From the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel to the magnificent Tomb of the Three Brothers: The ancient wonders inside Palmyra that ISIS will destroy or sell for millions to fund their evil empire
21 May 2015
- Stunning ruins now in clutches of jihadists after fierce overnight clashes
- City is architectural jewel of Middle East and crossroads of ancient world
- List of wonders includes world-renowned funerary sculptures and statues
- Appears inevitable ISIS will desecrate it as they did ancient sites in Iraq
An array of magnificent treasures from one of the ancient world's most important cultural centres stand to be destroyed or sold to fund the evil empire of ISIS.
The stunning ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria are now reportedly in the clutches of jihadists after pro-government forces withdrew and 100 fighters were killed in overnight clashes and left beheaded bodies lying in the streets.
ISIS first threatened to take the city, an architectural jewel of the Middle East, a week ago when clashes with forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad took place barely a mile from its gates.
But now the world is having to face the full horror of what having the terrorists in control of the UNESCO World Heritage site is going to mean for this remarkable crossroads of the ancient world.
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An oasis in the Syrian desert 150 miles north-east of the capital Damascus, Palmyra was once a great city at the confluence of several civilizations, its architecture marrying Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.
First spoken of in the 2nd millennium BC, it was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the middle of the first century AD as part of what was then the Roman province of Syria.
Palmyra grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire.
According to UNESCO, it offers the 'consummate example of an ancient urbanized complex', with its 'grand colonnaded street of 1,100 metres in length forming the monumental axis of the city'.
Palmyra's other outstanding features are its magnificent temples of Baal and Bel, the Camp of Diocletian Roman military complex and its imposing triumphal arch at the entrance of the main street.
The city is particularly well known for its unique funerary sculptures and statues - special because they combine Greco-Roman forms with local elements and Persian influences in a highly original style.
British historian and novelist Tom Holland told CNN the site has 'an extraordinary fusion of classical and Iranian influences intermixed with various Arab influence as well.'
He added: 'This isn't just about Middle Eastern history, these are the wellsprings of the entire global culture.
'Mesopotamia, Iraq, Syria, this is the wellspring of global civilization. It really couldn't be higher stakes in terms of conservation.'
Syria's antiquities chief Mamoun Abdulkarim claims hundreds of statues and artefacts from Palmyra's museum have been transferred out of the city.
Activists said the regime had transported some of the artefacts to Damascus and Hama, but most of the city’s wealth of antiquities is either too heavy to carry or consists of ancient buildings.
Some may also have been hidden by a band of 'Monuments Men' made up of local archaeologists and enthusiasts set up to protect what they can of the city's treasures and thousands of others at risk across Syria.
But many others, including the dozens of massive tombs at the site, are simply too big to be moved, while there are treasures yet to be excavated which ISIS may simply dig up and loot.
The group infamously destroyed much of the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud, ransacked Mosul's central museum and bulldozed an entire Shiite shrine in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
ISIS regard all pre-Islamic relics as undermining their faith and those depicting human forms as idolatrous.
But as well as ruining sites, the militants have made many millions from selling artefacts or taxing the looters and diggers who make money smuggling them over the Syrian and Iraqi borders to buyers abroad.
Last year, an Iraqi intelligence official claimed ISIS had made as much as $36million from looting a single area around al-Nabek, a Syrian city that contains several early Christian sites.
It is impossible to tell how much they could make from Palmyra according to Amr Al Azm, an associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio and an expert of Syrian antiquities.
But given the al-Nabek figure and the treasures which could still be at Palmyra, 'intensive looting of the site is likely to net ISIS millions', he told MailOnline.
The funds will then be used to buy more weapons and supplies and fuel the growth of the group's so-called caliphate.
The ancient treasures of Palmyra under threat from ISIS
TEMPLE OF BEL: UNIQUE CENTRE OF RELIGIOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT PALMYRA
Dedicated in 32 AD, the Temple of Bel ranks among the most important buildings in the ancient world.
It encapsulates much of Palmyra’s history and culture and occupies one of the oldest and most important religious sites in the Middle East.
Its architecture, blending eastern and western influences, reflects Palmyra’s multi-centered culture rooted in the traditions of both the ancient Mediterranean and Orient.
According to David Amott and Dr Cynthia Finlayson at the Department of Art History at Brigham Young University in Utah, 'the ancient Palmyrenes made Temple Bel a unique sanctuary that both reflected the city’s heritage and honored the principle God of their pantheon.
'The temple also helped to foster unity within the city itself by creating a central meeting place to gather Palmyra’s many tribes together for civic and religious purposes.'
It includes a large and complex outer wall called a Temanose, an inner sanctuary or cella, a sacrificial alter and ramp, imitating the layout used at many Mesopotamian and Semitic shrines.
Bel the ruler of the heavens, the protector of caravans, and the god of fertility and human destiny, was considered to be the most important of Palmyrene gods.
Thought to trace back to the Babylonian god Tammuz who symbolized death and rebirth in nature, Bel was often compared to Zeus or Jupiter as Greco-Roman influences grew at Palmyra.
Professor Al Azm says the temple could be the 'poster child' for ISIS to destroy as it is impossible to break up and sell its many fine features.
Funerary sculptures and statues
In Palmyra, funerary sculpture was the dominant form, coming from any of the several tombs that surrounded the city.
Such sculptures were placed in the tombs, or 'house[s] of eternity', as the Palmyrenes called them.
Mummified bodies were laid on rectangular shelves and sealed off by a sculpture depicting the deceased.
The sculptures served to close off the burial niches in the wall of the tomb, each sculpture representing a person deceased, often mentioned by name in Aramese inscriptions.
The men usually wear Roman garb, whereas the women are dressed in local, eastern robes.
Many of the sculptures and statues are already stored in museums around the world but those which haven't been removed to safety from Palmyra could be major money-spinners for ISIS, worth 'tens of thousands' depending on how well they are preserved, according to Professor Al Azm.
TEMPLE OF BAAL SHAMIN: MONUMENT TO THE PHOENICIAN GOD OF STORMS
Dedicated in 131 AD the temple of Baal Shamin has been called Palmyra's most significant surviving temple other than that of Bel.
Along with Bel, Baal Shamin was one of the two supreme gods and the sky god of pre-Islamic Palmyra.
He was the Phoenician god of storms and fertilising rains and the Temple of Baal Shamin is all that remains of a much larger compound.
The small shrine stands alone 200m north of the main colonnaded street in what was a residential area of the ancient city.
Baal Shamin was an import, like Bel, who only really gained popularity in Palmyra when Roman influence was at its height.
Fronting the temple, the six columns of the vestibule have platforms for statues, and carry inscriptions.
The column on the far left has an inscription in Greek and Palmyrene that praises the secretary of the city for his generosity during the imperial visit of 'the divine Hadrian' and for footing the bill for the temple's construction.
The frescoes at the Hypogeum Of The Three Brothers
The word Hypogeum literally means 'underground goddess of earth' and usually refers to a subterranean temple or tomb.
This example is an underground family burial chamber and the door is approached down a long, modern ramp and is ornately carved.
Inscriptions record that it was established by the three brothers, Male, Saadai and Naamain in the middle of the second century AD.
There are three arms radiating from a focal point by the door, each with recesses on either side in which were placed six loculi.
There are 65 recesses in all, providing accommodation for generations of the family.
Some of the painted plaster frescoes portray the story of the Abduction of Ganymede, a favourite theme in Hellenistic times.
The colouring has survived incredibly well and the state of the frescoes is remarkably good.
There is another series in the Greco-Syrian style dating from the early third century AD, which once again shows the blending of Hellenistic and Oriental styles which mark Palmyra out.
THE TRIUMPHAL ARCH CELEBRATING ROMAN EMPEROR'S VICTORY IN WAR
The monumental arch across the main street of Palmyra became the symbol of the city as soon as the first illustrations of its ruins were published in England in 1753.
The arch was built at the time of Emperor Septimius Severus, probably to celebrate the emperor's victories over the Parthians.
An unusual aspect of the arch is that it was designed in order to minimize the effect of a 30 degree angle in the long colonnaded street which crossed the town.
The lateral arches were duplicated and given a different orientation so that overall the arch seems to be perfectly perpendicular to the street on both sides.
It has an elaborate decoration, typical of that period, and similar to that which can be seen at Leptis Magna, the birthplace of the emperor.
The construction of the main colonnaded street, as well as of many other monuments of Palmyra, was financed by donations from its wealthiest citizens either individually or collectively.
In return the donors were allowed to place a small statue of themselves on a pedestal placed at two thirds of the height of the columns.
Diocletian's Camp: A turning point in the history of Palmyra
This 'camp', dating from the late third to early fourth century AD, was built by Sosianus Hierocles, Governor of Syria under the emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305) in the period following the defeat of Zenobia (see below).
It reflects Palmyra's change in status from a powerful and largely independent trading city to a military outpost of the Roman Empire.
Following the Roman reconquest, the city was re-fortified with a new set of city walls enclosing a much smaller area.
It lost its former importance as a semi—independent trading centre, instead becoming a key military outpost, reflected in Palmyra's virtual disappearance from historical literature.
The area known today as the Camp of Diocletian was a group of buildings that spanned an area of four hectares (9.9 acres) in an enclosure in the western end of the city.
It was built on a hill separated from the town proper by a small wall. The hill was located at the far end of the city's Grand Colonnade from the Temple of Bel.
The complex was designed and built between 293 and 305 CE and may have contained barrack rooms for soldiers.
HISTORY OF PALMYRA AND THE REBELLIOUS QUEEN WHO DEFIED ROME
Palmyra was once the seat of Queen Zenobia, who ruled over the Palmyrene empire in the 3rd century.
She expanded its reach, conquering, expelling and then beheading the Roman prefect in Egypt.
Zenobia ruled over Egypt until 271, when she was defeated and taken as a hostage to Rome by Emperor Aurelian.
The queen claimed descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt and was a descendent of Cleopatra.
Palmyrene statues and reliefs on civic buildings and in tombs, depict women sporting distinctive hairstyles, clothing and jewellery.
The city was a staging post along the Silk Road for camel caravans plying between Antioch on the Mediterranean and Doura Europos on the Euphrates.
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