Photo courtesy of en.alalam.ir
By Sarah Minnear
On Tuesday September 8, Drs. McDonough, DiBiasie, Roberts, and Nimis participated in a panel where they used knowledge of their fields to foster an open discussion of the destruction of Palmyra. The forum was a great success, and the audience posed excellent questions to the astute doctors. The information given about the obliteration of the temple of Baalshamin and the temple of Bel is heartbreaking. These sites have stood since the third century, and, as they were constructed at a crossroads of civilizations, they saw a great deal of cultural exchange. Despite the fascinating history of the site and tragedy, I was most intrigued by the philosophical questions the audience raised, and I believe they require further discussion. One of the more controversial questions was whether saving the past is worth human lives. Clearly, the loss the of human life is tragic, and no one should become a target for stewarding the past; however, those who choose to die for history should not be written off as foolhardy. At Palmyra, ISIS brutally be-headed the chief archeologist Khalid al-Asaad when he tried to protect ancient artifacts by refusing to dis-close their locations. Khalid al-Asaad should not be seen as someone who gave his life rashly, but should be praised for his courage in defending the site.
Palmyra is not just an ancient pile of rocks, but a well-preserved piece of history that holds immense importance for the local Syrian population. McDonough of the Classics department stated that Palmyra was home to one of Syria’s famous historical figures, Queen Zenobia. The site also held economic importance to Syria as a highly visited tourist site. In addition, throughout the history of other nations, historical objects and ancient sites have had immense importance. Adolf Hitler certainly considered the importance of historical objects and even planned the removal of Nelson’s Column from Trafalgar Square to display his dominance over England. In addition, the burning of the White House during the War of 1812 was demoralizing for Americans, and Dolly Madison risked her life to save George Washington’s portrait before the British arrived. The White House and Washington’s portrait were both important to generations of Americans. They represent America’s heritage, and they unite a diverse group of individuals. Countless others around the world have put themselves in danger to protect the past of their country and have been praised for it. While human life should always be held above material objects, this does not mean that the past is unimportant and should be regarded as the rubble of irrelevant civilizations. The past is often an important part of the present, and forgetting history blinds us to the context of humanity.
Another rather controversial topic was whether objects found at Palmyra should be moved to safer locations. The British Museum was specifically put under scrutiny for not repatriating artifacts to their countries of origin. While the argument that artifacts with historical and cultural significance belong within the context of their original locations is logical, if those artifacts are at risk I believe they should be protected by institutions that have the means to safeguard them. In addition, taking artifacts to large global cities like London makes them more accessible to all of humanity. There are some who may view this idea as continuing western imperialism in the Middle East, but I would argue that recovered artifacts needn’t be taken to a Western museum. I would be happy to see artifacts from Palmyra taken to Abu Dhabi or Beijing or any global city that is removed from terrorists trying to damage them. This way humanity could preserve its cultural history and it would also be made available to an international audience.
Unfortunately, ISIS has put another obstacle in the way of both these objectives. They have started selling these objects to western markets; however, the money received from Palmyra’s artifacts will fund further terrorist attacks against the Syrian people. The conflict has already caused so much suffering already as the Islamic State has started to employ the use of mustard gas, which causes intensely painful burning when it comes in contact with victims’ skin and eyes. Funding ISIS would also give them the means to destroy other archaeological sites. Syria is full of beautiful and awe-inspiring places like the Krak des Chevaliers, previously one of the best preserved crusader castles in the world until it was damaged by air strikes, which may be destroyed entirely by the Islamic State if given the means. Sadly, I have no answer to save Syria’s cultural heritage short of finding a real Indiana Jones to save the day. It is already too late for Palmyra since the temples of Bel and Baalshamin have been reduced to piles of rubble. The artifacts in other parts of Palmyra are also being dug up without any guidance from knowledgeable archeologists and are most likely being damaged in the process. We should learn from this tragedy the value of historical sites and artifacts. They are not meaningless objects, but possess great significance to the history of the human experience. History and archeology also often remind us where we come from and give humanity a sense of common identity. It is noble to protect the heritage of human beings, and those who have died in doing so, like Khalid al-Assad, should be revered as heroes.