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The Destruction of Palmyra

As a spin-off of the ghastly crusade being undertaken by the Salafists of IS against all world culture that they can lay their hands on, the historic ruins of Palmyra, one of the finest monuments of Greco-Roman architecture in the Middle East, are under serious threat. At first, after the capture of the town, an IS spokesman declared that the ruins themselves would not be destroyed, as IS was concerned only with the destruction of graven images, but now we learn that in fact the ruins have been mined and booby-trapped, in case of any attack on the town. IS are certainly not concerned for the preservation of monuments of antiquity, even if they are not specifically sworn to their destruction!

It is a sorrow to me that I have never actually visited Palmyra. On my only visit to Syria, back in 1968, I was more concerned with visiting such sites as Damascus itself, Aleppo, and Emesa (Homs) – and Apamea, in the Orontes Valley, site of the philosophical school of one of my favourite guys, Iamblichus. Palmyra was just a bit too far out in left field! But it is a place that greatly interests me, in fact, chiefly because of the exploits of its warrior queen, Zenobia, who ruled there (for quite a short time, sadly!) in the later third century A.D., holding the might of the Roman Empire at bay for some time, before being conquered and captured by the Emperor Aurellan in 271. My chief interest in her is that she invited the Platonist philosopher Longinus, teacher of the philosopher Porphyry (later Plotinus’ chief pupil), and possibly author of the treatise ‘On the Sublime’, out from Athens to be her court philosopher, which led to the poor chap’s being executed by Aurelian in the aftermath of her defeat. Palmyra had always been an important trading centre between East and West (latterly, the Persian and Roman Empires), but really only under the rule of Zenobia’s husband Odaenathus did it break loose for a while from the domination of either empire and acquire a brief independence. However, the local dynasty, which was of Arab (Aramaic) stock, had ruled there for centuries — as was the case, indeed, with the priest-kings of Emesa (from whom the philosopher Iamblichus was descended, as was the eccentric Roman emperor Elagabalus); so, if IS had any concern at all for the glories of Arab culture, which it plainly does not, it would preserve and cherish the ruins of Palmyra, despite their largely Greco-Roman structure. As it is, it looks very much as if all that history will go up in an enormous fireball, in the not too distant future.

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz

Published: 13 Jul 2015  Categories: History, Politics, Philosophy

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John M Dillon is Regius Professor of Greek (Emeritus) with Trinity College Dublin.