World Heritage sites are always on the itinerary when I travel, but I had never really pondered their significance. World Heritage belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located and the organisation seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. Palmyra is one of those sites.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today and what we pass on to future generations. Deserts, forests and monuments, oceans, architecture and culture… the best of everything that humankind and nature have to offer.
The nearest World Heritage site to my own home is the Palmeral de Elche, a formal date palm grove that dates back to the tenth century A.C, which I have visited on several occasions and which is, unfortunately, under threat from the awful red palm weevil. Everything is being done to save the Palmeral, unlike the senseless destruction taking place in Palmyra.
I have to confess that before the atrocities in Syria began I knew nothing about Palmyra, however, I now know that it is an oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus that contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. It was discovered by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries and had a decisive influence on the evolution of neoclassical architecture and modern urbanization.
Rising out of the Syrian desert north-east of Damascus, it is a “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”. Today, according to eyewitness reports which have been confirmed by satellite images, explosives were used to destroy the Temple of Bel, one of the most symbolic monuments on the site, on 30 August.
In spite of this horrifying and senseless vandalism, Director-General of UNESCO Irena Bokova is not downtrodden. “The destruction of Palmyra constitutes an intolerable crime against civilization but 4,500 years of history will never be erased”, she declared. “Each of these attacks invites us to share even more widely the heritage of humanity, whether in museums, schools, the media and our homes. This is the sense of the initiatives launched everywhere in the world by UNESCO and countless citizens of all nationalities, religions and origins, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, The power of culture is greater than that of all forms of extremism and nothing can stop it.
Learn more about the work being done by UNESCO and find more information and news about Palmyra and all the World Heritage sites by visiting whc.unesco.org.