IS has taken Palmyra.

Islamic State militants have locked Palmyra’s museum and placed guards outside its doors, days after seizing the ancient city, Iraqi officials say.

Antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim said they had destroyed some modern plaster statues and also raised their flag on the ancient castle overlooking the Roman ruins.

Most of the museum’s antiquities had been transferred to Damascus, he said.

Dr David Roberts of King’s College, London has thoughts on the destruction of ancient sites and their treasures.

In Syria alone, the Great Mosque and the Citadel in Aleppo, the castle of every child’s imagination at Crac des Chevaliers, and the ancient city of Bosra have been damaged or destroyed.

Arguably Syria’s most impressive and arresting site, the sprawling ruins at Palmyra (Tadmur to Syrians), is now under Islamic State control and many fear the worst.

Having visited Palmyra and these other sites while studying Arabic at Damascus University back in 2007, I am far from alone in feeling that something truly terrible is happening.

That these symbols from a bygone era might be destroyed by modern-day barbarian forces when they have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years seems somehow deeply offensive and wrong.

He also talks about the fact that stones are not people and it may seem grotesque to pay attention to stones when so many people are being killed or enslaved or otherwise damaged. He suggests reasons why the stones matter anyway.

Some reasons in addition to the ones he mentions – they’re our common heritage, they are a way of introducing us to each other. They’re a sign of human creativity and sense of beauty or wonder or adventure or many other things beyond survival or a full stomach. They could well outlast us.


  1. latsot says

    There’s something about scale that seems important, (to me) too. For some reason I’m less upset about individual pieces of art – things that can be moved around – being destroyed than I am ancient buildings, especially a whole city full of ancient buildings.

    I haven’t decided why yet, but I think it’s something to do with scale and the collective participation of lots of people of different sorts in designing, making and using these buildings.

  2. mudpuddles says

    Sites and symbols of heritage and history are vitally important to the sense of place and identity of any given population. Apart from the aesthetic and visually symbolic totems of “I am in X place right now”, these ruins represent a common heritage and a history – of growth, of community, of development, of art, of learning, of spirituality, of trade and internationalism, of war and struggle, and of peace and prosperity – which people of many nationalities, religions and ethnicities can claim ownership of. These sites represent elements of a shared identity, and have a cultural resonance and relevance that echoes across continents. These psychological and cultural connections between people and place are absolutely fundamental to how people view their place in the world, and how they define themselves. They say “This is where I am from. Not just this place, but this history, this culture, this dimension of humanity.” That is why IS wants to wipe these sites out.

    They want to erase any vestige of a prior identity for the places and populations they want to conquer. They want to make it impossible for people who flee the IS advance to return to a psychological and cultural space they knew as home. IS has no true history, no heritage, no learning, no community, no art, no true culture to offer, and that’s how it wants the rest of the world to be. Wiping out someone’s heritage is a key part of robbing them of their identity. It makes people easier to demoralise, alienate and assimilate. It also removes symbols of shared heritage that might serve to bind communities together in resistance. We have already heard tales of some people deciding to join IS because after they lost their homes and neighbours and businesses and felt trapped…. “there is nothing left for me, so I decided why not join IS now, there is nothing else.” Removing potent symbols of sense of place and belonging helps them intensify that impact.

    The concern is not simply about stones in a desert. Its about a direct and twisted assault on the psyche of civilians that will have an irreversible and damaging impact, and that will make fundamentalism easier to embed.

  3. says

    latsot – yes, that, and also they are places, and places are a whole different order of thing. That seems like stating the obvious – sure, they’re bigger, you can stand in them, etc etc – but I think it’s more than just the obvious.

  4. johnthedrunkard says

    Where they burn books they will burn people… (not exact, but you know the line).
    In IS, we have the contempt for history, for truth, for art, for knowledge, for time itself. These are ‘core values’ of Wahhabism.

    The whole world is to be laid waste, NOTHING can be permitted to stand except the Quran. This loathing of life and beauty makes the atrocities against people not only possible, but obligatory.


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