Friday, 15 May 2015


Twitter was alive last night with messages from the many panic-stricken, warning of ISIS's march on the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria: the latest UNESCO World Heritage Site to be threatened. The potential destruction of this precious 2,000 year-old city is being described as 'a human catastrophe'.
'If they enter the city,' warned a spokesman, 'it will mean the destruction of temples, ruins, tombs.'

We have seen already the demolition of archaeological sites in neighbouring Iraq, including those at Mosul, Nimrud and Hatra.The Islamic State lot are said to believe that ancient relics promote idolatry, and must be obliterated. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has denounced the attacks as 'a war crime.' Others have warned that it heralds the 'destruction of civilisation'.


I sometimes think it incredible that any man-made constructions from the ancient world have survived. I've gazed at the pyramids at Giza, and the Sphinx, and have wondered; the temples at Karnak and Tutankhamun's tomb, same. The cracked, crumbling relics in the Cairo museum are disintegrating by the day, because the conditions in which they are kept deny them long-term preservation. Sad but true. In Athens, the Parthenon shakes, but is not exactly a priority, given their economy right now. I happen to think we were right not to hand them back the Elgin Marbles. Meanwhile, Rome's Colosseum, and other monuments in the Eternal City, are said to be next on the hit-list ...

On a British Council tour of Syria,Iraq and Jordan some years ago, with a band from Newcastle called Hurrah!, we visited the ruins of Babylon, where the legendary Hanging Gardens are less than a memory; hung out in Baghdad and cavorted for the camera at the Arc of Triumph; rode donkeys into beyond-ancient Petra,the so-called 'rose-red city half as old as time'. Such a casual 'cultural' expedition would be rightly unthinkable now.

Most of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - the aforementioned Hanging Gardens, Olympia's statue of Zeus, Artemis's Temple at Ephesus, the Halicarnassus Mausoleum, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria - are but dust in the sands of long ago. Only the Great Pyramid in Egypt from the classic list of Wonders remains. It is widely assumed that those Wonders existed simultaneously, but you would have needed a Tardis to see them all at once. A
ll that remain of them are mouldering etchings. No digital technology back then.

Meanwhile, the Great Wall snakes majestically across China, not quite visible from outer space as has always been claimed. Venice wobbles on the brink. Stonehenge stands strong while Everest shakes, the antique culture of Nepal destroyed in a beat.

All these ancient sites have suffered in turn the effects of war and weather, geology and nature, pillaging and looting, neglect, and time. Most of all, time. They will all, eventually, be nothing. At least we have the photos and films, and will always know that they were there, and what humankind was and is capable of.

But that's the point, isn't it? Mankind? Actual people? While the loss of irreplaceable monuments is lamentable, it's not tragic. Who is doing the headcount,keeping score of the executions? Sad though monumental destruction is, how can murder and barbarism be compared to it? 

Always something there to remind me. I have a ticket stuck to my office wall, from the last time I stood with my kids on top of the World Trade Center in New York, not long before before 9/11. Those gravity-challenging edifices and the many that surrounded them are gone. Others have replaced them. Life goes on. So what, a bunch of buildings. The ghosts of the thousands who perished remain the tragedy.

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