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Palmyra and the Political History of Archaeology in Syria: from Colonialists to Nationalists

The Sun of Syria’s power went down in might,
On Freedom’s tree there rained a withering blight,
Glory to proud Palmyra sighed adieu
And o’er her shrines Destruction’s angel flew.

‘Palmyra’, Nicholas Michell (1807-1880) 

‘Palmyra’ (Tadmor), as it exists within western imagination, was not destroyed in 2014 by ‘ISIS’(Daesh). Palmyra, and for that matter all archaeological remains in non-European countries, have always represented abandon and decay to the colonial explorer/tourist/academic –despite the fact that many of these ruins were inhabited at the moment of their ‘discovery’.

The renewed destruction of monuments at Palmyra by Daesh led to an international outcry and social media frenzy; images of piles of disjointed architecture suddenly became clickbait, a surprise for the archaeologist whose interests in ruins is usually deemed nerdy and irrelevant to the present age.

Yet what is tied up with spontaneous concern for the destruction of ‘world heritage’ are European neo-colonial interests and Syrian State’s agenda—the two being great mirrors for one another.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

how archaeology has been used for colonial, imperial and nationalist missions

When tears are wept for the destruction of ‘Roman’ antiquity (the temple is dedicated to a Near Eastern god), there is no thought to the destruction of Syrian Islamic…

The Colonial Legacy

It is impossible to write a history of archaeology in Syria without addressing European colonialist interests. Archaeological excavations intensified in the 19thth century, and during the 1923-46 mandate period were directly funded by the French government (though the French created the Syrian Department of Antiquities before their ‘official’ involvement, in 1919).

Late Ottoman governors complained to the sultan about increasing looting and illegal antiquities trafficking, exacerbated by European tourists excited about the newest finds.

Explorers competed to be the first to find and record unchartered territories of the exotic Levant, as archaeologists of different colonial powers (German-French-British) competed to publish sites under the aegis of their respective nationalities.

Chagar Bazar and Tel Brak by Mallowan (U.K), Mari by Parrot (France), Ugarit by Schaeffer (France), and Tel Halaf by Oppenheimer (Germany) are all historical excavations that boosted the national museums in these respective countries with objects from the ancient Orient, the ‘origin of European civilisation’.

It is within the context of ‘competitive archaeology’ (term coined by Elena Corbett) that the history of Palmyra should be viewed.

Documented by Italian, then French, Swedish, and German explorers since the 17th century, it was first excavated in the 20th  century by Germans, then Czech, mandate-period French, Swiss and Polish archaeologists, in partnership with the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities.

Competition for collaboration with the directorate at big important sites such as Palmyra is a big deal for foreign archaeologists.

At a recent symposium on Palmyra at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first official talk was ‘After Thirty Years of Syro-German/Austrian Archaeological Research at Palmyra’.

The idea of ‘competitiveness’ in Syrian archaeology is brought to the fore within conservation discourse, with article after article describing a ‘race’ to save ‘world heritage’ (that happens to be in Syria).

Indeed, there is an urgency to preventing sites from being irreversibly destroyed, yet why aren’t people ‘racing’ to stop war?

The rhetoric is similar to that used in the late 19th-early 20th century, when the French, English, and German were racing against each other to excavate the most prestigious sites and discover the most remarkable artifacts, destroying much archaeology in the meantime by the poor quality of speedy excavations.

Expediency is destructive, even by those who claim to want to ‘save Syrian heritage’.

There has been a proliferation in recent years of digital technologies 3-D modelling artifacts and architecture that has been demolished by Daesh. The reconstruction of the ‘Arch of Triumph’ in Trafalgar Square in April of this year is a case in point.

The haste in the restoration project is evident: the 3-D model was constructed from a pixelated online photograph.  This is not the only case in which designers desperate for material have appropriated the Syrian plight and created horrid fabrications: this palm tree with a light bulb  was not only sold as a ‘Palmyra Lamp’  but also incorporated an orientalist discourse:

‘even in the destructive hands of ISIS, Palmyra “the Venice of the Sands” lives on in one respect’. And so Palmyra lives on in a palm tree with a light bulb—this is a worse symbolic destruction of history than Daesh could ever imagine).  This is but one example.

Another project to reconstruct the Arch of Triumph out of squares of neon plexiglass (yes, squares of neon plexiglass) raised $130,000.

The discourse also denies the autonomy of professional Syrian archaeologists: the west can’t wait around for the war to end and for Syrian restorers to commence such a time-consuming restoration project.

In Britain, we have funds to make a 3D model here and now, we might as well do that first.The desire to ‘be first’, to appropriate Syria’s own need to restore its heritage by transcending time and space boundaries is eerily reminiscent of the mandate-period restoration project of the Dome of the Rock in Palestine.

Commander David Hogarth believed quality tiles could only be produced in Europe, for ‘the East is quite incapable of doing again what it has done before’.

In the end, once the English realized how much capital would be actually needed to finance a quality project, they abandoned it, and the money was raised by the local Supreme Muslim Council picked up the project, fundraising and all.

Disdain for present-day cultures in the Near East over its ‘glorious past’ is just as present today as it was in the 19th-20th centuries.

Whereas the archaeologists explicitly described Syria’s ruins as the torch of civilization having passed from the East to the West (and thus no longer in the East), today there is just an underlying intuition: that Palmyra must be saved (rather than Islamic sites).

The complete disregard for people over monuments (why spend millions to ‘rebuild Palmyra’, as certain British politicians would like, and not to accommodate refugees), also has colonialist roots.

The photo below shows the lovely architectural intermingling between the early 20th century traditional mudbrick housing and the Roman style columns. It was destroyed under the direction of the mandate-period French archaeologist Henri Seyrig, who ordered to move the village to excavate the Temple of Bel (the latest issue of Syria, a French Journal published since 1922, is entirely dedicated to his career and persona).

Instead of being eclipsed from Antiquity until its European ‘discovery’, as its story is told in the media and in popular history books, Palmyra was actually reused and inhabited by later Christian and then Muslim populations.

Ancient temples were converted into Byzantine churches, and later into mosques; the Temple of Bel contained a mihrab. When tears are wept for the destruction of ‘Roman’ antiquity (the temple is dedicated to a Near Eastern god), there is no thought to the destruction of Syrian Islamic history which is taking place simultaneously.

The Syrian State

Colonialist infatuation with Near Eastern archaeology left its mark on the region’s own heritage policies—for the worse for authentic engagement with archaeology.

When heritage is nationalized by an elite minority, wrapped up in governmental bureaucracy, presented through the lens of a corrupt state, it effectively becomes a symbol of the nation-state.

When the nation-state’s authority comes under attack, so does its nationalized archaeology –ruins are no longer ruins, but emblems of state power.

Journalistic articles express shock at the destruction of archaeology in Syria and frame it within a discourse of iconoclasm and barbarianism. In fact, in addition to the monetary and propaganda interests in destroying sites, Daesh does so for modern political reasons: they couldn’t care less about ancient pagans, what they wish to do is simply to inflict violence upon sites of governmental power.  And ruins happen to be those sites, and increasingly so.

<img src=”” alt=”Palmyra displayed on Syria’s most banal objects” />Palmyra displayed on Syria's most banal objects

Palmyra displayed on Syria’s most banal objects

Archaeology was institutionalized by a reification of the past into governmental branding, such as through images of Palmyra on the national currency, or school textbooks.

Although Palmyrans wrote and probably spoke in Aramaic, they are frequently called ‘Arabs’ by Syrian regime historians.

Ancient ruins, intrinsically free of ideology, were thus saddled with  the institutionally approved secular, Syrian-Arab nationalism of the Assad regime.

This ideology is specifically designed to suppress expressions of dissenting mainstream Syrian identities. Hatred of and desire to destroy archaeological ruins comes from the frustration on the part of disenfranchised  Syrians who were first forcefully moved out of their dwellings to make room for French archaeologists subsequently never identified with regime discourses of archaeology, which they saw as an extension of the colonial disregard for their livelihoods.

In a much under-noted paper written on the eve of the Arab uprisings, Laurence Gillot took a look at the actual social impact archaeological practices by foreign excavators linked to governmental agencies had on local communities in Syria:

On the one hand, these groups [Syrian private cultural and tourist groups, as opposed to institutional researchers] are still considered to be intruders and not stakeholders, and their activities are still regarded as a threat to heritage conservation.

On the other hand, the recognition and tolerance of alternative views about heritage (other than the official and archaeological one) remains low. Consequently, archaeology is, at the same time, regarded by Syrian society as a tool of cultural imperialism by the European and Western countries, and as an instrument in the service of the Syrian regime, as part of the imposition of an official national memory and identity.

These negative perceptions are illustrated by various behaviours, such as the refusal to acknowledge a national heritage, the plunder of archaeological sites, or indifference towards their preservation.

Vacant theatricality;  regime ideology setting the stage for demonification of archaeology.

The past 200 years of large-scale archaeological excavations in Syria have been mainly dominated by patrimonial French, British, and more recently American excavators in partnership with the Syrian government’s supervision, the overwhelming majority of whom were interested in the region’s pre-Islamic past.

There is a basic lesson here: associating archaeological sites with a repressive regime, archaeological institutions causes people to hate historical sites.

Neither the Syrian nor the Russian government cares any more about historical knowledge than does Daesh (they both are in fact responsible for much unrecorded and unspectacular destruction), and their desire ‘to preserve’ has been accepted with open arms by European and American news agencies, politicians, and even archaeologists ‘protecting the past’.  (A lot of bullshit in this passage)

Yet by re-capturing Palmyra and re-infusing the site with Syrian state apparatus, history is only repeating itself. The travesty of the Russian concert on 2016 May 5th (Why it must be a travesty in this case?) was followed by performances by the Syrian National Symphony, the National Ensemble for Arabic Music, the Mari Orchestra, and al-Farah Choir— all government funded.

Much like the Persepolis festival celebrating 2,500 years of Iranian kingship on top of Iran’s most iconic ruins, the Palmyra concert used an ancient site to glorify  Western-styled music, secularism, Ba’ath nationalism, all in all, the triumph of ‘civilization’ over ‘barbarism’.

Two years after the Persepolis festival, the revolution of the ulamas overthrew the shah, archaeology was banned from universities, and the site was vandalized.

The speeches at the Palmyra concert may have promulgated a victory, but the theatrical display of the Syrian regime’s definition of ‘civilization’, supported by UNESCO attendees, only means its eventual demise at the hands of the disenfranchised ‘barbarians’.

The hypocrisy is well described in the words of Michel-Rolph Trouillot: “Celebrations straddle the two sides of historicity. They impose a silence upon the events that they ignore, and they fill that silence with narratives of power about the event they celebrate.”

The ceremony’s closing speech was conveniently translated into English, and provides a good idea of the regime’s conception of Syrian geography, in which cities are imaginarily subordinated to the power structure:

I can see all towns and villages walking on a way that connects my country’s soil to the stars.
Aleppo [huge cheers from the crowd] is weaving on its loom the cotton of the north…
The Syrian coast bringing water to Palmyra
Homs is collecting the roses of Dara’a to make a shawl for our country
Hama is offering its water wheels to Damascus to quench its thirst, and water Asswayda vainyards
Green Idlib has a thousand tales about the flag flown above Quneitra
I can see my Syria wearing the crown of victory.

The speech emphasizes the obvious fact that the classical music concert could not be divorced from Syrian State policy, and that by re-taking Palmyra they were on their way to Aleppo, which metaphorically demonstrates its servitude to the State in the speech. (If that kind of poem was said in a western State to boast about their nationalism, would it be fine?)

In her book ‘The Ambiguities of Domination’, studying performance of allegiance to Hafez al-Assad’s regime, Lisa Wedeen concluded that most gestures of subordination and consent to power were inherently ritualistic and did not reflect the performer’s true political beliefs.

I messaged some of the musicians who took part in this concert on Facebook, to see whether they believed the ideology promoted by the State or if there was any dose of skepticism.

What was so weird was how normal it all seemed to them; one violinist has the concert picture as her Facebook cover photo. (What’s so weird, please?)

There didn’t seem to be anything interesting to talk about; they went on about ‘the sound of music is life’; ‘it was my dream to play here and after what isis did’; ‘Our mission was to reborn the life to Palmyra with our music our passion’ which made me cringe a bit, but only as much as I normally do whenever I have to sit and listen to someone tell me about their ‘passion’.

Then the cringe-bomb came (the emoji. the emoji.):

It’s safe to say that when we think of Aleppo (if we know #whatisaleppo at all), we don’t think ‘oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a classical music concert there!’.
Most of us who possess a fundamental level of conscience, think of ordinary townsfolk setting tires ablaze to defend their homes against aerial bombardment from an occupying air force.  I suppose it’s natural for a country at war to dehumanize the civilians who happen to be living in enemy territory, that one would look forward to the odes of victory. Yet.
The 21st century. If you google Aleppo, even from Damascus, you will not find images of an intact citadel (unless it’s a before/after shot).The Syrian regime has taken on the same role as the western archaeologists within its country. Archaeology, as a symbol of prestige, national unity, and locus of performance is given primacy over human lives.

And while this may seem natural for a flashy anti-humanitarian regime to do, what is disquieting is how nicely it matches Euroamerican conceptions of cultural heritage.

As important as it is to list all the awful things the Syrian regime has done, there is critical work to be done in acknowledging what an  apt pupil it has been to the self-proclaimed free and civilised world.




June 2023

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