Palmyra: An Irreplaceable Treasure
Paul Veyne
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
University of Chicago Press
128pp, 13 colour illustrations
Hardback, £17/$22.50

'Streets of Palmyra,' the German Romantic poet Hölderin wrote in Ages of Life, 'Forests of columns in the level desert? Where are you now?' Baudelaire, too, dreamt of 'the lost jewels of ancient Palmyra'. The ruined city itself is now a twice-lost jewel – lost to time, recovered by 20th-century archaeologists, only to be tragically lost again, in 2015 to the barbarism of so-called Islamic State. For now, Palmyra, the French archaeologist and historian Paul Veyne writes, 'can only be known and experienced through books'.

He begins with anguished questions: 'Why did they destroy Palmyra, which was classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site? And why are there so many massacres, including the torture, suffering, and decapitation of the Palmyrene archaeologist Khaled al-Assaad, to whom I dedicate this book?' Veyne's direct answer is an elegant and illuminating revivification of the life of ancient Palmyra. Implicitly, this portrait of the city builds an indirect answer. Ancient Palmyra 'holds the record for the number of rich cultures that can be found in one place'. The Islamists, Veyne implies, wish the world 'to be condemned to a life of suffocating sameness'.

Palmyra was a mixing-pot, a city on the frontier between east and west. It was not 'a Syrian city like others, just as Venice, in contact with Byzantine and Turkish civilization, was not representative of all Italy'. The Roman visitor of around AD 200 would have noticed this at once. The Palmyrenes spoke Greek for business, but their daily tongue was Aramaic. Their statues were of bronze, not marble, and their massive temple was dedicated to the Mesopotamian Bel, not Jupiter. The temple's Corinthian columns were familiar, and so were its Ionic capitals, though they would have been 'a bit old-fashioned' to Roman eyes. But the monumental entrance was at the side, not the front. Even more strangely, the temple had windows and a terraced roof, like a human habitation.

Appian called the Palmyrenes 'a trading people' who 'bring Indian or Arabian products from Persia, and market them in Roman territory'. Palmyra possessed enough of the 'uniform' traits of Graeco-Roman world to be a 'civilised and even cultured place', but it existed 'dangerously close to nomadic non-civilization'. Its colonnade and its agora with 200 statues marked it as 'a true city-state, following the Graeco- Roman concept'. But its low and wide, single-storey dwellings, its encampment on the northern edge of the city where the camels and traders gathered, and its souk were not Graeco-Roman. Its traders carried luxuries across the sand from the Persian Gulf, past the brigandage of the desert tribes. Its theatre was 'one of the smallest in the ancient world', and there were no theatrical competitions or Olympiads.

In the 3rd century, the weakening of Rome and the rise of Sassanian Persia upset this balancing act. A Palmyrene empire rose under Queen Zenobia in AD 270 but quickly fell. In AD 273, Aurelian's legions razed the city, smashing its better buildings and carrying off its statues. 'But why, in August 2015, did ISIS need to blow up and destroy that temple of Baalshamin?' asks Veyne. Not, he believes, because it was a pre-Islamic or pagan temple, but because it is 'venerated by contemporary Westerners'.

The liberal West, Veyne argues, sees Palmyra as an ancestor, a polycultural and tolerant 'merchant republic'. Like the Romans, the Islamists pillaged Palmyra in order to standardise it in their image, 'to prove that they are themselves'.

Palmyra is an elegantly written, effortlessly accomplished and deeply tragic book – one to be read with regret because we can no longer visit the real thing.
Dominic Green

 

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