The Syrian Army has recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra which had been lost to the world. Now, History will not say that Palmyra was lost forever, or that its temples did not exist on this planet. It will not say that the oasis in the desert was only a mirage, and that its ancient people were not buried under the stones as a legacy of an entire civilization.
Memories cannot be forgotten here, they are protected for eternity. They will live on as a demonstration of the love and life that is Palmyra.
Writing about cities that I have not visited before, only discovering their features at the height of their wars, is a huge injustice to history. When I saw Palmyra’s ancient castle, for the first time, it was overshadowed by the roar of fighters and Syrian helicopters as they combed the sky and the sound of Russian rockets all around me.
On the ground, all kinds of rocket launchers, artillery and machine guns, a ceaseless cacophony and snipers as far as the eye can see.
From afar, the castle looks intact which is pleasing, but the closer you get, the destroyed parts of its walls reveal themselves. I saw the castle stones and parts of the walls fall amid the bombing, which shook the whole ground.
The ancient city was filled with empty bullet casings, or the remnants of shells and bombs. And other than the destroyed Temple and Baalchmin Arc de Triomphe, some of the monuments in the city listed on the World Heritage List had been made into SAA military positions.
Queen Zenobia’s bath was turned into a checkpoint by the Caliphate fighters, and the base of the famous Roman amphitheatre into a centre for monitoring and surveillance. Banners previously welcoming tourists had been replaced by placards warning of raids by the “Nusairi” jets [derogatory term for Alawites]
The doors of houses in the city were left wide open, as if the fleeing people of the Palmyra purposely left them ajar to welcome the new conquerors . Alarming destruction in every street in the neighbourhood of the devastated city. Strange writings, black banners, barricades and fortifications. Here were the Emirate headquarters and « the offices of the Islamic state » in Palmyra .
You hear the stone in the city of sands in the Syrian desert recount its history as you cross its roads and roam between the columns and monuments. Its people have their own stories. Since last May until today the city has been the keeper of their secrets and their accounts. Dozens of Syrian Arab Army soldiers disappeared the day Palmyra fell to invaders, May 20th 2015. Hundreds of children of this tiny city were murdered or simply vanished.
When we entered the heart of Palmyra at dawn, I was struck by one Syrian soldier in full battle uniform as he wandered the alley ways alone, calling upon the home owners to come out. Wael Joureyah, a lieutenant in the Syrian Army, had lost his father, a Colonel in the Army and in charge of the Amiriyah warehouse to the north of the city. His father had disappeared the day Daesh had invaded Palmyra.
Wael had been based in Aleppo but applied for a transfer to participate in the battle to liberate Palmyra. He had returned to search for his father. He told me:
“Two months ago, a woman escaped Palmyra and contacted us. She said that Daesh had called my father’s name from the mosques and threatened to behead anyone who sheltered him in the city. This news brought hope to me and my family, so I have come to look for him”
Wael fought from the Mount Tar front as far as the warehouses. He and his comrades liberated his father’s post. Wael continued to search for his father, hoping to find him hiding in one of the neighbouring homes.
Wael believes steadfastly that his father is somewhere waiting for a signal from his son. Wael, who has been wounded eight times previously, says:
“Shelling means the Army is here. If my father is close by he will return soon. I think he may be with Bedouins, he will return.”
Wael repeats over 10 times…
“He is coming back, he is coming back, I am sure..”
“He could have withdrawn from Palmyra. Instead he decided to prolong the clash with the “Organisation” [referring to DAESH] to secure enough time for wounded soldiers to escape. He believed that his survival could save the City or postpone its downfall. Palmyra fell and my father did not come back, but he will return one day. He will find me waiting for him at the first point of arrival for the Army. I will tell him God forgives him before I depart…”
Wael left us to continue his search.
“We are heading to the Sukhna in a few days. If we dont find him here, we will find him there. I will send him signs to be guided by us, he is there….still there.”
Also returning to Palmyra, is a former fighter from the garrison prison. The last he knew of his family, who had been living in the officers housing complex near the City, was that during the Daesh invasion, they had slaughtered his three children. His wife had been taken with 72 other officer’s & military wives.
Basil did not withdraw in the early stages. He stayed until the last troops had pulled back from the city. Today he had returned to search for his wife. He said:
“Their honour is integrated. The honour of my wife and the honour of Queen Zenobia are one and the same.”
He had only heard of the “Queen” from history books and the plays of Fairuz, so I asked him, why are these stones so important to him. This was his reply…
“Land is also just dust and the sky just atoms of air. The homeland, our homeland is stone and dust and air. But we cant live without them and their value is immeasurable. Nobody has the right to denigrate the freedom of a martyr who has chosen to give his soul to this earth and these stones…who dares say that this sacrifice is meaningless?”
Tarek Khaled al-Asaad has another story. It began on the day his father, Khaled al-Asaad refused to leave the city. He had dedicated his life to its columns and stones and would not desert them. Tariq told us:
“My father’s 80 years did not protect him. Two days after the DAESH occupation he was summoned for interrogation. He remained in their custody for several days before they released him. However he was put under house arrest and was banned from leaving Palmyra.
One month and a half into the occupation, two DAESH members summoned my father by name. People have told us that he remained under arrest for almost 20 days before the verdict. They asked my father to kneel in front of the crowd in the public arena. The last thing he said was:
“Palmyra palms do not bow down”
They separated the body of the archaeologist, Dr Khalid Al-Asaad, from his head because he refused to give them what they wanted.
His head was hung from the central column in the public square and remained there for three days. His body was taken by local people and buried, his head is now buried separately from his body.
Today, Tariq is back in Palmyra with his brothers Muhammad and Walid. They are on a quest to find their father’s remains. Their only consolation in their grief, is that Palmyra has been liberated and its palms are still standing tall, like the body of an eighty year old separated from his memories.
Thus has Palmyra journeyed from being one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Near East ruled over by a Queen, to being an important heritage and tourist site & finally to a battle zone in the modern Syrian war.
It was a kingdom the world visited, to gaze upon a desert oasis inhabited by the Romans, now it is a dark city surveyed through the lens of a Journalist’s camera, documenting the place occupied in its history by DAESH, finally driven out in defeat, from the city’s ruins.
READ MORE SYRIA NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Syria Files