Editor’s Note: Simon Mills is a historian specializing in the religious, cultural, and intellectual history of the period from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.
In May, ISIS seized Palmyra, the UNESCO designated World Heritage Site
ISIS Militants have since destroyed shrines, temples, and monuments of the ancient Syrian city
Architectural and historic treasures, including some of the world's oldest Islamic inscriptions, have been obliterated
The grainy satellite image is harrowing. Where the inner area (cella) of Palmyra’s first-century AD Temple of Bel can be made out clearly on the older picture, only a chalky, smudged outline remains on the new. The portal in front of the western entrance can just be seen still standing. But the inner sanctum — with its exquisitely carved Zodiac ceiling — has been razed to the ground.
In a fusion of zealous iconoclasm and cynical propaganda the militants of Islamic State have destroyed one of the most treasured artifacts of the ancient Middle East.
Its ongoing assault on the ruins of Palmyra, evidenced by recent revelations about the demolition of three tower tombs and aptly described by Maamoun Abdulkarim as “the destruction of a civilization,” bodes ill for the remaining splendors of the ancient city.
Across the globe digital images of Palmyra proliferate. The destruction of our shared “cultural heritage” is sorely lamented; the fanatical intolerance of Islamic State contrasted with the culturally eclectic polytheism of the ancient world.
Centuries of Discovery
Suspended above a doorway in the Allard Pierson Museum on the Oude Turfmarkt in Amsterdam is a much older depiction of Palmyra. The painting sheds light on the meaning of this shared heritage and the importance of Palmyra.
This late 17th century oil painting by the German artist G Hofstede van Essen depicts a vast panorama of ruins, amid which the Temple of Bel stands prominently to the left of the picture, at the end of the colonnaded street. This is, in fact, the first surviving image of Palmyra. It dates from an early expedition to the ruined city undertaken by a group of European merchants who had trekked across the Syrian desert with an Arab guide in 1691.
Among these early travellers was an English clergyman called William Hallifax, who was in Syria serving as a chaplain to the small community of English merchants who then lived and worked in the city of Aleppo. Hallifax’s account of his voyage provides us with a perceptive account of the Temple of Bel as it stood in the late 17th century. At this point, the temple was still inhabited (this remained the case until 1929 when the locals were resettled in the new town by French archaeologists).
Entering the temple compound, Hallifax was confronted by “thirty or forty families, in little hutts [sic] made of dirt.” Surveying the site, Hallifax noted correctly that the outer walls had been rebuilt from older fragments for defensive purposes by the Mamlukes. Passing through the portal into the cella, he was struck by the ornate carvings which amazed him as they would another three centuries of visitors: “I never saw Vines and Clusters of Grapes cut in Stone so Bold, so Lively, and so Natural, in any place.”
Hallifax interpreted the Arabic inscriptions on the inner walls — “wrote in flourishes and wreaths, not without art” — as evidence of the building’s reuse as a mosque (The IS demolitionists may be unaware that they have also destroyed some of the oldest extant Islamic inscriptions, dating back to 728-9 AD). Above all, he was awed by the Zodiac ceiling (“a most exquisite piece of workmanship”) before which he paused in the quiet of the inner sanctum of the temple. It was here that the ancient Palmyrenes worshipped their trinity of deities — Bel, Yarhibol, and Aglibol — so odious to the uncompromising monotheism of IS.
The Palmyrene puzzle
Hallifax’s description prompted a wave a interest in Palmyra in late 17th and early 18th-century Europe. In the pages of learned journals schol