29 March 2016

Palmyra’s ruined beauty shows there is a better way


The Temple of Bel survived the Romans and the Byzantines, the Umayyads and Mamluks, the British and the French. Now, in the wake of Isis’s occupation of Palmyra, only the entrance arch still stands. The rest, like so many of Palmyra’s treasures, has been desecrated or obliterated.

Given how much Syria’s people have suffered, and continue to suffer, it may seem strange that so much attention has been paid to an archeological site. Yet Palmyra is, as Tom Holland wrote in the Guardian at the time of its capture, “one of the supreme architectural treasures to have survived from classical antiquity”.

I have a particular reason to celebrate Palmyra’s liberation, and mourn its devastation: I was, as far as I can work out, one of the last Western journalists to visit it before its capture. This isn’t a boast about my war-correspondent credentials: quite the opposite. In mid-2010, at the suggestion of a Telegraph colleague, I applied to visit Syria as a tourist. Even though the Assad regime was, at that time, in a liberal mood, I still had to sign a polite letter promising not to do any journalism while I was there. It was touch and go, but about 24 hours before my flight, word came from Damascus: I was in.

I’d be lying if I said there was any hint, once there, of the horrors that would erupt within the year. I was struck, rather, by people’s friendliness, the way that a lonely traveller, lugging his backpack, was made to feel genuinely welcome. True, the signs of repression were ever-present: the portraits of Bashar al-Assad on every corner, the commemorative Assad fridge magnets at every stall. In Hama, famed for its water-wheels, the walls were still pock-marked with bullets from where Assad’s father Hafez had put down a rebellion in 1982, slaughering at least 10,000 people and probably far more. The only new building in town was the police station, bristling with antennas.

So I don’t want to romanticise Syria as was. But one of its most striking features – one which seemed central to its identity – was the way in which different eras, and different cultures, were able to overlap. And nowhere was this more apparent than in Palmyra.

Palmyra is, above all, a surprise. You are driving through the desert (or, in my case, being jolted along in the back of a packed minibus) and then suddenly, there it is: a little miracle. The town is built around an oasis. Or rather, the towns: modern Palmyra sits cheek by jowl with an entire, beautifully preserved Roman settlement. Many of the blocks have, of course, collapsed over the years, but you can still stroll along the main streets, admire the arches and their capitals, look round the temple, or get a lift up to the 13th-century century castle that overlooks the whole plain and watch the Roman sandstone glow golden in the sunset. The whole thing, from start to finish, was staggeringly beautiful.

What I loved most about Palmyra – about Syria – was that this heritage wasn’t cordoned off. There were no gates and walls: you could wander around as you saw fit, clambering over the masonry, peering through doors and into holes. And the locals took full advantage, with teenagers racing their motorbikes down the Roman avenues, just as in Aleppo – poor, doomed Aleppo – they dangled their feet off the edge of the ancient citadel, heedless of health and safety rules.

In Holland’s piece, he wrote beautifully about how the Temple of Bel and Palmyra in general represented a tradition of syncretism and assimilation that was utterly antithetical to Isis’s creed. Yet the same could be said of Syria itself. Damascus had, for centuries, played host to innumerable Christian sects, each with their own tiny church: tourists were invited to admire the window, above one of the city gates, through which St Paul was said to have squeezed while evading his pursuers. Towards the west there was the Crusader fortress of Krac des Chevaliers, held in lonely vigil by Weatern knights for more than a century.

It feels awkward to praise Syria’s history of multiculturalism in its most literal sense when Assad has set himself up as the champion of those values – given that he is as much to blame for his people’s suffering as Isis, if not more so. In his Telegraph column this week, Boris Johnson captured some of the uneasiness I feel over Palmyra: loving the liberation, hating the liberator.

Talk has already turned to whether Palmyra can – and should – be rebuilt. But what may never be rebuilt is the tradition the city incarnated – the idea that while Syria was a Muslim country, it was one that saw the value in other heritages and cultures, that the present can be enriched by the past, that there is beauty in ancient and modern, Christian and pagan.

The radicalism of fundamentalism lies in its determination to strip many down to one, to filter all human experience and all human necessity through a single harsh prism. Palmyra’s ruined beauty shows there is a better way.

Robert Colvile is the former comment editor of the Telegraph and news director of BuzzFeed UK. His new book, ‘The Great Acceleration: How Life is Getting Faster, Faster’, is published by Bloomsbury on April 7th.