Palmyra: The Fight to Preserve an Ancient Homeland in Syria
By Dr. Frances Terpak
Curator and Head
Department of Photographs and Optical Devices
Getty Research Institute
Born and raised in Palmyra, Syria, Waleed Khaled al-As’ad can trace his family’s lineage in the city back five generations. Now a refugee in France, he hopes to someday return to Palmyra, an important world heritage site that suffered widespread destruction by ISIS in 2015 and 2017.
In Return to Palmyra— a follow-up to Getty’s first online exhibition, The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra—al-As’ad explains what it was like growing up near such imposing ruins while being mentored by his distinguished archaeologist father, Khaled al-As’ad, remembered today as a martyr for having paid with his life trying to protect this ancient urban center. The elder al-As’ad preceded his son by 40 years in the post of Director of Antiquities and Museums at Palmyra. For Waleed, the urgency of returning is underscored by the site and its inhabitants’ interdependence.
“We cannot build the ancient site without residents in it or around it,” says al-As’ad. “We cannot build or ignore the ancient site and only concern ourselves with connecting water to the homes or reviving them. We have to build up the people, bring the people back to their homes with logic and rationality, following the rules and regulations concerning management of world heritage sites. Then we can think about restoring Tadmor [Palmyra] correctly.”
Return to Palmyra is also a return for Getty. In the 2017 exhibition, the earliest photographs taken at Palmyra in 1864 are featured alongside 18th-century prints after drawings of the city. Since both the photographs and drawings were made by French travelers to the site, the earlier exhibition presents a largely Western viewpoint while also exploring the reception of Palmyra in the West.
Alternatively, the new project presents a mirror Arabic-English website that foregrounds a regional perspective and some of the site’s earliest visual documents, making them available to an Arabic-speaking audience. In addition to an interview with al-As’ad, the project features a historical essay by Joan Aruz, presenting a local context for the significance of this multicultural city and a case for why rebuilding its community is imperative.
A Magnificent City, a Courageous Queen
Why should we care about the past or about the destruction of a world heritage site such as Palmyra? Al-As’ad responds eloquently to this question in his interview. “I hope that everyone understands . . . how important it is to preserve these human heritage sites in general, whether registered on the UNESCO list or not,” he says. “Preserving history is how we preserve our identity [and] personality, how you preserve the components of the self. As my father, God rest his soul, used to say, ‘A human being without a past is a human being with no present and no future.’”
Since 2011, an estimated 8–12 million Syrian refugees have been displaced from their homes, fleeing violence, moving internally in the country, and seeking refuge in nearby countries including Lebanon, Turkey, and beyond. Before ISIS arrived, Palmyra, or Tadmor as it is known in Arabic, and its surrounding villages housed a population of 90,000 people; today barely 1,500 inhabitants remain. Syria is facing the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.
In the second to mid-third centuries CE, Palmyra stretched some three kilometers across the Syrian desert. The city was famous as a trading center, welcoming long-distance caravans originating from the silk markets of the Han Dynasty or the ports of Roman Britain. This prosperous urban center of multi-ethnic caravan traders constructed a magnificent city replete with lavishly decorated public and private spaces.
On the east side of the city, the Palmyrenes erected a monumental temple dedicated to Bel, the supreme deity of their pantheon. One of the grandest architectural projects of the first century CE, the Temple of Bel could accommodate thousands of people within a courtyard that measured 200 meters on each side. Across the city, extending for one kilometer, an extraordinary colonnaded street articulated with bronze statues served as the main business and social thoroughfare, while also providing a direct link for religious functions from the temple to a vast necropolis outlined by distinctive tower tombs at the city’s western edge.
In addition to the significance of its ancient monuments and its claim as the longest continuously inhabited site in the world, Palmyra owes its fame to Queen Zenobia. Renowned for her wisdom and beauty, she cultivated an intellectual and open society, promoting tolerance among her subjects and protecting religious minorities. She led an army against the Roman Empire in 269 CE, and upon her defeat was famously reported to have been brought back to Rome in golden chains.
Zenobia’s courage in leading her people to overthrow Roman authority embodies the spirit of Palmyra. She has come to stand as a symbol of hope for all people facing oppression. Zenobia and her legacy have been memorialized in Middle Eastern and Western cultures alike for nearly two millennia through a range of cultural productions, from operas to literature and other art forms. Perhaps the most dramatic recent manifestation of this was in 2015, when a statue of the queen was erected in Damascus as an act of defiance against ISIS militants.
For the millions of Syrians who have had to flee their homeland, Zenobia’s forced departure foreshadows their current plight. Though the fate of Palmyra as a historic site has become an international issue, recovering its history explicitly depends on the fate of its residents, as al-As’ad poignantly expresses.
“No human being can ever abandon his homeland,” he says. “‘Love forever belongs to the first love / No matter how many homes on earth a lad adores / His love will ever be for the first,’ as the Arab poem goes. A person’s homeland is part of his identity, a part of his psyche. Childhood memories, memories of family and relatives. This place is a part of your personality. Wherever you go, you will harbor a desire to return.”
Originally published by The Iris, 02.03.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.