While Palmyra Burns, We're Losing the War on History

Sunset at the Unesco World heritage Site.
Sunset at the Unesco World heritage Site.

Amid the nonstop air raids and slaughter of innocent Syrians, the recent destruction of the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria by Islamic State militants did not simply reduce another Roman-era monument to rubble.

It made a mockery out of our inaction and indifference to the current war on history.

While UN officials called earlier this summer for prosecuting the desecration of Palmyra ruins as a war crime, the truth is that the global community has ignored our fiduciary responsibility to keep alive the ancient story of Palmyra, and has allowed its loss to disappear into the 24-hour news cycle.

It seems too glib to declare a country's historical loss diminishes us all, to paraphrase English poet John Donne. But the truth is that such episodes of historicide--the murder of one's history--also reveal our own contemporary complicity in an ancient crime that denies one's existence.

The destruction of standing monuments from the Roman-era is not about a 2,000-year-old relic; it is a war-time act against humanity today, and a rejection of the contributions of those outside our chauvinistic views of history who have, in fact, shaped our modern ways.

As long as we view such historical loss as the collateral damage of war-time chaos, we are all guilty of such war crimes.

And that is the tragic lesson of irony buried in the rubble in Palmyra. The war on history is an ancient one.

Dedicated to the military conquest of the Parthians (part of today's Iran) by Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled the Roman Empire from 193-235, the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra effectively marked such war crimes and established a critical continuum of history that links Syria with Europe and the West today.

Under the Ancient Roman edict of "damnatio memoriae," emperors also had the right to "damn" one's history and demolish all monuments and documents of those they found objectionable. Such an act of historicide was considered a fate worse than death. Severus' own son Geta was murdered and condemned to "damnatio memoriae," and his image and name erased from all monuments.

At the same time, the dynasty of Libyan-born Severus, along with his Syrian wife Julia Domna, dramatically changed the concept of citizenship on today's European continent, when their son, the Emperor Caracalla, passed the Antonine Constitution that granted citizenship to all free men residing in the Roman Empire.

This ancient right of jus soli, birthright citizenship, no longer exists in much of Europe--a notable fact in this age of migration and refugee displacement.

While visitors to Rome now stop to take pictures under the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum, one of the most important landmarks of Severus' time was demolished in the 16th Century, and scattered for Christian buildings and public squares. Severus built a "septizodium" monument in Ancient Rome to welcome African and Arab travelers to the eternal city.

The destruction of such a monument in the West is no less tragic as the destruction of the Arch of Triumph in Syria. Nor was its demise unique.

The enduring crime of historical loss in Syria--and around the world--doesn't end with its barbarity. It continues in our inaction, our silence, our forgetting. It continues if we allow the tragedy of Syria to fade into the oblivion of headlines and hand-wringing indecision at global conferences and United Nations gatherings.

It continues if we neglect to tell the whole story of history--in Syria, Rome, and in the West.

Or, it stops when we finally recognize that history itself and our stories--including the life of Khalid al-Asaad, the murdered antiquities official in Palmyra, and the lessons of Severus' Ancient Rome--are essential to our lives, and their loss is a fate worse than death.

Jeff Biggers is the author of several works of history and theatre, most recently Damnatio Memoriae: A Play, Una Commedia.