The New York Times reports: Islamic State militants swept into the desert city of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday, and by evening were in control of it, residents and Syrian state news media said, a victory that gives them another strategically important prize five days after the group seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi.
Palmyra has extra resonance, with its grand complex of 2,000-year-old colonnades and tombs, one of the world’s most magnificent remnants of antiquity, as well as the grimmer modern landmark of Tadmur Prison, where Syrian dissidents have languished over the decades.
But for the fighters on the ground, the city of 50,000 people is significant because it sits among gas fields and astride a network of roads across the country’s central desert. Palmyra’s vast unexcavated antiquities could also provide significant revenue through illegal trafficking.
Control of Palmyra gives the Islamic State command of roads leading from its strongholds in eastern Syria to Damascus and the other major cities of the populated west, as well as new links to western Iraq, the other half of its self-declared caliphate.
The advance, in which residents described soldiers and the police fleeing, wounded civilians unable to reach hospitals and museum workers hurrying to pack up antiquities, comes even as the United States is scrambling to come up with a response to the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province.
The two successes, at opposite ends of a battlefield sprawling across two countries, showed the Islamic State’s ability to shake off setbacks and advance on multiple fronts, less than two months after it was driven from the Iraqi city of Tikrit — erasing any notion that the group had suffered a game-changing blow. [Continue reading…]
Prof Kevin Butcher writes: From modest beginnings in the 1st Century BC, Palmyra gradually rose to prominence under the aegis of Rome until, during the 3rd Century AD, the city’s rulers challenged Roman power and created an empire of their own that stretched from Turkey to Egypt.
The story of its Queen Zenobia, who fought against the Roman Emperor Aurelian, is well known; but it is less well-known that Palmyra also fought another empire: that of the Sasanian Persians.
In the middle of the third century, when the Sasanians invaded the Roman Empire and captured the Emperor Valerian, it was the Palmyrenes who defeated them and drove them back across the Euphrates.
For several decades Rome had to rely on Palmyrene power to prop up its declining influence in the east.
Palmyra was a great Middle Eastern achievement, and was unlike any other city of the Roman Empire.
It was quite unique, culturally and artistically. In other cities the landed elites normally controlled affairs, whereas in Palmyra a merchant class dominated the political life, and the Palmyrenes specialised in protecting merchant caravans crossing the desert. [Continue reading…]