Saturday 26 September 2015

Mourning Palmyra, by Carol Drinkwater

The destruction of our ancient history, of magnificent sites that are, or were, jewels in our cultural heritage and are now nothing but rubble, makes my blood boil.

We are all of us reading the news and staring at photographs that are breaking our hearts. And we are so impotent, or so it feels to me, to make any difference.

I cannot make a difference, but what I can do for a few brief sentences here is to share with you a few moments from my stay in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria in 2007. I was working my way round the Mediterranean in search of the history and stories from ancient olive tree cultivation.

Palmyra was at the early stages of my long quest but it was and has remained one of the highlights of that life-changing seventeen-month journey. I am SO pleased I took the time and faced risks involved in getting there, because it will never be the same again.

The reports we have been receiving gleaned from news and satellite footage of the destruction of key sites in Palmyra as well as the brutal beheading of archeologist Khaled al-Assad in August of this year prove that we have lost a man of courage and vision as well as irreplaceable archeological treasures.

                                                                            Khaled al-Assad

My first sighting of Palmyra as described in The Olive Route.

"Palmyra loomed up out of the desert like a shimmering golden mirage, once seen never forgotten. Deep in the heart of baking sands, in the centre of nowhere, 150 kilometres  west to the Orontes river and 200 kilometres to the mighty Euphrates in the east, Palmyra or Tadmor, its original name, had grown up as a caravan stop, a terminus on routes to and from the Far East. Its fabulous wealth and reputation had come from its position, a lush oasis fed by springs of crystal water stationed in the middle of a baking sand-sea of nothingness, mid-point between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. Such desert cities lived or perished by their natural springs. Although those of Palmyra dried up centuries ago, thanks to modern technology, a miserably underprivileged modern settlement with its inevitable posters of the leader (Assad), ripped and fluttering in the desert winds, survived alongside the stupendous golden ruins, irrigated by hundreds of miles of pipes fed from coast and metropolis…."

So, that was my first introduction to Palmyra. A wavy mirage in the distant sands that as I grew closer became real, solid. It was noisy and alive with kids kicking footballs in and around of ancient columns, temples, burial sites. Men crouched at roadsides selling freshly-picked dates. Goat bells clunked, women worked, bending to wash bundles of linen scrubbing them in the waters. They laughed and harvested in the date-palm groves and they waved to me, a lone woman in cargo pants and boots, to come and talk to them. Their smiles were wide, their curiosity warm…
They lived with monumental history and it was as normal and ordinary to them as any one of us who crosses the Thames and glimpses the House of Parliament.

One blisteringly hot afternoon I walked out on the stage of one of the ten Roman theatres in the city and tested its acoustics with a rendition of Cleopatra's death speech…
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me…
It had been my audition speech for drama school and then in front of Lord Olivier to gain my place as a young actress into the National Theatre. And here I was chanting it in a Roman theatre in a city that had been ruled by Queen Zenobia, a distant relation of Cleopatra…
A few Syrian kids stopped to watch me, peering at me from the shadows of sandstone marvels with dark curious eyes before giggling and running away at the sight of the mad old foreign woman talking loudly to herself.

                                             Temple of Bel, now destroyed by members of ISIS

Over the next few days, I talked to camels, made hand-gestured conversation with locals, mostly women who took delight in touching my soft pale cheeks (I am actually rather olive-skinned). The inhabitants of Palmyra were gentle and welcoming. I walked every site over many days and when I left I promised myself that I would return, that I had visited a miracle, a true wonder of the world.

After its heydays (during which time it was known as the Bride of the Desert), Palmyra became a garrison outpost for Rome. In 1089 an earthquake caused damage to the city that was more or less abandoned by then. It  lay forgotten and buried beneath sand. Century after century the winds blew across these mighty dry miles and the sands settled. It was buried for almost two thousand years until its rediscovery in the seventeenth-century by two English merchants living in Aleppo. Excavations began in 1924 and the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

How fortunate, I have been. This year it has seen at the hand of ISIS the destruction of some of its finest buildings as well as the murder of the visionary archeologist who died trying to protect many of its ancient secrets…  RIP Khaled al-Assad

My heart bleeds.


Unknown said...

As eloquent and as thoughtful as ever Carol, you've just reminded me why I fell in love with your books. x

Unknown said...

I appreciate the way in which you show the living vitality of this ancient place and share with us the loss of a brave man and the beauty of Palmyra. Two weeks ago when reading "Gilgamesh" with students, I showed them photos of Palmyra and then of the destruction to give them a sense of this region of the world with its past civilizations and cultures and its new role in current politics and beliefs. I also told them your comments about visiting the ruins and feeling its spiritual calm. Thanks for posting this piece and your thoughtful comments.

Clare Mulley said...

Beautiful place, beautiful writing. Wish it were still waiting below the sands.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, truly tragic that it is gone.