Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Syrian city of Palmyra used to attract tourists from across the globe to visit its historic sites. Yet Palmyra and its historic ruins – an integral part of Syria’s cultural and historical heritage – may be the Islamic State’s next victim.
ISIS, who took over Palmyra in May, released a gruesome video on Saturday depicting the killing of dozens of Syrian army soldiers earlier this year. Twenty-five men were executed by teenagers in front of the historic amphitheater. The Assad regime’s planes targeted the city with airstrikes the following day.
Campaigns to protect Palmyra’s historic sites have popped up as fear that ISIS will destroy them grows. In Syria, the prolonged bloodshed has resulted in the destruction of similarly important sites, such as the historic market in Aleppo. Earlier this year, ISIS captured international headlines when its fighters smashed antiquities at the Mosul Museum in Iraq and bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.
For many Syrians, Palmyra evokes memories of a country that now appears to be dissipating into history. Musa, a 33-year-old pharmacist, grew up in Palmyra and used to work as a local tour guide in order to pay his way through university. “I visited the antiquities thousands of times,” he told Syria Deeply. “The old rocks that the Islamic State calls idols enabled me to continue my studies and become a pharmacist.”
Musa speaks warmly of his time as a tour guide, of meeting tourists from across the world and of the intense connection he felt with Palmyra. Yet, when ISIS planted the black flag in the city as it continued its advance across Syria, he says, he realized “it was the end of Palmyra.”
“I felt like I would never see the citadel again,” he said, referring to one of the local sites. “I felt that I would never see tourists roaming the streets of this city with local children following them and trying to get a foreign coin that they could show off to their friends.”
Musa met his wife, who was a student at the University of Damascus at the time, in Palmyra while she was on a school field trip. “I was their tour guide,” he remembered, saying that years later he proposed to her “next to one of the historic columns in the city. I will not see lovers kissing in the middle of the desert anymore.”
His wife Batoul, an archeologist, says they used to celebrate their anniversary each year in the same place he proposed to her in Palmyra. “We won’t be able to celebrate it this year,” she said, sadly. “They [ISIS] don’t let us get anywhere near the antiquities.”
Batoul, who says the columns are “part of Syria’s soul,” is scared for Palmyra’s future. Explaining that soldiers from the Assad regime had already looted much of the city’s historic and cultural heritage, Batoul said: “There is nothing left but these columns, which have been here for thousands of years. They are the heart and soul of the city. If the Islamic State destroys them, the city will not have any memory.” ISIS is motivated by a number of factors. Denouncing pre-Islamic heritage as heretical is only one of the reasons that Palmyra is on the militant group’s radar. For many Syrians, Palmyra was also known for housing one of the Assad regime’s most infamous prisons, Tadmor, which ISIS destroyed with explosives in late May after taking control of the city.
A 2001 report by the international watchdog Amnesty International described the Tadmor prison as “designed to inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners.” Most of the prisoners had already been transferred elsewhere or released, but a handful of them were freed by ISIS fighters when the group took control of Palmyra.
“When I saw the pictures of the prison’s ruins, I burst into tears,” Musa said. “The pain that thousands of prisoners endured cannot be forgotten. I have many friends who have dark memories from inside that prison.”
Nonetheless, Musa says that ISIS should not have destroyed the prison. He argues that the city’s other history should also be preserved. “Our city has a dark history that is filled with horror and death,” he explained. “I was hoping that one day it would be turned into a museum dedicated to the regime’s brutality. What the Islamic State did was a crime that covers up another crime.”
Haj Ahmad, in his late seventies, recalls his own relationship with Palmyra and its ancient history. “We live in an isolated location in this desert,” he told Syria Deeply, “but these columns turned Palmyra into a world of its own.”
“We met people who came from all over the world to see these columns,” he said, warmly. “I used to go visit the old part of the city everyFriday. To me, it represented the constant motion of history and the inevitability of change. Many civilizations passed through this place. Many kingdoms and empires rose and fell here.”
But Haj Ahmad also experienced Palmyra’s darker side firsthand. Imprisoned by the Assad regime for his alleged membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, he spent 23 years in the Palmyra prison. “I was never actually a member of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he explained. “I didn’t meet a member of [the Muslim Brotherhood] for the first time until I was in prison.”
“We [prisoners] shared pain and torture,” he said. “For five years after my release, I was too scared to be anywhere near the prison.” For many Syrians, the mention of Palmyra brings up memories of oppression and torture before heritage and history, Haj Ahmad explains. Like Musa, Haj Ahmad struggles to believe that the Tadmor prison no longer exists. “We used to call that place the Bermuda Triangle,” he said, “because when a person got stuck in there they needed a miracle to get out.”
“Despite all the horror I experienced there, I didn’t want the building destroyed,” Haj Ahmad said. “I dreamed of a free Syria, where the prison is used as an historic witness to all the pain that Syrians suffered through. I wanted to take my grandchildren there and show them where I spent almost a quarter of a century because of a false accusation.”