For me Friday evening is the time of the week when I write my main blog, usually on a historical topic from the 18th or 19th Centuries, often, but not invariably, naval in focus. I usually pick my subject earlier in the week, check out various facts and select illustrations so that I’m ready to start hitting the keyboard directly after dinner. This Friday evening was to be no exception and I had selected a subject – one relating to a dramatic naval incident in the Napoleonic period – and I had assembled my material. In the event however an item on today’s news has so outraged me that I find it impossible to write about anything else. This item related to the advance of ISIS forces on the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria, bringing with them the threat of the same type of epic vandalism that they have already wreaked on the remains of the Assyrian city of Nimrud.
My blog has therefore no nautical dimension but it does relate to history in its most basic form. It raises issues as to how we regard and value the past and how we should hope to hand on to future generations, with reverence and understanding, the lessons it has taught us and the achievements of human art and intellect which it has given us.
|Palmyra - the Temple of Bel|
Some sixteen months ago I wrote a blog (click here to read it) in which I mourned “the tragedy of the end of normal things” in Syria. The situation that so depressed me then, when the word ISIS was associated only with an Egyptian goddess, or with the Thames at Oxford, seems now, in comparison, to have been immeasurably less terrible than today's. Since then we have seen barbarism on a massive scale, targeting not just today’s humanity but the very past itself. Not only have we seen huge numbers of people murdered with incomprehensible savagery, driven from their homes and persecuted for their beliefs, but we have seen war declared on the memory itself, devastating archaeological sites and aiming to wipe away all trace of past civilisations.
|Palmyra - never to be forgotten|
I visited Syria twice. On the first occasion, some fifteen years ago, I had gone there on business, but I was able to take some brief time off to see something of the country’s amazing heritage. The most impressive site of all was Palmyra, the ancient city that lies roughly half-way between Damascus and the Euphrates. It thrived in the Greco-Roman period – though its history was much longer – and its name will always be associated with its most famous ruler, Queen Zenobia.
Palmyra was a vital stop on the long trade route that led from
the Mediterranean to as far away as China and its wealth was based on trade
rather than military power. Though surrounded by desert on all sides, it was
centred on a palm oasis so that agriculture could flourish about it and sustain
its life. The site is vast, roughly a fifth of a square mile, and though most
of the building have been tumbled by earthquakes over the centuries one is
still overcome by its grandeur. I myself was overcome by what I saw and I
resolved that I would return at some stage to enjoy the site – and many other
splendid ones in Syria – at my leisure.
|Even today the beauty and extent of the ruins convey just how prosperous this city was|
|Palmyra's theatre - with perhaps the best backdrop in the world|
|Part of the Temple of Bel complex|
|Survivors of centuries of earthquakes - and now at risk from Man?|
The one glimmer of hope is that Palmyra has not fallen yet to ISIS, that it may yet be saved for the delight and inspiration of countless generations to come.