After the wanton destruction it suffered between 2015 and 2017, Palmyra seems to have returned to the silence that has shrouded it for many centuries.
ISIS had captured the old caravan city, destroyed the main monuments and murdered Khaled al-As’ad, the director of the archaeological site for nearly half a century. After the jihadists were expelled, what is left behind are piles and piles of rubble: broken columns, shattered architectural elements and the realization that nothing will go back to the way it was before.
It’s not even possible to contemplate the peaceful sky anymore in Syria, as the war lights up the nights with missiles and bombs.
It is said that the archaeological heritage is itself one of hundreds of thousands of victims of the conflict, and even if crying over damaged stones seems an outrageous thing to do, remembering them serves to preserve the memory of an ancient people.
This was also the intention of Maria Teresa Grassi with her book Palmira: Storie straordinarie dell’antica metropoli d’Oriente (“Palmyra: Extraordinary Stories from the Ancient Metropolis of the Orient” – Terrasanta, 160 pages, €16). The book offers an audience of non-specialists the opportunity to relive the uniqueness of the Bride of the Desert.
The author, a professor of archeology of the Roman provinces at the University of Milan, is familiar with the site, having led a research project there between 2007-2010, in collaboration with Waleed al-As’ad, Khaled’s son.
The book has an easy-to-follow structure, with a division into thematic chapters bearing catchy titles.
After the historical summary in the introduction, there is a short portrait of Giovanni Battista Borra, the Piedmontese architect who in 1751, after being hired as a guide for two wealthy kids doing the Grand Tour to take them out exploring the Levant, drew the first magnificent sights from Palmyra, later published in the famous book by Robert Wood, The Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tadmor, in the Desert. The story of the ancient Hellenistic-Roman city then proceeds between descriptions of monuments—the Via Colonnata, the Temples of Bêl and Baalshamin (blown up by ISIS), the funerary towers (now severely damaged by explosives after being plundered)—and slices of daily life in the ancient oasis: commerce, rituals and political intrigue.
Particularly striking is the section where Grassi describes the funerary portraits—around 3,000 have been catalogued so far—which show us the faces, the clothes and the jewelry of the inhabitants of Palmyra.
Finally, it was impossible not to have a section dedicated to Zenobia, whom the author calls “queen,” a title that has been challenged by scholars such as Maurice Sartre and Annie Sartre-Fauriat.
Even if the wife of Odenatus—a powerful member of the elite, loyal to Rome—was never actually a monarch, after the death of her husband she dared to face the Romans with the ambition to proclaim herself Empress of the East.
A heroine to the rebels of the past, in modern times Zenobia has become a symbol of the struggle against colonizers everywhere.
Setting aside ideological issues, and scientific debates that have no place in writing aimed primarily at the general public, Maria Teresa Grassi’s Palmyra is a now-impossible journey through one of the most extraordinary sites of the Mediterranean, a World Heritage site since 1980.
When peace finally returns to this patch of land which is under fire today, an important challenge will await the new generations: to heal the city’s wounds and to bring back to light the stories that, together with the Syrian people, are now just hanging on.
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