Palmyra

An Attack on History

Christopher Davis

My next stage of my trip brings me to tell the brief story of the famous city in Syria called Palmyra. 

Today many people who live outside the Middle East know Palmyra because of the occupation by the Islamic state and the barbaric acts they perpetrated  when they occupied the ancient city. 

Palmyra is an ancient semitic city in Homs, Syria and is 250 km from Damascus. Founded in the 3rd millennium BC . Palmyra was also designated a World Heritage Site in 1980 by UNESCO 

Palmyra was one of the most important cities in the ancient world; it was known as the silk road trading paradise which linked East to West. Trading caravans from all over the known world would come here to buy and sell their goods. This also helped export culture all over the globe at a slow steady pace. 

Like any ancient city, Palmyra had seen many rulers from various empires such as Palmyrene empire which spoke Aramaic, to the Byzantine empire which spoke Aramaic / Greek and under the Byzantine empire, the people of Palmyra adopted  Christianity until the Rashidun Caliphate conquest took over and Islam became the dominant religion and Arabic became the official language. 

With the uprising  of the Arab spring and the spread of conflict into Syria,  organisations such as Isis  and Jabhat Fatah al Sham used this conflict to recruit and wage  war on humanity and history. 

When Isis exploded onto the world stage in 2014 they imminently became the world’s number one designated terrorist organisations.  Not only did they achieve a state in Iraq and Syria, they were on their way to achieving one of their ultimate goals which was to systematically erase every faith  based / nationalistic group that did not adhere to their religion, also to eradicate historical architecture and heritage. 

Isis is the most sophisticated terrorist organisation the world has seen. This organisation was different to all organisations of its kind;  they had hi tech weaponry, they recruited people to join their caliphate by the thousands, and this was done largely via social media and was something other terrorist  organisations could not do.  Their strategic battle plans were precise and above all their brutality knew no boundaries. One of the reasons al Qaeda would not align with Isis was because of their brutality. 

In 2015 Isis targeted and occupied Palmyra for many reasons.

  1. Palmyra is logistically important because it is close to the oil fields, also seizing Palmyra gave Isis control of the desert highway linking Damascus and Homs with the East. 
  2. Economically Palmyra brought in large money in tourism with its ancient history which dates back to the 3rd millennia BC. Destroying this place cuts a source of revenue to the Syrian economy. Also Isis doesn’t recognise these historical building and statues as Islamic so they must be destroyed. 
  3. Finally Isis made a large revenue by selling oil from the oil fields they captured and sold on the black market to Turkey. Seizing Palmyra would not only benefit its captors logistically, but also ancient artefacts can sell for millions on the black market. 

Since the turn of the millennium there has been the largest rise in historical monumental destruction since World War II. Terrific destruction as never seen before on cultural diversity is inflicted by terrorist organisations. We have seen this in Libya since the fall of Gaddafi. In Afghanistan the Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of the Buddhas of Banyan in 2001. In Mali Islamists destroyed religious monuments and mosques in the ancient city of Timbuktu  in 2016.  Jabhat  al Nosra destroyed ancient paintings and buildings in Maloola. 

One of the most famous buildings In Palmyra, the Temple of Bel, was almost obliterated leaving just the pillar entrance standing. 

During the occupation of Palmyra alongside famous ancient sites being destroyed, public execution became normality. Many of the people killed were soldiers of the Syrian army and supporters of the Assad regime; the victims included women, teenagers and  young children. I shall never forget hearing about the 82-year-old caretaker of Palmyra; his name was Khalid al Assad and he was kidnapped. It is said Isis abused him because he refused to tell them where the “ treasure” (ancient artefacts) were.  They then publicly behead him and hung his body on the pillar of the ancient city. He had worked and studied in Palmyra for 50 years. 

Isis occupied Palmyra from the 13th to the 26th of May 2015.

They retook Palmyra on the 11th December 2016 to the 27th of March 2017.

On the 9th of March 2016 the aggressors started to  retake the occupied land of Palmyra. Heavy Russian air strikes started. An estimated 20 to 25 air strikes a day where preformed to weaken Isis. Then major ground assaults started on the 12th of March in west Palmyra. With Isis being sophisticated at warfare they knew how to defend land well.  Isis  had created effective  preparations to repel any force by establishing defences in the city and trenches around the periphery. 

Fighting intensified on the 17th of March. Palmyra was hit by a sandstorm this gave Isis cover to wage deadly attacks to the Syrian and Russian forces. In the later hours of that day reinforcements arrived,  including Hezbollah to help strengthen the defence of the Syrian forces. Beside the battle raging around the city and the famous World Heritage Sites being destroyed, the death of a Russian commander caught international headlines. Alexander Prokhareko was surrounded by Isis forces; knowing what his fate would  be if he was captured, he deliberately called in an airstrike, killing himself and Isis fighters.  With the help of the Russians and Hezbollah the Syrian forces were able to expel Isis from Palmyra. During its expulsion, Isis planted an estimated five  thousand land mines in and around Palmyra, which the Russians were able to find and detonate. During the occupation an estimated 280 were killed and over two thousand years of historical  sites were destroyed by Isis  and the war in Palmyra.

Monumental ancient heritage in Palmyra isn’t just about ancient history. It shapes the present and the future. Preserving ancient history is the fundamental  foundation of society today. 

It identifies a society fit to grow and flourish, and is the bedrock of revenue for Palmyra from  tourism. What Isis has done is created an attack on heritage which will go down in history as barbaric acts of war crimes.  

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