The list of world-famous historical sites that have been partially or entirely destroyed by recent conflict in the Middle East grows with grim regularity.
In Syria alone, the Great Mosque and the Citadel in Aleppo, the castle of every child’s imagination at Crac des Chevaliers, and the ancient city of Bosra have been damaged or destroyed.
Arguably Syria’s most impressive and arresting site, the sprawling ruins at Palmyra (Tadmur to Syrians), is now under Islamic State control and many fear the worst.
Having visited Palmyra and these other sites while studying Arabic at Damascus University back in 2007, I am far from alone in feeling that something truly terrible is happening.
That these symbols from a bygone era might be destroyed by modern-day barbarian forces when they have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years seems somehow deeply offensive and wrong.
Nevertheless, while I feel an acute sadness at the loss of these sites, I understand those who may feel a certain sense of unease at the outpouring of grief and anguish over their desecration.
From this perspective, Palmyra is, after all, a collection of stone; albeit stone exquisitely carved and impressively presented, imbued with huge historical import.
And compared to the staggering loss of life and widespread humanitarian disaster afflicting the Syrian people, bemoaning the loss of a historic tourist site seems crass.
But there are cogent arguments, of course, suggesting that sites like Palmyra are far more significant than that.
Important cultural sites are often pointed to as focal points that can be used to (re)unify a people.
Sites can act as potent symbols of a united past that may cross ethnic, tribal, linguistic, or cultural lines. In essence, their importance can be seen and used as a low common denominator to promote reconciliation in a post-conflict environment.
Most famously, the reconstruction of the old bridge in Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina acted as a focal point of wider metaphorical bridge-building between Serbs, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats after the civil war in the 1990s when the bridge was demolished.
In Syria, too, there have already been tentative attempts towards this kind of a goal, with meetings between regime and opposition officials nominally in charge of antiquities.
Read more: BBC
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