Palmyrenes saving Palmyra

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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.

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Wafa’a Olimat carves a volute. (NBC)

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.]

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Palmyrene ruins after ISIS takeover in 2013. (Russia Beyond)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Preservation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Palmyrenes saving Palmyra

  1. Steven Semes says:

    Excellent illustration of how the most important heritage to preserve is the intangible heritage of skills, know-how, crafts, and building culture that allows us to maintain, repair, and when necessary, rebuild our most valued monuments and sites.


    • That is absolutely true, Steve, because someday in the future the collective good sense of mankind will give the boot to modernism and its control of the architectural establishment, and it will be vital that we have a sufficient number people capable of actually building what is designed by traditional architects. And because of the good work of preservation, for which I’ve always had the deepest respect, it seems, partly because of the work in Jordan of the World Monuments Fund, as if those artisans will be there for the world.


  2. says:

    Good for Mr. steal !! I applaud him but looking at those women tickling the Stone Hill he has a long way to go …What what his time anyway?

    Sent from my iPhone



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