Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate

The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime, but we risk a greater loss.

The Palmyran Valley and Oasis
The Palmyran Valley and Oasis by Steve Murray

Sometimes things we read in the news hit close to home, even from halfway around the world in an ancient, foreign land. A friend from college has a personal connection to the ruins of the temple in the Palmyra Valley of Syria. He visited there and took the photos I have published in this blog with his permission. He describes the Valley, sitting about 125 miles north-east of Damascus, Syria, in the desert, as it appears above, “a welcome relief after weeks, months on the road” for the people traveling the Silk Road from the east.

The “peaceful place… filled with memories” was no longer peaceful and filled with pleasant memories when I began this piece. I started this blog article years ago, when ISIS was at it’s public height. I don’t know how things stand today. The news has moved on, leaving whatever ravages that continue and desolation that remains out of the pubic eye.

“‘Among the great cities of antiquity, Palmyra is comparable only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece,’ argues GW Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.””(quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

In light of fond reminiscences of a peaceful time, relationships developed between disparate brothers and sisters who shared good will and the historic significance of this desert oasis along the ancient Silk Road, the utter sadness and ache of the loss of the ruins is deep and vacuous. And more so now that my part of world has largely forgotten the devastation that exploded in front of the world’s eyes just a few short years ago.

Palmyra’s Baalshamin temple ‘blown up by IS’, read the headlines in Britain. Another British headline grimly pronounced, ISIS behead archaeologist who wouldn’t give up priceless artifacts for terrorists to loot and destroy.

In the Atlantic, the headline read with finality, An Ancient Temple in Palmyra Is Destroyed. “Reports of the site’s destruction come just days after the Islamic State killed Khaled Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian expert on Palmyra who refused to divulge the location of artifacts despised by the militant group [and coveted for the booty they would bring]. Asaad had run Palmyra’s antiquities department for 50 years.”

“The taking of the historic city of Palmyra by Islamic State represents ‘the fall of a civilisation’, according to Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim. Speaking to Reuters today, he said: ‘Human, civilized society has lost the battle against barbarism. I have lost all hope.’” (Mark Woods Christian Today Contributing Editor 21 May 2015)

Temple at Palmyra
Temple at Palmyra by Steve Murray

Barbaric, incomprehensible, brutal, evil, criminal, atrocity …. Words fall short. No regard for history, culture, art, life …. The ISIS militants did not even have regard for their own lives, and the wrought unspeakable destruction and the taking of precious life in the Venice of the Sands.

Christians, humanists, peaceful Muslims, people of all stripes condemn what ISIS has done. The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime. The killing of Khaled al-Assad, the curator and protector of the Palmyran antiquities, is an atrocity of the worst order. He gave his life to protect those beautiful, ancient ruins…, but the ruins were destroyed with him. The various reactions to the crime and atrocity are understandable and expected.

The worldwide reports emphasized a common theme: the harsh clash of religious fundamentalism with civilized society is characterized by destruction and violence. “ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.” (The Rubble of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier in the Atlantic Sept. 4, 2015). Indeed, ISIS displayed the worst of religion – the worst of humanity.

The destruction of ancient historical artifacts and buildings is nothing new, of course.

“In this iconoclasm – literally, the destruction of religious icons and other images or monuments for religious or political motives – Isis has its place in a rich history of destruction. Moses reduced the Golden Calf, made from Israelites’ golden earrings, to dust. Centuries later, the 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral’s lady chapel, were hacked off during the Reformation. In between Moses and the mutilation of Ely was something called the Iconoclastic controversy in the history of the Eastern or Byzantine Christian church. Between AD 726 and 843, the then emperors of Byzantium believed icons were not only a reversion to the pagan idolatry of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but that their existence was the chief obstacle to the conversion to Christianity of Jews and Muslims, to both of whom the image was anathema. Iconoclasm, then, is by no means only an Islamic thing.” (quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015) 660 x 390

As we reel in sadness and righteous anger (something the irreligious seem to have learned well from the religious in recent times) over the destruction of such significant ancient preserves, there is a greater loss.  Ross Burns, adjunct professor of ancient history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, whose life is devoted to the preservation, study and appreciation of antiquity, appropriately recognized,

“[T]here are more important considerations in Syria in 2015 than the preservation of ancient monuments. ‘The physical damage to monuments has to be assessed against the scale of the human tragedy….’” (Id.)

While, “[t]he heart has been ripped out of this most illustrious of the great caravan cities of the east,” far greater wrong has been committed against humanity, itself, in the barbaric killings and brutalities suffered by hundreds of thousands of peaceful people at the hands of ISIS.

It is tempting, too, to blame religion, but religion has no singular claim to destruction and violence. Humanism and atheism are modern phenomena. If religion were to blame for all the destruction and genocide in the world, the last two centuries should be the most peaceful in history. They decidedly are not. (See How Can a Loving God…?)

If there is one common factor between humanists and religious believers, atheists and theists, it would be humanity:

“[I]t is easy to scapegoat humans on account of singular ideas and factors. Life ain’t that simple. Things are complex; why people do things is a complex thing to tease apart. And, essentially, humans can be right bastards. Quite often the most obvious thing can be the overriding cause: humanity. Lust and greed for power, resources, and a distorted idea of utopia. It’s bleak, but potentially accurate, and it might even get atheism and religion off the hook. I said might.” (A Great Myth About Atheism: Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot = Atheism = Atrocity by Jonathan MS Pearce posted March 3, 2014)

The forgoing is an unlikely source for a Christian like me. I cannot pretend, though, to think that religion can be let off the hook. Neither do I pretend that Christianity can be let off the hook, though I find the claims of the atrocities of people of faith to be greatly exaggerated and misunderstood in the modern narrative. People who identify with and claim Christian heritage are not the measure. The God who became man, invited people to follow Him and allowed Himself to be sacrificed on a cross weighs the hearts of those who would claim some measure of His inheritance.

Love by Christopher Brown
Love by Christopher Brown

These few years later we begin to forget, both the atrocities that have been committed, recently and throughout history, and a stripe of greater significance. While antiquities are  priceless and irreplaceable, there is something of much greater significance – people created in the image of God. C.S. Lewis tried to capture the essence of this significance:

“It is a serious thing,” says Lewis, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whome we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.”

Thus, while we reel under the weight of the destruction of antiquities that are irreplaceable, we mourn all the more for the lives brutalized and lost that have no second chance at the opportunity life in this world provides. It is not for the sake of the life in this world that we mourn; but for the sake of eternal life that depends on this life we live.

Unlike the motivation that drives the ISIS fighter to kill those he calls infidels, thinking that the killing (and being killed) earns a greater paradise, I shudder at the significance and consequence of cutting short another’s opportunity to receive the salvation that is extended by grace. I gasp at the reality of the damage an ISIS killer does to his own soul in light of Christ’s sacrifice and the narrow gate to which it points.

As terrible as is the destruction of the Palmyran relics and structures, the consequences of the actions of the ISIS killer has a far greater significance, as do the consequences of the actions of criminals who take the lives of policeman, cops who take the lives of alleged criminals, mothers who take the lives of their babies and people who kill other people for whatever reason. In fact, how we treat each other in the multitude of ways that we injure and hurt each other are far more weighty and consequential than the destruction of ancient artifacts – far more significant than we seem to commonly appreciate.

Neither can we let ourselves hoof the hook, for Jesus said:

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court. ‘But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be  guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” (Matt. 5:21-24)

So it comes full circle. Our reaction to the brutality and atrocities seems justifiable (and I do not suggest otherwise), but there is more to it. The venting that we do in righteous anger focused on others ultimately fails to achieve any eternal result. If we dwell on that anger, we become no different than the objects of our anger.

There is a reason God said that vengeance is His. When we allow ourselves to desire vengeance, and when it becomes ours, we take the poison of hatred into our own hearts. Though we are capable of great good and selfless sacrifice, that same potential that compels an ISIS fighter to behead infidels and rape infidel women lies in us. That potential is exposed in the anger we harbor in our own hearts.

Born in a different time, in different circumstances, subject to different influences, given the reasons to act on the dark potential that lies within the human heart, and the means, the motivation and the opportunity to act, we dare not say that we would act differently. Neither can we write off the person who has been exposed to and acted on that dark potential as if they had no potential for great good, as if they were not also created by God in His image.

Pray for those who persecute; love our enemies. This is the way through the narrow gate. We dare not take the broad way.

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