The Alhambra Palace, built into the mountains of Granada, Spain, regularly sees over two million visitors a year. Many people, old and young, representing a vast variety of nationalities, visit it to unravel its rich history — one that is tumultuous, yet enduring.

Similarly, the ancient city of Palmyra, located in the Homs province of Syria, was once home to a mixture of Amorites, Arabians, and Arabs, changing hands many times before being engulfed by the Roman empire in the first century AD. Many of its key structures now lie in ruins.

 

The Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, has not only claimed thousands of human lives, but also reduced architectural treasures to ruins.The questions asked when reflecting on human loss — who/what killed them, and why — are also raised when we look at the fate of inanimate casualties of war, namely: Palmyra, who destroyed a vast area of it, and why?

This is where Alhambra comes in. Who preserved it, and why was it not destroyed? The main reason the Alhambra Palace still stands today, while Palmyra is fragmented and broken, is that there is not the same united, ‘for the sake of humanity’ attitude that existed when Alhambra was built. This is not to say that when the palace was first built in 1238, that men lived peacefully side by side. On the contrary, bitter religious and imperial wars ensued, with Alhambra being occupied by the Moors, Nasrids, Romans, and Spanish throughout history. These various owners even destroyed some of their predecessors’ handiwork. However, vitally, whatever was destroyed was replaced by something new. The Spanish introduced mannerist style architecture, Muslim rulers added a pioneering irrigation system, and the Nasrid dynasty enhanced the palace’s Abassid architecture.

Many of these additions can still be observed today. Succeeding new occupants naturally wanted to ‘put their stamp’ on the palace, given the mutual understanding for the need for advancement. For instance, the installation of running water was a major development, and one that all successors of the palace appreciated. Even today, tour guides make a point of this particular feature.

In stark contrast, Islamic State militants have quickly disposed of symbolic monuments in Palmyra. On December 10, the Tetrapylon, at one point a symbol of openness and peaceful cohabitation, was destroyed. The various demolitions that took place in Palmyra were reported with unfamiliarity, with many articles simply explaining the layout of the city. The real understanding of the significance of these losses was, regrettably, absent.

The alienation many of us feel from this historical cleansing is not only physical, but ideological. No longer do people seem to unite over ‘common goals’, human advancement, or, in the case of Palmyra, preservation. Our differences are seen as too great, greater than any need to unite. We’ve seen this change in attitude in America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement; the failure to end the conflict in Syria because the prevention of human bloodshed is no longer a common goal (it arguably never was); and now we see it in the effortless destruction of some of the world’s greatest monuments.

The fact that the Tetrapylon was left vulnerable to destruction in the first place, along with the whole of Palmyra and other UNESCO world heritage sites within the war zone, is evidence of the world’s growing disunity. Architecture is a sign of human triumph. When a building rises, it is usually the result of not only technological advancements, but cooperation amongst those who built it. When these structures then fall, it can surely only be because of a dysfunctional group of architects that, not only wish to limit further progress, but allow the destruction of past successes.

Palmyra was not only an architectural triumph, but a symbolic development. It stood at the crossroads of multiple civilisations by linking trade in China, India and Persia with the Roman Empire. Its architecture is a fusion of Eastern and Western influences, whilst the Amorites, Arabs, Arameans and Jews, although arriving successively, occupied the city simultaneously. The Arabs adopted Palymrene as their mother tongue and were absorbed by the established inhabitants, as were other arrivals (except the Greeks, who were disliked by Palmyrenes). Although the number of Greek settlers was restricted, anyone who did make Palmyra their home was considered a Palmyrene. Throughout its history, it was those ruling over Palmyra that rose to power and then collapsed. Its citizens remained diverse and intertwined as the city was fought over by the Seleucids, the Romans, then the Sasanian Empire, then Zenobia, and then various Muslim leaders and the Ottoman Empire. Today, not only are the modern-day rulers divided, but they appear to thrive off of dividing the population they serve too.

Previously a model of human inclusion and interlinked civilisations, Palmyra has now fallen to Islamic State militants who faced no resistance as they proceeded to assault it — only a few individual voices really mourned its death. Perhaps, modern-day society does not appreciate the advantages of peaceful cohabitation, integration and advancement. Like the walls of the ancient city, these ideas are crumbling and weak, soft in comparison to the hard stance of identity politics. The deterioration of these values is what led to the fall of this former cultural melting pot.

These values were, although perhaps not at the very forefront of the minds of those who seized the Alhambra Palace, at least seen as being more fundamental than they are today. Coexistence was not seen as a compromise like now, but necessary in order to advance society and civilisation. Built and upgraded through strong beliefs in development and stability, it is because of integration, not in spite of it, that the Alhambra Palace stands tall and secure today.

Quite indifferent to a society as fractured as Palmyra, visitors to Alhambra (myself included) gaze at its achievement in awe. Possibly because the progression it represents is so removed from the stagnation and disintegration that we are now so accustomed to.