The Sun-God Also Rises: A Christian’s Eulogy for ISIS-Occupied Palmyra

Modern Palmyra, like the ancient, is newly cast into darkness. But in truth, this darkness predates ISIS’ demolition of the Baalshamin temple, or even its capture of the city last May. Like any city under the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose perpetuation of a civil war has effectively cannibalized 200,000 Syrian citizens since 2011, Palmyra’s lamp has flickered on the verge of being extinguished.

Palmyra

“What does a man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.”

Most will recognize these words from the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes and credit them to King Solomon, whose title in that book is “The Teacher.” The son and heir of David has many claims to fame, many of them contradictory. The Bible presents him as the wisest man who ever lived, yet one plagued by insecurity. His reign was Israel’s golden age, but he was the last king before Israel’s division with Judah. He found no meaningful fulfillment in indulging the appetites, yet he kept 300 wives and 700 concubines. He built the temple of God (the one that caused old men to weep when comparing their memories of it to Zerubbabel’s remodel), yet he himself worshiped idols: “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.” 

FEW, HOWEVER, KNOW SOLOMON AS the founder of Palmyra, an ancient Syrian city that was home to the 2,000-year-old temple of Baalshamin – until ISIS demolished the temple this week.

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Nine hundred years after Solomon ruled Israel, Palmyra’s main temple structure was built (in AD 32) and embellished as the city flourished as a desert oasis for the next 239 years (incidentally, the same number of years old that the United States of America is now). During that stretch, Palmyra (again, not unlike the U.S.) gained fame, wealth and political freedom as a trade route, economic stronghold and cultural center – until Roman Emperor Aurelian “sacked, looted and destroyed” it during his late third-century campaign to crush potentially competitive regimes.

The old independent state of Palmyra was one of these. In that respect it was (if not a city on a hill) a light in a darkening empire.

Modern Palmyra, like the ancient, is newly cast into darkness. But in truth, this darkness predates ISIS’ demolition of the Baalshamin temple, or even its capture of the city last May. Like any city under the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose perpetuation of a civil war has effectively cannibalized 200,000 Syrian citizens since 2011, Palmyra’s lamp has flickered on the verge of being extinguished.

But it has flickered brightly. An UNESCO-supported site, Palmyra’s ancient temple had been one of the best and most “beautifully preserved,” with a “nearly perfect” cella (inner chamber). It even had its own priest, of sorts: Khaled al-Asaad, known to archaeologists as “Mr. Palmyra” for his intricate knowledge of the site and his function as its intellectual gatekeeper for 40 years.

Palmyra“Mr. Palmyra,” Khaled al-Asaad

Last week, after leading the evacuation of several valuable artifacts, Asaad, 81, was beheaded for refusing to reveal information about the site’s treasures (the Islamic State’s holy war leads it to destroy objects dedicated to false gods, but not from selling plunder to fund jihad).

THE BIBLE’S MENTION OF PALMYRA in 2 Chronicles 8:4 is brief: “He built Tadmor in the wilderness and all the store cities that he built in Hamath.”

Josephus elaborates on this “Tadmor in the wilderness,” linking the Hebrew Tadmor to the Greek Palmyra, and revealing that the city’s function as a valuable anomaly in a desolate region reaches back to its founding:

“Nay, Solomon went as far as the desert above Syria, and possessed himself of it, and built there a very great city, which was distant two days’ journey from Upper Syria, and one day’s journey from Euphrates, and six long days’ journey from Babylon the Great. Now the reason why this city lay so remote from the parts of Syria that are inhabited is this, that below there is no water to be had, and that it is in that place only that there are springs and pits of water. When he had therefore built this city, and encompassed it with very strong walls, he gave it the name of Tadmor, and that is the name it is still called by at this day among the Syrians, but the Greeks name it Palmyra.” – Josephus, Antiquities 6.1

Solomon built a great city. Yet despite his many faults, the founder of Palmyra knew (either at or after its founding) that “the battle is not to the strong” (Ecclesiastes 9:11), nor victory to the city with “very strong walls.” He saw value in Tadmor’s “springs and pits of water,” but these must have reminded him that “all streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (Ecclesiastes 1:7).

The city of Palmyra, with all its treasures, has changed hands many times between its founder Solomon and its latest captor ISIS, and it will change hands again.

It has also changed gods. Given Solomon’s idolatry, it is possible that even during his reign, Palmyra’s inhabitants shifted their worship from Yahweh to created objects and their personified deities. The first century’s sky- and sun-god Baalshamin, for instance, was a cousin of sorts to the more familiar Baal. Two millennia later, the god imposed upon Palmyra is ISIS’s Allah. Its human sacrifices abound, but this god won’t last forever. The sun-god rose, too, before it fell.

Of tragic news abroad there is no ceasing, particularly in the Middle East. Reports are fatiguing and sobering. The experience is not unlike reading Ecclesiastes.

The book is downright depressing if read without its final chapter, which locates life’s meaning in reverence (“fear”) and obedience to the true God. Upon finishing, we must reinterpret the stark near-nihilism in the preceding chapters with Solomon’s conclusion in view.

In the same way, Christians are meant to read hard news about Palmyra and other suffering cities (including those stateside) with the Last Battle, and Scripture’s last chapter, in mind – as Christians being persecuted and executed under ISIS and other regimes do. “He has put eternity into man’s heart” that we may do so (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

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