitted this coming week to save Palmyra.

The people and officials of Syria are doing their part.  It remains for the rest of us to join with them and do ours.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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