In late April 2015, I had as my desktop photo on my computer in my office a wonderful photograph of an ancient city in Syria called Palmyra. For a long time, Palmyra had been on my bucket list of places to visit – a UNESCO World heritage site, revealing some of the world’s most brilliant Greco-Roman ruins, but also other buildings which celebrate a history spanning all of the world’s major religions and many of its great empires. Palmyra’s wealth had rested in its position on the old Silk Road, the trade route between east and west, a route critical for the inter-connectivity of the world 2,000 years ago, and famous for the adventures of Marco Polo in the late 13th century. It is, quite simply, a jewel of our planet.
The reason for its appearance on my desktop in April 2015 was that reports had reached the world that ISIS were only two miles away from its gates, and that the fall of Palmyra was imminent. What happened next was entirely predictable – ISIS took the city and set about making the most of the global publicity it would give them. They utterly destroyed a number of the most prestigious ruins, including the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin; they used the famous old Roman amphitheatre as a place of public execution; perhaps most famously, they publicly executed Palmyra’s retired Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Assad, after he had been tortured for a month at the age of 82 to reveal the whereabouts of Palmyra’s most secret treasures. Mr al-Assad bravely and resolutely refused to hand over any information, and he died a most terrible death for it.
In the immediate run-up to ISIS’ capture of the city, a few things had happened. Firstly, as many treasures of the museum as possible were quickly moved elsewhere. The majority, unfortunately, ended up destroyed by ISIS, and no doubt a number were also shipped and sold for weapons. Secondly, there was a desperate attempt to take as many photographs of the site as possible – not only from the ground, but also from the air using drones. There was a theory at the time, which later proved prescient, that the more pictures were taken, the better 3D images could be constructed of the city, with a view to using 3D printing as a way to reconstruct the original site if it were destroyed utterly by the ISIS occupation. I remember well at the time that this made me think. Modern-day technology provides us with extraordinary powers of reconstruction, if we so choose to take them, and yet it also calls us to reflect upon what, if anything, we should do with any building once it is no longer fit for use.
This is a much harder problem than you might imagine, but it has been a question every generation has asked itself. Buildings only last so long; they die for all sorts of reasons; should we restore them, leave in ruin, reconstruct them altogether or clear the ruins away and construct something entirely different on the same site? Could we, perhaps, in some instances, just lift them and reconstruct them elsewhere?
If you visit the site of the original Olympic Games, you will find a fascinating Temple of Hera. In the early 6th century BC, the columns holding up the roof of this temple were wooden. They were literally trunks of trees. As each one rotted over time, they were individually replaced by stone columns, with the result that the stone columns we see today are all slightly different in diameter and in their individual features: they were built by different people in different eras. What looks today, therefore, like a faithfully original old ruin, is in fact anything but. If you go to Knossos in Crete, you will find something even less usual – the old Palace of Minos, where the Minotaur used to eat seven boys and seven girls sent by Theseus each year as a sacrifice, was found and restored early last century by a famous archaeologist called Sir Arthur Evans. Its most enduringly famous pillars are nowadays clearly not originals: they are made of modern concrete and painted in their original colours. The red pillars look extremely garish to our taste, until you understand that all ancient Greek sculptures, for instance the ones you see in colourless stone in museums, were in fact painted – and anyway many were Roman copies of original Greek bronzes. (A brief interlude on the Doryphoros and the Riace bronzes.) Spring forward then to the building we sit in today, our own lovely replica of an 1891 original. When it burnt down, presumably there were some options. Planning permission will have been needed, of course, and the planners themselves have to make policy decisions over what will be allowed or what not allowed. Would it have to be a complete replica? Could it be an entirely new design? Does it have to be replaced at all? Could the school simply move somewhere else? If it is to be a complete replica, do you have to use the original materials, or something close to the original materials? Can you change the inside completely, or must it stay faithful to the original? What does faithful to the original mean? Could we just build a replica somewhere else to remember it by? If you go to Nashville in Tennessee, you will see a life-size reconstruction of the ancient Parthenon in Athens, complete with a life-size statue of the goddess Athena – you will see nothing like it on the Acropolis itself!
It is a strange thing to say, perhaps, but buildings, and especially those with historic significance, or particular architectural merit (and indeed what does that mean, by the way?), evoke a strong human emotional response. It is what makes studying ancient buildings such good fun; or being an archaeologist, or being a modern day architect. What is built matters – and at its best a building is not simply a pile of materials, but something which may provoke debate and thought for thousands of years. Indeed, the buildings, and artefacts, of Palmyra drew enough of an emotional response from Khaled al-Assad that he was prepared to die to preserve them.
Various reports in Syria and Russia suggest that groups of western tourists have started visiting Palmyra again in the last couple of months, in order to get the site up and running again. I doubt that many will have Syria as top of their list of places to visit right now, and indeed I cannot find any tourism sites offering the choice just now. But at some stage in the future, I would like to think that I will get there. I am not sure what I will find, or indeed what I will want to find. However, I would like to think that work will still be ongoing to unlock its treasures and to ensure that we continue to build our knowledge of what happened in that amazing place.