This is what is now taking place at Syria’s most famous and magnificent classical site, known throughout antiquity by romantic titles such as ‘Bride of the Desert’ or ‘Venice of the Sands’. In recent days, since news broke on 14 May 2015 of ISIS’s surprise attack launched on Palmyra from its headquarters of Raqqa just 100 miles/two hours’s drive to the north, the site has received worldwide attention with outraged cries of horror at the prospect of ISIS smashing the ancient stones to pieces as they have already done in the Iraqi sites of Nimrud, Nineveh, Mosul and Hatra. Almost every media outlet in the world has carried photos of the spectacular 1st, 2nd and 3rd century Roman streets, its temples and its tombs.Standing alone in the middle of the desert, unfenced and unprotected, Palmyra is indeed vulnerable to attack. But take a close look at this photo below: A pair of camels sit awaiting custom in the shade of Palmyra’s monumental entry arch. Behind them is the Temple of Bel, one of the world’s most important religious sanctuaries. But just above the left-hand camel, notice the whitewashed simple building. Originally built as the residence of the Ottoman governor of Palmyra, it functioned in the heady pre-2011 tourist days when Palmyra welcomed thousands of visitors, first as a folklore museum with displays of traditional Bedouin costumes and jewellery, then as the Tourist Reception Centre complete with cafe in the courtyard.
But since 2011 this building has served as the regime’s intelligence (mukhabaraat) headquarters, and it is to here that Assad’s soldiers first fled, after being driven out of their local state security branch in the north of the modern town (known in Arabic as ‘Tadmur’). As fierce fighting raged round the northern security buildings and close to the infamous Tadmur prison in the east, the top regime officials cut their losses and escaped west by road, abandoning their men to the tender mercies of ISIS. Also close by are valuable oil and gas fields, another primary target of ISIS.
Consider for a moment the irony of the situation. While the world’s attention is commanded by the international outcry over the threat to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, they will now learn too of the double life of Palmyra, its modern life under the Assad regime. Palmyra Prison, Syria’s most feared by its citizens, was home for years to men such as Yassin al-Haj Saleh (subject of a 2014 film ‘Syria Our Terrible Country’) and Bara Sarraj (‘From Tadmor to Harvard’ 2011), men who had done nothing to deserve the horrific torture they endured inside the prison. Bara’s unbelievable experience can be digested here:
The prison was closed in 2001 but reopened in 2011 to receive new dissidents of the Revolution. Hundreds if not thousands are once again housed in the buildings originally built as military barracks by French Mandate forces. Once the prison is captured by ISIS, will the inmates join up in gratitude and swell their armies further?
Whereas Assad had hoped to gain kudos by presenting himself to the international community as a protector of Syria’s cultural heritage, the ISIS attack has instead exposed the ruthless accoutrements of his regime. Assad soldiers have been photographed running off with their own booty from the Palmyra site:
They, like ISIS, have always seen such treasures as legitimate ‘spoils of war’, and no one has done more damage to Syria’s cultural heritage than the Assad regime. The difference is that while ISIS broadcasts its damage to the world, the Assad regime keeps it quiet and seeks to blame it on others.
But thanks to the double-sided nature of Palmyra, the world will no longer be fooled.