Palmyra and Cecil the Lion

Blog — 02 Sep 2015

I have been fortunate enough to have visited Syria in better times. I first went there in 2003 when we were designing a Lebanese restaurant in Piccadilly, Fakhreldine,a few days in Beirut and Damascus not only inspired but provided access to traditional crafts that became an integral part of the design. The drive to Syria through the Bekkah Valley felt almost biblical, and the old city of Damascus was like stepping back into a different age, faded and crumblingthrough the ravages of time the oldest continuously inhabited City in the world. Whilst in contrast Beirut, home to around 18 Religions or sects, was a diverse, modernised and cosmopolitan city that was still rebuilding in the aftermath of the 1980s civil war..

I returned in January 2009 with Peter Murray, we visited Aleppo, Damascus and Bosra. It was during the Gaza conflict, and there was a noticeable tension in the air. But as westerners, we were never threatened, for sure Bush and Blair were not popular, but hospitality was never compromised. It was January in Damascus and the Christmas decorations added a festive air to the Christian quarter. Even the Jewish quarter, deserted by the Syrian Jews in the 1990’s was undergoing a renaissance. We were guided through the Old City by Brigid Keenan’s fantastic study of the cities old courtyard houses (Hidden Treasures of the Old City, published 2000).

Aleppo, is a city at the crossroads between East and West, much closer to Turkey which is perhaps why it felt slightly more European. Recent generous investment from the Aga Khan gave the place a certain swagger, the landscape around the Souks and the Citadel was beautifully and carefully designed. We stayed in a restored courtyard house, dined in places that felt as if they were looking forward, despite the political regime. Poverty and decay were there to be seen, but this did not diminish the friendliness of the locals. Strolling through the suburbs early one morning we watched the men queuing at the bakery to buy freshly baked bread that was left to cool on the walls and pavements nearby. One came over to us and gave us each a flat bread, as delicious as it was touching.


Six years later Aleppo has been devastated by the dreadful civil war that has killed well over 210,000 people. Old Damascus has avoided the bombing so far. But sadly, we read that one of the worlds greatest archaeological sites, Palmyra, a place we did not get to see, is being systematically and deliberately destroyed, Architect's Journal.

Places like Palmyra belong to us all, they are the patrimony of our civilization, destroying them is an act as ignorant and senseless as Kristalnacht. This has to be set in the context of millions of displaced people, their lives and dreams ruined. But somehow amongst all the savagery that ISIS has brought to the world in recent months, the act of wiping out our collective culture touches us all.

Like Cecil the lion, it takes an act of crass stupidity to open our eyes to the scale of the problem. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book “Homo Sapiens” we are the most destructive creatures that have evolved on this planet. Soon we will not only have eradicated most other species, but also the greatest achievements of our ancestors.