The tears of Zenobia – will Palmyra rise again?

The National Museum in Damascus is a magical place.

It’s most amazing exhibits are its smallest, the tiny alphabet of the bronze age city of Ugarit from the 4th Century BC, said to be the world’s first alphabet, and its largest, the interior of second century synagogue from the Greco-Roman city of Dar Europa on the Euphrates.

The museum has not only survived Syria’s war unscathed, and for a long time closed to safeguard its contents, it has been reopened for almost a year. Whilst this is wonderful news, reflect on the memory of Khaled Mohammad al Asaad, renowned Syrian archaeologist and historian, and Director of Antiquities in Palmyra who was murdered by Islamic State in August 2015 for endeavouring to protect Syria’s archaeological treasures, and reflect also on the destruction of the World Heritage site for which he sacrificed his life.

Palmyra, the ancient and venerable ‘Pearl of the Desert stands in an oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus. This once great city was in its day one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, at the junction of trade routes between Europe, Asia and Africa. Although a vassal of Rome, it was the capital of the third century Palmyrene Empire, and of its famous queen, Zenobia. She led a revolt against the Roman Empire, expanding her domain throughout the Levant and conquering Egypt, and ruled until 271, when she was defeated by the Romans and taken as a hostage to Rome by Emperor Aurelian.

Palmyra contains monumental ruins from the 1st to the 2nd century, its art and architecture spanning several civilizations, combining Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. There are few remnants of the ancient world that compared wit it. Ba’albek, in Lebanon, maybe; Ephesus, in Turkey, possibly; and also, Apamea, in western Syria between Hama and Aleppo. Palmyra’s treasures hide in plain sight. For all the world to see and wonder.

When Da’ish captured Palmyra and Tadmor, the adjacent town (it’s name means ruin in Arabic) al Asaad refused to flee and though tortured for a month, refused to reveal where valuable artifacts had been moved for safekeeping. He was then publicly beheaded, his remains displayed amidst the ruins he has spent his life preserving for us, for humanity, for history. His murderers declared in a sign hanging from his body, that he’d did because he had overseen idols and had attended infidel archaeological conferences as his country’s representative.

Da’ish then proceeded to dynamite Palmyra’s monuments.

Four years on and the suffering of the Syrians continues unabated. The so called-civilized rulers of the so called-civilized world stood by and watched, first with fear and loathing, and then opportunistically and strategically as innocent Syrians were savaged by all sides in a war of all against all. For want of will and resources, and party to the proxy wars that are still being playing out between neighboring states and heat powers. Whilst the territorial Caliphate is no more, thousands of of the murderers and desecrators have melted into the Syrian and Iraqi deserts to carry on their atavistic struggle.

What is happened in Palmyra is no worse than what has happened in many Syrian and Iraqi towns and villages during the last nine years.

We now confront the fact that whilst the recent destruction of Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral encouraged a deluge of plutocratic philanthropy, the great and good of the western world, having expressed horror and outage at Islamic State’s destructive iconoclasm, are not demonstrating such open-pocketness when it comes to the reconstruction of Syria’s ancient and priceless archaeological heritage. The reason, it is said, is because the Assad government, victorious in its vicious and bloody reconquest of the country, is subject to international economic sanctions. Neither aid for the destitute and displaced nor the reconstruction of ancient monuments is forthcoming on the scale theses crises require.

Expensive, inspirational 3D representations of Palmyra’s lost monuments in London, Paris and New York are no substitute for for actually funding the reconstruction of the real thing.

We republish here a timely feature from the Sydney Morning Herald addressing this melancholy irony. It recalls many of the places we visited when we were last in Palmyra. We drove in from Damascus on a long desert highway that even in peacetime, had mukhabarat checkpoints and also boasted The Baghdad Cafe where we took refreshment, and departed a few days later on the Homs road. The feature photograph was taken from the breakfast room of our  hotel in Tadmor – which the author says is now destroyed. The picture below was taken from Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle above Palmyra. It was a magnificent vantage point for a panoramic view of the ancient city, and also for watching the most spectacular sunsets over the Syrian desert. It is now a military outpost.

In ages far beyond our ken,
These stones weren’t set by mortal men.
In friendly fields and foreign lands.
They say these walls were by giants’hands were raised.
But few, few remember when.
With mortar mixed with blood and soil
And leavened thence with sweat and toil.
The masons and the muscle
All are bones, bones, dry bones,
And nothing else remains.
Their histories are carved in stone.
Their mysteries are locked in stone.
And so the monuments decay
As lonely sands stretch far away,
And hide the stones.
Paul Hemphill, Ruins and Bones

The article follows our small photo gallery.

Read also, in In That Howling InfiniteRuins and Bones, a tribute to al Asaad, and to Palmyra, and all, The Rubble Of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier, published in The Atlantic, 5th September, 2014.

And more on Syria in In That Howling Infinite:

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888). Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Palmyra – will she rise again?

Chris Ray, Sydney Morning Herald,

All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.  Damascus museum archaeologist Houmam Saad 

Islamic State barbarians almost destroyed this World Heritage-listed site. Its wonders can be saved – so why is there such little international will to do so?

“Your heart will break when you see Palmyra,” says Tarek al-Asaad, looking out the window pensively as we cross the wide Syrian steppe on the road towards the ancient city. For Tarek, Palmyra represents a deep reservoir of sorrow that includes the public execution of his father Khaled, a renowned archaeologist and historian. Khaled had been instrumental in achieving Palmyra’s UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1980. The world stood by, horrified, while the fanatics of Islamic State, also known as IS, took to its majestic monuments with explosives and sledgehammers 35 years later.

We stop at a roadside store, where a young boy with old eyes is gathering aluminium cans to sell for scrap. Inside, soldiers of the Syrian Army guzzle sugary vodka drinks and beer. It’s May and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when Tarek eats and drinks nothing from dawn to dusk, but the young conscripts are on leave and in a mood to celebrate. Tarek buys supplies for his first night in Palmyra since he fled the city in 2015 for the relative safety of Damascus, Syria’s capital.

Palmyra’s Temple of Bel in March 2014, and the same view two years later.
Palmyra’s Temple of Bel in March 2014, and in 2016. Getty Images 

Tarek’s father, Khaled al-Asaad, was 83 when he was beheaded by IS. He had devoted more than 50 years to uncovering, restoring and publicising the remnants of this historic Silk Road hub that reached its peak in the third century. Tarek, one of his 11 children, grew up in the modern town of Tadmur next to the site. “Every day I would rush out of school to ride in the wheel-barrows and buckets that carried the soil from the diggings,” he remembers. Khaled retired as Palmyra’s head of antiquities in 2003 but stayed on as an expert much in demand. Fluent in ancient Palmyrene, a dialect of Aramaic, he translated inscriptions, wrote books and advised foreign archaeological missions. Meanwhile, Tarek, now 38, a nuggety, full-faced man with a ready smile, ran a successful tourism business.

We’re travelling towards Palmyra from the western city of Homs, through undulating pasture sprinkled with crimson poppies. Bedouin herders, austere and watchful, graze flocks of long-haired goats and fat-tailed sheep. Soldiers hitch rides on passing trucks through concrete-block settlements edged with green rectangles of wheat and barley. Roadside military checkpoints mount extravagant displays of patriotism: the double-starred national flag is painted on concrete barriers, oil drums and blockhouse walls while banners depict Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad looking resolute behind aviator sunglasses, or waving to crowds. Sentries who inspect identity papers are relaxed and happy to banter. “I hope the fasting is going okay for you?” asks a driver. “We’re not fasting, we’re kuffar [non-believers],” jokes a guard,  alluding to the jihadist insult thrown at adversaries.

Further along, pasture gives way to stony ground studded with pale green tussock. Remnants of the war are more evident here; burnt-out trucks and tanks, toppled electricity pylons and fortified berms of rammed earth crowned with barbed wire. Near a military airbase ringed by radar stations the checkpoint is heavily guarded and businesslike.

A Russian tank transporter going our way is a reminder that IS still fights in the desert beyond Palmyra, where several Syrian troops were reportedly killed this month. While IS lost its last Syrian stronghold of Baghouz in March, small bands continue to mount guerrilla attacks. This is my first visit to Palmyra since a trip as a tourist in 2009, drawn by the mystique of its spectacular architecture beside a desert oasis. Two years later, Syria was torn apart by war. As we approach Palmyra through a gap in a low mountain range, one question is playing on my mind: has the remote and mesmerising site suffered a fatal blow, or can it rise again?

Palmyra’s Grand Colonnade suddenly emerges out of a sandy plain. It is the city’s still magnificent spine, a kilometre-long avenue of towering limestone columns that slowly turn from pale gold to burnt orange in the setting sun. We park near the ruins and set out on foot to take a closer look. At the Grand Colonnade’s eastern end, the great temple of the Mesopotamian god Bel lies in ruins – though its portico somehow survived IS’s explosives – and the ornately carved triumphal arch is a pile of massive blocks. The invaders also blew up the tetrapylon that marked the city’s crossroads and the Baalshamin temple, a richly decorated combination of Roman and indigenous building styles. The theatre’s finely chiselled facade is a pile of rubble along with several multi-storey burial towers that sat on a bare hillside.

On the crossroads of international trade, cosmopolitan Palmyra developed an unorthodox and pluralist culture reflected in its surviving art and architecture. That, along with its location between the Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates river, made it a tempting symbolic and strategic target for modern-day fundamentalists. Muslims lived at Palmyra for 13 centuries, establishing mosques in structures that earlier functioned as Byzantine churches and pagan temples, but the bigots of IS were scandalised by almost everything they found. Every act of vandalism was videoed for use in IS propaganda, its shock value aimed at attracting extremist recruits and intimidating opponents.

An Islamic State-released photo showing the destruction of Palmyra’s 1900-year-old Baalshamin temple.
Islamic State-photo of the destruction of Palmyra’s 1900-year-old Baalshamin temple. AAP

IS occupied Palmyra twice: between May 2015 and March 2016, and between December 2016 and March 2017. During its first takeover, Tarek escaped, but Khaled refused to leave. “I phoned my father and begged him, ‘Please leave; Palmyra has been lost to evil people and you are not safe,’ Tarek says. “He answered, ‘I’m glad you got away, but this is my home and I’m not leaving.’”

After six weeks of house arrest, Khaled was imprisoned in a hotel basement and tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasures that Tarek says never existed. After a month in the basement, the old man was beheaded with a sword in front of an assembled crowd. “He refused to kneel for the blade, so they kicked his legs out from under him,” Tarek says. An online photograph showed his corpse tied to a traffic pole and his head, spectacles in place, positioned mockingly at his feet. A placard tied to his body labelled him an apostate who served as “director of idolatry” at Palmyra and represented Assad’s government at “infidel” conferences abroad.

Before war broke out in 2011, tourism and agriculture supported more than 50,000 people in Tadmur. Only a few hundred have returned, burrowing into half-demolished buildings along streets that sprout giant weeds from bomb craters. Tarek is not among the returnees; he lives with his mother Hayat in Damascus, where he manages a cafe. Russian sappers have cleared Tadmur of IS mines and booby-traps and power and water is back on. Commerce has made a tentative recovery, with a bakery, a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy and a simple restaurant. Its owner, Ibrahim Salim, 45, grills chicken on the footpath under a banner portraying President Assad and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin. Salim says he fled Palmyra after IS killed his wife Taghreed, a 36-year-old nurse, for the crime of treating an injured government soldier. “Security is good, so I can sleep peacefully in Tadmur now,” he says. “We hope the school will reopen soon, so more families will return.”

UNESCO has extolled Palmyrene art – particularly its expressive funerary sculpture – as a unique blend of indigenous, Greco-Roman, Persian and even Indian influences. As IS battled Syrian troops for control of Tadmur in 2015, Tarek rushed to save the most valued examples in Palmyra’s two-storey museum. With him were his archaeologist brothers, Mohammed and Walid, and their brother-in-law, Khalil Hariri, who had succeeded Khaled al-Asaad as museum director. They packed sculptures, pottery and jewellery into wooden crates and were loading them into trucks when mortars exploded around them. Shrapnel hit Tarek in the back and Khalil took a bullet in the arm. They got away with hundreds of pieces, but left many more behind. UNESCO has praised Syria’s wartime evacuation of more than 300,000 exhibits from the country’s 34 museums as “an extraordinary feat”.

We walk to Palmyra’s museum. Khaled’s former workplace is a desolate shell, its walls pockmarked by bullets, windows blown out and the foyer roof holed by a missile. Galleries that showcased the accomplishments of millennia are bare save for a few statues and bas-reliefs. They are minus heads, faces and hands – desecrated by IS cadres enraged by “idolatrous” objects, Tarek says, adding: “They even pulled the embalmed mummies out of their cabinets and ran over them with a bulldozer.”

I find only one intact exhibit – a portrait of Khaled (pictured) by Sydney artist Luke Cornish, a work that I and Cornish assumed had been lost. Painted onto a steel door, the portrait is propped against a wall and covered in a protective sheet of clear plastic. Tarek doesn’t know how it survived or who put it in the museum. “Someone must have hidden it from IS, because they would have destroyed it for sure,” he says.

Tarek al-Asaad with the portrait of his late father, Khaled, by Sydney artist Luke Cornish.
Tarek al-Asaad with the portrait of his late father, Khaled, by Sydney artist Luke Cornish. Alex Ray 

No fewer than 15 employees of Syria’s museum network have suffered violent deaths in the eight-year war, but only Khaled’s murder made world headlines. The news prompted Cornish to pay him a remarkable tribute. Cornish makes art by spraying aerosol paint over layers of stencils. Twice a finalist for the Archibald Prize, his award-winning work achieves a near-photographic realism and carries strong humanitarian themes. In June 2016, he went to Syria to film a group of Australian boxers on a “hope-raising mission” led by a Sydney Anglican priest, “Fighting Father” Dave Smith, known for his use of boxing to help at-risk youths. Between bouts and training, Cornish held impromptu stencil-art demonstrations for children in war-ravaged places such as Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city.

“The kids were fascinated by the immediacy of the medium,” he told me in Sydney. “Most were very poor and had never known anything but war, so it was great to see them having fun putting stuff like [cartoon character] Dora the Explorer on a schoolyard wall or along a bombed-out street. Even with soldiers around and artillery going off, we always drew a curious crowd.”

Before leaving for Syria, Cornish prepared a stencil in the hope of painting Khaled’s portrait somewhere in the country. He got the chance when the boxers went to Palmyra. They arrived more than two months after a Russian-backed offensive first expelled IS from the city, and a week after St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra played a concert there to celebrate – prematurely, as it turned out – Palmyra’s liberation. The orchestra performed Prokofiev, Bach and Shchedrin in a Roman-era theatre that IS used as a backdrop for mass executions.

Cornish chose the door of the theatre’s electrical room to paint the man he calls “a hero who sacrificed his life for what he loved”. A YouTube clip of Cornish working on the painting led Tarek to contact him. “Luke’s painting was a beautiful gesture and a very kind gift to our family. We think of him as our friend and brother,” Tarek says.

But six months later, IS retook Palmyra, dynamiting the theatre and posting a gloating video of the damage. Cornish had assumed his painting was lost, too. “I’m used to having my work destroyed on the street, but having it blown up by IS is something else,” he says.

A beheaded and mutilated statue in a Palmyra museum.
A beheaded and mutilated statue in a Palmyra museum. Getty Images

Syria boasts six World Heritage cultural sites and all are on UNESCO’s endangered list. Normally, World Heritage funds would be released to protect the threatened properties. In Syria’s case, UN support has been limited to the restoration of a single Palmyrene statue, and training for museum staff. A UNESCO emergency appeal for $US150,000 ($222,000) to safeguard the portico of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel has failed to attract support from potential donors. At the national museum in Damascus, white-coated conservators have begun the exacting job of repairing hundreds of Palmyra’s damaged exhibits. It is an almost entirely Syrian effort, done on a tiny budget. “We hope for more international help because Palmyra belongs to the world, not just to Syria,” says Khalil Hariri, the Palmyra museum director. He says the fallen stones of the triumphal arch, theatre and tetrapylon are mostly intact and can be put back together, but the museum service can’t afford to employ workers and buy machinery. Says a Palmyra specialist at the Damascus museum, archaeologist Houmam Saad: “All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.”

More than two dozen European and US organisations have sprung up to promote Syria’s imperilled heritage. They collect data, hold meetings and issue statements of concern. One such group spent £2.5 million ($4.1 million) to erect a two-thirds-scale model of Palmyra’s triumphal arch in London’s Trafalgar Square, then repeated the exercise in Washington, D.C. Money raised for Syrian antiquities would be better spent where the damage was done, writes Ross Burns, a former Australian ambassador to Syria and author of four books on its archaeology and history: “Putting money into faux arches and 3D models vaguely mimicking historical structures does little more than salve the consciences of outsiders whose nations have encouraged – even funded and armed, then walked away from – the conflagration that grew to overwhelm Syria.”

Syria is a nation of many faiths and ethnicities that emerged in its present boundaries only in 1945. Its rulers have popularised a shared history as a tool to promote national identity and social cohesion. In 2018, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay acknowledged this heritage as “a powerful force for reconciliation and dialogue”. She added a caveat: UNESCO would help rebuild Syria’s historic sites “when conditions allow”. That could mean a long wait.

The UN has banned its agencies from providing reconstruction aid until a “genuine and inclusive political transition negotiated by the parties” is achieved. The ban reflects the stance of the US, European Union and other nations which have imposed economic sanctions on Syria. The Australian government did the same in 2011 in response to what it called the “deeply disturbing and unacceptable use by the Syrian regime of violence against its people”. A year later, the Gillard government applied further sanctions and called for “intensified pressure on Damascus to stop its brutality”.

Luke Cornish ran up against the sanctions when he tried to send $28,000 raised for Syrian orphans to SOS Children’s Villages International last year. Sanctions have isolated Syria from global banking and payment systems, so the charity advised him to wire the money to its German bank account. However, his Australian bank declined the transfer, Cornish says, adding: “I made the mistake of using the word ‘Syria’ on the transfer description.” The UN Special Rapporteur on sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, says the restrictions have “contributed to the suffering of the Syrian people” by blocking imports ranging from anti-cancer drugs and vaccines to crop seeds and water pumps. Though not endorsed by the UN, the sanctions have had a “chilling effect” on humanitarian aid and obstruct efforts to restore schools, hospitals, clean water, housing and employment, Jazairy reported in 2018.

What, then, are the prospects for restoring Syria’s endangered antiquities, including Palmyra? Answers may lie in an ambitious Russian-funded project to rebuild Aleppo’s Great Mosque. It’s a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and symbol of the city, which lies north-west of Palmyra and lost one-third of its famed Old Quarter in fighting which ended in 2016. The mosque’s 45-metre minaret stood for more than 900 years until it collapsed during fighting in 2013. Today, it is a thousand-tonne pile of limestone blocks overlooked by a towering crane. Putting the minaret back up is the job of an all-Syrian team of architects and engineers, stonemasons and woodworkers. They must also restore the badly damaged columns, ceilings and walls of the prayer hall and arcades surrounding the mosque’s vast courtyard. Project director and architect Sakher Oulabi, who showed me around the site, says the workers feel a heavy responsibility: “We all understand we are doing something very important for the soul of our city and our country.”

Driving the rebuild is the Syria Trust for Development, chaired by Asma al-Assad, the President’s wife – so the project has considerable clout. Nevertheless, its technical challenges are almost as formidable as Palmyra’s. The minaret’s 2400 or so fallen stones must be weighed and measured, strength-tested with ultrasound and photographed from many angles so that photogrammetry – the science of making three-dimensional measurements from images – can help to determine where every stone fits. Materials and techniques must be as close as possible to the original: “An expert may notice the difference between new and old, but the public must not,” engineer Tamim Kasmo says. However, limestone that best matches the original is in a quarry outside government control, in Idlib province. As a senior US Defence Department official, Michael Mulroy, noted, Idlib harbours “the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world right now”.

The Grand Colonnade, built in the second and third centuries; noted by UNESCO as an example of Rome’s engagement with the East.
The Grand Colonnade, built in the second and third centuries; noted by UNESCO as an example of Rome’s engagement with the East. Alex Ray

 Palmya’s giant stones are as white as old bones when we leave the site one evening at dusk. Tarek joins friends for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast and begins with dates and water in line with a tradition supposedly begun by the prophet Muhammad. Our driver, Ahmad, has put aside the pistol he’s been carrying in his belt. He insists there is no prospect of an IS comeback, but says he carries the weapon because local roads can be dangerous. All the town’s hotels are destroyed, so we bed down in a private home and hear artillery fire throughout the night.

At dawn, a steady wind blows cold off the mountains. A road runs past the wreckage of a luxury hotel, where guests once dined while overlooking the ruins and below which Khaled al-Asaad was chained for his last 28 days, to the high perimeter walls of the Temple of Bel complex. From here, having sought the blessings of temple deities, ancient camel trains made the long desert crossing eastward to the Euphrates, with merchandise destined for markets as far away as China.

At the temple entrance today, a young soldier is hunkered down in a guard-post made from ammunition boxes and corrugated iron plastered with mud. “I was here all winter, but at least it didn’t snow,” he says. He apologises for having to inspect our papers and invites us to wait on plastic chairs while he clears our visit with a superior. I ask about the night’s gunfire. “It was only the army practising,” he says, pointing to a nearby mountain with a medieval citadel on its summit. A decade ago, I stood on its ramparts to take panoramic photos of Palmyra, but now it is an off-limits military zone.

Tarek and the soldier discuss welcome news: the spring that feeds Palmyra’s oasis is flowing for the first time in 27 years. The source of the city’s historic wealth, it has watered settlements here since Neolithic times. The spring’s revival has come too late for Tarek’s family orchard; its olive and pistachio trees have withered and died. But he takes it as a hopeful sign that enough of fabled Palmyra can be restored, for the prosperity of its people and the wonder of the world.

Harald Went A Viking

When we were in Istanbul in 2014, we were particular keen to see the famous Viking graffiti on a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica. And there indeed it was, carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. The name Varangarian derives from the Greek via Old Norse væringi or ‘pledge’.

This year, we visited York, successively a Roman, Saxon, and Viking city.

I have an intense interest in connections, in the valences that link people, times, and places. And in York, there were many. Constantine, the creator of the Byzantine Empire, and founder of Constantinople, was declared emperor here on the death in York of his father. His statue sits (literally) outside York Minster. The Roman brickage we saw in Ephesus, Palmyra, and Jerusalem was replicated here in York, and in the forts of Hadrian’s Wall. And it was exciting to discover another connection to Istanbul, and that long-departed Viking warrior.

Viking Grafitti in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Viking graffiti in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

My story recalls one the most famous dates in English history, the the Battle of Hastings. But I shall not retell the story of that battle, nor of the battle at Stamford Bridge which preceded it. Rather, I will describe one particular Viking’s adventurous journeying before he met his doom near York in September 1066.

Harald Sigurdsson, named Hardrada (“Stern Counsel” or “Hard Ruler”), was born about 1015, and he was the first King to perish in 1066. King of Norway, his appetite grew with the eating, and he made unsuccessful plays for the thrones of Denmark and England. Failing the first, he invaded and raided east of what was then Eoforic (formerly Roman Eboracum, Viking Jorvik, and today, York). His protagonist that day was one Harold Godwinson of Wessex, otherwise known as Harold II, King of England. Harold marched his army all the way up to Eoforic to confront his almost-namesake and Harald’s ally, one Tostig Goodwinson, Saxon turncoat and also, Harold’s embittered brother. In four days, Harold marched his army 180 miles from London, meeting and defeating Harald and Tostig at Stamford Bridge, just east of York. Hearing that William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy had landed near Hastings to challenge his claim to the English throne, King Harold then marched his army south again. 241 miles this time. The rest, as they say, is history.

King Harald is not hard to find on the Internet. There are websites, histories, and even novels that tell his story in lesser and greater detail. And, rumour has it, Leonardo DiCaprio is pondering the prospect of making a movie about him, and possibly starring in it. There are also many resources dealing with the Varangarian Guard. I recommend Frank Westenfelder’s succinct blog history of mercenaries, Soldiers of Misfortune. So what follows is my own sensationalist synopsis, written as much for entertainment as for education.

As a teen Harald was caught up in internecine warfare between battling Viking eorls. Brothers and half-brothers, rebels and pretenders fought for lands and crowns in the realms that now constitute Scandinavia. Young Harald often fought and failed, and on failing, he fled. He washed up in Kyivan Rus on Lake Ladoga, east of present day Petersburg, and then entered the service of Grand Prince Jaroslav or (Yaroslavl) the Wise in Novgorod. The principality of Kyivan Rus, by the by, was the predecessor of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia, and was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors. Harald captained the Grand Prince’s soldiery and, so the sagas sing, paid court to Jaroslav’s beautiful daughter Elesiv (Elisabeth). Ukrainian historians maintain that Yaroslavl actually ruled in raked in Kyiv and that his daughter was called Yelizaveta; but they tell the same story.

In Jaroslav’s service, Harold fought Poles, Estonians, Turkic nomads, and Byzantines. He eventually took five hundred Viking warriors to Constantinople – the Norsemen called it Mickelgard, or Great City – where his martial reputation saw him rise to head the Varangarian Guard, that same mob that our Istanbul graffitist served in. Whilst this was specifically the emperors’s bodyguard, as an elite force, it fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. The sagas say that Harald even traveled to Jerusalem – the Vikings called it Jorsalberg – protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword.

Harald passed twelve years in Byzantium departing a wealthy warrior. Not that his leaving was without complications. Implicated in murky financial dealings (including a fair amount of looting and blackmail), Byzantine power struggles, and, possibly, an illicit love affair with the Empress Zoe, he fled with his men in two ships. One was trapped by the famous chain that was strung across the Bosporus (see below for more details). but his boat reached the Black Sea and sailed thence to Rus’ once more, and the lovely Princess.

Elisef’s father, the renowned Jaroslav ‘the law giver’, was in fact the son of a Viking Varangarian, and this may have been a reason he gave Harald sanctuary and employment in the first place, and encouraged him to seek service in Constantinople. Whilst there, Harald had secured sufficient funds to finance a bid for the Norwegian throne. After much battling and bargaining, he succeeded, and indeed, ruled Norway for twenty years until he made the fateful decision to try his hand in England.

Tostig was angry that Harold has taken the earldom of Northumbria away from him, and so encouraged Harald to challenge his brother’s disputed claim to the English throne. It is mooted that Viking Harald and French William each believed that he had been promised said crown by the dying English king, Edward the Confessor. Both therefore came ashore with their forces to claim what they reckoned was their inheritance. Which was why the unfortunate Harold did his exhausting round-trip in September and October of 1066.

At Stamford Bridge, Harald’s long run of good fortune ran out. the Norns, having long ignored him, decided to cut his thread. The Viking army was heavily beaten, and Harald himself was struck in the throat by an arrow and killed early on in the battle in a state of “berserkergang” or “battle rage”. He wore no body armour nor carried a shield, fighting fiercely with both hands clutching his heavy sword. Dying thus, sword in his hand, he was assured entry into Valhalla.

There’s a  good account of 1066, the “year of the three battles”, in History Extra‘s story of the three battles that lost England.

And so our story ends. Scholars have considered Harald’s death in battle as the end of The Viking Age. He is also reckoned to have been the last great Viking king, indeed, the last great Viking.

© Paul Hemphill 2015

There is a song for every occasion, and with our our sojourn in York, and Viking fact and fiction echoing along its ersatz City Walls, I would like to share my very own Viking saga:

Further Reading

The Saga of Harald Hardrade

The original source for much of what we know of Harald is The Heimskringia Saga. therein is much more fascinating detail of his adventures, including the full story of his escape from Constantinople. All of Harald’s Varangarians piled onto two ships and rowed like crazy for the chain. As they approached, he had every man who wasn’t rowing pick up any baggage he had and run to the back of the boat, so that the prow of was raised and the stern lay low in the water. Thus, the ships managed to run themselves halfway up onto the chain, whereupon all the vikings at the stern ran to the front with their gear, so that the ships tilted forward and came down on the other side. At least, that was the plan. Harald’s ship made it but the other broke its keel and sank, along with half of his men. The Saga is available in the online Gutenberg Library. Go to Saga 8, The Saga of Harald Hardrade.

Anglo Saxon Varangarians

An exciting addition to the saga of the Varangarian Guard is recent evidence that in the wake of they Norman Conquest, Saxon exiles emigrated from conquered England and joined the Emperor’s bodyguard. They acquired quite a reputation for martial prowess, and were believed to have established a city in what is today the Crimean Peninsula. Read Caitlin Green’s well-written post: New England on the Black Sea

The Vikings of Rus

The principality of Kyivan Rus, with its capital at Kyiv,  was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors who ventured south down the great rivers of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia. The Viking age lasted from the end of the eighth century to the latter half of the eleventh.

The vikings raided and traded, subjugated and ruled whole countries or parts thereof, transforming existing politics and creating new ones. In so doing, they butted up against the Byzantine Empire, even reaching the gates of Constantinople itself. Envoys of the king of Rus first came to the city in 838, offering peace, friendship and trade. But there was also conflict. In 860, Vikings besieged the city and passing through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean, plundered Byzantine-controlled islands. This was repeated in 959.

Over time, relations became much more cordial. Prince Volodymyr the Great of Kyiv converted to Christianity in 988, a purely political move to secure the goodwill of the Byzantine empire, his most powerful and dangerous neighbour. He adopted the Byzantine orthodoxy, thus drawing  him closer to the empire, and proceeded to convert his subjects. Alliances of mutual benefit were formed, with Vikings fighting Byzantium’s border wars, and were often sealed with marriages between Viking lords and Byzantine princesses.

Constantinople was like a lode star to the Vikings. The princes of Kyivan Rus were attracted to its wealth and commerce, and also to the power, prestige and high culture. Indeed, they endeavoured to replicate it on the Dnieper. Voldymyr’s grandson Yaroslav/Jaroslav (he’s acclaimed by both Ukraine and Russia) rebuilt Kyiv in Byzantium’s image, in brick and stone, built a magnificent cathedral modeled on Theodosius’ Aya Sofia, naming it Saint Sofia, and a raised a Golden Gate like that in the Great City. Princes in other cities followed Kyiv’s example.

Everything was violently undone in 1238 when the Mongols invaded Kyivan Rus, and Kyiv itself was devastated in 1240, and did not recover its former importance and prosperity for centuries. Yet, the cathedral of St Sophia still stands in the heart of Kiev, as it has done for almost a millennium, its golden domes a symbol of the advent of Christianity in eastern Europe.

There’s a fascinating account of Kyivan Rus See Serhii Plokhy’s history of Ukraine, The Gates of Europe.

Read more in In That Howlong Infinite :

Kirkwall Cathedral, Shetland, UK

Kirkwall Cathedral, Shetland, UK

Once in Royal David’s Citadel

During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.

The Citadel or Tower Museum at the Jaffa Gate, the westernmost entrance to the city, is all the history you can eat in a four hour sitting. It’s a four thousand year old story: from the Canaanites and the Hebrews to the end of the Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel, via Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Hasmoneans, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatamids, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Tartars, Mogols, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, Australians, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Each left their mark on Jerusalem, and most planted their brickage upon and within the Citadel.

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There is a long roll-call of famous names who may or may have not resided in the place.

King David didn’t, despite his name being given to the place and the apocryphal story that he once spied on the bathing Bathsheba from its ramparts. Nor did his son and heir, Solomon, builder of the First Temple. Conquerors Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus did not. They just wrecked the joint. Judah Maccabee might have, and those other famous Jewish rebels, the Zealots didn’t, but during Great Revolt, they retreated there and trashed the place. Herod the Great, a psycho with an serious edifice complex, resided here. As did also Procurator Pontius Pilate when he was in town (he preferred the luxuries of Caesaea Maritimus (Latin for “on Sea). Historians now believe that the Citdel was where he actually cast judgement on Jesus, and not in the Antonine Fortress which overlooked the Temple (where the Haram al Sharif now stands) throwing into question the whole basis for the existence of the Via Dolorosa.

Roman general and future emperor Titus would have taken up residence therein after he destroyed the city in 70CE, leaving only the citadel standing. His troops needed somewhere to crash. Constantine didn’t, but his mom Helena most likely did when she “discovered” The True Cross, commissioned the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and single-handedly invented the Holy Land pilgrim industry that endures to this day. The Muslim conquerors Omar Ibn Khattab, Salah ud-Din, and Baybars may have, but Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the magnificent, who built the city walls we see today, never set foot in Jerusalem, and nor did his successors.

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Ottoman troops occupied it, and General Djemal Pasha would hang Arab Nationalists in the Square before it. General Allenby declared Jerusalem and Palestine liberated on the steps leading to the citadel in 1917, but most likely stayed across the square at our wonderful East New Imperial Hotel (the Kaiser stayed there too when he visited Jerusalem in 1898). British troops garrisoned it during the Mandate years – like the Roman legionaries before them, they’d’ve needed a place to lay their heads. The British-commanded Arab Legion of then Transjordan took control of it in during the the battle for Jerusalem in 1948 and defended it successfully against the new IDF. They did so again in 1967 only to lose it and the Old City.

If the stones could talk, what a tale they would tell. And indeed, the museum now does just that, in content and in form. We sit on the roof garden of our hotel, directly across the street and look across at its towers, ramparts and gardens, and sense it’s story in our souls. We watch present generations passing beneath its walls, and the young folk parade within,  just a few in a long, long parade of humanity.

For further reading, you can’t beat Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Jerusalem : The Biography (Phoenix 2011).

See also:

https://howlinginfinite.com/2014/09/01/the-grand-old-new-imperial-hotel/
https://howlinginfinite.com/2015/01/06/nova-via-dolorosa/

History Lessons

History Lessons

Carnivale

Carnivale

 

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.
Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky

We have marveled at Roman brickage from Syria to Cirencester, from Bath to Baalbek, but have never ventured to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumbria. WH Auden’s whimsical song, Roman Wall Blues, came to mind as we stood atop the windswept knoll that is Housesteads Roman Fort.

On the edge of empire. The Roman Empire, that is. Outposts and outcasts. Up on the hills in the wind and the rain, the snow and the sleet, and in the valley below with the baths and the brothels. This is where worlds collided. Between Roman cives and their satraps, and the barbarians. Between Britannia and Caledonia. Where solders from Rome and the Italy-yet-to-be that surrounded it, from Gaul, Batavia, Asturias and Tungria, now France, Spain and the Low Countries, from Germania and Sarmatia in Central and Eastern Europe, marched and marauded, drank and dined, foraged and fucked, lived and died.

At the height of Empire, some seven hundred soldiers manned the fort we now call Housesteads, up high on the moors, a windswept outcrop with a vista of 360 degrees and a temperature near near zero. Many more legionaries garrisoned the more sheltered Chesters Fort in the nearby-by valley where the wall crosses the Tyne. These included cavalry, drafted from Sarmatia, in present day Hungary. This was the fanciful premise of King Arthur (2004) starring Clive Owen as a handsome, tortured soul wandering through a flawed film, and Keira Knightly as a scantily clad, elfin  warrior Guinevere.

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At Vindolanda, to the south, a small town grew up around a large military camp. First of wood and then of stone, constructed by the legionnaires themselves, who included in their number skilled masons and carpenters. Their settlements endure to engage our imaginations today. In times of turmoil, these soldiers fought and fell. In quieter times, they relaxed and recuperated. And the locals gathered about them, built houses and gardens, opened shops and pubs. And life went on like it does in our time.

During conflict, the Roman auxiliaries guarded the borderlands, deterring the Picts, a dark-skinned painted people who raided from the northern badlands. When peace prevailed, the locals visited, traded, and settled in the viccii or villages that grew organically to the south of the forts that were constructed at intervals along the empire’s perimeter wall. There, they traded, and provided goods, services and entertainment for themselves and for the martial strangers that had come amongst them.

In the early days, the auxiliaries were not permitted to bring wives and children to the frontier. But folks being folk, they very soon established friendly relations with their neighbours, and legionaries would keep informal wives and families in the vicus. Soviet writer and war-correspondent Vasily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.

Officers were allowed to bring their wives and children to their postings, and these endured their provincial, primitive exile by importing the necessities of a comfortable Roman life, including the celebrated Roman plumbing and central heating. Chesters boasts the best preserved military bathhouse in Britain. And so, the accessories of civic consumerism reached the frontier. Food and wine from the warm South were transported to the cold northlands. Fashions in clothes and jewelry, day-to-day articles and artifacts, from glass and pewter dinnerware to cutlery, tools and sundry hardware. Remnants and reports gathered in the Vindolanda museum open a window into a gone world.

The wonderful Vindolanda tablets have preserved a picture of the oh-so-normal lives of these transplanted souls so far away from home. Amidst accounts and inventories, orders and troop dispositions, a quartermaster reports that supplies of beer are running low. An officer writes to another in a neighboring fort inquiring about the availability of accommodation for visitors and the quality thereof. One tablet reveals that Roman soldiers wore underpants, which, in view of the locale and climate thereabouts, is comforting to know. And another recounts workplace harassment and bullying that would today invoke grievance procedures. The wife of an officer invites another to a birthday party at her house in Vindolanda. There is an undercurrent of “Please come, I am bored shitless”, though a polite Roman matron would not commit such sentiments to a wooden tablet. It is probably the oldest surviving document in Latin written by a woman.

So who were these folk so near to us in their needs and desires, their hopes, fears and expectations, and so far from us in time, space and purpose? What did they think and feel? It is a question oft asked by empathetic history tragics. The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past.

We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Yet, we persist nevertheless, because that is what humans do. Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote ”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”.

And in Vindolanda, up there on the wall, on the weather-beaten rim of the long-gone empire, we do  …

Here is some further reading about Vindolanda.
http://www.vindolanda.com/
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vindolanda_tablets
http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/tablets/browse.shtml

And some pieces from my ‘Roman’ period:  Roman Holiday: What have the Romans done for us?:  Cuddling up to Caligula. Read also about what happened when Harald Went A Viking

Postscript – The Man who saved Hadrian’s Wall

One of the great unsung saviours of the UK’s heritage is remembered in the museum housing his remarkable collection at Chesters Roman Fort Museum which houses the Clayton Collection of and 5,500 catalogued items from a variety of sites along the central section of the wall.

Few people today have heard of John Clayton, yet he is one of the single most important individuals in the history of Hadrian’s Wall.

A classically educated Victorian gentleman who combined demanding roles running the family law firm and acting as town clerk for the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Clayton had a passion for archaeology and the Roman military legacy in his beloved Northumberland.
Were it not for Clayton, large parts of Hadrian’s Wall would have disappeared as the industrial revolution fuelled the demand for stone to build factories, mines and mills. His role in the preservation and survival of Chesters Roman Fort – the best-preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain, is now undisputed.

In the early 19th century Clayton lived at Chesters House in the parkland surrounding the Roman fort and from an early age became fascinated by the Roman relics that surrounded him.

By the 1830s he began buying land to preserve the Wall, at a time when what is now a World Heritage Site was little understood,  and was being unthinkingly vandalised by quarrying and removal of stones for reuse. Clayton’s enthusiasm helped preserve the central stretch of Hadrian’s Wall that includes Chesters (Cilurnum), Housesteads and Vindolanda. He carried out some of the first archaeological excavations on the Wall and even brought early tourism to the area by displaying some of the finds at Chesters. Clayton managed the estate and its farms successfully, generating cash to fund further preservation and restoration work on the Wall. He never married, and died in 1890

The museum housing the Clayton Collection was opened next to the fort site in 1903, 13 years after his death. It is privately owned but curated by English Heritage on behalf of the Trustees of the Clayton Collection, and has been refurbished to bring it up to 21st century standards of conservation, display and interpretation. Yet, great care has been taken to respect its character and to retain the feel of a 19th century gentleman antiquarian’s collection, and many of the labels and original cases have been retained..

John Clayon

For more on Clayton and his museum, read:

http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/art56960