ISIS in Full Control of Syria’s Palmyra. I read the BBC headline and took a deep breath. I have been to the site of ancient Palmyra. I have walked its colonnaded streets under towering pillars. Now, as the war in Syria enters its fifth year, the renegade Islamic State of ISIS is in control of the site. The world holds its breath waiting to see whether or not they will destroy it, as they have done elsewhere.
Dexter Filkins, in a recent piece the New Yorker (Isis in Palmyra, May 21, 2015) wrote “as awful as Assad’s dictatorship was… at least it left places like Palmyra alone.”I couldn’t disagree more. I think Filkins has missed the point and become an apologist for the butcher Assad, who in 2013 released chemical weapons on his own people. Don’t get me wrong, I too fear for Palmyra under ISIS. But as a city of the classical world, it has seen plenty of war and destruction—the Mongols, for example, leveled it in the 13th Century. What I fear more is the fate of ordinary Syrians.
I went to Syria in April of 2011, with my father and a group of friends, to visit ancient sites—Palmyra being one of them. It was a strange time to be in Syria—we were some of the last Western tourists to travel freely in the country. The so-called Arab Spring was new and hopeful. Mubarak had just fallen in Egypt and the revolution there showed promise. We all hoped that Assad would be next and that Syria would be on its way to a multi-party democracy in no time. The unrest then was mostly in Homs and Daraa. Our visits to Aleppo, Damascus, and the ancient sites felt safe enough. But that was the very beginning. Today hundreds of thousands are dead, millions displaced, and the endless war rages on. It has become the new Lebanon.
The day we saw Palmyra we had driven for hours through vast nothingness. The Mediterranean landscape of the Orontes Valley changed quickly to a sandy desert. At one point we saw a road sign for Iraq and jumped out of the bus to have our picture taken by it, laughing at ourselves and our audacity. When arrived at Palmyra it was late afternoon. The sun was low in the sky, filtered through a desert haze. The sand-colored pillars towered twenty feet above us.
Unesco called Palmyra “one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.” It lay halfway between Roman Antioch, in modern Turkey, and the Euphrates River, in modern Iraq. It was primarily a trading city, a crossroads between the East and West. As I walked the main street, built in the 2nd Century, it wasn’t difficult to imagine being here almost two millennia ago. Only now, instead of traders selling spices and gold along this street, vendors screeched around us on motorcycles trying to sell us rugs and beads. They were the new kids on the block.
After learning of the ISIS takeover I posted some pictures of our trip to Palmyra on Facebook. Immediately our Syrian guide Aiman, who has since escaped with his family to Turkey (they lived in Aleppo, which has been all but destroyed by Assad’s forces) commented—“What happened to my country left a deep wound in my heart… I remembered those lovely moments with tears.” I wondered if one of the reasons Americans are so disinterested in the Syrian Crisis is that it has lost a personal face. Regardless of the saber-rattling going on in Washington, or the fear for antiquities in Palmyra, we should never forget that it’s people like Aiman who are the real victims of this endless war.