Updated: August 26, 2015 12:08:51 am
Last month, the Smithsonian decided to put on display the limestone bust of Haliphat — a beautiful and rich, “modest” and “virtuous”, Palmyrene girl who lived almost two millennia ago — for the first time in a decade. The Smithsonian was responding to the threat of imminent destruction that has hung over the ancient Roman ruins in the Syrian desert ever since the Islamic State (IS) overran Tadmor, the town next to the site, in May. There’s another reason for the exhibition. Most of the neoclassical architecture of power in Britain and Washington DC, such as the Capitol and the White House, or Jefferson’s famous Virginia home, and even the Great Seal of the United States, would look very different but for Palmyra.
On Sunday, Syrian officials reported that the IS had blown up the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, an act Unesco has called a war crime. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, claims that the structure was destroyed a month ago. Blowing up this 1st century temple could mark the beginning of a systematic destruction of Palmyra. Last week, the IS executed Khaled al-Asaad, the archaeologist who had looked after Palmyra for four decades. The ruins had stayed remarkably intact over the last few centuries after their discovery by European travellers in the 17th. The Palmyrenes, who developed a unique Greco-Roman style, ran an immensely powerful empire and lived, literally, at the confluence of East and West. Some of the smaller artefacts were removed to Damascus by May, but the monuments in “Venice of the Sands” are waiting to go the way of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The IS has erased much of human history in the cradle of civilisation that is Iraq, bulldozing sites like Nimrud and Hatra.
Unesco wants those responsible to be held accountable. It’s difficult to see how the IS can ever be called to account under the law. But Palmyra will cry out for justice, as will everything else destroyed by the IS.
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