History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

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The reconstruction of the arch nears completion in Trafalgar Square.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A replica of Palymra’s Arch of Triumph has just been unveiled in London. The original was constructed by the Roman Empire and was believed to be over two millennia old by the time it was dynamited by Islamic State in late 2015. The group were later driven out of the site by Syrian government forces. The replica arch which now stands in London’s Trafalgar Square was engineered by the Institute of Digital Archaeology who created a digital model from photographs of the original, before having a replica made in Italy, where it was machine tooled from Egyptian marble by a robotic cutting arm. This new arch will soon go on to tour to other cities including Dubai and New York. “Antiquities like this belong to all mankind and it is imperative that we all strive to safeguard our common heritage,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson as he unveiled the recreation, apparently oblivious to the distinction between a genuine relic and its copy.

Photography is evidently mixed up in this recreation in very practical ways, as the means by which the arch has been so meticulously reconstructed. But photography also offers a model for the way we think about the relationship between original things and their copies. A photograph is not a window on another world, as some people like to think, nor increasingly even is it a trace of the thing it depicts. Photography is a pattern of tones and colours, and whether it be an analog print or a digital upload to Instagram the image lives far less in the medium itself than in our minds. The same one might say is true of history and it’s traces. In Phillip K Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, the plot revolves in part around an inflated market for icons of Americana, driven by the rapacious collecting of the Japanese soldiers who have occupied the country. In response an industry of fakes has arisen, with artisans producing items like wild west style pistols, carefully aged, but completely inauthentic. Everyone knows that these items are fake, including the collectors who pay huge sums for them, but no one has the will to speak this truth out loud. I feel something similar here.

The reconstruction of the arch has been questioned by some as a rather hollow act, a Disneyland attempt at history, and certainly for me the recreation of the arch calls to mind the underwhelming Stonehenge used as a stageset by the fictional rockband Spinal Tap. Others have criticised it as downright unethical. Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology rightly highlights the politically contested nature of these sites and points to the way that the reoccupation of sites like Palmyra has become a way for the Assad government to reclaim a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of some in the west, even as it continues to torture and kill its own citizens. Any attempt to willfully recreate history says as much as an attempt to willfully destroy it and so the recreation is undeniably political, and attempt to pretend otherwise is disindigenous. The understated photograph above by Stefan Rousseau hints at this in the way it uses a section of the arch to frame Nelson’s Column, a victory monument in it’s own right, and in the distance the looming clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. One might say the same of attempts to occupy or colonise certain sections of the past, whether that occupation is undertaken by the descendants of the people who built what is being colonised, or it is done by foreigners acting in the name of humanity at large.

In this sense one might say that we are doing something not entirely dissimilar to what the Assad regime has done in making the rescue of Palmyra from Islamic State a military objective. In erecting and celebrating this arch in London, we are asserting our cultural credentials in an attempt to show that we are doing something tangible in response to this terrible and protracted war. The destruction of cultural artifacts is something most in the west can comfortably express outrage over, even if doing so just rather awkwardly reveals the gulf between our horror at the destruction of these irreplaceable ancient monuments, and an enduring indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, every one of those people is just as irreplaceable. A particularly memorable chapter in Vassily Grossman’s Second World War epic Life and Fate consists of Grossman describing at length the absolute impossibility of constructing a computer which could think and feel as even the most average human being is able to. He then imagines the excitement that such a machine would engender among the techno-fetishistic German armies then ploughing their way across the Soviet Union. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the unbearable irony these people who would hail as miraculous a machine which could muster even a poor imitation of a human mind were actively exterminating millions of people.

Raising this arch of triumph also reflects a certain inability to remember recent history of our own, for example when our tanks rolled over ancient archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the American military set up a base on the site of what had been the ancient city of Bablylon damaging it enormously in the process. For me this amnesia rather poses the question of whether either of the two are worse; people who willfully destroy ancient monuments and culture because of an overdeveloped sense of what those objects represent, or those who destroy them because of the opposite, out of a sheer ignorance of their importance. There is needless to say also a certain irony in erecting this arch in London, one of the prime marketplaces for looted antiquities smuggled out of conflict zones like Syria, and a city with so many museums containing artifacts that are much more directly the spoils of state aggression and imperialism. Touring the arch to the art superpowers of Dubai and New York would seem to only underline this.

In contrast to the rhetoric of ‘great men’, true history isn’t something which can be made. History is something which accretes, congeals, weathers, falls apart and gets blown up, and which almost always has on it the traces of those who lived it, a deficit all the more apparent in the case of this copy because it has not been even been sculpted by contemporary human hands but by a machine. History is also a finite and naturally accruing resource, not something which can be synthesized or manufactured, and imagining that one can simply replace the past when it can no longer be put back together represents a terrible misunderstanding of what history is and how it relates to the present. It’s a misunderstanding not so unrelated to the conception of the present that imagines that things like drone bombing campaigns can recorrect our past foreign police mistakes, and which refuses to consider that these new innovations are in Marx’s famous words an example of history repeating itself (as tragedy in the case of the drone campaigns, perhaps as farce in the case of London’s paltry Arch of Triumph).

One wonders what future arcs of triumph will mark the War on Terror and the wider misadventures of the past two decades. In pondering this, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his epic Agricola around the same time that Palmyra’s original arch was constructed Tacitus referenced the Scottish chieftain Calgacus and attributed to him one of the most remarkable speeches against Rome or any empire, one made all the astonishing because these bitter words were in fact almost certainly not those of the soon to be defeated Celt, but rather those of Tacitus himself, a Roman citizen. ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.’

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