I reached Palmyra, those many years ago, after a long trip of minibuses and thumbed rides from belching diesel trucks, conversing minorly in my barely-there Arabic and the unlimited patience of the people who picked me up. The ruins loomed up in the desert, a sun-baked mix of different eras and styles, from distant pagan antiquity to near history, seemingly disconnected from the world, a testament to both the length and the relative insignificance of our history.
Hitchhiking through Syria was neither dangerous nor was it romantic, though I certainly tried to romanticize it. It was a safe time, in the spring of 2000. Hafez al-Asad was still ruling, and while his undertaker pallor still loomed oppressively in thousands of hagiographic portraits, there was a sense of an ending. The oldest son, Basil, who seemed like he was born with a chest full of unearned medals and a dictator’s toothy grin, had been killed in a car wreck a few years before, and the other son, Bashar, was being groomed. He had been living in England- an ophthalmologist, right? – and there was optimism that he would be different. He couldn’t be worse than his brutal old man. Right?
So long ago. The destruction he has levied on his country is enough to make him one of the great criminals of our time. His brutality is compounded by the vacuum it created, the chaos in which (combined with the destruction of Iraq) ISIS found its strength, galloping on blood-stained horses from a medieval nightmare.
Their bloodlust doesn’t need to be recounted here. This is about Palmyra, which was the scene of horror when ISIS took it over. Public mass executions in ancient amphitheaters, the destruction of ancient, pre-Roman temples, the desecration of a shared human heritage. People reacted in horror at the thought of these illiterate goons wantonly destroying ancient ruins. When the Syrian army retook it over the weekend, there was relief that the destruction wasn’t as bad as was feared– though it was still plenty bad, and the murdered would never come back. For many reasons, Palmyra resonated more than the story of 1000 dead.
For many reasons, Palmyra resonated more than the story of 1000 dead. The formulation that I saw was that the theater was the scene of executions, not that executions took place, and it happened to be in an ancient theater. The inflection was on the smearing of a tourist place, a place of antique wonder. This is understandable, if a little grotesque. After all, people die all the time, right?
Yes, of course they do. People die horribly, in mute and screaming terror, in Pakistan or Belgium or Syria or Chicago or Yemen, every day. We’re ripped from this earth by the gory animalism of ideology, whether that is radical fundamentalism or the nihilism of post-capital gang life or rampant jingoism or other ancient horrors. It was always this way- I don’t know the whole history of the Palmyra amphitheater, but through the years, the city, which was taken and retaken, in which different beliefs smashed into each other, was the scene of horror and agony, over and over.
It’s horror that has been dulled by the years, baked into the stones and sanctified by admission. It belonged to people in the past, who didn’t feel pain the same way we do, much how people in other countries don’t weep and moan and bleed and die unless we force ourselves to truly imagine it.
That’s one of the reasons why Palmyra was important. That a goof like 21-yr-old me, with stupid hair and the fake profundity of an adolescent poet, was allowed to go there, in a country that was “supposed” to hate Americans, is why places like that matter. I sat in the old Arab Castle, in solitude, overlooking the ruins, the vast expanse of lives that went into building them, and living in them. It was a castle built for war, that now existed for tourists to connect with the past.
It’s optimistic. ISIS will not last forever. Even Bashar al-Asad will one day fall. This is a generational catastrophe, one that will reverberate for decades, remaking the Middle East. But as the reaction to Palmyra shows- as the existence of Palmyra proves- there is more a sense of shared humanity now than ever. It’s just a matter of overcoming our superstitions and ideologies and small-mindedness, and truly using the empathy of imagination. It’s a matter of recognizing that while we live in the flicker, we don’t have to put out the light just yet.