Tim Whitmarsh writes: In May 2015, Islamic State captured the modern city of Palmyra. The adjoining Unesco world heritage site is a breathtaking archaeological complex like no other. In the 2nd century AD this oasis city in the Syrian desert was one of the grandest and wealthiest places in the world, with a total population about the size of modern Cardiff. Much of the ancient civic and sacred architecture still survives. Perhaps most evocative is the colonnaded street more than 1km in length: in antiquity, caravan traders from all over the Middle East would have processed along this road with their spices and silks towards the city’s religious heart, the magnificent temple of Bel, eyed from above by hundreds of statues of Palmyrene benefactors.
The future of this extraordinary site is precarious. At the time of the initial occupation, an anti-Assad Syrian radio station carried an interview with Abu Laith al-Saoudi, an Isis commander, who vouched that only the idolatrous statues would be destroyed; “concerning the historical city we will preserve it and it will not undergo damages inshallah (‘if God wills it’)”. Whatever deity reigns in Isis fantasy firmament, however, must have been in a capricious and malign mood.