North Africa, West Asia

Palmyra: Tadmor and a very different heritage

The ancient city of Palmyra is also home to Tadmor prison, and was lost to us long before IS.

Jessica Jacobs
31 May 2015

Palmyra desert. Aiham Dib/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Palmyra, that ancient city once ruled over by Queen Zenobia (one of the few women ever to have held sufficient power to get their head minted on a coin) is once again in the news.

Daesh/ISIS have taken it over and its glorious past—represented by the ruins left behind, which have been lovingly cared for by locals and international organisations alike for thousands of years—is under threat. The rich and magnificent history and heritage of the Middle East is once again at risk. How they managed to occupy this outpost just 200 km from Damascus despite the presence of the US led anti-Islamic State coalition seems to be a mystery. 

Yet while the situation in Palmyra reflects the ongoing destruction of both a state and a glorious history, to Syrians Palmyra has a far less illustrious history. For Palmrya is part of the Syrian town of Tadmor, home to a notorious prison. Housed in a former military barracks originally constructed by French Mandate forces, this prison has been used by the Ba’ath party to contain ‘opinionists’ (political opponents to their regime) since the 1950s.

Yet it was only during Hafez Al-Assad’s presidency that it became synonymous with abuse, torture and killing

Yet it was only during Hafez Al-Assad’s presidency that it became synonymous with the abuse, torture and killing of those who had the misfortune to be interned there. In June 1980 it even became the site of a dreadful massacre when Rifaaz Al-Assad, the younger brother of Hafez (and uncle to Bashar) and his troops entered the prison and killed over a thousand prisoners the day after a failed coup attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The dramatic contrast between the horror and intellectual life of the prison (since it was full of scholars, journalists and literary figures) was compellingly told in Mustafa Khalifa’s literary classic The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer (Al-qawqa’a: yawmiyat mutalassis, published in Arabic in 2008 by Dar Al-Adab Beirut).

Khalifa based the novel on a fellow prisoner, a Christian who returned to Syria from Europe only to be arrested and accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, after spending over 14 years in prison without charge, ten years of those in Tadmor, he was finally released in 1994.

Tadmor prison was closed in 2001 when Bashar Al-Assad became the president of Syria. Yet it could not escape its history and reopened in June 15, 2011, just as the civil war began to threaten Bashar’s grip on the country, when it received 350 people involved in anti-regime demonstrations. Their fate today, or how many others joined them since, is not known.

It is a common question to ask—how did the conflict in Syria happen? And why don’t we seem to care that millions of Syrians have been killed or displaced and their homes destroyed? At least in the UK we don’t care enough to offer them refuge.

Perhaps this grand heritage is one of the reasons for this disconnect: because this amazing cultural heritage is understood more as a link to an idealised ‘European’ origin past, than a contemporary Syria. Our understanding of Syrian heritage is partial. It only contains the historical moments and monuments that tell a tale of antiquity covered with a layer of Judeo-Christian myth. ‘Biblical’ Levant, ‘Antiquity’ with selected Crusaderised Islamic sights.

Our emotional imaginative geography of the region arrives via a late nineteenth and early twentieth century ‘colonial gateway,’ where the region is presented as a series of places first discovered or ‘opened up’ by western archaeologists and adventure explorers.

This process is even more strongly embedded in tourist practice through the experience and consumption of the places and routes these travellers stayed in and journeyed through. Until 2011, Syria was the place you can stay in a hotel where Lawrence once slept and from there travel out to visit a landscape presented as ‘the land of crusader castles’ (Jacobs, 2005).

This selective nostalgic history of colonial heritage relies on a notion of what McClintock called anachronistic space. Basically we reify the idea of natural progress within modernity and start to equate geographical differences across space with ‘historical difference across time’. Once the landscape is placed in the past and used to justify the present, it is very easy to do the same to the inhabitants.

The spacialisation of time means that tourists, like the Victorian pioneers that kickstarted tourism to the region, are actively producing knowledges based upon a perceived lack of ‘coevalness’ between them and the host society. Once we have done this, we can care a little less for them. For they are not like us.

We have imagined Syria as an ancient place for many years. While this has encouraged an affection and even sense of ownership of the landscape, it has never helped the people, who were locked down in a society that couldn’t change.

Tourism to Syria was formed by the idea we should go and see it before they become like us

Much in the same way that tourism to Cuba is based on the idea that we should go and marvel at the crumbling buildings and old cars from a bygone era, so was tourism to Syria formed by the idea we should go and see it before they become like us. Here tourism is based on the voyeuristic gaze and excitement at the prospect of navigating a landscape that is somehow out of time and place of modernity. A lack of coevalness creates a disconnect, so we care more about the furniture of a country because of what it symbolises for our past.

This is why the people of Syria don’t matter as much as their buildings. No where more so that in the Old City of Damascus, which before the current conflict was the place to visit for its unique collection of over 30,000 beautiful courtyard houses that were restored as cafes, hotels and bars or could be rented so cheaply.

It quickly became an amazing stage of consumption of the past for tourists and foreign language students offering a happy nostalgic stroll through times gone by, unhindered by the state apparatus—except that even then they had an office directly behind the statue of Salahadin in the Old City Walls, there were regular public hangings in Aleppo, and the nearby courthouse regularly entertained ordinary Syrians who arrived stuffed in the boots of cars, and then were shackled together in chains.

Back in February 2013, Maamoun Abdel-Karim, director of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) confidently reported that most of the artefacts have been removed in advance and are being held in secure places. Two years later in April of this year, he told the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, of his fears that one of these stores in Idlib was now being emptied and thousands of artefacts were leaving the country via Turkey and Lebanon.

These artefacts, according to Foreign Policy are then sold to middlemen who exchange them for weapons and then sell them on to foreign buyers. This is an activity that all sides are participating in.

It might be that many of these treasures—treasures for humanity—have not exactly been lost, but will end up in the homes of wealthy Gulf, European and North American collectors. Some even say that many of these artefacts are already reproductions, as so many treasures were trafficked out of the country before the conflict started.

In the Pergamon Islamic museum in Berlin, their centrepiece is the Gate of Babylon, dedicated to the Goddess Ishtar and built by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th Century BC. The gate was removed from Iraq brick by brick by the archaeologist Robert Koldewey in the 1930s. Other parts of the walls can be found in Istanbul, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Paris, Chicago, Rhode Island, Vienna, Detroit, Boston, Yale and London. 

Should we be surprised then if the Syrian generals have already removed the most iconic heart of Palmyra, the Temple dedicated to the god Bel? It’s a question of heritage.

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