“The most effective way to destroy people, is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell
In December 2016 ISIS retook the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and began the systematic destruction of its temples and magnificent buildings.
A soldier is stretching up into the needle like fronds of a palm tree and picking at something hidden by the foliage, the tree is heavy with a bunch of fruits hanging like huge ancient sundried grapes the colour of old leather, but they are dates, he hands a few to me. They are sweet and taste of the sun and of sand.
In the distance gun shots can be heard. I flinch, my shoulders twitch. The soldier in turn shrugs his own shoulders and continues to eat the dates.
I had not invited him on my early morning walk, he had found me, or had I found him? I cannot tell for although it seemed a strange place to meet a soldier, it now with the sound of the gun fire seemed completely acceptable.
I showed him a photo of a desert strawberry tree in my guide book. He smiled and nodded and walked me to the rim of the oasis of date palms. I was sweating heavily by then but the effort was rewarded with a strawberry tree. A cacti tree with red fruit like a strawberry. I smiled, he smiled, pleased that he had had made me smile.
The sun was appearing across the desert landscape, the sky had gone from indigo blue, to purple and would soon be burnt the colour of oranges before the sun was clear above in what would be the bluest of heavens.
And then would come the heat, which I was trying so desperately to escape. But for now we walked back along the Colonnade, my feet tracing the steps that once Zenobia had most certainly taken. Shadows retreated and advanced as we walked.
Zenobia the warrior queen, she who took on the Roman Empire. But ultimately the might of Rome destroyed her. There are paintings of her being dragged back to Rome, head bowed. But I wonder if this was just propaganda. That she had in fact needed to be dragged back screaming and kicking.
Yesterday as I had walked round the city with my Syrian guide he had said when the words Roman city was mentioned, “This is not a Roman city this is a Syrian city.”
And when he spoke of Zenobia it was as if he was talking fondly of a distant Aunt. The kind when you heard reports of her escapades you are secretly proud.
Zenobia, even the name has morphed into “xenophobic”. Somebody who has a hatred or mistrust of someone not of their land or of their religion. And yet Zenobia had a great tolerance of religious minorities in her city.
It was as if even in the 2nd Millennium BC, history was rewritten to ensure that a woman was erased from all the books on bravery, was even described as rejecting her sacred Palmyra but it was not so, she ultimately was the victim of manipulation and cowardice from the rulers of Rome. A Rome ruled by men, but with women manipulating events through sex and children.
The brickwork of the ancient remains were the colour of burnt apricots and seemed to be absorbing the faint rays of the advancing sun, and then there was the soft bleating of goats. The sound became louder and was accompanied by the gentle hissing of a child encouraging the flock to continue walking. The udders of the female goats wrapped in plastic bags where already droplets of condensation were forming from the animal’s heat inside the bags.
The soldier stopped to light a cigarette. He offered it to me. I shook my head at him. He gave a noncommittal shrug. He inhaled deeply on the cigarette. We continued to walk to the end of the colonnade. I wrapped a cerise scarf round my head to protect myself from the already blazing sun and placed my sun glasses on my nose, deflecting the glare.
The Syrian Desert was still the colour of muted heather in an autumn England. High on a hill a few miles outside of the city was an Arab castle. I would have like to climb up to it but knew it would be too arduous a trek in this heat.
So far my companion and I had spoken very little. We continued our stroll, meandering though the Temple of Nebo, the god of oracles, of wisdom and of writing. And the gun shots were closer. I glanced through my sunglasses nervously but the soldier seemed unperturbed by the noise as did the little goat shepherd and his flock.
Only me, the tourist seemed bothered by the sound of gun fire. A cloud of dust rose up across the purple landscape. The land of Jiins, magician people were travelling across the desert. Genii from the lamps were running amok.
Sand rose up in a small whirl and I breathed in the heat and the dust. I felt the gravel in my mouth and my throat.
I glanced across to the hills and thought I caught a glint of metal. Reflections similar to when a few days before we had been driving along the border between Lebanon and Syria. I was sure I had seen men sitting with guns directed at Syria, but had persuaded myself this was not the case.
The sound of distant engines that drew closer and then the site of men in 4 x4’s. Some sitting atop of the vehicles, guns cradled like babies across their arms. Cloth wrapped round their heads, and like me they were sporting sun glasses. By the looks of them I suspect more designer then mine which I had got from Specsavers. Dark sun burned skin, and cigarettes hanging casually from their mouths. They had an air of aggression to them.
A feeling of unease crept into my stomach. Although Palmyra had once been on the caravan trail for merchants and travellers, that, my history book told me was in the second millennium BC, this was now the 21st century AD, July 2011.
The Arab Spring in Tunisia had come and gone. The March protests here in Syria had also seemed to end before they really began. As I had journeyed round Syria the country seemed relaxed and a silence hung in the air that felt like peace.
The vehicles violently stopped, their tyres vomiting stones up into the air. And then a moment of calm. Before the men all jump down on nimble feet and knees, brandishing their guns.
The soldier spoke gently to them, but even I could see they were not placated. He seemed to fall before the gun had even been fired, but of course I know that was not true, that was just my memory playing tricks on me.
Warriors of the past and the present converge at the cross roads of this city, like once merchants and travellers would stop to discuss the latest news. East meeting West. I gaze up to the relic of the funerary temple and hear the sound of the fronds of a palm clicking in the breeze.
I look away from the soldier on the ground. My vision blurs and the ground feels like it is moving under my feet. I stop breathing trying not to believe what has happened.
And the sun beats down like a blood orange seeping life from the ground. I breathe once again and the pain almost takes my breath away. I do not run, I cannot hide.
I wait for the shot to kill me. My eyes are hidden by my tortoise shell sunglasses. Hopefully they will not see in my eyes what I am really thinking. I look up along the colonnade, high on the hill is the castle I will never walk to. There are worse places to die I think.
One of the young men stands close to me and snatches my glasses away, for a moment he flinches. And I wonder what it is that has shocked him. Anger, contempt, resignation, cowardice? What does he see?
I think to myself will they shoot me straight through my heart like they have the soldier? Or will mine be a slow death? Will the first bullet hit my shoulder? Will my knee caps be blown open and I have to drag myself to where? I resign myself to the fact that I will have a slow death, but decide I will not drag myself anywhere, I will die under the shadow of the row of apricot pillars of the colonnade. Or will the Temple of Nebo be my silent and ancient witness?
How apt that would be? A writer bleeding to death at the steps of the God of wisdom and of writing. I will hear the flap, flap of the palm trees fighting the wind. I will die in a place of beauty. I brace myself for a slap or the sound of a bullet. Perhaps like the soldier I will fall before the bullet hits me.
But they leave me standing by the soldier’s body. A look of derision on all their faces. Some laughing. But the man who took my glasses off and looked into my eyes does not laugh and as the vehicle he climbed atop of drives away he turns back to look at me – no derision on his face, something else, confusion perhaps. I do not know for he is too far away for me to read his face.
When the last vehicle has disappeared out of sight an elderly man appears from out from one of the pillars of the colonnade. On rickety legs and an equally rickety stick he walks towards me and beckons me to follow him.
I follow, and as I do the boy shepherd runs towards us, his goats momentarily without a leader wander towards rocks where desert plants have sprouted. The goats nibble at the stems.
I am taken to the one café nearby, where the old man explains what has happened to the prorpeitor. In true Syrian style food and coffee and water is placed in front of me. I feel no need to eat but drink the cardamom laced coffee. My hands shake as I draw the cup to my mouth.
Soon more soldiers will appear to take the soldier away. I assume I will be questioned, the only witness myself and perhaps the old man who appeared as if from Hades.
Now Palmyra often called the Venice of the Sands, an oasis of date palms and gardens has gone. Like Ozymandias- look on the works of ISIS and despair. The Temple of Ba’al, one of the iconic symbols of ancient Syria, destroyed and reduced to rubble. Zenobia may still haunt the rocks and colonnades of her once beautiful city but it is now a mere shadow of what had stood the test of time until 2011.
I was to learn that within weeks of the soldier being shot in cold blood. The organization that spread fear, hatred and blood shed through the Middle East and eventually to Europe, destroyed anything cultured in Syria and worse killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
They had resurrected a medieval philosophy and run amok through the landscape of the 21st century. A landscape as old as murder was once again drenched in blood. With total impunity ISIS tried to rewrite history.
But many like me remember. Like me those with eyes saw and have waited. Those that survived will not rewrite history the way these men want it to be rewritten, ISIS will fall and be nothing more than a record mentioned in a history book full of better deeds then brutality and madness.
Perhaps Palmyra will rise again if only to her knees. Her slender arches may not reach into the blue heavens again. But memory is now perfectly captured in photos. ISIS cannot take this way. ISIS have said Syria is not for the Syrians, Iraq is not for the Iraqis. And yet I remember my Syrian guide saying with pride, “Palmyra is not Roman it is Syrian”. “Zenobia was a warrior Queen who tolerated all religions. She was not a Roman Queen she was a Syrian Warrior.”
Sometimes in the cool of a summer night when a breeze blows through my open window I dream of Palmyra. I remember the soldier picking dates from the ancient palm trees. I was told days after his murder, he often walked through Palmyra in the early morning. Before being a soldier he had studied ancient Syrian history at University. To him there was nowhere more beautiful then Palmyra in the world. He had said he wanted to be buried at the site of the Theatre.
“All man’s deeds are seen by someone higher, all man’s words are heard by someone better. Yes our cities are built for Allah to see but that is not what we will be judged by. People remember, they pass their stories onto to others. Good deeds, good words. That is how the world will remember.”
He did not get that wish to be buried by the theatre but I hope that perhaps his soul rest nearby.
Last night I dreamt of Palmyra. And I wrote one story, one that with photos may not be destroyed. That one man will not be remembered just as soldier but as a Syrian, a man of learning and of compassion.
I feel the hot desert wind caress my cold skin. I can see a strawberry tree standing as reaching towards heaven, blood red shoots heavy on the branches. A solitary soldier is walking through the old theatre, along the colonnades towards the temple. The only sound is the palm leaves clacking in the wind.