My eyes popped out when I saw last night’s segment on NBC Nightly News of Palmyrenes rebuilding Palmyra. Mostly they seem to be learning how to carve decorative elements of the ancient Roman city demolished by ISIS several years ago. Now ISIS has been beaten back and no longer holds the city. Still in Jordan, refugees from Palmyra and other Syrian cities seek to learn how to carve stone under the tutelege of Tony Steel, age 70, a master mason with the World Monuments Fund and veteran restorer of antiquities.
The segment was reported by Bill Neely. His video accompanies a story with much more information on NBC’s website by Bill O’Reilly.
Mahmoud Rafeeq al Quasem was featured briefly, described by Steel as the most talented of the Syrian refugees learning stonemasonry. His work is featured above in this post’s top screenshot. “If we’re not going to rebuild it,” he tells Neely, “nobody else will.” Neither he nor any of his student colleagues had ever wielded a chisel before.
How can they know ISIS will not return? And how, knowing what may happen to them if that does happen, can they undertake this work? The bravery of refugees like Quasem must stagger those of us sitting at home watching TV from our couches.
Palmyra was founded in the third millennium before Christ, destroyed in the third century A.D. by the Romans under Emperor Aurelian and rebuilt not long after by Emperor Diocletian. Like Palmyra, many other ancient and historic cities have been destroyed or severely damaged by war or disaster, then rebuilt and, often, rebuilt again. Now that is beginning, at least, to happen anew in Jordan. Syria, of course, remains a war zone.
Many, perhaps most, modern cities have been destroyed or severely damaged, no less so than Palmyra, by modern architecture. They can be rebuilt, too. Like the Luftwaffe over London in 1940, at least ISIS did not replace the rubble with something worse. In cities around the world, we can only blame the tragedy of our built environment on ourselves. The courage required to rethink our errors may not quite be the courage shown by the Palmyrenes of today, but the forces of conventional wisdom arrayed against such a task in most cities are no less brutal, psychologically if not physically, than those of the Islamic State, however vitiated it may be of late.
This may strike many readers as a terrible exaggeration. Mark my words, it is not.
[Read my post “Behead the Islamic State” from 2015. To see other posts on Palmyra, type the city’s name into my blog’s search engine.]