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“I still cannot believe why the people all around the world—the public people, I mean, the governments or UNESCO, the UN, the others involved in the culture or in humanity—why they do nothing to preserve Palmyra, to stop the attack of the militants of Daesh.”

By the 3rd century CE, the ancient city of Palmyra, also known as Tadmur in Arabic, was a global crossroads, where caravans from Mesopotamia, Persia, China, Rome, and Europe exchanged both goods and beliefs. During the Roman era, Palmyra flourished, with its unique, cosmopolitan culture reflected in elaborately decorated buildings and monuments. That ancient legacy continues today; Palmyrene residents maintained their culture and identity while living alongside well-preserved archeological ruins for centuries. Tragically, in 2015, ISIS militants destroyed many of those important historic sites, including the Temple of Bel. There are no firm plans yet for restoring the ruins and surrounding municipality as the Syrian civil war drags on.

In this episode, Waleed al-As’ad, former director of antiquities and museums at Palmyra, discusses the ancient and the contemporary city, as well as the possible future for the site. His father, Khaled al-As’ad, preceded him as director and was publicly executed for refusing to cooperate with ISIS. Waleed is currently living in France, a refugee of Syria’s civil war. This conversation coincides with the relaunch of the Getty Research Institute’s online exhibition Return to Palmyra, which features a written interview with Waleed.

A faded photography in color of a group of people wearing traditional Syrian head-coverings standing in rocky landscape.

Waleed Khaled al-As’ad, six years old, standing in front of his father, Khaled al-As’ad, with the Syria-Japan delegation at excavations of Douara cave, Syria, ca. 1975. Photo courtesy Waleed al-As’ad

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Return to Palmyra

Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
WALEED AL-AS’AD: I still cannot believe why the people all around the world—the public people, I mean, the governments or UNESCO, the UN, the others involved in the culture or in humanity—why they do nothing to preserve Palmyra, to stop the attack of the militants of Daesh.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Waleed al-As’ad, former director of antiquities at Palmyra, Syria.
Launched in February 2017, The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra, Getty’s first online-only exhibition, explored the use of digital tools in the presentation of the earliest photographs of the ancient caravan city of Palmyra, also known as Tadmur. To date the exhibition has been viewed nearly 200,000 times.
A successor exhibition, Return to Palmyra, relaunched the earlier exhibition with an Arabic translation and new content, featuring a detailed history of the site by Joan Aruz, curator emerita of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and an interview with Waleed Khaled al-As’ad, former director of antiquities and museums at Palmyra.
I recently sat down, via Zoom, with Waleed to discuss the history of Palmyra, its legacy for modern day residents of the city, and the fate of the ancient site, which was famously attacked and substantially destroyed by ISIS fighters between 2015 and 2017. It was in 2015 that Waleed’s father Khaled, a Syrian archaeologist and director of antiquities in Palmyra, refused to tell his ISIS captors where many of the ancient artefacts were hidden. As a result, he was tortured and killed. He was 83 years old.
Waleed, welcome to the Getty podcast.
AL-AS’AD: Thank you very much.
CUNO: Now first, let me say how much your father is missed since he was murdered by ISIS fighters six years ago. How is your family doing?
AL-AS’AD: Well, it’s very painful years, you know? The most painful moment, when we hear the news of killing my father by ISIS. And at that time, we cannot do anything for him, just to escape from this place, traveling to Damascus or Homs, then to leave Syria to continue our life somehow.
Family is now divided between Syria, Turkey, France, and Germany. So it’s difficult to imagine when we can get a chance to join together again in Palmyra. We hope that we will join together in Palmyra soon.
CUNO: Well, give your family our very best wishes.
AL-AS’AD: Thank you very much.
CUNO: So Waleed, give us a picture, if you can, of the rich cultural history and legacy of Palmyra, and what it was like growing up there as a child, in the city that is also known as Tadmur.
AL-AS’AD: The Semitic name, or the Arabic name still used till now, is Tadmur, the name of the city or the village or the oasis from the Semitic times. It was mentioned by this name 2000 years before the Christ. And still used till now.
In the Classical era, Palmyra— I don’t know who give that name, but it’s a lovely name, also. I love the name Palmyra because it’s maybe express my feeling to this place that I had birth there and I was a child and growned up.
You know, it’s a very fantastic oasis in the desert. The location is far away from the big cities.
I found myself part of a family. And the father of the family was in charge of the history and archaeology. So his work, he’s devoted his life totally to work in Palmyra. In the ruins, the monuments, oasis itself, the desert. All the people, everything, he worked all the time. So I was very connected to the history of Palmyra, more than maybe the other childs, I was very connected to the ruins and the museum.
My father he was trying all the time to give us the chance to see everything in the city, teach us about the history of the city. And he allowed us to go to the museum, to be in touch with the foreign archaeological missions. And I was able to go to the museum in two or three minutes, to see my father, of course, but also I can enjoy a few minutes to see the collection. And the site was open, also. We can go there, but we prefer to go with him, because we can hear from him the very specific explanation and perfect answers about our childhood questions.
There is many things to speak about. But I’m very proud that I am Palmyrene. And I love my city. I hope that I can return back soon to live there, or at least to continue the mission that my father started.
CUNO: So Waleed, locate Palmyra on the trade routes between Persia and the Mediterranean, for example; the importance of those trade routes and the importance of Palmyra on those trade routes.
AL-AS’AD: In fact, the city of Palmyra, it’s well known in the history and everywhere, because it was the capital of the multiculturalism. I think the very strategic location between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean in the west, the center of the desert, the Syrian desert, give a special importance to Palmyra because the caravans look for water and rest. A lot of caravans came from Mesopotamia, Persia, China, Rome, Egypt, Arabia. It was, at that time, the hub that linked East and West. The Roman world with the Asia, via the Silk Road. And this gives Palmyra the chance to be more and more wealthy. Because lot of goods was exchanged in Palmyra between the other merchants.

Also, the city was a center of religious. A lot of temples were there, and thousands of pilgrims falls to the city to visit the temples there. And of course, the caravans and the people who came to Palmyra, they exchanged their thoughts, their experiences, their knowledge, besides their goods. They bring everything with them, and they took many things, also, with them.
So this reflecting on the architects and the buildings of Palmyra, the planning of the city. It is a very impressive collection. You cannot find it anywhere else in the world. As a group, I mean. As a complexity. I mean, this great preserved site was a proof of the human ability or human thinking, fusing the culture together, and give a very good example about exchanging the culture and get a new results that reflecting the East and the West with special local elements or identity, I mean.
CUNO: Well, what about maybe the highlights of Palmyra in the time of Queen Zenobia? Tell us about Queen Zenobia and her role in Palmyrene history and to contemporary residents of Tadmur, who must look fondly, think fondly about Queen Zenobia.
AL-AS’AD: Zenobia is one of the most famous ladies all over the history. She’s, as described in the Roman sources and the other Arabic sources also, as a very qualified queen. Lead the army, riding the horses, and also have a very big court or many philosophy and consultants about her. And she was good reading and speak Palmyrene, Egyptian, and maybe the Greek, as I remember.
She struggled strongly against the Roman. She tried to continue maybe the same plans or the same dreamings of become[ing] an emperor of the East, between Rome and Persia.
For the Syrians or the Palmyrene people, contemporary people now, they give them a symbolic imagination about the creativity of the women. So she maybe become a symbol of independence, symbol of freedom, looking for a special personality of the Palmyrene or the Arabs.
And as a Syrian now, or as a Palmyrene people, if we be more accurate, looking to Zenobia as our symbol, we love her. My elder sister her name is Zenobia. I went to Zenobia School, elementary school.
It’s kind of honoring some persons by use their names in our lives, so we keep them in our memory. The generations transmitted the story of Palmyra and the Queen Zenobia and her struggle against the Romans to build the dream of a local kingdom. To be freed of controlling of the Roman or Persian. That was the dream of Zenobia. And I think it’s a dream of any other people who occupied by some other else, any time in the world.
CUNO: It’s often said that Palmyra to a great extent, it was rediscovered by European travelers in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Travelers like the French architect Louis-François Cassas, French photographer Louis Vignes. These are the subjects of the exhibition that is the occasion for our conversation this morning.
How true is it that the Europeans came and rediscovered Palmyra? Does it seem right to you that that’s how it happened? Because there were people living in Palmyra for many generations during that time.
AL-AS’AD: I think rediscovering the site, it’s something, it’s not the correct term. Maybe it was forgotten in the Europe imagination, but Palmyra has remained full of life, has never been devoid of its inhabitants, who inherited the place from their previous generations.
I mean, after the destruction of the Roman war against Zenobia, Palmyra lost the political or the military importance. But the road crossing Palmyra via the desert was very important for all the other people. During the fourth, five, six centuries.
Just the name, Palmyra, without using Tadmur, ignoring the original name, it’s kind of give the Western identity to an ancient site located in the East, to ignore the the origin of the people who inhabited the place for thousands and thousands of years.
But I don’t know. Maybe it’s— They want to say that Palmyra, its belongs to us. I mean to the European thinking. They want to resist or react against the destruction of what they call Islamic action. I am not agree. I refuse totally all the kind of thinking of radicals from Muslims or the others. Especially Daesh.
CUNO: When you were a child, do you remember many tourists coming to Palmyra?
AL-AS’AD: Yeah, a lot. Yeah, a lot.
CUNO: And where did they come from?
AL-AS’AD: We were very happy to see the tourists came to Palmyra in their cars, in their trucks. There is a European company with a trolly bus.
We were very, very interested to see the other people. And that make us to ask ourselves why they are coming to see our city.
CUNO: Yeah. How is Palmyra thought of by Syrians around the world today? Syrians who live, for example, in France, in Lyon, where you are right now. Or England or United States. How does Palmyra figure in their imagination about their identity as Syrians?
AL-AS’AD: I think Palmyra has a special effect on all the Syrians. You know, the civil war in Syria now, still going on. And the result is unbelievable. A lot of people displaced, a lot of people become now refugee. Hundreds of thousands of dead. So there is a division between people.
But if you back[?] to the news or to the media at the time when ISIS controlled or seized the city, all the Syrians was talking about Palmyra, talking about how we have to keep or to preserve the city or the monuments of the city. And also, the crime of killing my father
But as we talk about the rule of Zenobia and the rule of Palmyra, the Syrians consider Palmyra a part of their identity. And they’re all afraid to lose more much than we lost till now. Because losing part of the identity, it’s— something will not be returned.
CUNO: Now, the world came to know Palmyra well by the tragic destruction of so many of its major ancient monuments at the hands of ISIS. Monuments like the Temple of Bel or the Temple of Baal Shamin or the Colossal Colonnade. You are an engineer. What is the condition, the physical condition, the structural condition of these monuments today? And what are the prospects for conserving them for the future?
AL-AS’AD: I’m sorry to say that at least the Temple of Bel, the greatest temple in the city and also the ancient world, totally destroyed, blown up with maybe hundreds of kilograms of TNT. In my imagination, it’s difficult to rebuild it again or reconstruct it. I mean, as an engineer, we have a lot of difficulties. Especially in the details of the engravements. It’s very impressive decoration.
The Temple of Baal Shamin also, it’s— The temple was known very well 2,000 year, and preserved till the August 2015. These monuments now, as a Palmyrene and beside engineer, I think it’s a great loss that we lost it in Palmyra. It’s a great loss for the humanity, for Palmyra, for the Palmyrenes, and for everyone who admire the culture, the architect, the art in general.
We speak about the greatest temple, the Temple of Baal Shamin; also the tower tombs that also are unique buildings in Palmyra, and the Colonnade and the Arch Triumph, all are together the visual identity of well-known Palmyra everywhere. Those monuments are the most important or the unique monuments in Palmyra. We lost a lot.
CUNO: Now, five years ago, in 2016, the Director General of UNESCO sent a UNESCO rapid assessment mission to Palmyra to assess the damage and destruction of the site and its monuments. UNESCO is often criticized for not taking action quickly enough. What is the status of Palmyra’s standing as a World Heritage Site today? And has UNESCO been of help to you and your colleagues?
AL-AS’AD: They have to do. I mean the UNESCO, the ICCROM, the ICOMOS, the United Nations, also. But I still cannot believe why the people all around the world—the public people, I mean, the governments or UNESCO, the UN, the others, the other structures, they involved in the culture or in humanity—why they do nothing to preserve Palmyra, to stop the attack of the militants of Daesh. They came from Darasur and Raqqah, at least 200 kilometers. Not in two hours. They spent about two weeks to reach Palmyra.
CUNO: This is ISIS you’re talking about.
AL-AS’AD: Yeah. I cannot understand why nobody tried to stop them.
For the projects of reconstruction by UNESCO or any others, I think in my operation, personal operation, that nothing can we do now till the war ends. We must stop any military actions in everywhere in Syria. Peace comes first. Then we have to think carefully about rebuilding or reconstructing what war was destroying in Palmyra and the other villages everywhere, in Syria.
So there is, you know, there is a very sensitive relation between any site and the locals around the site. Now most of the Palmyrene outside Palmyra, and they cannot come back. Some of them outside since five or seven, eight years. Or some of them from the beginning of the war.
I don’t know how we can think about just rebuild the Triumph of Arc[?], as example, and think nothing about the people who still live somewhere with very miserable conditions.
To rebuild the site, we also have to think about the inhabitants, how we can give them the chance to live again in peace, to live without fear, without need. To get back their homes.
How I can go to Palmyra and I cannot reach my house? Or just see the remains of destroying houses? It’s difficult.
CUNO: Well, what do you think the future of Palmyra is?
AL-AS’AD: Well, it’s not easy to imagine. But also, to say that Palmyra passed through the ages, many, many wars, and also earthquakes, many other disasters. But also continue to live and their people rebuild it. It’s like the destruction which occurred in Europe during the World War, the Second World War. So everything changed in a few decades. World changed. So I think if the war ended, things will be changed the best, I hope.
So I think future, it’s not so bad, but I hope will be not so long. I’m afraid that I will still think about my future in Palmyra without reaching Palmyra.
CUNO: Well, thank you for speaking with us today. I know it’s a difficult subject for you because of your family’s connections to Palmyra and the tragedy of your father’s death there. We hope that the exhibition at the Getty and its online presence and its translation into Arabic will make it possible for Palmyra to live for a long time, forever perhaps, in the minds and imaginations of people around the world. So thank you, Waleed.
AL-AS’AD: Thank you very much.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at podcasts@getty.edu. Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
WALEED AL-AS’AD: I still cannot believe why the people all around the world—the public people, ...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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