ISIS’s ideological idiocy threatens the ancient majesty of Palmyra

Camel riders pass stone pillars, a relic of the Roman Empire, in the desert city of Palmyra, central Syria (PA)

The news from Syria continues to be awful. We have been informed by one of their Bishops that the people of Aleppo are losing hope and more recently that ISIS have come close to capturing Palmyra. Palmyra may in fact be safe for the moment, but we should not forget that the enemies of the regime have recently conquered Idlib.

This is the second time they have taken the city, control of which is hugely important, as Idlib guards the heartland of Alawite Syria to its west. If the regime cannot protect its most faithful adherents, what future does it have? Given their inability to break the near-siege of Aleppo, and the huge casualties they seem to be taking, one might be led to assume that the regime is crumbling. If that is the case, despite the horrors we have already seen, there may be worse to come.

The threat to Palmyra causes a collective shudder in all who love our heritage. The significance of the site is great, but more than that, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. After all, not all archaeological sites are aesthetically pleasing – some look like building sites. But Palmyra is breathtaking, as well as being historically important. (You can read a good overview here.)

We know what ISIS would do if they got their hands on Palmyra: the same thing that the Taliban did to the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, and that ISIS have already done to Nimrud in Iraq. And let us not forget the way in which the Saudi government has systematically destroyed everything that is old in the Hijaz.

Islamic fundamentalists hate anything old and beautiful, it seems, and the reasons for this are ideological. They believe in something they call “The Age of Ignorance”. The trouble with this belief is that it is erroneous. There never was an age of ignorance. Palmyra’s ruins contradict the belief that there was an age of ignorance, given that they predate Muhammad. So, Palmyra, and everything else that predates Islam, and that suggests that there is such a thing as pre-Islamic and non-Islam civilisation, must go.

So the desire that ISIS, the Taliban and the Saudi government have to destroy the relics of the past is not simply because they have no taste: it is ideological and based on their concept of revelation. For the revelation to Muhammad means all that came before is to be dismissed as worthless and the product of “ignorance”.

Contrast the Christian approach to relics from the past. Yes, that word relic says it all. We revere relics. Even the relics of the pagan past. The cave paintings of the Neolithic Age are a human wonder to us, which speak of the human quest for beauty and truth. As such they are to be preserved, for they tell us about ourselves and our spiritual quest. Nothing human is ever to be dismissed or destroyed. The revelation of the divine makes the human important, it never diminishes it.

The threat to Palmyra throws the theological roots of the current conflict into sharp relief. The vandalism of ISIS is much more than mere vandalism. As has been said many times, this is a war of ideas, and cannot be won purely by military means.