Modern town of Palmyra (Tadmur), Syria, c. 2006
photo by Soman via Wikimedia Commons
About 3 years ago, I started to be very concerned about how we talk about the Syrian war. News consumers, academics, all of us. It seemed that we – and scholars of the ancient world in particular – might care more about ruined buildings than we did about human beings, even as their lives were being snuffed out by the thousands. I was moved to start writing about cultural heritage then, trying to highlight how its importance is completely tied up with its role in people’s lives.
A year ago I returned to this topic. At the time, Palmyra was in the news, and I saw the same pattern repeating itself in how we discussed that city. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Palmyra. I was unaware that its Arabic name was Tadmur; unaware that the site had been constantly inhabited up to the twentieth century; unaware that the modern village was demolished in the early 1930s to allow archaeologists to dig the Temple of Bel; unaware that there was a modern town of tens of thousands there today.
I began to write the archaeology and history of Palmyra. I focused on two topics: the post-classical history of the city; and the history of modern Western exploration of and interaction with it. I felt – and still feel today – that we do not discuss these topics nearly enough. Instead, we are far too concerned with the classical city, because, I suspect, we see it as part of our own heritage in Europe and the United State, unlike the more recent Arab history of the site. In this way our interactions with the site today disturbingly echo the three centuries of modern Western interaction with it, and this is something I desperately want to see changed.
Why don’t I focus on the inhabitants of the modern town and the war itself? These are very worthy topics for discussion, but they are not my areas of expertise. I don’t know Arabic, though I plod through it slowly when necessary for research. My training is in archaeology. Beyond this, I have spent much time over the last few years looking at accounts of European and American travelers to the Middle East, and so Modern European and American accounts of the site were a natural area of focus. When it comes to the present-day people of Tadmur and Syria, I have tried to highlight work by others, especially by Syrians themselves.
In my writing, I try to focus on issues about which we are often uninformed or even misinformed. I hope that in some small way it will affect (for the better) how we think and talk about Palmyra and its inhabitants. But it would be foolish to make changing how we talk about Palmyra and its inhabitants a goal in itself. Talk, after all, is cheap. The real problem for Palmyra and Syria is not the attitudes that we in the U.S. or Europe have, or the attitudes of Bashar al-Assad or ISIS or Al Qaeda or various rebel groups. The real problem is the actions these people and groups are carrying out. In short, the war is the problem. Ignoring the suffering of human beings in Syria (or anywhere in conflict) can make us indifferent to the horrors of war or even help us to rationalize them. Seeing their cultural heritage as actually belonging to us, and seeing that heritage under threat from “barbaric” groups (like ISIS) in the Middle East, can provide a warped justification for those horrors.
I worry that we are often more concerned about symbols and words than we are with actions; I sometimes worry that I am more concerned with them myself. Symbolism is important, but only as much as it leads to action. We must always be aware of this. And so I am ultimately writing to change actions. More precisely, I am writing to change our attitudes towards Syria and Syrians in order to change actions. Our attitudes play an important role in leading towards actions, or (even more) in justifying actions. In justifying death and destruction, theft of resources. In justifying war itself.
To be clear: I am not suggesting my writing will have any significant effect on these problems. My audience is small and my influence on it smaller still. I hold few illusions about my occasional writing on this subject and the impact that it has. But I do hold a few. Illusions can be useful things if they are constructive. Why else would we write, or try to do our own small part to make the world a better place?