A precious piece of Palmyra

Monday, 14 September 2015

Dr Alan Cadwallader explains how the Australian War Memorial came to own a precious artefact from the recently destroyed ancient city of Palmyra.

The recent destruction of ancient artefacts at Palmyra in Syria has grabbed horrified responses the world over. Little known to most people is that the Australian War Memorial holds a small piece of Palmyra that has suddenly become so much more precious because of the loss of so much of the human heritage at the hands of ISIS.

This treasure is the bust of a woman of Palmyra from the mid-second century. It made its way to Australia as part of a gift exchange between an Australian military officer and a Muslim leader from the area. It is an invaluable testimony to a time of respect between peoples of different races and faiths, as well as a prized testimony to the artistry and skill of past peoples in an area now ravaged by war.

The piece
Exquisitely carved in marble, the Palmyran artefact is part of a larger tomb structure that was located in area of what is known as the Palace of Queen Zenobia. The epitaph inscription is carved in Palmyran, an Aramaic dialect, an ancient language found in a few places in the Judeo-Christian bible. It tells us the name of the woman represented in the carving — her name was Hagar, an elite woman with an exalted pedigree (noted in part in the inscription itself). We know nothing more about her apart from what the sculptured form presents: wealth, conventional values of a woman of the period, beautiful. Given the large-scale devastation of ancient remains at Palmyra by the forces of Isis, this fragmentary remainder from the site takes on added significance, not only for archaeologists and historians but for all who value the history of humanity.

The manner of acquisition
Although there are many pieces of Palmyran funeral art in museums around the world, the story of how the Australian War Memorial came to be custodian of the treasure is as fascinating as the artefact itself. Towards the end of World War I, the fledgling Australian air force had some of its forces stationed in the area. Two pilots went down near the ancient ruins. The Muslim leader of the area, the Sheikh of Tadmur and his family offered the Australians protection and hospitality until they were rescued. When Lieutenant General Sir Henry George Chauvel (known as Harry) arrived to collect his troops, gifts were exchanged, part of a cultural honour particularly practiced by Arabs and Turks.

General Chauvel was given ‘the Lady of Palmyra’ (along with a Turkish recruiting office plate!), a treasure that was later passed to the Australian War Memorial. The gift is not only a link with the ancient past but a sign of friendship and cooperation between different peoples, in marked contrast to the destructiveness and lack of respect displayed by those who have destroyed this world-heritage site. Such gifts are seen as binding the givers in friendship and respect.

The importance of the human heritage
Palmyra is found on the UNESCO list of heritage sites of universal value. There it is described in these terms: “The splendor of the ruins of Palmyra, rising out of the Syrian desert north-east of Damascus is testament to the unique aesthetic achievement of a wealthy caravan oasis intermittently under the rule of Rome from the 1st to the 3rd century AD. The grand colonnade constitutes a characteristic example of a type of structure which represents a major artistic development.” 

The accolades go on, but the site was seen as of such value to the cultural heritage of the world that it was readily put on UNESCO’s list in 1980. However, its significance and value was known long before as when the Arab Sheikh of the area entrusted the bust of the ‘Lady of Palmyra’ to an Australian.

The destruction at the site of Palmyra, especially the famed Temple of Ba’al Shamin, and the murder of the site’s aged curator is testament not merely to the damage that religious extremism can effect. 

It is too simplistic to tie the catastrophe to religion. War seeks to demoralise those who are constructed as opponents, as “enemy”. One of the most insidious means by which an “enemy” is demoralised is by eradicating those tangible elements that give peoples their sense of identity. 

The pleas that UNESCO officials and archaeologists mounted before the ruination of the site only reinforce the sense that the identity being attacked was larger than the immediate foes in battle. There is a deliberate endeavor to confront all those deemed not to measure up to the standards that groups such as ISIS demand.

But before we become too smug in such criticism, it is worth recalling that this is far from the first time that UN officials and archaeologists have called for great care to be exercised over priceless artefacts from the past. 

The march on Baghdad in 2003 set warning lights flashing in the mind of those who esteemed the artistic and educational value of the past that was housed in the National Museum of Iraq. Of particular importance for the three great monotheistic religions were the precious remnants of Mesopotamian civilisation — the wellspring of the story of Abraham. But, for whatever reason, the pleas to mount guards around the museum fell on deaf ears or administrative neglect, and the museum treasures were looted.

The loss of these material finds means that humanity in general is the poorer, divorced from its history and too-often defaulted into a scramble for making meaning out of thin air — often at the expense of others. 

These artefacts remind us both of enduring human values (respect for the dead, artistic creations and so on) and also of the need to respect difference — in language, cultural expression and ideals. 

Their destruction narrows the world, reduces our sense of the incredible richness of humanity and, ultimately, treats human life and achievement as negligible.

Dr Alan Cadwallader is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, with specialist interest in Mark’s Gospel, Deutero-Pauline letters, archaeology (especially epigraph), critical theory, bible translation and contemporary (especially ecological and gender) hermeneutics.