The most recent ACOR virtual lecture event, “Human Heritage: Preserving Palmyra, Petra, and Hatra,” was cohosted with the Getty Research Institute (GRI) to commemorate the launch of the Getty’s new interactive online exhibition, Return to Palmyra. The presenters discussed the unique set of challenges regarding preserving the cultural and physical remains of three monumental heritage sites and the impact archaeological sites have on local communities. While not explicitly relating to the role of digital media in preservation, the lecture was a compelling example of how digital humanities content can be successful.
Histories of Exchange
From the Bronze Age through the Roman period, Palmyra (modern Tadmor) was a caravan city and a fertile oasis. As commercial trade between the Mediterranean and Near East flourished during the Hellenistic period, Syria became an integral part of these routes (Sommer 2018, i, 40–44). The land yielded valuable natural resources, such as metals, that would have been attractive to Mesopotamian and Egyptian traders (Sommer 2018, 30, 189). While Palmyra does not have immediate access to a waterway, it acted as “the middle of a sea of sands … the bottleneck of trade between the territories on both sides of the Euphrates” (Sommer 2018, 188, 190).
Along the trade routes to and from Palmyra, some merchants would have stopped at Petra as well. Caravans would have trekked through the rock-cut Nabataean city in today’s Jordan as the middle ground between Egypt, the Mediterranean, Arabia, and central and eastern Asia. After the addition of the Via Nova Triana in the early 2nd century CE, there was a significant increase in economic prosperity in Petra, similar to that of the Near Eastern region as a whole (Schmid 2008, 364–386).
Unlike Palmyra and Petra, the Iraqi site of Hatra is secluded, located in Upper Mesopotamia, west of the Wadi Tharthar (Ahmed 1972, 103). Hatra lay between two of the most powerful empires of the early 1st millennium: the Romans and the Parthians. Consistent interaction between these empires resulted in Aramaic, Hellenistic, and Roman influences on Hatra visible in the city’s architecture and artistic styles. Despite its precarious location, walled Hatra and its small kingdom remained an independent state and culture for much of its history (Edwell 2017, 111–112).
The Current State of Preservation
These ancient cities, while vastly different, share at least one thing in common: their potential to enrich the lives of generations to come. While European and American archaeological efforts have been underway in the Near East for a couple of centuries now, the true value of archaeological sites rests in the hands of the local communities, individuals, and institutions who are on the frontlines of the safety and prosperity of our shared human histories.
Dr. Suliman Ali Al-Farajat of the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority (PDTRA) spoke about how, with the decrease in international tourism due to COVID-19, the Petra Archaeological Park conducted essential maintenance to support plans to boost visitor capacity and quality of services. In addition, over the years, the archaeological park has partnered with several Jordanian and regional institutions to ensure the safety of the site and the continuation of the educational and tourism initiatives. One such partnership was ACOR’s Petra Church Conservation Initiative, funded by multiple donors to preserve the mosaics throughout the church (Fig. 2). ACOR funded the installation of a protective covering for the mosaics in 1998 (Fig. 1) (American Center of Research 2021).
Dr. Al-Farajat argued that one of the most pressing issues for the PDTRA are the concerns from the local Bedouin community. The Jordanian government moved hundreds of local families out of the protected park and into a nearby village. While there is room for improvement on the park and government’s part in assisting the Bedouins (Ajaka 2014), the local community has supported the archaeological park by providing dozens of restaurants and hotels for tourists, and Jordanians see Petra as symbolic of their cultural and historical identity. Without tourism, the community would suffer from an economic decline, and yet, at the same time, the archaeological park would not be as successful as it is were it not for the education and support initiatives between preservation officials and the Bedouin community.
The ongoing political conflict in Syria and Iraq has created an entirely different set of hurdles for site management and upkeep beyond typical complications due to the age of the sites and tourism in these countries. For example, both Palmyra (Fig. 3) and Hatra (Fig. 4) were the targets of several iconoclastic campaigns by ISIL. Such attacks occurred across the region and included bulldozing structures, looting sites and museums, and removing, hammering, or shooting reliefs and sculptures (Anderson 2017, 137).
Up until the early 20th century, the community of Tadmor lived in the old city, which had been repurposed into contemporary neighborhoods while preserving the historical and cultural integrity of ancient Palmyra. The Roman temple of Bel (Fig. 3), for example, was a Mesopotamian temple and then a Christian church before it was used as a mosque, all the while retaining its previous religious iconography (Moumni 2021). Under the French mandate after World War I, officials removed the residents of Tadmor from the old city to undertake archaeological excavations and make room for weapons storage (Sommer 2018, 4–5). During the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIL over the last decade, large swaths of the city, ancient and modern, now lie in rubble after a series of attacks in 2015 and 2017 (Moumni 2021).
Notable Syrian archaeologists Khaled al-As’ad and his son Waleed al-As’ad have dedicated their lives to the protection and prosperity of Palmyra’s deeply rich cultural significance despite the forced removal of the community and its history over the last century (Moumni 2021). Dr. Salam Al Kuntar is a board member of Syrians for Heritage (SIMAT), an organization that prioritizes the preservation of the global Syrian cultural heritage through community-based initiatives. During her panel remarks, Dr. Al Kuntar discussed how Syrian schools have begun to amend curriculums to bring students to archaeological sites to educate the younger generation.
The local community near Hatra, according to Dr. Yasmin Abdulkareem Mohammed Ali, does not yet understand the site’s archaeological importance. Due to its location — which is over a hundred kilometers from the nearest city, Mosul — the site does not have the luxury of tourism to jump-start an international interest in preservation efforts at Hatra. Unfortunately, the area suffers from frequent insurrections, which has not provided the stability required for community engagement initiatives.
Heritage in a Digital World
Designations of these three cities as World Heritage sites (Palmyra in 1975; Petra and Hatra in 1985) have garnered international interest through tourism and research, and the growing and productive partnerships between preservation scholars and local communities have proven to be significant. In addition to such community-based initiatives, there has been an increase in universities, museums, and other research institutions providing accessible educational content online in recent years. From 3-D renderings to virtual walk-throughs and online events, such advancements have come at an opportune time with the impacts of COVID-19.
I was overcome by gratitude as I attended the “Human Heritage” panel event and browsed the Return from Palmyra exhibit from my home in North Carolina. In my personal experience, this type of supplementary material, in concert with my courses, has broadened my horizons and has vastly improved my experience as an undergraduate student. While some of these online events may have begun only as a solution to temporary restrictions on travel and public gatherings, there is something to be said for the long-term ability to bring cultural heritage preservation, in digital form, into classrooms and communities across the globe. For the last year, students, scholars, and the general public have been able to engage with content that they would not have been able to access otherwise. The application of digital humanities initiatives and projects in traditional education and advocacy settings has real potential for success (Brier 2012).
In his interview for the Return to Palmyra exhibit, Waleed Khaled al-As’ad quoted his father, who, I believe, encapsulated the beauty and importance of heritage preservation: “A human being without a past is a human being with no present and no future” (Moumni 2021). Al-As’ad went on to add that the preservation of ancient sites is also an act of self-preservation: “we must hold on to the past and learn from [the] history [of] … these civilizations; they represent a part of the human experience” (Moumni 2021). Thus, while preserving these sites provides a glimpse into human history, it also reflects who we are today and how we see ourselves. What a gift that is — to be able, through advocacy and education, to create, or deepen, intergenerational connections through new technologies.
I would like to thank ACOR and the Getty Research Institute for hosting this event and the lecturers, Dr. Salam Al Kuntar, Dr. Suliman Ali Al-Farajat, and Dr. Yasmin Abdulkareem Mohammed Ali, for their time and knowledge. This lecture event was recorded and is now available online for additional viewership.
You can watch the recorded panel “Human Heritage: Preserving Palmyra, Petra, and Hatra” on YouTube via the following links:
Ahmed, S. S. 1972. ”Hatra, Iraq.” Archaeology 25 (2): 103–111.
Ajaka, N. 2014. “In Pictures: Jordan Tourism Threatens Bedouin.” Aljazeera, 4 May 2014.
American Center of Research. 2021. “Petra Church Conservation.” American Center of Research, 21 June 2021.
Anderson, B. 2017. “Beyond Rome/Parthia: Intersections of Local and Imperial Traditions in the Visual Record of Hatra.” In Arsacids, Romans, and Local Elites: Cross-Cultural Interactions of the Parthian Empire, edited by J. M. Schlude and B. B. Rubin, 137–158. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Brier, S. 2012. “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by M. K. Gold, 1–10. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press. DOI:10.5749/minnesota/9780816677948.003.0038
Edwell, P. 2017. “Osrhoene and Mesopotamia between Rome and Arsacid Parthia.” In Arsacids, Romans, and Local Elites: Cross-Cultural Interactions of the Parthian Empire, edited by J. M. Schlude and B. B. Rubin, 111–136. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Moumni, R. 2021. “Interview with Waleed Khaled al-As’ad.” Return to Palmyra. Getty Research Institute, 21 June 2021.
Schmid, S. G. 2008. “The Hellenistic Period and the Nabataeans.” In Jordan: An Archaeological Reader, edited by R B. Adams, 353–411. Oakville: Equinox Publishing.
Sommer, M. 2018. Palmyra: A History. Oxford: Routledge.