28 February 2016


A journalist working for the Swedish newspaper Expressen has managed to place a hidden video camera on a bus on its way into Palmyra. This is the first time anyone has filmed in the city since ISIS took control in May 2015 ...  or, at least, it's the first time any filmer has come out alive.

The bus rolls in along the city’s deserted streets. 70,000 people used to live here. Today it is a ghost town.  The modern city was never a pretty place but it was prosperous, having plenty of simple restaurants and coffee shops, with vibrant markets, and rows of new villas rising just outside the ruins.  Now, not a single person is to be seen.

(If the video doesn't appear correctly, click on this link)

Once the bus arrives in Palmyra, it is too dangerous to change the position of the camera: that's why the video only shows what is visible on the right side of the bus.  Thus, although we don't see it, as the bus leaves the modern town it drives past the Museum and the square where its Director, Khaled al-Asaad, was murdered last year and his body hung on a lamp post.

You then enter the archaeological area and first spot the emptiness where had been the well-preserved Temple of Balshamin. 

Not 50 meters (150') away on the left, you can see the Zenobia Hotel behind the palm trees. We often sat in Zenobia's garden with a cool beer, watching the sun set over this temple, as the dying light turned the apricot-coloured stone into purple and then night.

The Temple of Balshamin is gone. It is truly night.

The secret camera next records the entrance to the Great Colonnade, an elegant street that runs for more than a kilometer (1100 yards), lined with temples, baths, a theatre, and shops on either side. Tall triple arches -- the pictorial symbol of the city -- marked the Colonnade's start on the southeast end. Though dubbed the 'Arch of Triumph', we actually don't know exactly when or why it was erected.  No matter.  Only broken blocks remain.

I'm not sure why ISIS blew up the arches: they had no religious history nor idolatrous imagery.  Perhaps it was just too much a symbol of life before ISIS. 

Opposite the triple arches and across the road had been the grandest of all Palmyran monuments, the Temple of Bel.  Since the secret camera couldn't photograph from that side of the bus, there are no new pictures of the devastated temple.  But we already know what happened to the Temple of Bel. 

The only surviving structure within the sanctuary is the archaeological dig-house (upper right). This had once been a village chief's dwelling, a handsome building surrounding a courtyard planted with date palms and terebinth trees. I lived there with the Dutch artist Bierenbroodspot many months at a time in the 1990s: from the terrace of the dig-house the ruins spread out in front, and its other side looked out over the remains of the green oasis.  Our last visit was in the winter of 1997 and it was remarkable for the two-tailed Hale-Bopp comet that hovered every night over the temple until the very last weeks of our stay. Sitting on the terrace, staring out at the utterly dark and silent temple, it was easy to think of portents, and how the cosmic indifference of Hale-Bopp would once have foretold the death of kings and the fall of empires. We could almost reach out and touch that ancient world, when every sign was meaningful.  I keep telling myself that the comet could not have foretold the coming of ISIS.

The Temple of Balshamin is gone.  The Arch of Triumph is gone. The tower tombs have been blown up.  Only rubble remains.
“The IS terrorists were looking for two tonnes of buried gold. When they didn’t find it they started executing people and destroying  Palmyra,” the son-in-law of Khaled al-Asaad told Expressen.
 I suppose what they could not understand was that Palmyra itself was the treasure.  And so they themselves destroyed the gold.
"I feel very sad. It makes me want to cry. There are no words."


All credit to the brave journalist, Kassem Hamadé, of the Swedish newspaper Espressen.  The story is filed under Hidden Camera Shows How IS Destroyed the Palmyra World Heritage

Note an old error crept into the text on the video: King Solomon did not found Tadmor.  That idea was based on a misreading of the place name "Tamar" in 1 Kings 9:18, conflating it with "Tadmor",  the Semitic name for Palmyra (both names meaning 'palm trees'). 


All stills from the video except that of the Temple of Bel which was published by BBCI


  1. I feel your pain as I read this Judith

  2. This is what Islam in its more "pure" form does: it replaces, removes and destroys whatever it comes into contact with. There are countless archaeological sites which have been destroyed all over the Muslim world which scientists will probably never know about. Islam is a replacement ideology, plain and simple.


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