Solidarity Through Architecture and Ruins: A New Front in the War on Terror

In August of 2015, the Islamic State brutally destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, one of many such attacks on cultural treasures that figuratively and literally pierce the heart of the Middle East. In response to this tragedy, the arch from the Temple of Baal — the centerpiece of Palmyra — will be recreated in Trafalgar Square in London and Times Square in New York. Using the world’s largest 3D printer, its designers hope to simultaneously honor the site as well as express a new kind of solidarity in the face of terror: a solidarity of civilization and culture. But on a global scale, this recreation holds many more ramifications for both cross-cultural engagement and global harmony. It seeks to unite a world of differences based on their few but significant similarities against an enemy that is quickly proving to hold the ability to threaten the very foundation of our history as a globe.

Before its destruction, Palmyra was one of the most important archeological locations in the world, and held the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 32 AD, the temple of Baal was the oldest building in the city, and presented a unique synthesis of Greco-Roman and Near Eastern architecture. For centuries, it served as a crossroads for Islam and Christianity, hosting pilgrims from both religions as they came to honor its patron saint, Elian.

When Palmyra was bombed last summer, it epitomized ISIL’s “war on history,” that has been devastatingly sweeping throughout the area. One of the constant goals of the group has been to denounce all narratives and states not in line with their own, claiming the land they conquer as their rightful property. An essential component of this tactic has been the demolition of key archeological sites integral to the history of the Middle East, including the temples at Mosul and Nimrud. Through these actions, ISIL hopes to wipe the slate of the past clean to make room for their caliphate of the Levant, and in doing so, are effectively marring both past and present religious icons; an act that has registered around the globe as an attack on humanity itself.

With the location of these icons being so close to Mesopotamia, “the birthplace of civilization,” ISIL has also made clear their blatant disregard for the evolution of human society through the various stages of civilization. Like Jerusalem or Ethiopia, this area of the world holds a special significance to not only its inhabitants, but billions of people around the world. It is a place that almost every human can trace back roots to, whether physical or spiritual, and remains an integral location in the personal narrative of individuals from Los Angeles to Cape Town.

The recreations of the arch of the Temple of Baal are the latest attempt to prevent this purge and honor the universal treasures it has destroyed. The artists’ goal is to present a global movement of solidarity against the Islamic State through the very medium that was demolished: architecture. The structures will be the product of a partnership between Harvard University, Oxford University, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future through the Institute for Digital Archeology. They are currently being printed in China, and once completed, will stand over 50ft tall. They will remain in London and New York temporarily, with their ancient, regal nature providing a jarring juxtaposition to the developed, bustling metropolis.

While some believe that the outrage at this devastation has been rendered insignificant by the human tragedy that is simultaneously unfolding, there is a strong argument as to why one should care about the bombings. The destruction of a historical site means more than just the blasting of old temples; in razing Palmyra, ISIL not only dealt a blow to historians and scholars but to all of modern humanity. Ruins and relics remain our greatest tie to antiquity, and provide a tangible timeline of our journey as a world through civilization. By attempting to erase this timeline, ISIL is subsequently erasing our human progress.

The destruction of a historical site means more than just the blasting of old temples; in razing Palmyra, ISIL not only dealt a blow to historians and scholars but to all of modern humanity.

The goal of the installations in New York and London is to reinforce this notion, and bring the problems associated with it to a larger audience. As stated by Alexy Karenowska at the Institute of Digital Archeology, “The idea is to underline that cultural heritage is something that’s shared between people. It’s about people’s roots and it’s important to recognize also that this is something that as humans we do all understand on some deep level.” By forcing the West to examine close hand a crucial historical artifact that will never be recovered, the project propels its message into the lives of those around the world. This infusion of different times and cultures also underscores an ideal that has recently become prevalent in the face of terror: solidarity. Akin to the “Je suis Charlie” movement and “We Stand with Paris,” the recreation of Baal once again calls for another global campaign against ISIL to save these important sites.

This specific temple is the ideal choice to bear this task, due to its historical amalgamation of cultures through both architecture and religions. According to Roger Michel, the executive director of the IDA, the project has the power to accomplish this feat. “It is really a political statement, a call to action, to draw attention to what is happening in Syria and Iraq and now Libya,” he says. “We are saying to them ‘if you destroy something we can rebuild it again.’ The symbolic value of these sites is enormous. We are restoring dignity to people.” Time and time again Palmyra has proven that its significance to civilization transcends common social boundaries, and hopefully its upcoming recreation can further this ideal by uniting the world against a common enemy through art.