Palmyra is one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the Middle East, if not the world. The Bride of the Sands is an oasis in the desert. It’s surrounded by millions of palm trees. The Grand Colonnade is the main avenue in the ancient city. It connects the Temple of Bel, the center of the city’s religious life, to the Funerary Temple, where members of the royal family are most likely buried. Palmyra Castle sits on a hill overlooking it all. Or at least it used to. Most of Palmyra has been destroyed.
Palmyra began as a small settlement near the Efqa Spring along the south bank of Wadi al-Qubur. Artifacts have been found from as early as the Neolithic period. The city flourished under the control of the Roman Empire. Its wealth came from caravans along the Silk Road. Then a monarchy took control. The Romans destroyed their former trading center. The Christian Palmyrenes converted to Islam. Arabic was spoken in favor of Palmyrene and Greek. The city ultimately became part of Syria. It was actually the most famous tourist site in the entire country. Camel rides. Sunrise hikes. Bedouin tents. Then the Syrian Civil War began.
The Syrian Civil War is an ongoing conflict between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and anti-government Islamist radicals and foreign Sunni jihadists. The unrest began in 2011 during the widespread Arab Spring. The tension, the fighting, and the destruction kept intensifying in the years that followed. In 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of Palmyra, which is located 135 miles north of Damascus, the capital. Priceless artifacts were seized, and the city of palm trees was largely destroyed. Last year, the Syrian Army regained control. But Palmyra is still a war zone. Homemade booby traps and landmines now outnumber the famous camels. No one is traveling to Palmyra—or Syria—anymore.
So, as the war in Syria continues, the world should be searching for a way to bring peace to the area that once bridged eastern and western traditions. We should remember the thousands of innocent lives lost and assist those who managed to escape. And we shouldn’t forget the history that’s now trapped and the culture that’s being eradicated in the Middle East. Syria could be an oasis again one day.