by Ryan Trueblood and Ben Middendorf
Often times, events in the Middle East seem distant and there is usually no personal connection with these events.
However, Concordia has a connection to Palmyra, Syria, a city that has gained worldwide publicity after recent attacks on the temples of Bel and Baalshamin as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria moves through Syria. Concordia’s Professor of Theology Dr. Mark Meehl has been to Palmyra and walked among the ancient temples built during the first century.
In 1987, Meehl participated in an archaeological dig in northeastern Syria as a graduate student. On his journey back to Damascus by bus, he stopped in the ancient city of Palmyra, in central Syria, as a tourist.
“It was just me and the Syrians,” Meehl said in an interview, remembering the town with fondness. Situated next to an oasis and along a caravan route, the city was a booming place in first century, according to Meehl.
“The temples give you a sense of the wealth and size
of the city” he said, referring to the temples of Bel and Baalshamin. These temples are thousands of years old and have been restored by Syrian archaeologists.
Since Meehl’s trip, Syria has become embroiled in a civil war between President Basharal-Assad, various rebel groups, and the militant organization known as ISIS. Palmyra has been only one of the many casualties in this conflict.
In August, ISIS militants planted barrels of explosives inside the temple of Baalshamin and lit the fuse. The once spectacular and well-preserved ruins were reduced to mere piles of rubble. Images released by ISIS and satellite footage show the extent of the destruction.
Recently, ISIS also destroyed the larger temple of Bel, which, according to Meehl, bore similarities to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Only the entrance archway remains of the 2,000-years-old temple. Tower tombs on the outskirts of the area have also been destroyed.
“It’s just so sad,” Meehl said. “They are just people living there. That is why this is such a tragedy. This really hits home because I have been there and now it is gone.”
Aside from losing a significant religious and historical site, the area will now suffer even greater loss since it relies on tourism to provide its largest source of income.
ISIS also added the destruction and sale of antiquities to its list of violent actions. Antiquities that are stolen from sites like Palmyra are sold on the black market to help fund ISIS.
The destruction of the temples is designed to keep the world’s attention on ISIS without as many publicized executions.
Unfortunately, in the case of Palmyra, ISIS’s savagery was also apparent. After refusing to divulge the location of antiquities to ISIS, the 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded and his body hung from a lamppost.
“He was a real ‘small-town historian,’ devoted to the temples, and always ready to give tours to visitors,” Meehl said.
Stopping the purchase of the antiques from ISIS could slow the momentum of the militant group as it works its way through the Middle East.
Archaeologists have played an important role on reporting on and confirming the destruction of sites like Palmyra through the use of satellites. The future of Syria is unknown and actions of ISIS are difficult to predict.
“There is no easy solution and no end in sight,” Meehl said.
As the temples lie in ruin, those fortunate enough to have seen the temples while they were intact can look back fondly on their experiences in the once great city.