Serious damage has been done to the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. Once ISIS had begun blowing up parts of the ancient site – and murdering a man who had devoted his life to studying it – none of us could be shocked that they have continued with their programme of trying to unmoor Syria from its own past. Still, another irreplaceable part of the city has been lost.
There are those who will wring their hands and ask why we care so much about Syria’s ancient ruins when we do so little to help Syrians alive – millions of them now refugees – today. It is a strange attitude (though prevalent on social media) which dictates we can only care about one thing at a time, as though compassion is a zero-sum game where every penny that goes to, say, the RSPCA has been directly stolen from the hands of an impoverished child. Quite aside from this obvious logical fallacy, it scarcely needs saying that the presence of ISIS in Palmyra imperils both the city and her citizens.
Khaled al-Asaad died to protect what treasures of Palmyra he could. His crime, according to ISIS, was idolatry. He had spent decades of his life preserving and studying – amongst other aspects of Palmyra – the temples of long-lost gods. This is not the place to speculate on why it is that those who proclaim the greatest religious fervour are so threatened by gods long dead. But it is timely to recall that the Temple of Bel wasn’t some arid ruin only important to ancient historians in libraries across the west. It was an integral part of Syria’s history, cherished by the men and women who worked to preserve it. As it becomes increasingly likely that little of Palmyra will survive this onslaught, it seems appropriate to remember why it is so important.
The Romans had a lot of trouble with foreign women. Cleopatra brought Rome to the brink of self-destruction in the first century BC; Boudica nearly undid them in Britain some ninety years later. But perhaps the woman who cost them most dearly was Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who led a spectacular rebellion against the Romans in the 3rd century AD. When her husband was murdered in 267, she became the ruler of her people. She had a tremendously successful reign – invading Egypt and Anatolia – before being captured and legendarily paraded through the streets of Rome in golden chains in 274 AD. You can see how ISIS might dislike a city which produced a brave, powerful woman like Zenobia.
One crumb of comfort is perhaps to be found away from Syria, for now. The Acropolis of Athens was terribly damaged in the 17th century, when it was used to store gunpowder and then hit by a cannonball. Although the site still bears the marks of that damage, the Greeks have spent the past forty years working hard to restore it. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s recent BBC documentary (Building the Ancient City) reminded us that parts of the Acropolis are even now covered in scaffolding and cranes. But in spite of all the harm it has sustained, it is still standing.
Meanwhile, in southern Greece, the remains of a Mycenean palace have recently been discovered. The site is incredibly ancient (it dates back to the 16th or 17th century BC). Although it doesn’t cover a huge area, there have already been some beautiful finds, including a wonderful clay cup with a bull’s head painted onto it. So perhaps this is all we can do, while Palmyra is held by those who hate her for her history: remember that not everything which is lost will stay lost forever. And sometimes, even terrible destruction can be, in part, repaired.
As I write, the rain is belting down and when I left the house this morning I might have been better off taking a snorkel than an umbrella. But still, I am heartened to see that a short daily walk – of 20 minutes or so – is being cited as a preventative measure against heart attacks. In fact, a new study carried out in Germany suggests that a brisk walk or jog is good for both mind and body.
In the words of Sanjay Sharma, a cardiac professor at an NHS Foundation Trust in London, ‘Exercise buys you three to seven additional years of life. It is an antidepressant, it improves cognitive function and there is now evidence that it may retard the onset of dementia.’ And even when it is under inches of rain, London is wonderful on foot.
Few things sink the spirits of those of us who occasionally work for the BBC than the promise of further reforms. Every attempt to cut waste from the organisation – at least in the past decade – has seen programme budgets cut or frozen, while the number of people whose job titles are completely opaque to all reasonable users of the English language seems to remain steady. The broadcaster already does many things cheaply and well (the coverage of the World Athletics Championships over the past fortnight has been terrific, even if Gabby Logan and Michael Johnson have been in bargain Salford rather than expensive Beijing).
But the BBC is a globally-respected brand, as Armando Iannucci rightly pointed out in Edinburgh last week. Perhaps viewers in other countries can see what our politicians cannot: whatever its failings, the BBC is admired around the world, and we should be proud of it.
NASA has begun a year-long isolation experiment, to prepare its astronauts for the difficulties of a journey to Mars. Six recruits are living under a dome (which measures 11 metres in diameter) on a barren volcano in Hawaii. They will have no fresh air, privacy or fresh food for the next twelve months.
It sounds like hell, and yet I can’t help but think the recruits have achieved something the rest of us cannot. For literally a year, they won’t know what Donald Trump thinks about anything. It makes the prospect of a canned-food diet seem positively appealing.