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War among the ruins: Russian soldiers look on towards Palmyra in 2016. Photo: FRIEDEMANN KOHLER/dpa/alamy stock photo

Palmyra and the myth of civilisation

Dividing the world into the civilised and the barbarians is no way to understand Syria’s tragedy

By Sameer Rahim   April 2021

Six years after he was murdered by Islamic State (IS), Khaled al-Asaad’s human remains were finally recovered on 7th February. The final days of the Syrian Director of Antiquities in Palmyra have an element of heroic mythology befitting the ancient city in which he worked. According to reports, IS tortured him to reveal where its famous funerary busts and rumoured gold treasure had been hidden. When he refused to say, he was beheaded in the city’s Roman theatre and a sign hung round his neck reading: “director of idolatry.” 

Simon Schama, in the opening to the 2018 BBC reboot of Civilisations, described Palmyra’s capture by IS and Asaad’s death with customary rhetorical brio: “We can spend a lot of time debating what civilisation is or isn’t but when its opposite shows up, in all its brutality and cruelty and intolerance and lust for destruction, we know what civilisation…

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