ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.
If the ruined ruins of Palmyra could speak, they would marvel at our shock. After all, they have been sacked before. In their mute and shattered eloquence, they spoke for centuries not only about the cultures that built them but also about the cultures that destroyed them—about the fragility of civilization itself, even when it is incarnated in stone. No designation of sanctity, by God or by UNESCO, suffices to protect the past. The past is helpless. Instead these ruins, all ruins, have had the effect of lifting the past out of history and into time. They carry the spectator away from facts and toward reveries.
In the 18th century, after the publication in London of The Ruins of Palmyra, a pioneering volume of etchings by Robert Wood, who had traveled to the Syrian desert with the rather colorful James Dawkins, a fellow antiquarian and politician, the desolation of Palmyra became a recurring symbol for ephemerality and the vanity of all human endeavors. “It is the natural and common fate of cities,” Wood drily remarked in one of the essays in his book, “to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins.” Wood’s beautiful and meticulous prints served as inspirations for paintings, and it was in response to one of those paintings that Diderot wrote some famous pages in his great Salons of 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. ... Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me. What is my ephemeral existence in comparison with that of a rock being worn down, of a valley being formed, of a forest that’s dying, of these deteriorating masses suspended above my head? I see the marble of tombs crumble into powder and I don’t want to die!”