The Destruction of Palmyra – the Pagan Temple of Baal Shamin
Illustration by Lottie Handley
As the mushroom cloud rises once again, in the middle, at its feet stand four columns – all that remain of the 2,000 year old temple of Baal Shamin. Their tranquility sustains before the fury of explosive destruction. There is a harsh contrast between antique creation and modern demolition. It shows the imagination of the human mind at the polar opposites of its capability.
One of the greatest cities in the ancient world, Palmira stood at the stylistic crossroads of connection between East and West; these structures and their Greco-Roman style reflect the the intertextuality of Eastern and Western cultures that existed when they were built. A kind of integration that is being deconstructed constant choler of extremist beliefs. So far, reaction to the this devastation have been despair at this extreme cruelty. The iconic significance of Palmyra has given the event a unique shock factor.
This is a transparent attempt to taunt the West into action. The recognition of ISIS as an enemy to the West, by extension, frames the West as an enemy of Islam. Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe and men have stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Islamic State aspires to be the catalyst to restart these wars, and they make this clear through broadcasting their crimes across the internet.
It is a macabre marketing campaign. Islamic State sees Palmira’s temples predominantly as part of a polytheistic culture and consequently the contention that it has with these statues is that they are a threat to their dominance and their rhetoric. Islamic State wants to show its audience that it is fulfilling its religious duty by destroying ‘unreligious’ objects. Like any totalitarian state wanting to keep its position of power it must be willing to repress, destroy, and remove any opposition in order to keep its ideological authority. Their theistic belief is in some sense totalitarian in that it provides them with a supervisor they cannot be rid of. ISIS stating that they have ‘God on their side’ in their eyes justifies committing any crime often with a certain degree of sadism, self-righteousness, and contentment.
It may be easy to trivialise the devastation of Palmyra’s history, or to categorise it as an act that simply joins the line of all the other atrocities that Islamic State has committed. However, to do so would be an oversight. Destroying the temple was a symbolic act, to show Islamic State’s dedication to its ideology. It cannot be justified as a necessary war crime. The destruction of Palmyra cannot be morally or strategically justified. It was committed because Palmyra is a religious and historical site and so continues the war between religions. But this time, it was a culture long died out. Through the downfall of Palmyra, Islamic State has achieved a type of retroactive ethnic cleansing of historical memories.