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June 14, 2015 12:38 pm

Palmyra Redux: The Clash of Civilization & Barbarism

avatar by Brandon Marlon

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Palmyran Ruins

Palmyran ruins.

Amid the stately yet skeletal ruins of Palmyra, Syria, the world is witnessing in real time the clash between civilization and barbarism, a microcosm of the larger turmoil imperiling societies globally. ISIS’ carnival of violence continues across Syria and Iraq and along the fringes of Lebanon, leaving a trail of red earth in the wake of advancing terrorists steeped in blood. Roisterous in their terrible merriment, they have already destroyed the Lion of al-Lat statue dedicated to a pre-Islamic pagan goddess and have conducted executions in the well-preserved theater.

Palmyra was long ago the scene of a historic clash, but between two civilizations in competition. Now the competition is between rival evils, terrorism and despotism.

Zenobia (Bat Zabbai in Aramaic, al-Zabba in Arabic) was a warrior queen who led a daring, misguided, and ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the embattled Roman Empire in the late 3rd century C.E. Emperor Aurelian, her formidable arch-nemesis, repelled incessant barbarian invasions then outmatched Zenobia and restored to his beleaguered empire the unity and vigor of its halcyon days. The battle for control of the East left Palmyra and much of Syria lying in ruins. But for all her faults and flaws, Zenobia was far from barbaric.

Queen Zenobia, vaunted heroine to the Arabs, notorious traitress to the Romans, was an ambitious but enlightened and tolerant ruler whose queendom included pagan Arabs, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Manicheans. She would doubtless be aghast at the senseless brutality and inhumanity of ISIS, and particularly at its genocidal persecution of Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and Yazidis, its rape and enslavement of women, and its slaughter of children. And she would almost certainly be bewildered by civilization’s pathetic response to ISIS and those of their ilk in Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Al-Qaeda. Why have the paths to and pillars of civilization been abandoned to murderous gangs of thugs in pickup trucks and subterranean tunnels? Why has civilization permitted its homegrown toxins – moral equivalency and political correctness – to impair clarity and muddle right and wrong?

Zenobia’s was an age of belief, reverence for the divine, and strength of purpose. From her oasis of Palmyra – City of Palms, the Bride of the Desert – she envisioned an Arabian empire and fought to realize her dream, consolidating Syria then conquering Egypt and Anatolia before Roman legions countered and reversed her gains. At first inclined toward clemency, Aurelian spared Palmyra, but a subsequent revolt after his departure prompted his return and Palmyra was razed to the ground. Like Titus at Jerusalem centuries earlier, the Roman emperor spared but a few edifices – sacred temples, a theater, tower tombs – attesting to the quondam grandeur of a demolished capital.

Palmyran Theater

Palmyra’s theater.

While in her day the educated Zenobia built and renovated, nowadays the brutes of ISIS destroy lives and antiquities without reluctance or compunction. What they don’t destroy they hawk as wares on the black market to fuel their continuous terrorism, a far cry from Zenobia’s robust caravan commerce that once stimulated the impressive cultural and architectural splendor of the short-lived Palmyrene Empire.

There is no preferable option between Assad’s tyrannical autarchy and ISIS’ terror syndicate. It may eventuate as a positive development that Syria has become sectile, ripe for division into disparate statelets along ethnic lines for the sake of Syria’s discrete ethnicities. Humanitarian assistance for civilians and intervening to prevent the procurement of WMDs should be civilization’s primary concerns for the time being; only when the dust settles in Syria and one side has ousted the other should the forces of civilization challenge the triumphant with determination.

Even more menacing than the faux Islamic State is the actual Islamic state – the Islamic Republic of Iran. How long will global leaders dither in view of the prevaricating Iranians and their unsubtle subterfuge? In her day, Zenobia joined her husband King Odainat and their Arab army in a successful military campaign repelling the Sassanian Persians under Shapur the Great, whose imperious aggression was checked.

But ours is a gutted age of disbelief and disorientation. Eviscerated and emasculated, Western civilization has to an alarming degree lost its sense of direction, and with it its purpose and resolve. Absent a moral compass and ethical helm, for many leaders and leading thinkers it is no longer obvious in the face of clear and present dangers when to appease and when to oppose, when to understand and when to withstand. And without the willpower, not all the manpower and firepower in the world avails.

Loss of values within civilized societies amounts to an invitation to conquest by outsiders. Lack of lucidity in a civilization signals disarray to barbarians, whose threat is thereby emboldened and extended. Values are the columns that uphold civilization and structure the lifeway of the sane and humane. Similarly, values in the body of civilization are akin to entrails in the human body: when the civilized disembowel themselves, they are easily decapitated by invading savages.

In many ways, Palmyra’s destiny will epitomize that of civilization worldwide. We should all be paying close attention to the Palmyran columns that now tower but threaten to topple, for those columns are the very pillars of civilization itself.

Islamic terrorism is the scourge of the 21st century, for non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Only a seasoned civilization rich in moral resources, affirmed in its clarity and courage, stands a chance of overcoming it.

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  • Musa Alhassan

    Fantastic where despotism meet terrorism .ethnic cleansing civilization suffers

  • dr. Kurt Hengl

    Dear unknown writer and poet!
    Your wonderfully written and terribly logic article deserves more than just an ephemere existence in the algemeiner and forces us westeners, preposterously proud of our past values, to reconsider our stance.
    But of course, there is a existencial difference between a Syrian Assad, suppressing any free speech and keeping the majority from strangling the minorites — and a brutal murderous regime which is wading in the blood of its victims, all this in its criminal interpretation of a (fairy-)book, for which the copyright has not yet been paid.

  • Jack Thomas

    Unfortunely, Western elected leaders have become babysitters for a very spoiled populace, who expect others to provide, protect, and pamper them, with no regard for responsibility for themselves. Go help us, they may soon cry; God helps those who help themselves, is the lesson of history.

  • T. Gerritsen

    “There is no preferable option between Assad’s tyrannical autarchy and ISIS’ terror syndicate.”

    Yes, there is. Assad’s tyranny is clearly the lesser evil. Ask the religious minorities in Syria. Your remark is a symptom of the very moral relativism you decry.

    • Israel Isaiah

      Are you for real? Ask the thousands gassed by Assad who they prefer! Get your head right!

    • Yaakov Yampolsky

      Nonsense. Assad is a mass murderer who employed weapons of mass destruction. He cannot be perceived as the lesser evil.

    • T. Gerritsen

      By the author’s own standards, Assad is the lesser evil. At least Assad will be sure to leave Palmyra standing. Remember, a lesser evil is still an evil. I’m only saying the alternative, ISIS, is even worse.

      By the same standards, ISIS is a greater menace than Iran. Iran has Christian, Mandaean and Zoroastrian communities and doesn’t erase its pre-Islamic past, whereas the West’s ally Saudi-Arabia is not only judenrein, but has even destroyed its own cultural heritage, including buildings that are said to have belonged to the prophet Muhammad. It is this hypocrisy that stains the West’s moral reputation.

      From an Israeli perspective, Iran and its allies may understandably seem the greater menace. If the author wants to make that point, he should do so directly and not hide behind Palmyra’s columns.

      • AJ Sarna

        You miss the point. Iran is not the issue. The article makes it clear that ISIS and Assad are both dreck and they should finish each other off so that a civilized force can take the reins.

        And are you really so sure Assad would respect Palmyran ruins in his increasingly desperate civil war? Kindly recall that he did not respect Dera’a, nor Homs (Emesa), nor the ancient edifices of Aleppo. If he felt it necessary to combat the resistance to his regime, he would have his military assail Palmyra with little hesitation.

        Eyes open, folks.

        • T. Gerritsen

          @AJ Sarna:

          Which civilized force do you have in mind to take over the reins?

          My point is that if Assad hadn’t had an armed revolution going on, he wouldn’t have had taken brutal reprisals in the first place. Second, the destruction in Aleppo and other place is, to use that horrible euphemism, collateral damage, not a campaign of planned destruction of everything non- and pre-islamic like ISIS is perpetrating. The brutality of a secular dictatorship fending off an armed rebellion is simply incommensurate with the genocidal cruelty of a terrorist organization hell-bent on realizing its apocalyptic utopia.

          • AJ Sarna

            Not so. Actually, the pertinent matter is that there IS an armed resistance taking place, and that antiquities have not been spared by either side. Indeed, if Assad retakes Palmyra in a counterstrike against ISIS, his record indicates that its historical sanctity will be sacrificed without a second thought, proving the equal nefariousness of ISIS’ vicious gangsterism and Assad’s vicious dictatorship. neither can objectively be considered any better than the other. The author is right on in evaluating both parties as injurious to human life and human masterworks.

    • T. Gerritsen

      Please read:

      and check whether life under Assad or even Saddam was ever such a living hell as life is under ISIS.

      I rest my case.

  • Kumoi

    Well said. Could not agree more. This article/commentary should be required reading for every Western leader. Political correctness is going to kill Western Civilization.

  • Dave L.

    Thanks for a magnificent article. Instructive and beautifully written.

  • Isaac Bajtman

    What a waste of” ink “printing this article here . Only you and I read it. It needs to be printed on every billboard and newspaper in evey country to try and wake up the sleeping masses