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The name Palmyra, till not so long ago, evoked scenarios of overflowing beauty and deep culture; declared World Heritage by Unesco, the city flourished in antiquity as a staging point for the caravans of merchants and travellers, who were crossing the Syrian desert. It was remarkably developed  between the I and the III centuries after Christ. Therefore, it was nicknamed the ‘Bride of the Desert’. The Greek name of the city, Palmyra, is a faithful translation from the Aramaic original, Tadmor, which means ‘palm’.

Yet, the archaeological site has been under Isis attack for months now, and the barbaric assassination of its ‘guardian’ , the antiquity scholar Khaled Asaad, is yet another hard blow on the ancient Semitic city located in the centre of Syria. The site has fallen prey to the Islamic State on May 20 and since then it has been used as a stage for cruelty and violence. In a video spread at the beginning of July by the NGO National Observatory for Human Rights in Syria (Ondus), are shown dreadful images: twenty five Syrian soldiers made to kneel down; at their back as many young people, teenagers, probably 13 or 14 years of age, who kill them with a blow on the neck. In the meantime, on the steps of the amphitheatre, can be seen hundreds of men in plain clothes who are assisting.

Also that of Khaled al Asaad, 82, one of the greatest Syrian experts in antiquities and the former director of the local archaeological site, was a public execution in a square of Palmyra, attended by dozens of people.

The city is mentioned in the Bible and in the annals of the Assyrian kings, but in particular its history is tied to the queen Zenobia who opposed, according to tradition, both Romans and the Persians. Later, it was incorporated by the Roman Empire. Between the years 293 and 303 Diocletian fortified the city in an attempt to defend it from the Sassanians. It was done by building, inside the defensive walls, to the west of the city, a great camp with a praetorium and a sanctuary for the signs for the I Illyrian Legion.

From the IV century on, news about Palmyra are more and more rare. During the period of Byzantine domination there were built some churches, even if the city had lost importance. In the VI century, the Emperor Justinian reinforced the walls of the site and established there a garrison, because of its strategic importance. Then, under the Arab dominion, the city was ruined.

The archaeological site comprises the Great Colonnade, sanctuary of Bel and that of Nabu, Diocletian Baths, the theatre, and the Agora. Authentic architectural treasures. Founded in 1961 at the entrance of the modern city, the Palmirean museum hosts many findings from the archaeological site, that testify the high degree of sophistication reached by the city’s art.

Out of fear of destruction, hundreds of statues and findings from the Syrian site at 240 km to north-east of Damascus, were transferred to other locations before Isis’ ultimate assault. The Islamic State has, however, razed to the ground two ancient mausoleums near the Roman archaeological site because it was a “symbol of polytheism”. One was that of the sheikh Mohammad Ali. The other ancient Islamic memorial that has been destroyed, is that of Abu Behaeddin, one of Palmyra’s historical figures. The Isis jihadists “consider these Islamic mausoleums to go against faith”, i.e. a form of idolatry, hence they “have prohibited all visits to them”, explained Maamoun Abulkarim, director of antiquities of the Syrian government.

Translated by Ecaterina Severin

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