Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Today's Palmyra roundup

PALMYRA WATCH: ISIS Fighters Laid Mines Around Palmyra’s Ancient Ruins Before Retreating, Syrians Say (RICK GLADSTONE and HWAIDA SAAD, NYT).
The Syrian forces that recaptured the storied city of Palmyra from Islamic State occupiers this past weekend have encountered dozens of mines that the expelled militants laid as booby traps around treasured ancient ruins sites, Syria’s state media reported Tuesday.

Accounts of the Palmyra victory published by the official Syrian Arab News Agency also reported that Russia’s military, which has helped the Syrian forces regain momentum against insurgents with a six-month bombing campaign, was sending 100 mine clearance engineers and trainers of bomb-sniffing dogs to help rid Palmyra of the mines planted by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.

The expulsion of the Islamic State from Palmyra, the ancient “Bride of the Desert” oasis seized by the militant extremist group 10 months ago, is regarded as a turn in the five-year-old war and an enormous propaganda victory for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Russians.

The Palmyra news also has left the United States and other Western and Arab opponents of Mr. Assad in the awkward position of welcoming it while still insisting that the Syrian president’s autocracy and suppression of dissent was the underlying cause of the Syria war.

There's more geopolitical analysis of the retaking of Palmyra in this UPI article by Professor Paul Rogers: Explaining the strategy behind the battle to rescue the ruins of Palmyra.
There is clear evidence that Russia has been directing its most recent airstrikes at opponents of the Assad regime in north west Syria, rather than targeting IS. This is not surprising given that IS has scarcely been involved in the opposition to Assad. One major effect of the Russian campaign has been to strengthen the regime as a prelude to a negotiated settlement. This would have significant Russian involvement which, from Moscow's standpoint, would ensure that post-war Syria would have considerable Russian influence.

Now that Putin has seen that policy reasonably on track, the Russian forces have had time to turn their attention to supporting Assad's advance on Palmyra, an IS outpost since May 2015.

Its loss was a major symbolic blow. Within a short time, IS fighters made a great show of wantonly destroying ancient ruins in the town.

In taking the city back, Putin can now claim to be doing the west's job for it. The Palmyra triumph is further proof of Russia's power and influence – a message that will go down very well with domestic audiences. Russia Today is reporting that experts from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg have offered their services in the restoration process.
And then there's this: Trapped and surrounded by murderous ISIS fighters, the heroic Russian 'Rambo' who wiped them all out by calling in airstrikes on HIMSELF (Will Stewart, Daily Mail). His name was Alexander Prokhorenko and his action, which brought about his own death along with his enemies, contributed to the retaking of Palmyra. Whatever one thinks of the Russian strategy in Syria, that was a badass way to die. Requiescat in pace.

Some soul-searching: Should I Feel Guilty for Worrying About Palmyra’s Stones, When ISIS Slaughters Humans? (Larry Cohler-Esses, The Forward). As regular readers know, I recognize and sympathize with the author's concerns. But we should worry about both and not waste our energy on feeling guilty. I focus on the stones because PaleoJudaica is a blog about ancient history and that is the area I am most qualified to comment on.

Finally, I can't resist noting this one: A Gateway Could Be Opened When the Temple of Baal Is Erected in Times Square (MICHAEL SNYDER, Charisma News).
In April, part of the Temple of Baal that stood in Palmyra, Syria, will be reconstructed in Times Square in New York City and in Trafalgar Square in London. The specific portion that is being erected in both cases is the 48-foot-tall arch that stood at the entrance to the temple.

The Institute of Digital Archaeology is the organization behind this effort, and the display of these two arches is intended to be the highlight of UNESCO's World Heritage Week late next month. After seeing my initial story, one of my readers observed that an arch is really just a gateway or a portal. In other words, it can serve as both an entrance and an exit. So could it be possible that we will be unknowingly setting up a gate or a portal of some sort in Times Square?

The worship of Baal, also known as Bel, can be traced all the way back to ancient Babylon. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Marduk was "the chief god of the city of Babylon," and ultimately he became known as "Bel" or "Lord":

[Some additional earnest Encylopedia and Wikipedia research is omitted here.]

So now we are setting up a "gateway" or a "portal" for the chief God of ancient Babylon in the heart of our most important city next month.

Does anyone else out there find this more than just a little bit creepy?

Where to start? First of all, no one actually worships Baal or Bel anymore, which would seem to me rather to pull the teeth of this perceived threat. Second, this worry is a nice example of the fallacy of equivocation with reference to the word "gate." Third, the author has clearly been watching too much Stargate.

Background on the long, sad story of Palmyra is here and links. More on the reconstruction of the arch of the Temple of Bel in Times Square (and Trafalgar Square in London) is here. And for Palmyra's Temple of Bel vs. its Temple of Baal (both destroyed by ISIS), see here.