So, Islamic State has seized the Syrian city of Palmyra, “the Venice of the Sands” which epitomises Greek, Roman and Persian culture over 4000 years, and which is one of the most remarkable examples of ancient history in the world.
The potential loss of these priceless ruins and treasures is tragic to contemplate, but Palmyra is significant, in terms of the war in Syria, for its position: it is situated between Damascus and other cities strategically desirable to IS, and is near gas fields. More importantly, but often overlooked, is the fact that Palmyra is home to a civilian population that is faced by a stark choice between IS attack or flight: like so many innocents caught up in a war not of their making nor wish, they stand to lose everything they have, or they love. It seems unfair, very unfair.
There is some irony in the concern and sadness felt by many of us in the West at the likelihood of the destruction of more pre-Islamic archaeological treasures over and above the recent losses in Iraq. The devastation that has been wreaked on Syria (and Iraq) over 4 long years of civil war has been terrible, resulting in 200,000 deaths and the displacement of 11 million other Syrians. The involvement of Islamic State and other jihadist groups has made the situation even more critical, and it is far more, now, than just a battle between those for or against President Assad. Despite the extreme seriousness of the situation and its implications for global stability, the outside world has, largely, chosen to ignore or gloss over a very terrible war in recent years: the likely demolition of Palmya and its historic ancient ruins has drawn our attention back to a land and people that need our help and attention.
As so often is the case, the conflict in the Middle East is all about religion, as Sunni fights Shia in the great Muslim divide, while Islamic State fundamentalists adhere to an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam, wishing to destroy all those, Muslim or non-Muslim, who do not subscribe to it, and to destroy all reminders of other cultures and faiths, past and present, too.
In the same way that weather patterns at the turn of a century become violent, so too the ending of an epoch can be marked by huge upheavals, and we are witness to this, now. It is no coincidence that the earthquakes in Nepal have caused the loss of sites of great spiritual, historical and cultural importance, just as the reminders of our ancient past in Palmyra and elsewhere in the Middle East are being taken from us. It happened when Atlantis fell, too, as the result of the battle between altruism and hedonism, spirituality and materialism, compassion and selfishness, technology and common-sense – a conflict that is being fought out on similar grounds today. Change is everywhere, change is now and change is imminent. The change is about how we are and who we are, and how we want our world to be. Change particularly spiritual change, can involve sacrifice.
Like many other people who love our global history, I will be sad if Palmyra is razed by IS. I comfort myself, however, with the knowledge that the next and final spiritual era is coming in, and that with any new birth, often there is pain. Every Syrian, every Nepalise, who has lost their life in these great events, lives on, and Palmyra too, like Atlantis, will live on too. All that dies always returns.
Images by Bernard Gagnon