By Martin Michette
This piece was written before Syrian government forces recently recaptured Palmyra. The full extent of damage to the historic site will be evaluated over the coming weeks and months, what remains clear is that the Triumphal Arch is all but destroyed. The Institute of Digital Archaeology (http://digitalarchaeology.org.uk/) have been reconstructing this symbol of the ‘The Queen of the Desert’, and will open it to the public in Trafalgar Square on April 19, 2016.
Visiting the Roman ruins at Palmyra in 2004, the immediate impression was of the striking, matching colour of landscape and architecture. Viewed against a backdrop of barren mountains, the ancient city almost blurred into mirage in the desert haze. Only when the sun started to set did it catch the sparse columns in stark, gleaming contrast. There was a very distinctive sense of place, a feeling that these monolithic blocks were hewn straight out of the bedrock they sat on. It powerfully conveyed empire; authority and order in the face of windswept sand. Crossroads marked into the empty territory.
From this perspective the scene appeared timeless; the apocryphal image of everlasting ruins burnt into the mind’s eye. Imperial staying power. Archetypical Romance. However as you approach the city you start to appreciate its true age. This isn’t simply landscape that has been carved into place, it is a place that is crumbling back into landscape. What seemed like boulders suddenly reveal faded marks of masonry. The sharp lines I saw in the sunset are actually wrinkled and frayed. Architecture is falling victim to geological time. Yet this only serves to strengthen the bond. This isn’t growth or decay, it is part of a cycle.
But the punchline only becomes clear when I look closer still, when I step inside. The Temple of Bel, standing in the centre of the ruins and looming large, was dedicated to the eponymous god in the 1st Century AD, shortly after the Romans annexed the city. It seems unusually chunky for a Roman temple; squat and asymmetric. But the walls themselves are stranger still. Architectural elements, architraves and pedestals, are randomly juxtaposed amongst the otherwise bare masonry. It’s like one of those puzzles where you slide tiles around a board to reveal a picture, frantically filling the gap as nine pixels dance before your eyes. It’s bizarre and wonderful.
In the 12th Century, long after the Roman empire, after the Byzantine period, after even the Arab caliphates, the Burids fortified Palmyra. The region was subject to a complex mosaic of political power struggles and the temple, by now a mosque, was more useful as a citadel. This was achieved with what was at hand. The weathered remains of a thousand years were simply piled back on top of each other to best fit. A cycle within the cycle. And this probably wouldn’t have been the first instance of architectural appropriation. An earlier temple had already occupied this spot before the Romans arrived, and before that it is likely that the site had been settled since the 3rd Millennium BC. Over 4000 years of civilisation lies in this sand. It has risen and fallen again and again.
These realisations came to define much of what I believe. As for so many before me, Palmyra held some kind of divinity. And it is these thoughts that offer me some solace given recent events. Great stories, those which are told through our heritage, were written into landscapes long before people came to carve them out and frame them. Great stories don’t end, they merely start new chapters. Cycles within cycles.