Ruins of Yesterday, Today

Today I’ll be talking once again about the terror organization that just can’t seem to get off the news.

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That’s right, we’re talking about ISIS today! I recall saying in one of my earlier posts that I wanted to talk about the destruction of ruins. Ruins are one of the main themes of our course this year in Humanities Core. Therefore, I’ll be discussing ruins and their significance in today’s context using Palmyra and ISIS as the primary example.

For starters however, it’s important to know the background details behind ISIS and Palmyra. Palmyra itself was an ancient city built way back during the New Stone Age. For much of its early history it was autonomous before it came under the rule of the Roman empire.It prospered through trade as a free city. At some point, Zenobia assassinated her husband, who was put in charge of Palmyra and declared herself Queen of Palmyra. She rebelled against the Romans and managed to conquer Anatolia and Egypt before the Romans crushed her army and razed Palmyra. Since then the city was reduced to a mere village and faded from prominence for most of history. UNESCO declared it a world heritage site in 1980. But on May of 2015, in the midst of the Syrian Civil war, ISIS took control of the area surrounding the ancient city. Many feared that they would target the ruins. ISIS already had a well known reputation of destroying ruins and ancient monuments. Everyone’s fears proved to be true, as they began to destroy parts of Palmyra while also performing executions at the famous amphitheater.

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That’d be a lovely place to visit if it weren’t for the executions.

In early 2016, Syria retook the city from ISIS with the help of Russians. The destruction was less severe than anticipated, but the damage had been done. In a sad twist of event, ISIS recaptured the city in December 2016, so we can assume that they are continuing their gradual destruction of Palmyra.

Well that lengthy exposition/short history lesson is over, so now we can start analyzing what makes ruins like Palmyra so important and attractive to militant terrorist groups like ISIS. For starters, ruins are so important because they are pieces of ancient history that have survived both natural and human elements to this day. They are giants sources of culture. Whether it be from an architectural, artistic, or religious standpoint, these ruins serve as objects of inspiration. They are the living stories of old empires, retelling bits of past glories through themselves.

Seeing as a lot of the culture in ancient societies revolved around their religions, their ruins are usually of religious significance. This is no different with the city of Palmyra. Places infused with such significant religious and cultural value makes them prime targets for terrorists groups like ISIS. They see ruins and artifacts as pieces of idolatry from opposing religions and sects that go against their radical ideology. For example, they destroyed large portions of the Temple of Baal and Baalshamin, which were dedicated to ancient semitic gods.

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A little before.
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A lot after. 

They destroy such important pieces of history for the same reason they perform so many public and online executions. It’s all in the name of publicity, whatever will catch headlines for them and attract new recruits. An alternative to the destruction is the pillaging and black-marketing of the rare artifacts to fund their organization. For every artifact, ruin, and monument destroyed, it’s another piece of history lost to time.

On the bright side though, is that the internet is being used as a platform to digitally preserve such ruins. getty.edu created an online exhibition for the ruins of Palmyra, title “The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra“. It’s attempt likes these to preserve the pieces of culture and ancient history, that are a step in the right direction.

Featured Image and the article that inspired me to write this post.

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