Maddeningly, Palmyra is being destroyed while the international community sits on the sidelines holding the power to protect it.
NEARLY five years ago, shortly after graduating from my alma mater, Calvin College, I remember my mother and grandmother crying in the kitchen, telling me “there’s no reason to go into Syria. Don’t go there, we are begging you.”
For me, it seemed that they were worrying more than they should. News of Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria in the past were, I remember thinking, like shark attacks, in the sense of what psychologists refer to as an availability heuristic — something that immediately comes to mind when thinking about a certain topic or subject simply because the dramatic nature of the story leaves an imprint that is hard to forget. But in my mind, for every story of a kidnapping, there were hundreds of other stories of adventure, great sights and an exotic culture that awaited me.
Despite my family’s wishes, I applied for my Syrian visa anyway, and I assured them everything would be all right; at the quixotic age of 22, it always was.
Shortly before the Syrian civil war began, I remember standing among the ruins of Palmyra in utter amazement. I was told that those ruins were the best of Syria and that proved true for me. Palmyra was exactly what I had pictured when I thought of Middle Eastern antiquity. Standing like trees coming up from the sand, Roman columns were too numerous to count, and there were ancient buildings, temples, streets, tombs and colonnades wherever I looked. It was amazing to see such an expansive, unadulterated and well-preserved archaeological site — the place where Queen Zenobia reigned almost two millennia ago, in the middle of the desert.
There were so few tourists that I felt like an archaeologist discovering and walking among recently found ruins for the first time. I spent days in Palmyra exploring the ruins and taking in all the history, culture and architecture that lay before me. This was exactly why I came to Syria. All the worry, logistics and costs were worth it. Some places are just magical, with a certain je ne sais quoi that can only be experienced to understand the charm that dwells there, which was the case with Palmyra.
As an American who saw and experienced the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, my heart breaks knowing that, with the recent news of its capricious destruction, absolutely no one else will be able share my experience and witness something so beautiful and rich in history.
... absolutely no one else will be able share my experience and witness something so beautiful and rich in history.”
Despite UNESCO’s continual calls for help in protecting Palmyra, the city is still facing destruction. Historical ruins and a treasure trove of the distant past are being stolen from the world, as the world watches. Repeatedly, UNESCO has called upon the international community and the U.N. Security Council to protect humanity’s heritage in the ancient site. And maddeningly, Palmyra is being destroyed and terrorized while the international community sits on the sidelines holding the power to protect it.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in an ominous speech last year said, “For the proud people of Iraq and Syria — ancient civilizations, civilizations of great beauty, great accomplishment, of extraordinary history and intellectual achievement — the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult. … How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization. … The civilized world must take a stand.”
Yes, the United Sates has provided funding to conservation groups working to protect Syria’s cultural heritage and, yes, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2199 this year, which condemned the destruction of cultural heritage by the Islamic State. But ancient sites in Palmyra, like the Temple of Bel, are still being destroyed. With such destruction, and with more expected to come, has the United States done all it can do to keep up with its fervent rhetoric?
As an American tourist who saw Palmyra, and the Temple of Bel that was once there, I think protecting the remaining ruins at the site is worth the cost, worth the effort and worth the sacrifices involved in preserving it. I beg the United States, just as my mother and grandmother once begged me, to take a stand on the world stage and work with UNESCO and the international community to fight for, and protect, some of the best ruins in the world.
It is my hope that someday, once the war in Syria is over, a place of magical ruins and historic splendor is the availability heuristic that comes to mind when hearing of a place in the middle of the Syrian Desert: Palmyra.