The History of the Arch
A witness to more than two thousand years of history, Palmyra, the ancient settlement in the Tadmorean desert is both a cradle of myth, and a place of acute reality.
Before its occupation by the terrorist group ISIS in May 2015, though familiar to scholars of history and enthusiasts of travel, the Roman pillars of Palmyra were not well known among the general international public. Just a year later, the site has become a powerful symbol of what could become the most exciting uplift in public awareness of the human value of cultural heritage for two generations.
Palmyra is a crossing point of civilizations. A caravan city, it was built on the site of the Efqa spring, a natural sulphorous water source roughly halfway between the Euphrates River and the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. There is archaeological evidence to suggest the area was settled as early as the Neolithic period, and that it was a place of religious worship during the Bronze Age. The earliest written records of settlement can be found in the archives of Mari and date from the 2nd Century BCE.
By the 1st Century BCE Palmyra was a growing Aramean city. It came under the control of the Roman Empire under Tiberius and a century later, Hadrian granted it the status of civitas libera: a free city.
Its advantageous position on what was, at that time, the main trade causeway between East and West meant that Palmyra prospered in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries CE. It profited, in particular, as a semi-neutral, in-between place where — against a background of hostility — the desire of the Romans for the exotic spices and fabrics of Parthia, and the Parthians for the manufactured contrivances of Rome could be satisfied without either side feeling they had conceded anything to the other. It briefly and very famously broke away from Rome under the fabled Queen Zenobia, becoming the seat of its own Empire, that of the Palmyrenes, from 270 CE until its recapture by Aurelian in 273 CE.
At the time of its foundation, Palmyra was primarily a city of Amorite customs and religion. These became infused with Hellenic and Arab influences as a result of the trading activities of the city, and its growing, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population. Indeed, perhaps more than any other archaeological site of its kind, the fabric of Palmyra reads as a history of the early fusion of Eastern and Western cultural practices, styles, religions, and languages. The city's largest temple was inaugurated in celebration of a Babylonian festival, but at a time when we know that the names of the resident population were mainly Arabian, and that Syrian deities were also worshipped. In the late Roman period that followed Aurelian's return of the city to the Empire. Palmyra's official religion became Christianity and its temple - repurposed as a church - was redecorated with frescoes. Jump forward just a little further, to 624 CE, and Palmyra is an Islamic city and its church is transformed into a mosque.
Against the background of this history, the story of the Palmyra’s occupation by ISIS in 2015 is simultaneously one of human tragedy and triumph. The site was seized as part of the group’s campaign of cultural censorship, but their actions have arguably catalyzed the emergence of the greatest era of cultural awareness and intelligence in living memory. The crimes they committed in the city in the late Summer of 2015 were not only barbaric, but also stood out in sharp relief against the backdrop of the courage of those who lost their lives in its defense.
The atrocities of Palmyra have not only inspired the compassion of the international community, but have also served to underline the status of a person’s or people’s ability to remain connected with their history and heritage as a basic human right. The world has been reminded that culture is something that — fundamentally — resides in the hearts and minds of people. Physical manifestations of cultural heritage: buildings, monuments, artefacts, are symbols of something that is much bigger and more powerful than their own physicality. Our heritage takes its meaning from our relationship with it.
Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch
At the centre of Palmyra is a spectacular colonnaded street. This thoroughfare interconnects with smaller side streets of similar style, linking together the city’s temples and major public buildings. Outside of the city limits, large funerary monuments decorate the area which has come to be known as the Valley of the Tombs.
The subject of this installation is Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch, or “gate of Palmyra” as it is known by the Syrian people. This Roman archway is one of the most beautiful of the many notable monuments in the ancient city.
The arch, which stands some 20 metres tall, was built in the third century CE by Septimius Severus and links the city’s central colonnaded street to its main temple, the temple of Baal.
In the late summer of 2015, the arch, together with a number of other important structures on the site, was reduced to rubble by terrorists who had occupied the ancient city since the spring. The Institute for Digital Archaeology was, at that time, in the early stages of a documentation and cultural heritage protection project in collaboration with the people of the region. Plans were made to create a massive scale reconstruction of one of the well-known structures from the site for public display using a combination of computer-based 3D rendering and a pioneering 3D carving technology capable of creating very accurate renditions of computer modelled objects in solid stone. The goal was to use this installation as a means of sending a message of peace and hope, of demonstrating how new technologies can contribute to the process of restoration and reconstruction, and drawing attention to the importance of helping to protect and preserve the history and heritage of peoples under threat all over the world – be it from circumstances of conflict, natural disaster, or simply lack of investment or changing local circumstances.
People from the region selected the Triumphal Arch for this reconstruction project: not only because it is a powerful symbol of Palmyra and, through it, their national identity, but also because it illustrates so beautifully the fusion of early Eastern and Western architectural styles for which the site is so well known among archaeologists, and which was such a huge influence in the design of many great cities during the neo-classical period.