04.10.2016 – Academic Research

"Like back in the deep Middle Ages"

  • "This is an iconoclasm reminiscent of the deep Middle Ages" - Historian Michael Sommer about the damage in Palmyra. Photo: Foto: istockphoto.de/Joel Carillet

For several months the historical city of Palmyra was in the hands of terrorists. Ancient sites were destroyed and archaeological excavation areas ravaged. Historian Michael Sommer sees the damage as irreparable. 

QUESTION: Last year the group known as Islamic State partially destroyed ancient sites like Palmyra in Syria. How did you feel about this as a historian?

SOMMER: I was very upset. What I find so shocking is the systematic nature of the destruction. This is an iconoclasm reminiscent of the deep Middle Ages. For me as an ancient historian, it's not so much the damage to ancient buildings or museum substance that matters. All that is so thoroughly documented that you could rebuild it to look exactly like the original if you wanted to. What is really catastrophic for science is the complete loss of control on the part of the authorities. The result is that plunderers are now effectively ploughing up the ground. That's the crux of the matter: if you look at satellite images of the region today you see thousands of little holes. It looks like a Swiss cheese.     

QUESTION: That sounds like a lot of damage…

SOMMER: Absolutely. And what is particularly tragic is that Palmyra is now for the most part lost to future systematic archaeological work. An archaeologist always sees his findings in context. The location of an object, the layer in which it was found, is important for him to be able to date it and place it in the right context. So these findings are far more important than the individual objects. The digging around done by the plunderers means that these findings are lost forever. The damage is irreparable. The scientists in Palmyra had even deliberately left certain things in the ground so that future generations of archaeologists would also have something to find – in the hope that they will have better methods of analysis at their disposition. Of course, all that was for nothing now.

QUESTION: Has anything comparable ever happened before?

SOMMER: Not on this scale or with this intensity. This region is among the most interesting and valuable areas in the world architecturally. Palmyra wasn't just any old city in antiquity; it was the trade metropolis of the Middle East. The Palmyrans organized the trade in luxury goods such as silk and spices right across the desert. This made them very rich, and they were able to build countless magnificent buildings. This is why the damage is so immense. Through the sale of these ancient objects the IS can at least partly finance itself. But the terrorists also have another objective: when we in the West report on these acts of destruction and lament them, we are blowing their horn. That is precisely what they are aiming for: a big outcry here in Europe.

QUESTION: What do they get from that?

SOMMER: They achieve several goals: firstly, they frighten us here in Europe. This total break with civilisation is precisely the message they want to send to us. Secondly, this is advertising aimed at the art trade. It creates a kind of last-chance panic among willing buyers: buy now before everything is smashed to pieces. It's a truly perverse advertising campaign. Thirdly, it's a message to their own people – basically telling them to stay loyal to their cause. While Palmyra was occupied the Western media focussed not just on the killing of people but also the systematic destruction of culture. So the IS can say: "Look, in the West all they care about is a few dead stones; they don't care about the people." The coverage played right into their hands. Nonetheless, in my opinion it was still right. They are robbing a region of its history and therefore its dignity. It wouldn't be right to remain silent about it. 

QUESTION: Precisely what kind of site was destroyed there? Are they connected to religion?

SOMMER: No, not to Islam. They date back to Roman times, or more precisely the period between the first and third century AD, just before Islam gained a foothold there. Therefore it would be correct to say that most people there don't really care about this part of their history. And to be honest the situation is not much different with the Europeans. We barely know anything about the period after the Roman Republic. History lessons end with Augustus, and that's it. But in my view this is where it starts to get really interesting: instead of the Roman Republic we are suddenly dealing with a multicultural, multiethnic empire facing the task of integrating a large number of ethnic groups and cultures. The Romans did a surprisingly good job of this. If we look at the problems we in Europe are having with integration now, perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to take a closer look at the Roman Empire. The Romans kept it stable for five hundred years, and for the most part without violence.

QUESTION: How did the Romans do that?

SOMMER: The Romans simply offered people living in the empire better living conditions than those outside it had. That was an incentive that immediately appealed to everyone. This is expressed very clearly in the film "Life of Brian". The members of the People's Front of Judea are sitting together and one of them says: "What have the Romans ever done for us? And then comes a pretty long list: aqueducts, public health, education, safe streets – it's all very exaggerated, but that's precisely it: civilisation. It created an incentive and induced the peoples who had been invaded by the Romans to want to be Romans themselves. The second point is that the Romans used the carrot-and-stick approach to motivate people to be loyal. Here in Germany the debate about German citizenship has flared up again. The Romans held out the prospect of becoming a Roman citizen to practically everyone. They were very open in this respect. But they didn't subscribe to an unguaranteed switch to loyal conduct. Citizenship was not at the start of a successful integration story, but at the end of it. The Romans managed to unite the Middle East and broad swathes of Europe in a single vast empire. Consequently, from a historical point of view today's frequently contrived division of the world into Orient and Occident isn't valid; it's an artificial polarization.

QUESTION: So from a historical point of view the Orient and Occident belong together?        

SOMMER: Yes, of course. You can see this clearly in Palmyra. Say we could travel there and you could compare it with the Ancient Roman sites you are familiar with from Italy. You would realize pretty quickly that much of it looks familiar. But then you take a look behind the scenes and see that somehow it doesn't quite fit together in the same way. The columns or the pediments and porticos suddenly appear in a new perspective. In Rome, porticos were mainly used for temples, whereas in Palmyra they might adorn a tomb. Because what did the Palmyrans do? They reconstructed the entire inventory of Roman architecture as if it was a kit, but they adapted it to their own needs. That's how the empire worked too. The Romans offered modules so that everyone could take them and build something according to their own ideas. That meant that on the one hand you became a Roman, but on the other you remained what you had always been, in this case Palmyrans with their own ideas about social interaction, religion and so on. Palmyra is a wonderful example of this creative appropriation. Until recently there was nowhere else where this architecture was so perfectly preserved. And nowhere else could we expect to find so much in the ground that would give us insights into exactly how people defined themselves in this field of tension between local identity and "being Roman".  This is the great tragedy in my view: that dimwits like the IS fighters have deprived us of such a unique opportunity. 

Interviewer: Birgit Bruns


Mehr zum Thema

Abteilung für Alte Geschichte

Michael Sommer im 3sat-Interview


Prof. Dr. Michael Sommer
Institut für Geschichte
Tel: 0441/798-4647