Palmyra, in modern-day Syria has been reportedly bombed on Sunday, destroying an ancient temple. A city first mentioned almost 1,900 years before the CE, its existence has been repeatedly under threat after the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (DAESH) took over this UNESCO World Heritage Site on May 21, 2015.
The ‘take-over’ of Baalshemin, an ancient city by the so-called Islamic State, had resulted in a sword hanging over Palmyra for months. Palmyra is a temple of Roman ruins, and according to the BBC’s Art correspondent Vincent Dowd, a temple for a “paying homage to the Phoenician god of storms and fertilising rains.”
Baalshemin is located between Damascus and the city of Deir al Zour. It was under threat for several months as its statues and artefacts symbolised “polytheism” which the so-called Islamic State control of those areas is keen to be seen destroying in its bid to assert its own version of exclusivist Islam.
West Asia, the crucible of three important faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has witnessed centuries of competing claims to buildings, land and people. Often, it has showcased sites that claim to be syncretic but very often, it has seen buildings destroyed and built over. Places like the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul for instance, went from being a cathedral to mosque and back to cathedral and then a common space, each time signalling who is in control of the today.
There is much about ancient and decrepit monuments, broken columns, stones and parts of the past that threatens the powerful wielders of guns and flags. The control for the mind and stamping out the past are key to assert claim over the present and even to control the future. The Aligarh Historians Society, led by one of India’s most respected historians Prof Irfan Habib protested last week’s “gruesome murder” of Khalid Al Asaad who was Palmyra’s most respected archaeologists and called for “civilised people, irrespective of country or religion” to unite to bring the murderers to justice.
Palmyra, the city of Palms had survived thousands of years of competing ideas and symbolised the possibility of co-existence and tolerant faiths. So it had to be destroyed. History is replete with other examples: Spain of 1492 had to be cleansed of influences of its Muslims by the crusaders, the Babri Masjid had to be pulled down by kar sevaks to make a bigger point about control and ruling the present in 1992, the Taliban had to destroy the Bamiyan, standing tall and proud for centuries in 2001.