Sunday, April 03, 2016

Life Among the Ruins

The Temple of Baal, in Palmyra, Syria, in 2011. In 2015 it was razed by the Islamic State.


MARCH 19, 2016

NEXT month, the Temple of Baal will come to Times Square. Reproductions of the 50-foot arch that formed the temple’s entrance are to be installed in New York and in London, a tribute to the 2,000-year-old structure that the Islamic State destroyed last yearin the Syrian town of Palmyra. The group’s rampage through Palmyra, a city that reached its peak in the second and third century A.D., enraged the world, spurring scholars and conservationists into action. Numerous nongovernmental organizations are now cataloging and mapping damaged cultural heritage sites in the region.

It will be uncanny and thrilling to see this arch from an ancient desert civilization set against the bright lights of New York. Unfortunately, facsimiles can achieve only so much. Denuded of people, stripped of the rich social contexts in which they were once embedded, antiquities appear just as evidence of the grandeur of the past, the accomplishments of another place in another time. But what did these assemblages of stone mean to the modern Iraqis and Syrians who lived with them?

For Salam al-Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist who works at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the loss of the Temple of Baal was deeply personal. “I have a special love for Palmyra because the Temple of Baal is where my mother was born,” she said.

Ms. Kuntar’s grandfather was a policeman in Palmyra when its Roman-era ruins were inhabited. Well into the 20th century, generations of Palmyrenes made their homes in the shade of millenniums-old columns. The locals taught Ms. Kuntar’s grandmother — who was a young bride when she arrived in Palmyra — how to cook and how to bake bread.

Her daughter was among the last generation born inside the ancient city. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, French colonial authorities cleared the area of its inhabitants and dismantled their mud-brick house. That paved the way for the archaeological exploration and preservation of the site, but it also definitively ended ancient Palmyra’s habitation as well as the use of the Temple of Baal, which over the centuries had transformed into a Byzantine church, then a mosque, before eventually becoming part of the village where Ms. Kuntar’s mother was born.

A picture taken in March 2014 shows the iconic arched gate in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The Islamic State destroyed it in 2015.

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