I clambered up the immense rubble mound, all that remains of the Temple of Zeus Belos, and surveyed the ruins below. My eyes were drawn along the column-lined avenue that ran for kilometers through this ancient city’s heart—indeed, the route was called the cardo, or “heart.”
On my educational leave from Capilano University in 2008, I roamed the Middle East, and arriving here at the Syrian site of Apamea was the climax of a pilgrimage. This place had been home to Iamblichus (c.240 – 325), my favourite ancient philosopher. Surely he had knelt in this temple and strolled that avenue. I felt fortunate to walk in his footsteps.
I feel even more fortunate now. Satellite photos show the site has been defaced by hundreds of pits dug with heavy equipment. In the anarchic void that prevails across Syria, armed treasure hunters have free rein. No-one will gaze on Apamea’s majesty as I did then.
A Palmyrene still vigilant. Photo: Leonard George
The same applies to Palmyra, Syria’s best-known antique site. Palmyrenes birthed a unique culture, melding ancient East and West. Briefly in the third century, Palmyrene Queen Zenobia ruled Palestine and Egypt, challenging the might of Rome. Palmyra’s well-preserved remains in their desert remoteness have been hailed as the crown jewel of Syria’s archaeological legacy.
Tower tombs in Palmyra. Photo: Leonard George
I will never forget the magic of wandering those ruins as dusk fell and the lunar crescent gleamed, feeling the connection with Zenobia and the lost Palmyrene race. Moonbeams decked the hulking Temple of Bel, the ornate Temple of Baal Shemin, the weird tower tombs probing like a buried giant’s fingers from the sands. I gave thanks for the work of Khaled al-Asaad—the scholar who devoted his life to preserving these gateways to old memory.
However, they are all gone now—the temples, the tombs, the scholar. As they have done at other ancient sites like Nimrud, Nineveh and Hatra, the vandals of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) are systematically blasting Palmyra into dust. Mr. Al-Assad, a harmless old man of 83 who was Palmyra’s caretaker, refused to tell where artifacts were hidden. The torturers hung his corpse from a column and set his bespectacled head between the feet. He is mourned by his daughter, Zenobia.
Vandals of imagining (Islamic State propaganda photo).
I grieve the tragedy that has befallen Syria—over 200,000 dead, more than half the population displaced. And I bewail the loss of antiquities. Some people have a problem with that. How can you fuss about stones when people are dying? Cherishing stones devalues the pain of the living, who should be our sole concern, they say. But I think that not cherishing the stones devalues us all.
Sometimes a stone is not just a stone. Every imprint of the human imagination reminds us who and what we are. We are not meaningless specks drifting from birth to death. We are part of something larger, its nature a mystery. At the junction of mind and mystery sparks fly, sparks of imagining—gods and goddesses, arts and experiments, equations and songs. Iamblichus taught that each is a clue to our communion with all things, if only we could discern it.
Wand of Dionysus, god of subversive creativity. Photo: Leonard George
Why do IS jihadis wield both sledgehammers and swords? They know an old truth: you can conquer from outside with violence and fear, but to sustain victory you must conquer from inside—you must rule the imagination. Imagining is inherently creative, which is to say, subversive. Memory must be smashed and fantasy yoked until no-one can imagine things ever being different.
In AD 380, Roman Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, banning all faiths but his own brand of Christianity, so making his church “universal” (catholikos). Then he sent an army of engineers and soldiers to tear down Apamea’s shrines and slaughter her priests. IS jihadis keep up this same work. There is nothing Islamic (or Christian) about it.
Storm rolling in at Apamea. Photo: Leonard George
Middle Eastern horrors remind us that threats to the liberating imagination are not entombed in the past. We must not assume these threats are safely distant “over there.” For ten centuries, the ideals of the university have stood as a bulwark against those who would enslave our thoughts, and as a portal to the mystery of existence. Be vigilant. The vandals of imagining wear many guises. Are they far? Or nearing? Or already within?
Atop the mound of Zeus Belos, I felt the air change. A northeastern breeze hinted of moisture. Black clouds danced on the hills. A veil of shadow swept along the cardo. A rare storm was about to drench this thirsty land. I figured I had better sprint to the little tea hut by the bus stop, from here a far glint of metal roofing.
Psyche among the ruins. Photo: Leonard George
Something fluttered in the wind and landed at my feet. There, among the marble chips, was a butterfly. For a moment it lingered, spreading wings, then caught another gust and vanished. The butterfly is the symbol of psyche (mind or soul)—a proper benediction from the storm-god Zeus, I felt, as my profession of Psychology is named for the study of the psyche.
I made it to the tea hut, diving under the corrugated awning, just as the downpour began.
Submitted by Dr. Leonard George, Department of Psychology
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