Palmyra Redux: The Clash of Civilization & Barbarism
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.
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.