There’s something grimly inevitable about it. Fighters from the self-styled Islamic State took control of the Syrian town of Palmyra on Wednesday night and ever since the world has been collectively holding its breath, waiting for what now seems a predictable outcome: a video depicting the destruction of the city’s ancient treasures. Islamic State has already destroyed priceless statues and artefacts in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Nimrud, claiming that the ancient treasures represent false idols. There is little evidence to suggest Palmyra will be spared the same fate.
Palmyra is a Unesco World Heritage site largely because of the unusually well-preserved Roman ruins dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries. I visited the city in the spring of 2011 when the entire region was convulsing in the midst of what was already being hailed as the Arab Spring. At that time there were rumblings of discontent in the small towns of Latakia and Dera’a but Syria was largely peaceful: travelling around the country was still possible and tourists like me were still moving around undeterred.
The ancient city rises up out of the barren desert that dominates the central swathe of Syria. The Roman ruins really are breathtaking, particularly The Temple of Bel and the amphitheatre, so well preserved that you can almost imagine the denizens of the ancient city wandering between the pillars 2,000 years ago.
Many people will think it’s perverse to worry about bits of old rock when real living people are suffering so hideously under the oppression of IS. They are, of course, absolutely right. But I also don’t think anyone can stop themselves feeling a certain sense of visceral disgust at the destruction of ancient artefacts and archaeological sites.
The reason for this repulsion is perhaps that what IS are really attacking are not the edifices themselves but rather something deeply human and common to us all: a desire to preserve and remember our history. What IS hope to do is rewrite our collective history and destroy any trace of a heritage that does not align with their own. Protecting the treasures of Palmyra and the rest of the ancient world is a constant and never-ending battle, whereas their destruction takes a matter of minutes. Destruction is easy. But my guess is that IS will falter when it finally tries to build something on the scorched earth it is currently leaving in its wake.
Matt Alagiah is Monocle’s associate editor