The Islamic State forces continue to surround the ancient city of Palmyra, having fired a barrage of rockets on residential neighbourhoods in the Syrian city , killing five civilians including two children. Having pillaged, looted, destroyed and bulldozed their way through many parts of Iraq and Syria’s ancient heritage, the militants are now within marching distance of one of the world’s most beautiful ancient sites.

A few years ago I visited Palmyra, or Tadmur as it is known in Arabic, with my aunt and uncle. Luckily for us, everyone, including the guides and souvenir boys, were at Friday prayers and the entire place was empty. A vast field of broken arches, fallen columns, sand swept temples and carved pillars lay before us. The red sands, occasionally flecked by the odd green palm tree, provided a stark background to what used to be a thriving commercial centre in the middle of the desert, 215 km northeast from Damascus. On a small hillock the castle of a Druze prince, Fakhruddin al-Maani, stood guard over the ruins. It was yet another reminder of the rich diversity of communities and religions in the region. The Druze who are a monotheist ethno-religious group have historically played an important role in the Levant.

Region and religion

As we entered the ruins my uncle said that we were lucky to have visited that year since a few years later the site might become more touristy and congested.  However, today the ruins that have survived two millennia of empires rising and falling, are threatened by a bunch of young, militarised extremists who do not even know much about their own religion let alone about the history of the region.

The biggest proof of their illiteracy is the ISIS flag itself where the order of the words reads Allah, Rasool, Muhammad, which even a child could tell you is the wrong way of saying what they presumably meant to say: Muhammadun rasool-Allah or Mohammad is the Prophet of God. They were probably over-zealous about making sure that Allah remain on top and the other words come later. However, even a brief study of coins minted by various Muslim dynasties over the centuries that have used the shahada declaration proves that Arabic is not read bottom to top, but I digress.

Ancient City

Many of the great empires have at one point or another laid claim to or attacked Palmyra. The Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Abbasids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans and the French amongst others. Some scholars say that Palmyra is the city that is referred to in the First Book of Kings and the Hebrew Bible as the city that was built by King Solomon of Judea, the son of David.

In the third century Queen Zenobia, or al-Zabaa’ in Arabic, briefly ruled over the first Palmyrene Empire and expanded her empire all the way to Egypt after which she was defeated by the Romans, taken to Rome as a prisoner and paraded around in golden chains. To this day the Syrians honour her, and walking around Damascus it is impossible to go very far without passing a shop named after her or seeing some goods with her name as the label being sold. There was even a cola named after her in Damascus. Archeologists and explorers discovered Palmyrene mummies wrapped in Chinese silks. The Palmyrenes used to sale down the Euphrates to the Gulf to do trade with India and sailed in the red sea to do business with the Egyptians.

That day as I left Palmyra I recalled an Urdu couplet:

Na gōr-e sikandar na hai qabr-e dara
Mitay nāmiyōn kay nishān kaisē kaisē

No sign of Alexander’s tomb, nor of the grave of Dara
How the names of the mighty have vanished from this earth

Of course, entire peoples, histories, cultures, indeed civilisations have disappeared, sometimes without a trace, as dynasties and powers rise and fall. Often, what is left is as much a marker of violence and conquest as it is a history of beauty, aesthetics and the wonders that humans are capable of producing when they are not busy destroying.

A mute reminder 

Palmyra is not just a space in the middle of the Syrian Desert but is a mute reminder of how the history of the region has been formed by the confluence of cultures and civilisations. Wiping out all traces of the past, be it Islamic or non-Islamic, is tantamount to taking away an anchor that gives a people a sense of rootedness and belonging in a particular place. It is what binds people of different communities together.

Spaces such as Palmyra, ancient temples, monasteries, the tombs of the family and companions of the Prophet, shrines of the prophets of the old testament which are often visited by Jews, Christians and Muslims all disrupt the simple, uncomplicated history that ISIS and others of its ilk ascribe to. Monuments in the Levant and Mesopotamia are often reminders of the existence of the non-Abrahamic religions and peoples that have much more claim to that part of the world than the third generation of disgruntled, alienated and sociopathic young men and women who are making their way from Europe to what they fantasise are Islamic lands, armed suitably with books such as Islam for Dummies.

As for the young men who are coming from other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, well, they are more likely to see a Starbucks than a shrine in Mecca where the destruction of thousands of years of heritage has been a state-sponsored enterprise with hardly anyone raising their voice in protest.

For what it is worth, UNESCO has deemed the site to be one of "outstanding universal value" but then UN statements are not paid much heed to by states, let alone non-state actors. What is for certain is that the destruction of Palmyra and other such historical sites will ironically help in creating the culturally bereft wilderness that the Arab world is wrongly assumed to be.