In Palmyra, history is literally written on the walls: across temples and above doorways, encircling funerary monuments and snaking up the towering limestone columns that rise above the Syrian desert some 134 miles (215 km) northeast of Damascus.
These inscriptions were often written both in Greek and Palmyrene Aramaic, a bilingual phenomenon unique to Palmyra. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been a focus of international attention since May, when the Islamic State (ISIS) seized the territory around the ancient ruins.
The inscriptions provide unique insight into life in a distinctive frontier city where, for centuries, local merchants controlled trade between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.
One example: an inscription from around 130 A.D., in which the Senate of Palmyra honored a citizen named Male Agrippa for building a temple dedicated to Baal Shamin, the Semitic god of the heavens, to commemorate an earlier visit by the Roman emperor Hadrian. The bilingual dedication was inscribed at the entrance to the temple, which featured a unique mix of Roman and Near Eastern architectural styles.
Male Agrippa’s gift to his city, the Temple of Baal Shamin, was destroyed by the Islamic State last weekend.
Forces from ISIS, allegedly planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) across the entire site in late June. “I am seeing Palmyra being destroyed in front of my eyes,” says Syria’s Director of Antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim. “God help us in the days to come.”
In addition to the destruction of the Baal Shamin temple, the Islamic State is responsible for the recent torture and murder of Khaled Asaad, the 82-year-old former director of antiquities at Palmyra. He is survived by 11 children, including a daughter, Zenobia, named after the city’s legendary queen.
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