July 19, 2017KR OnlineNonfiction

Palmyra in Winter

When I was a child, I could walk into the desert from our house on the outskirts of Tucson. Tense with attention, I found paths between thorns, silent under the heavy ticking of the sun. Once, I dropped into a cluster of creosote and mesquite and came face to face with a dying coyote, still as a statue except for its panting tongue.

I thought of this coyote when I first saw the sculptures that decorated the tombs of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. The Palmyrans collected taxes on Chinese and Indian luxuries (silk, jade, spices, slaves) bound for Rome, and they built their tombs as towers, some five stories tall, along the caravan route as it approached the city. Each tomb was filled with niches for burials, up to three hundred of them, and each niche was sealed with a limestone slab carved with a portrait of the dead.

The women have veils but pull them to the side to display themselves. They wear robes, Iranian in style, whose cuffs are thickly embroidered with intertwined animals and flowers. They are piled with jewelry: ornaments that hang in their hair and pull heavily from their earlobes, fingers stiffened with rows of rings, necklaces with hanging pendants that flow, impossibly symmetrically, across full breasts. They have exaggeratedly large, almond-shaped eyes that push up questioning eyebrows.

They stare straight out at you, these dead Palmyrans. Like the coyote, they confront you with fierce life at the edges of the desert and death. But though they are eloquent, they are also silent. Their lips, fleshy and sensuous, are pressed firmly shut. The living must speak for them. And the living—Syrians, Americans, Christians, Muslims, jihadists, scholars—say very different things.


Palmyra in Winter
I discovered Palmyra when I was a college freshman. I had come to New York City for school and was unprepared for winter. I possessed no hats, no scarves, no sweaters thicker than a cotton cardigan. Slush seeped into the gaps around my ankles in my thrift store men’s shoes.

I spent the winter in the warmest place I could find—the basement of the arts library. In my damp shoes, I clumped through the main reading room, perpetually hush and dim, its brass reading lamps uprooted by readers in search of plugs for their laptops, and headed down the stairs. In the basement, the resting place for outdated books, uncovered pipes lined the walls and gave off heat. I sat next to an ancient photocopier. It ate my dimes when I used it, but its inefficient insides emitted constant gentle warmth, like a woodstove.

The books there were the oldest manmade things I had ever touched, and their crumbling leather covers stained my shirts as I carried them in greedy stacks. One day I found James Dawkins and Robert Wood’s 1753 book, The Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tedmor, in the Desart. The first publication to bring Palmyra to the attention of Western Europe, it is composed of thin-lined engravings filled with querulous details of the architecture of the ruins. These images make Palmyra into a place of steady, hot light, its tombs baking in desert heat. The warmth spread up to me as my fingers touched the pages.


I was unprepared for New Yorkers, too. Groping hands, a teenager masturbating across from me on the subway, the way in which impatient customers shouted their orders over me as I tried to navigate the corner deli. In the solitude of the basement, I was safe.

I had left Arizona to escape from my sister, my only sibling, a year and a half younger than me. She had always stolen from me. Toys and stashes of Halloween candy, then clothes, then money. She used my savings from babysitting and birthdays to run away—first for the night, then for a few days, then for weeks. I would walk into her room in the mornings and see her window screen on the floor, wrinkled from the dents she pushed into the mesh as she popped it out of its frame. She left the window open to the street, an open invitation to anyone to come and take her place.

My parents said nothing but gave me a lockbox for Christmas, the type made of gray sheet metal that sits on bake-sale tables. The next time she ran away, I found it empty, lock twisted, the screwdriver she used to break it open thrown down beside it.

In junior high, she was arrested five hundred miles away in Los Angeles, wandering drunk in a parking lot after she rear-ended someone while driving a stolen car. At least, I think this is what happened from eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations. My sister came back to Tucson after juvenile detention. Dropped out of high school during her freshman year. Was arrested a few more times, once when pregnant—she complained that the orange jumpsuit they gave her didn’t fit her belly—but she didn’t do anymore time.

She took cash from my parents’ wallets. Stole their credit cards. Bottles of liquor. Cell phones. Took the savings bonds my grandparents had given me every year from the safe, even though she had no way of cashing them. Pawned my mother’s copper pots and engagement ring. Replacement engagement ring, actually—the big diamond my father had bought for their twentieth anniversary. My mother wasn’t wearing it because her fingers were swollen from chemotherapy. Wordless, she showed me the expired pawnshop claim slip she had found in my sister’s bedroom, then let it flutter into the trash.

In the basement, like a hoarder, I sought comfort in the broken and discarded. Battered statues, fragmentary quotations, and cracked vases enfortressed me. Who would want to steal such things, precious only to me?


Arabia Deserta
I started to read the memoirs of Westerners who traveled to the Middle East in search of antiquity. The one I loved the most—both the book and the ornery man—was Charles Montagu Doughty, who wrote Travels in Arabia Deserta about his years, from 1876 to 1878, walking through the Arabian Peninsula in search of pre-Arabic inscriptions.

Doughty hated the heat, the dust, and the tainted water the Bedouin he traveled with shared from their wells. He thought that their women were ugly, their children diseased, and their food disgusting. In turn, he records with satisfaction, they recoiled at the very smell of the tea he carried around in a huge tin—so much so that he buried his money in it for protection. Which can hardly have improved the taste.

He wrote that no one believed him when he said he was looking for inscriptions. He thought that he was constantly spied on and harassed in the belief that he was in search of buried treasure. Why else would someone come so far and suffer so much?

I can hardly believe him myself. He was recording inscriptions written in Nabataean, a language that neither he nor anyone else would be able to decipher for years to come. The lettering was so alien that even after carefully questioning the Bedouin about the writing they claimed to have seen in distant caves or on isolated rocks, they frequently led him not toward carved inscriptions but toward stones scratched by animals or sculpted by sandstorms.

Doughty proclaimed to everyone who asked (and everyone did ask) that he was a Christian. He describes guns drawn, blows struck, murder threatened and averted, he claims, only through the reluctant action of his guides. He says that they agreed in principle that the killing of an infidel was a virtuous act but hoped to be paid for keeping him alive.

No one harmed him, though. They gave him camel’s milk and let him sleep in the shade of their tents. No one tortured him for information about buried treasure, or beheaded him, or hung his body next to one of those cliff faces carved with an unknown language or with the scratches of animals. And yet, he rejected all companionship offered by the people whose lands he wandered, writing that “the sun made me an Arab, but never warped me to orientalism.” He went back home and, after purging himself of his experience by writing Arabia Deserta, seemed never to have thought about the Islamic world again. He became a recluse, writing unreadable epic poetry about English history.

I looked at Palmyra over Doughty’s shoulder. I, too, assumed that the modern populations of areas of archeological interest would not care about the local past. Would be ignorant of its wonders. Might harm me or, at best, distract me from my researches. And so, when I traveled, I kept my money strapped around my waist underneath my clothes. I did not talk to strangers. I wore a false wedding ring in the hopes that they would not talk to me.

In thinking this, in doing this, I was following the advice of my professors, and they of theirs, and back and back, beyond Doughty, to the first encounters of West and East in Syria. To the Crusaders, to the armies of the Romans. And forward again to the twentieth century when we invaded in search of oil rather than buried gold or trade routes.


In 1999, the year I entered college and found Palmyra, whose beauty my sister could not steal from me, the group that would threaten to destroy it was born as well. They were a handful of militant jihadists, following a fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. They began to train young men to fight those they saw as modern crusaders, Western occupiers of Islamic land. By 2014, they had taken advantage of the chaos of a Syrian civil war to gain control over vast amounts of territory and called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—ISIS.

In 2015, ISIS released videos showing its fighters attacking antiquities with sledgehammers, earthmovers, and explosives at the ancient Syrian and Iraqi sites of Nimrud, Mosul, and Hatra. The voiceovers of the videos claimed that the destruction was motivated by piety—by a wish to “remove the symbols of polytheism and spread monotheism.”

Then, in May 2015, ISIS gained control of the city of Tadmur, Syria, its gas fields, and the neighboring archeological site of Palmyra. In June, ISIS fighters packed rusty oil containers with explosives and strung them together with fuses like malevolent ornaments throughout the ruins. But they did not light these fuses. Not yet. Instead, in August, they released images of the beheading of Palmyra’s retired chief of antiquities.


The Death of Khaled al-Asaad
They put his glasses back on after they beheaded him.

Thick black plastic frames, wide lens. No nonsense.

He was 81. His name was Khaled al-Asaad, but he had studied and excavated and managed the ruins for so long that he was known as “Mr. Palmyra.” When I first read the headlines, I hoped that he, an old man, had simply died in prison, his corpse beheaded as a mockery. But then I saw the photographs. No corpse bleeds that much.

“They brought him to the square in a black van, then used loudspeakers to call for people to come and watch the execution,” one witness said. They left his body on the ground in the square in front of his museum for hours, and then when the heat of the day had passed, they moved it closer to his ruins. They tied red twine around his wrists and strung up his body from a traffic light. They put his glasses back on and set his head on the ground between his dangling legs.

Al-Asaad hung where his ancestors had lived for centuries. In 1691, the English traveler William Halifax described Palmyra’s population as a “poor miserable dirty people” living in “little huts made of dirt” within the enclosure walls of the sanctuary of Bel, saying that never before had he seen such a mixture of “the greatest state and magnificence together with the extremity of filth & poverty.” The villagers, a handful of families, continued to live in the shadow of the Temple of Bel until 1929 when a French archeological expedition cleared the ruins of Palmyra and moved their inhabitants to a new, adjoining town. Al-Asaad was born there in 1934, just five years later.

ISIS was not the first invading force to sweep over his home and the ruins in which he dreamed. Tadmur, the name of the modern town—taken from the name of the oasis before the Romans called it Palmyra—held an oil pipeline as well as an airfield, used by German planes to bomb British operations in the Middle East. In 1941, a British infantry column invaded Tadmur while, overhead, the Royal Air Force shot down six Vichy French Air Force bombers. The British lieutenant who led a patrol into the ancient city when night fell wrote of “how incredible, if somewhat eerie, the ruins looked in the moonlight.”

We do not know what the young al-Asaad thought of these warplanes circling above him and these armed men sliding along the shadows of Palmyra’s columns. They left, eventually. Perhaps he thought that if he waited long enough, ISIS would do the same. Perhaps he thought that he was safe in his fortress of ancient images, just as I thought that I was safe in mine.

When they hung his body, they tied a placard around his waist, listing his crimes in red ink. He was an apostate. He communicated with the governmental security services. He traveled to “infidel conferences” while serving as Palmyra’s “director of idolatry.” I think of him at these conferences, leaning forward over a podium, his glasses slipping down his nose as he taps on his text to emphasize his point. He is talking about the deities of Palmyra, thinking of them as part of the history of his nation and his family, never imagining that a loyalty to the gods of the long dead would be enough of a threat to kill him.


Five days after the execution of al-Asaad, ISIS detonated explosives in Palmyra’s Temple of Baal Shamin. And a few days after that, the Temple of Bel exploded as well.

The Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin were built, respectively, in the first and second centuries CE. They were among the best-preserved buildings from the ancient world. They were made of local limestone, of a dusty, pinky-orange tone, as if perpetually shining in the light of sunset. Their walls and ceilings were carved with images: clusters of grapes, the zodiac, a caravan of camels greeted by women swathed in so many layers of veils that they look like surrealist dream portraits. Also, images of gods and goddesses. Bel was a stern, bearded father. Baal Shamin took many forms. Frequently he was an eagle, outspread wings sheltering the moon, sun, and stars.

Bel and Baal Shamin were variations on Baal, two names for the same god—the father, lord of the sky, leader of the universe. Bel was the name of the god deeper inland in the territory that is now Iraq; Baal Shamin was what the Phoenicians called him, along the coast in what is now Lebanon. Palmyra’s trade routes linked these populations, and they worshipped their similar gods without, it seems, overmuch worry about which was the best.

Both temples were used as Christian churches during the Byzantine era, and then as mosques after the coming of Islam. These transformations were mostly in worshippers’ imaginations. There was little modification to the architecture, and its images were simply reinterpreted. The hard-eyed paternal face of Bel or Baal Shamin or Zeus was now that of another god with the same supreme power, the same distant fatherliness.


We quickly grew wary of showing ISIS’s propaganda videos of executions and torture. But the images of the destruction of art we played over and over again. With each explosion, each blow of a sledgehammer struck, ISIS performed their expected role, and the Western media allowed them time on the stage to play it.

We spread these images because we saw in them only the meaning we expected. But the past is a backdrop for many different performances. ISIS used the publicity it gained from destroying antiquities to reach potential recruits in the West, who began to contribute funds and their services as fighters in increasing numbers. Join us, these images said. We are powerful. We will triumph over the West, which is unable to do something as simple as protect a few bits of stone.


I stayed in New York for college, and then graduate school, and then a professorship. Only a few months after I left, my mother threw away my bed, my books, and all my other belongings, aside from the full suitcase I had taken with me. When I visited, my former bedroom held only an ironing board.

“It’s my ironing room,” my mother explained. “This way, I don’t have to fold up the board when I’m done.”

My betrayal was larger than my sister’s. I left, but she stayed.


When ISIS began to destroy my refuge, my beauty, my antiquities, I saw my sister’s screwdriver in their sledgehammers. But when ISIS detonated the explosives, when they stole from me the things I thought no one could ever steal, they also exploded that hoarded mental fortress in which I had taken refuge.

I thought I could hide from danger, from thefts, from betrayal, in the isolation of my scholarship. I did not understand that talking to strangers is the only way to keep ourselves alive until, by destroying my fortress, ISIS let in the living. Millions learned of Palmyra’s existence only from the news of the destruction there. And then, instead of lecturing a handful of students on ancient art, images batting against screens in airless classrooms, I was talking to Syrians, Iraqis, people from all over the world. They mourned with me, wailed and cursed and made plans to revive and rebuild. They did not react to destruction by freezing in silence or letting their losses fall to the trash from helpless fingers.

And when Khaled al-Asaad died, I finally understood that Doughty and his kin are wrong. The dry isolation of the Western ivory tower holds no special right over the past. Both those born far from Palmyra and those who live in its shadow can interpret its past. And only the fanatic thinks that a choice to leave one’s homeland, to change the customs of childhood, is a betrayal.

The remains of Palmyra are safe for now. Syrian governmental forces expelled ISIS forces from Palmyra and promised to rebuild its destroyed temples. Yet, this attempt to swaddle Palmyra in a single interpretation poses a new danger. The Syrian president is holding up Palmyra as a liberated prize, recovered for the benefit of the Western world, making it into evidence that the West should support him in his fight against ISIS instead of expelling him in favor of the Syrians who rebelled against his harsh regime.

Destruction is not the opposite of preservation but comes paired with it, walking hand in hand. The only true destruction is when only one voice speaks for the dead, suppressing all others. For Palmyra to live, our interpretations of it need to remain multiple, contentious, in the full light of day. Out of the basement.

Erin Thompson
Erin L. Thompson is an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, where she teaches classes in art crime and ancient art history. Her book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors (Yale, 2016), was named an NPR Best Book of 2016.