Rebuilding Palmyra

In 2015, the ISIS destroyed the Temple of Bel – a Roman shrine within Palmyra, a UNSECO world heritage site in Syria from where they had been co-ordinating assaults. The International Criminal Court condemned the attacks as a war crime. Now a replica of the gateway of the Temple, 3D printed by digital archaeologists at the University of Oxford, has been erected in Trafalgar Square in a “show of solidarity” with Syria.

It is easy to recognise the virtue of quickly and easily undoing the damage ISIS wrought. Palmyra was a symbol of identity for the Syrian people, and a point of cultural pride. To rebuild is highly symbolic of the resilience of the displaced and oppressed in the face of ISIS’s terrorism, and the commitment of Syria’s government to restore order.

The last Palmyra was a feat of human endeavour and creativity, meticulously planned and executed with bricks and mortar. The ‘new Palmyra’ will be born of circuit board sand drones. I am wholly in favour of sensitive restoration to minor structural damages to landmarks. Without this, sites such as the Great Wall and Stonehenge would have long ago fallen into disrepair and would simply not be accessible. However, Palmyra sat for the most part already in ruins, and any effort at reconstruction shouldn’t be seen as a cosmetic endeavour.

We ought to have learned by now that over-restoration damages and devalues the past in much the same way that removing an oil painting from its original frame damages the overall value of the piece. It’s also hard to see how any new development will remain true to the original techniques of material and architectural construction. Like a band-aid on a bullet wound, a ‘New Palmyra’ is simply a quick-fix.

There’s a reason some things are left ruined. They’re reminders of the past, and warnings to the future. No one would ever have suggested rebuilding the Twin Towers. More problematic is the financial means that will be exhausted in the reconstruction process. Syria is in the grasp of a brutal civil war that shows no sign of ending. An estimated 7.5 million Syrian children are internationally displaced, starving, and living in makeshift camps.

No estimated costs have been yet provided, but the number will surely be in the millions. For comparison, the post-genocide reconstruction of a Cambodian temple cost £9 million. For further comparison, with £176 you can buy a tent with washing, sleeping and cooking facilities for a Syrian family. You do the maths. I have no doubt that Syria will rise again, and that maybe one day Palmyra shall too, but surely we have a social responsibility to protect and preserve life above stone.

This is, of course, complicated by the desire of the Syrian government to rebuild the site – the Syrian Director of Antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim pledged Palmyra will stand again within five years, calling for international support in the process.

Should Western governments denote that the money and resources can be only used for direct aid? It is not our place to prescribe how the Syrians may wish to best engage with their own history, or to donate aid only as and when we see fit.

The parties involved – namely Russia, Italy and the United Kingdom – seem more preoccupied with promoting their personal status than with preserving worldwide cultural value. Russia is laying the biggest ‘claim’ to assisting in the rebuild since their troops were instrumental in the recapture of the area. When did a project aimed at promoting shared history and humanity allow countries to use war crimes as a vehicle to score points on a nationalist agenda?

It’s no more than Western condescension, especially hypocritical after allied NATO forces were accused of using culturally sensitive areas in Iraq such as Ur, the legendary birthplace of the prophet Abraham, as military bases. In doing so they may have violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention.

So, to rebuild? Palmyra may yet become a symbol of hope and strength and resistance, but it shouldn’t be seen as a priority to make it so while people starve. There are better and more powerful ways to empower Syrian people – groups such as Action for Hope work to promote intangible cultural heritage in refugee camps in Jordan through archiving oral histories and providing the means to play traditional folk music and cook familiar dishes evocative of home.

Their work is small, but it is valuable. Over time, sites and their significance grow and change. As tragic and destructive as the bombing of Palmyra was, it occurred nonetheless. History cannot – and ought not to – be rewritten. Sift through the rubble. Rebuild what we can with the pieces that we have left, but do not create a mimicry in attempting to heal that which cannot be undone. Making it look as though ISIS never subjected Syria to the onslaught sanitises the cultural impact of terror.

Originally Published April 2016, Varsity Newspaper

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