The news is always bad from Syria these days. The newsworthiness of the conflict seems to fluctuate as we in the West become increasingly inured to a lexicon that includes words like barrel bombs, Isis, chlorine gas, jihadi, caliphates and air-strikes. It seems almost too much to take in as a distant observer let alone as one of those unfortunates who have to suffer and bleed day-in, day-out on the ground. Recently the attention has turned to historic sites rather than people, and now that Isis have reached Palmyra there is fear for the future of this beautiful and well-preserved historic city in the Syrian desert. Religious fundamentalists have a habit of gleefully destroying great works of art and architecture – for some reason, beauty and creativity are seen as an affront to their misguided theological nihilism – and Isis are no exception. Much as the destruction of something as unique as the great desert city over which Queen Zenobia once reigned is an abomination, it is not as egregious as the loss of a single innocent life. But, tragically, there have already been an uncountable number of deaths. Perhaps it is a sad reflection on the values of the West that, when all things are measured, an historic site – albeit something as extraordinary as Palmyra – is sometimes valued higher than that of human life?
I visited Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in 2000 – an inspirational trip in which I saw a plethora of ancient sites and exciting modern cities, and encountered welcoming and friendly people wherever I went. What I see on television news today does not register with what I experienced back then, although sometimes the backdrop – Aleppo Citadel, for example, which now lies in ruins – is just about recognisable through the debris and smoke. These photos – low resolution copies of slides – are those that I took early one April morning after staying overnight at Palmyra.
Over the years I have been lucky to visit several places of great historic value before they were later destroyed by savage acts of war: the sandstone cliff Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which I visited en-route to India in 1977; the World Trade Center in New York (visiting a friend who worked alone in a TV broadcast monitoring station at the very top of the building in 1986); the bazaar in Osh, Kyrgyzstan (in 2006 before it was largely burned to the ground by inter-ethnic rioting in 2010); Aleppo Citadel. I can only hope that Palmyra does not go the same way as these unique sites, reduced to just a memory that exists only in photographs and people’s minds.