Cultural Heritage, Destruction and Palmyra

Just over a week ago Cornelius Holtorf published a guest post here arguing that cultural heritage is not at risk in Syria because heritage is an ongoing process. Today’s installation in Trafalgar Square of a replica of a triumphal arch from Palmyra could be seen as an example of ever growing heritage and its power to tell complex stories.

There have been some comments on Cornelius’ post here and some elsewhere. Many people agree with him, but those who have articulated their disagreement have drawn attention to the specifics of the heritage. Yes, Syria will still have a past, but it won’t have these buildings that have specific complex meanings, and that we love.

It put me in mind of this comment about coastline change:

“One of the most significant threats facing our coastline is from rising sea-levels. This can impact the coast in many ways through things like increased occurrence rates of flooding or changing patterns of erosion (and deposition). Coupled with onshore responses to climate change, this puts the coastline under increasing pressure.”

Heritage is under threat in the same way that the coastline is under threat.

Of course there will always be a coastline, it’s the place where the land meets the sea, but it won’t be the same coastline and if we’ve built things on it, or have memories associated with it, or live there, some of those things will have to change. Not everything of course, some things won’t, especially emotional things like the sounds of the waves. But its unpredictable, uncertain, a changed coastline isn’t just the same thing in a different place, silting, changes in currents etc change the animals and plants that live there, change the things that we can build and do with the place. But undoubtedly there will still be a coast.

Similarly, there will be heritage in Syria and other places, heritage is what we make of pasts in the present. But it won’t be the same heritage and if we’ve built things on it (including narratives of our place in the world) or have memories associated with it, or live (or work) there, some of those things will have to change. Not everything of course. But its uncertain, a changed heritage isn’t just the old heritage with the new war attached, nor are the old purposes removed. It will change the animals and plants that live there, change the things we can build and do with the place.

There are complex currents and eddies, strange siltings. Its absurd to say that the Roman heritage of Palmyra will be lost because the buildings are blown up. But it will be changed, altered in ways that we can’t be sure of yet. It might be helpful to think about the specifics, since that’s what is at stake rather than the generalities of heritage. The Roman heritage of Palmyra has waxed and waned and waxed again ever since those buildings were first built, despite them being, neglected, repaired, abandoned, and indeed destroyed.

The Temple of Bel, and the triumphal arch being installed in Trafalgar Square today, were built in the the third century before the Palmyrene rebellion led by Queen Zenobia.  In 273 AD Aurelian marched against Palmyra, razing it to the ground and seizing the most valuable monuments to decorate his Temple of Sol. Palmyrene buildings were smashed, residents massacred and the Temple of Bel pillaged.  This victory was celebrated by an Emperor’s triumph in Rome, where Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra had been brought in golden chains.” (A queen is not brought in an orange jumpsuit, but in golden chains). Aurelian subsequently repaired the Temple of Bel but it wasn’t until 527 AD that Palmyra was restored as a fortified city. (

The last rise in the Roman heritage of Palmyra was in the 18th century when it was ‘discovered’ by an empire keen to establish its rights to the area. The discovery, as practice, involved digging away material, writing and drawing and talking about it, and claiming it, placing it within a narrative of Empire in which the new colonial powers were the natural heirs of the former. In which the existence of this material underpinned our right to govern the area.


This astounding painting even has ‘our heroes’ dressed in togas – clearly the heirs of this great ‘lost’ city. How surprised are those ‘turks’ with them to see what had seemed before to be ‘just a ruin’ and indeed since 1400 the village in which they lived, for what it ‘really’ is, a relic of the grandeur of Empire.

This is clearly still a narrative with some power as the people installing the arch in Trafalgar Sqaure say:

‘The reason we’re doing this on Trafalgar Square is that when you set the arch against the neoclassical columns of the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column, there’s a reason why they all look the same: our past is their past,’

The narrative of loss and endangerment that both Daesh and the majority of heritage commentators have promoted glosses over the many previous destructions and the ways in which the place came again to be used to exemplify the strength but more importantly the beauty, the truth and the rightness of empire.

Unesco emphasise the coming together of different civilisations in the Statement of Outstanding Universal Value, which is entirely in keeping with the purpose of the WHS programme in building connections and promoting peace through understanding. But civilisations is often a code word for empire, and certainly seems to be so in this case. But this is what UNESCO was using the site for at the start of the Syrian Civil war, promoting the idea that civilisations can learn from each other, share culture, agree on what is beautiful and valuable.

Daesh want to use the site in another way, to show that empires grow strong through war, but that maintaining empire is more difficult than establishing it. To show that it does not belong to the world, but to them, because only someone who owns something can destroy it with impunity.

All of these narratives underplay the continued existence of an inhabited city, whose people are still under attack. As Mohamed Alkhateb, a resident of Palmyra who has been forced to flee says:

“Assad claims he launched this campaign to protect Syrians and liberate the World Heritage Sites from Isis, but his bombs have destroyed as much of the city and its precious ruins as Isis did.”


Muhammed Faris, the first Syrian Cosmonaut, now living in Istanbul as a refugee, has some perspective:

He repeatedly refers to the fortitude of the people in his hometown of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world. “The Syrian civilisation is 10,000 years old. It will survive this attempt by the Assads to destroy it. It has survived worse.” But now the city’s days may be numbered, and hope might be all that is left behind. “From afar, when the Earth was so small, I really felt in my heart I could make a big difference in the world,” he says. “It has not been easy.”



One thought on “Cultural Heritage, Destruction and Palmyra

  1. Pingback: Why cultural heritage is not ‘at risk’ (in Syria or anywhere) | Heritage for Transformation

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