Palmyra by Don McCullin


‘If you ask the stars to choose a place instead of the sky
They will say Palmyra.’
– Yaseen al-Farjani

The young man betrayed no emotion as he told the story: ‘They asked him to kneel. He refused. He said, “If you are going to kill me, it will be while I am standing. I will die like the date palms, upright.” Because he refused to kneel, they hit him behind the knees.’ The man’s legs collapsed, and he fell. A sword swept through his neck, severing his head.

The young man, Tarek Assa’ad, hesitated. This was not a distant memory, and the murdered man was no stranger. It was his father, Khaled Assa’ad. The 81-year-old archaeologist died on 18 August 2015 within sight of the house where he was born on 1 January 1934. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), then at the summit of its conquests, decapitated him with the same destructive fury that characterised its demolition of the Hellenic and Roman treasures that Khaled Assa’ad had dedicated his life to protecting. In the burning summer of 2015, the guardian and his city, called Palmyra for its stately palm trees, were dying together.

Tarek resumed his account, going back in time to his father’s childhood playing amid Palmyra’s classical temples, marketplace and sunlit theatre in the waning days of French rule over Syria. ‘He was so much in love with these artefacts,’ Tarek said. ‘When you wake up every day and see the Temple of Bel, you have to fall in love, don’t you?’ The temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel, or Baal, was Palmyra’s most distinctive structure. Its sacred enclosure, surrounded by porticos and columns, has fascinated scholars and travellers since its completion in ad 32. It intrigued no one more than the elder Assa’ad. He taught himself the Palmyrene dialect of Aramaic, the region’s lingua franca during the Roman era, in order to understand Palmyra’s elaborate inscriptions and the people who etched them in stone. After taking a degree in history from the University of Damascus, he stayed in the Syrian capital during its turbulent years of multiple military coups d’état to work for the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). In 1963, DGAM sent him back to Palmyra to oversee excavations and curate the new museum that had opened beside the ruins.

The energetic director uncovered hidden tombs, located the marble fort of the Emperor Diocletian’s garrison, dug up hundreds of coins that had lain undiscovered for nearly two thousand years and found memorials to ancient Palmyra’s notable citizens. His discoveries and publications filled gaps in the elusive history of Palmyra’s rise from desert oasis a thousand years before Christ to thriving centre of world trade between Rome and India in the early Christian era. Thanks in part to his efforts, UNESCO declared Palmyra a World Heritage Site in 1980. It was no coincidence that Khaled Assa’ad named his first daughter for Palmyra’s fabled queen, Zenobia, who is forever associated with the city that she led to its greatest triumphs in the third century after Christ. He retired in 2003, when his oldest son among eleven children, Walid, succeeded him as antiquities director. Retirement did not prevent him from persevering with his digging, researching, writing and educating visitors about his beloved ruins.

In May 2015, more than four years into Syria’s civil war, everyone knew that ISIS militants were headed to Palmyra. They had just invaded Raqqa on the Euphrates River about 130 miles to the north and declared it capital of their new caliphate. With the Syrian Army preoccupied to the west in the more populous provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, nothing but desert and a few undefended villages stood between Raqqa and the ‘pearl of the desert’, Palmyra. Although strategically insignificant, it symbolised everything that the religious fanatics detested: Syria’s pre-Islamic history, beautiful artworks celebrating pagan gods and ancient funerary monuments. Palmyra as repository of Syria’s many cultures was to them anathema. Riding American armoured vehicles captured from the demoralised Iraqi Army, ISIS advanced south in mid-May. Its militants, led by suicide bombers in exploding trucks, opened the way through army checkpoints. Within a week, they had seized Palmyra.

By the time Dr Maamoun Abdul Karim, DGAM’s director-general from 2012 until last September, learned of ISIS’s intentions, it was too late to save Palmyra. The zealots had already demolished other historic sites, including Nineveh and Nimrud, in Syria and Iraq. Palmyra’s Doric columns and temples were too large to move, but Dr Abdul Karim ordered the transfer of as many valuables as a small fleet of trucks could carry from Palmyra to Damascus. ‘Three hours before the occupation by Da’esh,’ he said, using ISIS’s Arabic acronym, ‘the Syrian official police in Palmyra sent twenty policemen to support my colleagues to move the artefacts. We decided to do it in the middle of the night.’ While the battle for Palmyra raged between ISIS and a rearguard of Syrian troops, museum staff and twenty police commandos loaded 400 statues, along with hundreds of glass jars, ceramics and medals, onto hastily assembled trucks outside the Palmyra Museum. They worked throughout the night of 20 May. At dawn, the trucks moved out. ISIS rolled in ten minutes later.

Dr Abdul Karim told me the story in a cafe near Damascus University, where he taught archaeology before, during and after his retirement from DGAM last September. An archetypal Syrian gentleman of a bygone age, he smoked a water pipe and drank Turkish coffee. All that was missing was a red tarbush. Although aged fifty, he said, ‘After the last five years, I feel more than seventy. I’ve had no sleep for five years.’ The Syrian war saw him struggle to save antiquities all over Syria from jihadist vandals, who defaced what they called ‘idols’, and criminal looters, who sold their country’s heritage for huge profits overseas. His efforts earned him prizes from archaeological institutes in Italy, China, Algeria and elsewhere, but at home his university would not even grant him a sabbatical to rest from his hard labours.

Dr Abdul Karim’s passion for the country’s past had its roots in his background, which, while not Arab, is pure Syrian in its fascinating variety. ‘My father was Armenian, Bidros Krikor Eskidjian,’ he said. ‘In 1915, he was eight years old. His mother and father were killed.’ That was at the height of Turkey’s genocide of Armenians during the First World War, when thousands of Armenian orphans were roaming the Syrian countryside unaccompanied. ‘He was saved by the Abdul Karim family. They are Kurdish.’ His father adopted his Kurdish benefactors’ name and religion, Sunni Islam. ‘My mother is Syriac,’ he added. Her Syriac Orthodox Christian community, like the Armenians, had suffered massacres by Turks in the early twentieth century and more recent assaults by ISIS, including kidnappings and a suicide bombing attempt to kill the Syriac patriarch in Syria on the 101st anniversary of the Ottomans’ campaign against them. He summed up without a trace of self-pity, ‘I am from three genocides: Armenian, Kurdish and Syriac.’

Like Assa’ad, Dr Abdul Karim studied at Damascus University, but he went to France for his archaeology PhD. The Syrian civil war was entering its second year in 2012 when he became director-general. Responsibility for all of Syria’s archaeological museums and locales, six of which were UNESCO World Heritage Sites, was placed in his hands. His greatest support came from private citizens in both rebel and government areas, who hid antiquities from looters and jihadis before delivering them to DGAM. This was a grass-roots movement of Syrians – Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Muslims, Druze, Ismailis, Alawis and Christians – to preserve their shared patrimony. ‘In Aleppo,’ he said, ‘24,000 objects were moved to Damascus in one night.’ When ISIS was massing in April 2014 to assault the riverside city of Deir ez-Zor, Dr Abdul Karim’s volunteers packed up 30,000 pieces and shipped them to Damascus. The basement of the National Museum of Damascus overflowed with Syria’s most valuable historical relics.

Meanwhile, the trade in stolen artefacts from Palmyra and elsewhere was flourishing. Stolen statues, manuscripts, jewellery and ceramics turned up in Europe via Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It was not as bad, however, as Dr Abdul Karim had feared: ‘We found that more than 70 per cent of the traffic outside Syria is fake.’ Many items, when their provenance was revealed, went back to Syria with the help of Interpol and other police agencies. ‘It’s not just our culture,’ Dr Abdul Karim said. ‘It is a universal heritage.’

Shortly after conquering Palmyra, on 27 May, ISIS released an eighty-seven-second video message promising to preserve the Roman ruins. That did not prevent ISIS a month later from initiating the systematic destruction of the graceful colonnades that stretched into the desert for nearly a mile along the ancient Roman road. Militants smashed the famed Lion of al-Lāt, a beautiful stone statue of a lion god protecting a gazelle that Polish archaeologist Michał Gawlikowski discovered only in 1977. Subsequent reports from Palmyra were vague about what was happening. Then, in late August, satellite photographs confirmed that ISIS had razed the site’s most impressive structures, the Roman-era Temples of Baalshamin and Bel. UNSECO head Irina Bokova called ISIS’s vandalism a ‘war crime’ and an ‘intolerable crime against civilisation’. ISIS followed those outrages with the destruction of Palmyra’s distinctive funeral towers that had stood for centuries at the fringe of the old city. If the jihadists stayed much longer, archaeologists feared, nothing would remain.

History may not be, as Henry Ford called it, ‘bunk’, but it can be contentious and usually serves rival masters. Myth surrounds the ISIS occupation of Palmyra from 2015 to 2017 as much as it clouds the tale of Queen Zenobia seventeen centuries ago. Zenobia inherited the Palmyrene throne from her husband, Rome’s ally and vassal Odaenathus, when he was assassinated in ad 267. Zenobia, said by contemporaries to have been both beautiful and so chaste that she made love to her husband only in order to have children, claimed kinship with antiquity’s other great queen, Cleopatra. Historian Yasmine Zahra wrote, ‘Zenobia was a Roman to the Romans, a Pan-Hellene to the Greeks, but in fact she was a Hellenised Arab.’ Zenobia came to power when the trading centre of Palmyra enjoyed its greatest revenues and the Roman Empire was suffering what historians call ‘the crisis of the third century’ with rebellions east and west threatening its unity. Zenobia took advantage of Roman weakness by conquering all of Syria, Egypt and part of Anatolia. When the Emperor Aurelian consolidated Rome’s control of the west, he led his army against her in 272.

Some chroniclers wrote that Aurelian killed her in battle, while others, like sixth-century Byzantine historian Zosimus, claimed that the emperor carried her as war booty to Rome, gave her a house in Tivoli and let her mature from exotic beauty into respectable Roman matron. In our time, observers differ on what transpired in Palmyra when ISIS conquered the city in May 2015, withdrew under Syrian and Russian assault in March 2016, returned nine months later and fled for the final time in March 2017.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s defenders maintain that the United States sent ISIS into Syria, while his opponents blame him. In Palmyra, several civilians swore to me that they had seen American warplanes flying in support of ISIS. Others said the Syrian Army assisted ISIS’s conquest of Palmyra.

Last October, I went to Palmyra for the first time since 1987. Syria thirty years ago was an island of peace between Iraq, then in its fifth year of war with Iran, and Lebanon, whose civil war had another three years to run. Palmyra’s ruins stretched over acres of a tranquil, isolated plain. Its allure owed as much to its position as to the structures left by the ancient Palmyrenes. ‘The beauty of Palmyra is its silence,’ Dr Abdul Karim told me. In this, he shared the view of Sir Mark Sykes. Sykes, whose famous 1915 accord with French diplomat François Georges-Picot is not blameless in the Syrian tragedy, had written in his 1904 travelogue, Dar-ul-Islam, ‘The real attraction of Palmyra is its solitude; the great noisy money-proud city overturned, shaken and deserted, the sand-worn colonnades, the crumbling temples, the ruined tombs, unprepossessing in themselves, have been beautified by decay, and rendered pathetic by their forlornness and silence.’ Nothing had changed when I saw it more than eighty years after Sykes. Palmyra was an exquisite diadem at the eastern edge of what had been the Roman world, its grandeur enhanced rather than diminished by millennia of neglect.

Until the 1930s, semi-settled nomads had lived in mud hovels within the ruins. The French Mandate authorities moved them into Tadmor, the town that was expanding on the northern and eastern outskirts of Palmyra. The French had already built a prison there to hold (and torture) Syrians who fought for independence in the uprising of 1925. Syria’s post-independence governments kept the prison. It became the scene of the bloody murder of hundreds of political prisoners by the notorious Rifaat al-Assad in reprisal for the attempted assassination of his brother, President Hafez al-Assad, in 1980. I wrote about Tadmor in Tribes with Flags: A Journey Curtailed:

Few buildings in Tadmor seemed over two storeys high, but every roof had steel rods sticking out ready for a new floor to be added when a son married. The only building materials used in the last twenty-five years were those which cursed the whole Levant: grey breezeblocks and concrete of numbing uniformity. The old, simple houses of mud or stone were beautiful by comparison, but few remained.

Tadmor town then was as squalid as Palmyra’s ruins were majestic, but it was intact, and its people were hospitable. The ISIS occupations and the government’s battles to retake it have ravaged it.

When Don McCullin and I returned to Palmyra and Tadmor, we remembered them as they were before ISIS. Don ran to the Temple of Bel, which he had photographed for his 2010 book Southern Frontiers. Little was left of the monument he had painstakingly recorded. The empty horizon loomed over shattered stones. ‘Don’t photograph the Russians,’ a Ministry of Information official warned him as he climbed atop a massive hunk of limestone.

On this latest visit, I went into the town to find streets clogged with war detritus, water and sewage pipes crumbled and buildings collapsed with their innards exposed to the elements. Barely a hundred people out of an estimated pre-war population of 70,000 have returned. Among them were the al-Khateeb family, who had reopened their ‘supermarket’, a small room on the ground floor of the building where they lived. Twenty-six-year-old Ghaith al-Khateeb was running the shop for his father, Issa. The young man offered me coffee and talked about life in Tadmor while Russian soldiers loitered outside.

He shed light on one point of contention: whether the army had aided civilians to evacuate or abandoned them in its hasty retreat in May 2015. He said, ‘The army facilitated the flow of the civilians. Some stayed, about 300 people.’ He had fled with his father, mother, two brothers and two sisters to relatives in Homs. They came back after the Syrian Army expelled ISIS in March 2016 and reopened the shop.

The Russians celebrated victory in Palmyra with a concert in the ancient theatre. On 5 May, Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in performances of Prokofiev and Bach to an audience of Russian and Syrian military personnel. ‘We protest against barbarians who destroyed wonderful monuments of world culture,’ Gergiev declared. ‘We protest against the execution of people here on this great stage.’ Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on a video screen to praise his troops for their ‘fight against terrorism without sparing their own lives’. The ceremony proved both premature and vainglorious. The following December, ISIS returned.

ISIS’s second conquest of Palmyra astonished everyone, and fed the belief in a Syrian government conspiracy to assist ISIS. Russian and American satellites should have spotted ISIS fighters speeding across the barren landscape and given US-backed rebels or the Syrian Army time to defend the city. Colonel Sami Ibrahim of Syria’s Military Media Department, sitting in a shaded bunker beside the T4 oil pumping station about forty miles west of Palmyra, said it did not happen that way. ‘The second time, they made use of some of the enclaves that were not liberated,’ he said. He showed me photographs of tunnels that the ISIS fighters dug into rock outside Palmyra, when they fled from the city in March 2016. The deep tunnels were covered in gravel as camouflage from aerial reconnaissance. ISIS did not come all the way across the desert from Raqqa, he insisted, but infiltrated from positions nearby. That December, the Syrian Army, with Russian air cover, was concentrating on the expulsion of rebels from eastern Aleppo. Aleppo became the decisive battle of the war, initiating the steady return of more and more territory to government control and undermining international support for the rebels.

On its return, ISIS resumed the destruction of ancient monuments and the execution of those it labelled kafirs, non-believers, until the army drove them out again in March 2017. The Khateeb family had again taken refuge in Homs and returned to Palmyra with the Syrian Army to reopen their shop. Khateeb led me from the modest grocery to a souvenir emporium below selling trinkets, small carpets, handmade mother-of-pearl boxes and plaster replicas of the Roman temples. ‘At first, we opened a supermarket,’ he explained. ‘We saw that souvenirs were in demand, so we concentrated on such items.’ The souvenir buyers were the Russian troops who patrolled Tadmor’s streets on foot, lodged in dispersed barracks, including one inside the Roman ruins, and appeared to act as a guarantee against a third ISIS invasion. One Russian soldier used his few words of Arabic to negotiate the price of postcards and mementos to send home. Another soldier examined several items under the glass counter without buying any, much to Khateeb’s amusement.

Khateeb pointed to a huge opening gouged in the wall. He explained, ‘They put holes in the walls and linked all the basements.’ His basement had been an ISIS field hospital. He had cleaned it up to install the shop. ‘Business is okay,’ he said. The only customers were Russian and Syrian soldiers. Most of the inhabitants of Tadmor were waiting for the restoration of electricity and running water before returning. Khateeb kept the lights on with a small generator that vibrated outside. ‘I’m happy and unhappy at the same time,’ he said. ‘All my friends have left. Will they return? Insha’allah.’

A few streets away, Mohammed Khalid Allawi was grilling meat on a wood fire in the street in front of a shabby restaurant that was little more than a concrete box with a few tables. Beside him, his wife, Daline, and Aunt Fouda were washing and chopping vegetables. ‘The army helped us get out,’ he said, ‘or we would have been executed.’ Although he was a practising Muslim and both women wore scarves over their hair, he said of ISIS, ‘They think of me as a kafir. They believe they are the custodians of religion. What kind of religion do they believe in?’ He said that Christians had lived among Muslims in Tadmor, until ISIS drove them out. No one knew whether they would return.

Turning meat on the fire, Allawi continued, ‘This is our home. This is my work. I hope all the residents will be back. Thank God, it’s safe all around. We fled twice.’ Did he think he would flee again? ‘No. It’s finished. It’s only a matter of one month or two and they will be driven out of all Syria.’ He directed me to a Christian church nearby. ISIS had burned it to a husk. The only signs of worship were the torn pages of charred hymnals.

Everyone in Tadmor had a story, none of them happy. A 51-year-old man slouched in a chair inside his tiny sandwich shop was staring at a vacant lot opposite. He invited me to sit and gave me Turkish coffee in a plastic cup. He introduced himself as Mohammed Saleh Ali Mahmoud. ‘I used to be a wealthy man in Tadmor,’ he said. ‘Take a look. See what I’m left with.’ It wasn’t much. A few shelves of biscuits and tinned milk, loaves of Arabic bread in plastic wrap, a desk. Before ISIS occupied Tadmor the first time, Mohammed ran a building firm and a lucrative business leasing heavy construction equipment. His main customer was the Syrian Army, whose engineers were involved in various building projects in the region. ‘When Da’esh came, I left after two days,’ he recalled. ‘My son Adnan stayed.’ Adnan was twenty-six and unmarried. He worked for his father. His father advised him to leave, but he stayed to protect the company assets. ISIS looted the family’s house and seized the heavy equipment. Mohammed said, ‘They said I’m a kafir and distributed my property to people they knew, to Da’esh people.’ Adnan hid in a friend’s house, while ISIS hunted down everyone it suspected had connections to the Syrian regime. ‘Someone told them he was hiding there,’ the father said. ‘One of our relatives, who had come to Homs, phoned me and told me about it.’

ISIS put scores of people on trial, including Adnan. Mohammed told me that they sentenced him to death and beheaded him. Later in our conversation he said they shot him. When ISIS retreated the second time, they took some of his machines with them and detonated the rest. ‘I lost everything,’ he said, ‘but I wish they had taken everything and left my son.’ Unable to find Adnan’s body, the family could not hold a funeral or bury him. ISIS had anyway despoiled graves of those whose bodies were found. ‘They even destroyed the tombs,’ Mohammed said, referring to the empty land in front of us, formerly a burial ground the size of a football field. Its elaborate tombstones were now pummelled to dust. ‘According to the Wahhabis,’ Mohammed said, referring to ISIS’s Saudi Wahhabi ideology, ‘tombs should not be more than six inches above ground.’ I walked across the street to the cemetery. The graves were no longer discernible in the rubble that was, indeed, no higher than my ankle.

‘The destroyers came from out of the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them . . . These men moved in packs – later in swarms of as many as five hundred – and when they descended utter destruction followed. Their targets were the temples and the attacks could be astonishingly swift. Great stone columns that had stood for centuries collapsed in an afternoon; statues that had stood for half a millennium had their faces mutilated in a moment; statues that had seen the rise of the Roman Empire fell in a single day … The zealots roared with laughter as they smashed the ‘evil’, ‘idolatrous’ statues; the faithful jeered as they tore down temples, stripped roofs and defaced tombs …’
– Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age

Nixey described devastation, not by modern Muslim fanatics, but by Christian vandals in the third century. The Christians attacked the statue of the goddess Athena with particular ferocity, smashing ‘the back of Athena’s head with a single blow so hard that it decapitated the goddess’. They cut off her helmet and severed her arms. Seventeen centuries passed, as monotheism, first Christian and then Muslim, flourished. Then, in the twenty-first century, Athena suffered another assault. ‘In Palmyra,’ Nixey wrote, ‘the great statue of Athena that had been carefully repaired by archaeologists, was attacked yet again. Once again, Athena was beheaded; once again, her arm was sheared off.’ ISIS was, in its exuberant annihilation of the past, heir to the impulse that had motivated Christian fanatics of the earlier time.

The Palmyra I visited in 1987 and again last year had survived wars, rebellions and massacres over centuries. Within the grounds of the ancient city, nothing was as I recalled it from thirty years before. The triumphal arch was gone, its plinths silhouetted against the bare sky. The Temple of Bel had become a sea of broken stone that archaeologists believe will take a generation to piece together. The agora was unrecognisable. Wandering through ancient Palmyra in 1987, I could reflect on Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, her rebellion against Emperor Aurelian and the destruction, as well as later restoration, of her city. Zenobia had inspired historians to embellish her image, Boccaccio and Chaucer to celebrate her stamina, nineteenth-century American sculptor Harriet Hosmer to immortalise her in stone and the glamorous Anita Ekberg to portray her in the dreadful sword-and-sandal movie, Sign of the Gladiator (1959). The latest chapter of Palmyra’s history offered no nobility to portray, to immortalise or to glamorise. The only consoling fact of the modern vandalism was that it could have been worse.

When ISIS prepared to abandon the site for the second time in March 2017, it placed so many charges throughout the ancient city that Russian and Syrian sappers needed months to remove them. The miracle was that the bombs did not explode. Like Hitler’s order to destroy the historic heart of Paris before the German Army retreated in 1944, the demolition failed. Either there was no time or a local commander – a latter-day General Dietrich von Choltitz – refused the order to erase so much history and beauty from the face of the earth. Palmyra, despite the depredations to its monuments and its people, survived. For now.

Charles Glass & Don McCullin

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