We had been playing Hindi film music in the small bus that was taking us to Palmyra. It was our first visit. “You have songs of Shammi Kapoor – suku suku?” – the middle aged Syrian driver had asked over his shoulder. The bonds of Bollywood thread us to diverse people across continents! As the desert around had sped past, Palmyra emerged in the distance. A lush green frill at the edge of the desert horizon.
Closer, visible above the trees was the top edge of pink sandstone glowing in the sun. As the bus had turned into the small antique town, the Arch of Triumph or Monumental Arch had come into view. It had stupefied us as we had clambered down. Behind it stretched the great Colonnade and in front stood the ruins of the magnificent Temple of Bel. The beautiful Roman amphitheatre that could seat about 5000 people had been restored and cultural events were held there. Many buses and people were thronging the site. People came from all over the world to see Palmyra.
“A living nightmare” – wrote a Syrian friend who now lives in Egypt, on my Facebook page lamenting the destruction earlier this month of the Arch of Triumph of Palmyra. The wonderful awe-inspiring structure was wiped out by the Islamic State (IS), known also as Da’esh.
While living in Syria from 2003 to 2006, I had visited Palmyra many times. Palmyra or “Tadmur” can be found mentioned in archives dating back to 18th Century BCE. Trade brought glory and linkages, and it was at its zenith from 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE. When its legendary queen Zenobia declared her independence from Rome, it fell. Zenobia’s imposing bust and the ruins of Palmyra used to adorn the 500 Syrian Pound note.
The treasures of Palmyra were strewn in the open for aeons for all to see. The massive temple of Bel enshrined centuries of worship. Initially, Bel the ‘master of heaven’ (much like the Indian Indra) was the reigning deity. It later became a church and then a mosque. Inside the temple were visible sacred images, Christian icons and the ‘mehraab’. A great tourist attraction, outside its walls there used to be a clamour for decorated camels and horses being offered for a ride. Inside, the wind would blow and whisper tales of ages gone by. The Temple of Bel was blown up in August this year.
Watching over the ruins of Palmyra was the city of the dead. The tower tombs would rise like watch posts in the hills around. From the fourth level of the tomb of the Elahbel family (103 CE) a sweeping view of the ruins and the green expanse of the oasis could be seen. With the cool breeze blowing, I remember thinking Palmyra is not seen, it is experienced. The tower tombs were destroyed in September 2015.
Sitting before a screen, I scan satellite images of Palmyra as it stands today. Shorn of all its grandeur – a rubble filled landscape that is speechless in its own horror. I remembering sitting on the columns in the Colonnade with the setting sun. The sparkling pink hue of the sandstone would bring the ancient city alive. The market, the senate, the baths, the Agora or main square. The silhouette of the city seemed to murmur behind each boulder and wall. The ruins would stir something deep within. A sense of awe, and the realisation that we belong to a continuum that stretches endlessly.
The images of a now desolate Palmyra hurt deeply. Why is it so painful when heritage is lost? Even when it is far away on the globe, even if you have not visited the place. Maybe because civilisational heritage links all humanity. When I walked the ruins of Palmyra there was a connect to the long journey travelled by humans along the shores of time. In the sentinel structures, one could hear the whisperings of longing, hope, dreams and the desire to be remembered by those who had lived those times. That is why we travel far and wide to see silent monuments scattered all over the globe. They resonate and tie us in a long chain of being human and having walked the earth. It is this loss of linkage that hurts. When we lose any heritage we all lose a part of ourselves.
Sadha Shanker is an Indian Revenue Service Officer who lived in Syria from 2003 to 2006