August 31, 2015.
Very few people send me real letters these days, except an old friend of mine, the Greek archaeologist Archondia Thanos. I imagine Archondia as a modern-day Agatha Christie, the crime writer who made notorious the Orient Express, and who had a passion for archaeology — her husband Max Mallowman’s profession — famously cleaning the dirty, delicate Assyrian artifacts he found with cotton buds and her Innoxa face cream. Archondia, likewise, travels everywhere with moisturizer and mountaineering boots, and loves intrigue and the smell of old books. This is why we get along. We both like to muck about in the dirt. We both like a good story. She hates social media and is suspicious of the Internet, which she says reduces us to little more than offerings on the Tabernacle of Spectacle: twenty-first century flâneurs of a fearful world of refractions and disembodied faces, with brains slowly and invisibly burned to a crisp.
Archondia uses email only because her university department requires it. I get postcards from her once or twice a year with spiky old-fashioned writing, updating me on her travels and the intrigues of her life. So when I found a mass email from her in my inbox ten days ago, I knew it wasn’t good. She wrote:
It is with great sadness and shock that I write to you all with news of the murder of my friend, the archaeologist Dr. Khaled el Asaad, by ISIS militants yesterday. It breaks my heart that a man of such integrity, kindness and devotion has come to an end in this way. On a personal note, he will be remembered as a man who was very proud of his country, Syria, and the ancient legacy he was charged to keep and preserve. He loved intelligent inquiry and independent erudition; he loved life, his family and young scholars like myself who visited and worked with him and his colleagues. My prayers are with them all, especially his family.
Dr. Asaad, 83 years old, was beheaded on August 19, 2015, slaughtered in front of dozens in the public square of the ruined ancient city of Palmyra. Pictures posted online show a headless body hanging upside-down from one of the ancient columns. Erudite, cheerful, bespectacled, he was the sort of Arab the Islamic State loves to despise. For the past four decades, he had, by all accounts, been inseparable from Palmyra’s ancient ruins: he played the parts of director of antiquities and eager tour guide, at ease equally with visiting dignitaries and the Bedouins who have lived around Palmyra for centuries.
Captured with his son when Palmyra fell in May, he was tortured by militants eager to find the ancient treasures they were convinced he was hiding. His son tells us that the militants, far from satiated by the thousands of glass objects and minutely carved seals that had already been looted, demanded that Dr. Asaad help them to fill their coffers with ancient gold. When the old archaeologist refused to speak, they murdered him, turning his last minutes into a gruesome online spectacle.
The destruction of Palmyra is horrific.
But what is the real thing behind the visible that we mourn?
For the faceless militants, the death of Dr. Asaad is a performance piece, a distraction from battlefield losses on the ground. Banking on the international community’s reluctance to bomb a UNESCO world heritage site, the militants are fed and sheltered by the power granted by technology to tug at our heartstrings. Dr. Asaad’s friend, Dr. Abd al-Razzaq Moaz, who was interviewed by Reuters shortly after news of the murder broke, described ISIS in terms that make them seem like omniscient vulture gods from a horror film: “I know that they read Facebook — they see everything, they read everything.”
If we are not careful, Dr. Asaad, a singular man who had a singular passion for the relics of a particular time and place, will become an instant symbol. A refraction, as art critic John Berger once said, “not of light, but of appetite,” a single appetite that includes not only ISIS’s appetite for notoriety, but ours as well: our “appetite for more” — more terror, more emotion, more violence. We watch the news on our computer screens, history in the raw, so raw that it is in constant flux, without even the illusion of staying power that comes from the rustle of black-and-white print. Our emotions follow the unseizable force of the pixelated screen: we become scattered, distracted, and greedy for this easy cinematic access to other worlds that we don’t have to touch. We eagerly await the sequel.
August 25, 2015.
A snapshot races around the web. We are to assume that this is a photograph of Palmyra, but it’s not clear. You can’t see much; a mushroom cloud of smoke, yellow-grey and sulfurous, rushes the frame: a Syrian Hiroshima blotting out everything but four of Dr. Asaad’s columns. The ticker on Time.com reads, “See ISIS’s Destruction of the Ancient City Palmyra. … The Roman-era temple of Baalshamin, located in Syria, was destroyed on Sunday, a month after the group’s militants booby-trapped it with explosives. The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO on Monday called the destruction of the temple a war crime.” The cypress trees in this photo are striking, the oddest shade of green against baby-blue sky.
August 31, 2015.
Quick on the heels of the death of Oliver Sacks, we hear from the Daily Mail: “Wiping yet more history off the face of the earth: ISIS blows up 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in Palmyra in latest outrage at the ancient Syrian city. … It has been claimed that the Islamic State will take Palmyra down piece by piece.”
I probe my own deep sense of disturbed distraction. I am unsure where to settle my thoughts: Do I feel despair at this mindless destruction of world heritage, or a sense of personal paralysis amid this glut of war and ruin? No, I am vaguely aware that I am waving, not drowning, in my own words, living in my own shameless essay of cultural appropriation, one that has a beginning and a middle but no end. I hurriedly hush the whisper deep inside that the Middle East is my first muckland: this spit of Internet words, these war crimes, this disembodied man — these images are in fact fragile, dirty fragments of my own shifting pastiche of belonging.
August 31, 1981.
I live in Amman, Jordan. Agatha Christie died five years ago, one day before I was born. My mother is halfway through Murder in Mesopotamia; she reads it aloud to my father before they fall asleep. I have been allowed to keep an orange cat found by the dumpster, a stray that I have named Johnny and who laps up cream of mushroom soup from a can. Our home is next door to ACOR, the American Center of Oriental Research, and I take piano lessons there from the wife of an eminent archaeologist. Just after lunch, I climb over the wall and jump down next door, falling into a baby olive tree. I brush leaves and dirt from my skirt, and skip down a flight of stairs to practice my scales on an old piano in a basement room, half-full of broken artifacts waiting to be toothbrushed and catalogued.
Suddenly, my father appears and I am grabbed, his hard knuckles digging into my armpits. I am pulled under a table, squeezed between my teacher and my father and an upside-down marble head, while a bomb is dismantled somewhere outside, minutes before it is set to explode. I learn that Americans are targets. Or antiquities are targets; I’m not sure. A few years later, we move. I will pick and preserve branches from that olive tree, carry them with me, and mourn this departure from a country I thought was mine. Roman columns that rise unexpectedly from purple desert sand, pock-marked and cream-colored — of course they belong to me.
In an attempt to honor Archondia Thanos and Dr. Khaled al-Asaad, faithful Keepers of the Real, lovers of singularity and idiosyncrasy, let me address this question to them: what is the real power of these postcards from the past that you dig from the earth? Columns that lie where they have fallen like unfinished sentences; the ghosts of city lines that run amok — handwriting too hard to decipher; the glass objects and minutely carved seals — ellipses that run off the page — three dots where a signature should have been?
You, Archondia and Khaled, are the only ones who can truly understand these relics, gifted with the intimacy of your work and labor. The rest of us come and go like tourists seeking admittance to what we think must be the Museum of Ourselves. But, Archondia from Greece and Khaled from Syria, you stay when others leave, with shovels, boots, and moisturizing cream, like artists in a studio, rearranging the pieces of a temple to — as John Berger would say — “arrange its appearances for the better.” In an essay written shortly after September 11, 2001, Berger expresses concern over a system that is causing us to lose touch with the real, with what is visible in the world around us:
Until recently, history, all the accounts people gave of their lives, all proverbs, fables, parables, confronted the same thing: the everlasting, fearsome, and occasionally beautiful, struggle of living with Necessity, which is the enigma of existence — that which followed from the Creation, and which subsequently has always continued to sharpen the human spirit. Necessity produces both tragedy and comedy. It is what you kiss or bang your head against.Today, in the system’s spectacle, it exists no more. Consequently no experience is communicated. All that is left to share is the spectacle, the game that nobody plays and everybody can watch. As has never happened before, people have to try to place their own existence and their own pains single-handed in the vast arena of time and the universe.
Berger draws a relationship between Necessity — that quality of desire that sharpens the human spirit — and things that can be seen with the human eye. However, he steers clear of suggesting that this Necessity means that we must possess material things — to take with us, hoard, and grow into abstract objects of commerce and exchange and desire. We make this mistake with our pasts: we assume that history is a tangible thing, even that heritage is something that we can own, divvy up, and pass on. In fact, Berger reminds us that the world around us is one that constantly appears and disappears. From this awareness of ephemerality comes our human Necessity to create and recreate in order to ensure the continuity of our idiosyncratic worlds, worlds that are only ever truly visible to the singular individuals who make them. It’s the fidelity to the thinginess of the thing that we see and we love, the painful decision to voyage out without looking back in order to inhabit that thing. This world of the visible isn’t tethered to earth; it rejects boundaries of race, or religion, or even nationality. We need to inhabit relics of the world around us because they are all that we can touch of an unseizable force. But once we inhabit these relics, get inside them, rearrange the pieces, become them, we need to shatter their thinginess into a million pieces. Hold on too long, and the whisper of possession becomes a call to arms.
We make this mistake with our pasts: we assume that history is a tangible thing, even that heritage is something that we can own, divvy up, and pass on.
In fact, the world around us is one that constantly appears and disappears.
I’ve never been to Palmyra, but I feel as if I have. I’ve been there countless times in my mind, using the memories of many other ruins from the Middle East that I have seen to spur my imagination — the columns of Jerash or the remote rock carvings of Petra. I have a tendency, I know, to confuse the apparent and the existent. But Palmyra stands out for me, even more than ruins I have seen in person, because some years ago I became fascinated with the story of Lady Hester Stanhope — niece of William Pitt, self-proclaimed Queen of the Desert, who was the first Western woman to fight her way to Palmyra, following her sense of Necessity across desert sands and despite the hostility of Bedouin tribes.
February 15, 1810.
Bored with her life and tired of the social strictures that prevented her from walking the streets of London without an escort, Lady Hester — almost six feet tall, violet-eyed, and with shocking white blond hair — left home and never returned. She invited her doctor, Charles Meryon, to accompany her — a kind of Sancho Panza to her Don Quixote.
At the moment that Lord Elgin struck the first blow to the Parthenon, eventually hacking the River God from the West Pediment, Lady Hester set sail for Greece. Eyewitness accounts tell us that Lord Byron took an hour off from penning the first few lines of Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage (the poem in which he shakes his fist at Elgin for tearing “down those remnants with a Harpy’s hand”), and jumped into the water to receive Hester when she arrived at Athens. A few days later, headed to Egypt from Greece, Lady Hester was shipwrecked near Rhodes just off the coast of Malta.
I imagine her in that moment as a version of Shakespeare’s Viola: shaking the saltwater from her hair, facing the natives who had gathered, astonished on the beach, and saying in her imperious tone, “What country, friends, is this?” Like Viola, she chose from that moment onward to wear boys’ clothes, assimilating the look of a Turkish bey with billowing trousers, a purple turban, and slippers. She made it to Cairo in one piece but, impatient that too many others had adventured there first, she set her sights on Palmyra, believing herself to be the modern-day successor of Queen Zenobia. Remarkably, she was successful.
We need to inhabit the relics of the world because they are all that we can touch of an unseizable force.
August 15, 1815.
Late in the afternoon, over high tea at her lavish estate in Lebanon where she had settled and was to live for the rest of her life, Lady Hester could be found deep in conversation with an Italian monk who was about to leave her with the kind of parting gift that she couldn’t resist: a medieval map showing the supposed location of 3 million gold coins hidden under the ruins of a mosque at Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean Coast just north of Gaza. By August 19, 1815, at 9 a.m., Lady Hester and her Sancho Panza doctor were in Ashkelon, surveying those ruins, ready to carry out what has been called the first archaeological excavation in Palestine. Lady Hester persuaded the Ottoman authorities to give her permission to break ground, assuring them that she and her team would personally drop every single gold coin found there straight into the government purse.
Lady Hester did not find gold. Instead, she found a headless marble statue 18 feet underground. She watched as the sculpture was scraped and pulled from the earth. She marked the coordinates of the site, and ordered her doctor to sketch the colossal and priceless work of art. And then, in the same imperious tone she had used with the natives off the coast of Malta, she ordered it to be smashed. Break it, she sang out, into as many pieces as we didn’t find in gold — and once this is done, throw it with great ceremony into the sea.
Her doctor cringed and begged her to reconsider. However, Lady Hester pointed to the example of Lord Elgin and said that she wanted to smash the statue to make her point. She was not here for antiquities. She was no member of the Society of Dilettanti, who would have been greedy to unbury, possess, and then display this disembodied sculpture back in England. She wanted to show the people — her adopted people — that her motives were pure. Lady Hester believed not only in history in the raw, but also that she herself was history in the raw. She cared little for objects, with or without faces. She had her own definition of a living past.
When Charles Meryon wrote Lady Hester’s memoirs, he recorded with amazement that this event — this smashing of antiquity — was the turning point of the rest of her eccentric life in the Middle East. The locals didn’t care about the sculpture — in fact, her destruction had its desired effect. They celebrated the fragments as they sank to the bottom of the sea, and took Lady Hester at her word. They saw her as someone who cared more for the present than the past; who had found her Necessity in their story.
August 31, 2015.
I am stuck on Hester Stanhope. Who was this lady who could so easily and with such brutal clarity smash the statue of Ashkelon?
I want to jump from stone walls, pluck hard berries from an olive branch, rub dirt and leaves from my eyes.
The destruction of Palmyra is horrific. But what is the real thing behind the visible that we mourn? How much of our anguish has to do with material sites, columns, glass objects, minutely carved seals — all rich and irreplaceable flagstones of the past? How much of our anguish has to do with the ruins of memory that we have learned to traverse merely as tourists, who slip and slide on shifting sands? These ruins have become weapons of a new kind of imperialism — wielded not by militants, but by ourselves. Confusing the Real with the Visible, we sally forth, our eyes blinded by the glare of the screen, tilting at windmills.
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Heidi Stalla is an assistant professor of humanities and associate director of the writing program at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.
Cover image courtesy of Rafael Medina