For the Arab world, Palmyra was just another day

Complexity of Syrian war and rise of Isil underpin muted response to ongoing destruction of ancient site


The destruction by Isil militants of the Baalshamin temple and other ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, in August was widely condemned by antiquities experts around the world, as was the brutal killing of Khaled al-Asaad, the 82-year-old Syrian scholar who managed the city’s antiquities department for 50 years.

But in the Arab world the reaction was muted. Most mainstream media outlets reported the news as just another episode in the ongoing battle for power in Syria, with few questions raised about the historic and symbolic significance of major cultural heritage sites in the region.

Even on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, different groups, activists and ordinary people used the news of the destruction to bolster different ideological positions. This ongoing clash of competing narratives is consuming the Arab world along with the real battle for control in Syria and Iraq. For example, in a tweet sent via his own account, Qatari diplomat Nasser Khalifa wrote that the act confirmed that Isil is collaborating with the Syrian regime: “The criminals used 30,000 explosives to destroy the temple rather than using them against the regime of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, which testifies to their collaboration.”

Other comments reflected ambivalence about Isil but also the extreme polarisation of opinions on what Muslims should or should not do and what role the West has played and could play in the conflict.

Many tweets posted in Arabic under the hashtag #Tadmor-Da’esh (Tadmor is the Arabic name for Palmyra and Da’esh is the Arabic acronym for Isil) criticised the global attention afforded to the ruins in comparison to the coverage of human suffering in the region.

Many comments reflected the public mood about the lack of intervention on behalf of ordinary people caught in the conflict. Several people asked which aathar (ruins) should elicit moral responses: ancient stones or human beings?

Critics of Isil, particularly from the Gulf region, decried the action as non-Islamic. One tweet read: “What Islam does Da’esh claim to represent when it destroys civilisations protected by Muslims since the dawn of Islam?”

Strategic and symbolic site

The use of the destruction at Palmyra in ongoing media battles over power is not surprising and neither is the politicisation of the event by the main protagonists. Syrian officials were quick to raise the alarm via their own media channels and call for international intervention to prevent more violence. Isil was even quicker in posting images of the destruction on its diverse digital platforms as part of a now familiar pattern of publicising its spectacular acts of violence.

Palmyra, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is both a strategic and symbolic location. It is strategic because the loss of Palmyra to Isil poses a major threat to Syrian regime strongholds. It also increases the economic power of the militants, who are known to sell looted treasures to fund their military campaigns.

It is a symbolic site because Palmrya is part of the Syrian town of Tadmor, home to a notorious prison which was used by the ruling Ba’ath party in Syria to imprison political opponents, and is therefore commonly associated with the regime’s brutal practices.

Too much destruction to bear

What is surprising, however, is that the destruction of ancient temples and other ruins at Palmyra did not receive as much attention in the mainstream Arab media or on social platforms as similar destruction by Isil of sites in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq.

Following those events in early March, several commentators in the region criticised what they termed a prevalent “culture of ignorance or indifference” with regards to the region’s rich archaeological history.

For example, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the general manager of the Arabiya satellite television channel, wrote in the Saudi newspaper Ashsharq al-Awsat on 12 March: “The destruction of priceless historical treasures in Iraq by [Isil] proves that we do not deserve these treasures that fill our museums and lie buried beneath our sands. We in the Arab world live surrounded by a great heritage, and yet fail to understand its value both to ourselves and to the rest of the world. This is why the monuments were destroyed with an ease that belied their immeasurable importance—as if they were mere obsolete toys. To protect the artefacts of our ancient ancestors and those who built these civilisations, we must lend them to those who know their value and can maintain them until the day comes when we mature and can bear this historical responsibility.”

A “culture of ignorance” aside, the public indifference to the destruction in Palmyra may point to what can be termed “violence fatigue” among ordinary people, who are tired of the incessant brutality some suffer on a regular basis while others see it on television. But it may also point to the fact that Arab regimes, particularly those involved directly or by proxy in the conflict, are wary of giving public space and, therefore, public legitimacy to Isil in the media and elsewh ere.

In March, a confrontation between Isil supporters and opponents at the Riyadh Book Fair threatened Saudi Arabia’s self-image as a united country in the face of extremism. The confrontation, widely reported in the Saudi press and circulated on social media, occurred when a scholar at King Saud University condemned the destruction of antiquities in Iraq during a public address. His views were contested by supporters of Isil, who defended the destruction of the sites as a legitimate move by the “real” Muslim believers following in the footpath of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Riyadh incident, which triggered a torrent of social media commentary, not only reflects deep divisions in the region over how to deal with Isil, but also the group’s ability to attract sympathisers by claiming its followers are the “true” Muslims. It is therefore not surprising that the mainstream media paid little attention to the destruction of cultural heritage sites, however important they may be.

The author is the associate head at the Centre for Media Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), University of London

Reaction to the destruction in Palmyra on Twitter Smile at people blaming the Muslim faith for the destruction of the ancient sites. I feel sad for you guys. The amount of ignorance is just: ‘meh no comment.’

Wessam Fahda, 28 August

Shame people care more about old buildings than human life.

Daniel Aramburo, 30 August

If only they took human life into

account as they do with stones.

Bloody media just full of crap. Maybe a mention of 100,000 massacred by the Assad regime, or do stone and brick have more value?

Mohamed Ismail, 31 August