LLR Books

The tragedy of Palmyra's fall to ISIS and our role in it



By Robert Rees, commentary

"The glory of the City was the temple of the sun."--Will Durant

Recently ISIS militants, sweeping across the Syrian Desert like a hoard of black locusts, occupied Palmyra, the ancient Syrian city whose origins date from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods.
One of the great cities of the ancient world, Palmyra has stood at the crossroads of various civilizations for millennia and was once the center of a major trade route connecting China, India and Persia with the Roman Empire.
According to UNESCO, the city is distinguished by "a grand, colonnaded street of 1,100 metres' length (which) forms the monumental axis of the city, which links the major public monuments including the Temple of Ba'al, Diocletian's Camp, the Agora, Theatre, other temples and urban quarters."
With a mixture of Persian and Greco-Roman architecture and urban planning, the city retains remnants of what Edgar Allan Poe referred to as "the glory that was Greece,/And the grandeur that was Rome."
What wind, weather and the ravages of time have left standing of that glory and grandeur may soon be hammered into dust and blown to bits by the barbaric forces of ISIS. And we will shake our heads and wonder how such a thing could happen in the 21st century.
But the cause is not that difficult to ascertain.
Two weeks ago, Ivy Ziedrich, a 19-year-old University of Nevada student, boldly stated to presidential hopeful Jeb Bush something that an increasing number of experts as well as the majority of ordinary citizens have come to realize: "Your brother created ISIS."
Although an oversimplification (a lot of people bear responsibility for that disaster), she was right in arguing, "It was when 30,000 individuals who are part of the Iraqi military -- they were forced out. They had no employment, they had no income, yet they were left with access to all the same arms and weapons."
In other words, our immediate and systematic disenfranchisement of the Sunni government and military upon our invasion of Iraq created the conditions for what has happened in the Middle East since as surely as the dragon's teeth sown by Cadmus sprouted into the ferocious spartoi ("sown men") warriors of ancient Greece, unleashing internecine war.
Those responsible for our misbegotten adventure in the Middle East can try to hide behind the inept "mistakes were made" defense, but as a nation we cannot escape the reality that our president and his cohorts deliberately misled Congress and the American people by manufacturing and manipulating intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq.
And now many of those same voices are calling for us to be more engaged, more aggressive, send in more troops, fire more missiles, drop more bombs.
It is almost as if we can't help ourselves. In "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," Chris Hedges argues, "When we ingest the anodyne of war we feel what those we strive to destroy feel, including Islamic fundamentalists who are painted as alien, barbaric and uncivilized. It is the same narcotic."
The architectural wonders that remain of ancient Palmyra, its funerary sculpture, temples and colonnades, its monuments that once rose above the palm and date trees that ornamented that ancient oasis may not survive ISIS -- or our bombing of its occupation -- or some future madness unleased by the dogs of war -- and therefore we may be witnesses of, as Archibald MacLeish writes in his poem, "You, Andrew Marvell,"

... the always coming on
The always rising of the night:
And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on
And deepen on Palmyra's street.
Robert Rees, Ph.D., teaches religious studies at Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley. He also is engaged in addressing malnutrition among children in the developing world.












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