Archaeological sites capture public attention for mostly positive reasons. However, the 2015 destruction of Palmyra by the Islamic State (ISIS) and its barbaric murder of Khaled al-Asaad, chief archaeologist at the site, saw attention refocused on the site for tragic reasons. A 2016 symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offered an opportunity for scholars to review old and new finds at Palmyra in Asaad's memory.
Rising out of the Syrian desert, Palmyra was a vital crossing point from the Mediterranean coast to the Euphrates River and a meeting point between the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Chapters review evidence for its ecological setting and explore its history of settlement from the Neolithic period through the Roman period, and in particular the Roman monuments and artworks for which it is most famous.
Motivated by its Islamic theology, claiming the site offended Islam, ISIS destroyed many of Palmyra's key monuments with high explosives. The gruesome fate of the 83-year-old Asaad—publicly beheaded, his body hung in a public square—compounded the message in the most horrific manner possible. But much as it did at other Syrian and Iraqi archaeological sites, including Hatra, Dura Europos, and Nineveh, the group also looted portable antiquities, which it planned to smuggle out of its territories and sell to Western and other collectors. This was the embodiment not of ISIS's hypocrisy but its self-proclaimed piety, merging iconoclasm, terror, and booty.
It is sadly fitting that Palmyra in antiquity epitomized a multicultural synthesis of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds, thanks to wealth gained from its location on caravan routes. Roman style temples dedicated to local Syrian deities, an immense colonnade, and vast quantities of decoration, from architecture to textiles, were created and uniquely well preserved thanks to the desert climate. Inscriptions, coins, frescoes, mosaics, and funerary monuments also provided unique insights into the lives of Palmyra's citizens, who were drawn from all the ethnicities of the period. Perhaps unwittingly, ISIS's destruction of evidence of ancient cultural diversity, what UNESCO has called "cultural cleansing," matched its efforts to homogenize local, living populations.
Palmyrain antiquity is well-discussed in this short, reliable introductory volume. But missing is a full account of its destruction and Asaad's murder, including an explication of the group's Islamist ideology.