Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Condolences to the Gods

Arch from Temple of Bel in Palmyra, 2005 before its destruction August 30, 2015

Words cannot express my horror and my grief at the loss of the Temple of Ba'al Shamin and the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. 

Words cannot express my horror and grief at the loss of this sacred place, at the losses endured by the gods Ba'al Shamin and Bel Marduk, at the loss endured by the ancestors, at the loss endured by ourselves and the countless generations to follow. My deepest condolences to the gods, to the ancestors, to all the beings affected including us humans.

The Temple of Ba'al Shamin was destroyed August 23, 2015, and the Temple of Bel was destroyed August 30, 2015. Updates from satellite imagery tells us that both temples were leveled to dust. I would put a link here that shows pictures of the devastation through satellite, but I just cannot bring myself to do it. I simply do not have the heart to look at those again. 

Palmyran Stele of Palmyran Gods. From left to right: moon god Aglibol, god of heavens Ba'al Shamin, sun god Yarkhibol or Malakbel.

Hail Ba'al Shamin, God of the Heavens, Lord of the World, Highest God, Holy Heavenly God, Lord of Heavens and of the Earth, Holy Lord, King, Creator of the Earth, Chief of the Gods, bringer of rain and sunlight and goodly weather, one who saves his people from drought, establisher of wisdom, warrior, avenger. Our deepest condolences. May your Temples be built anew. 

Bel Marduk, in bas relief from Elam

Hail Bel Marduk, First-Born of Enki, Calf of the Storm, King of Gods, bearer of Fifty Names, god of exorcism, god of abundant and fertile land, guarantor of destiny, god of lineage, god of kingship, god of society, god of magic, god of wisdom, god of judgement, bearer of the triangle-headed spade, rider of the snake-dragon Mushhushshu. Our deepest condolences. May your Temples be built anew. 

Lion of Al-Lat in 2010 before its defacement June 27, 2015

The Temple of Ba'al Shamin and the Temple of Bel were not the only sacred items destroyed and defaced at Palmyra. We may not know the extent of the damage until the terrorist group Daesh leaves. We do, however, know that the Lion of Al-Lat was damaged or flat-out destroyed. This statue, devoted and made in honor of the goddess Al-Lat, bears an inscription promising blessing upon those who do not shed blood in the sanctuary of Al-Lat. It was all that had remained of the temple of Al-Lat at Palmyra. 

The scribe god Nabu, and the god Ba'al Hammon, all had temples here in Palmyra, as well, and this was in ruins before Daesh, but if the Temple of Al-Lat, the Temple of Nabu, and the Temple of Ba'al Hammon had not already been in ruins, it is likely we would be mourning more losses of more temples. 

Seeing Palmyra destroyed is like seeing the Pyramids of Egypt wiped off the planet, or Stonehenge demolished, Machu Picchu missing. It is a great and deep loss, and it is one that we will suffer and all the generations that come after us will suffer. To honor the loss more keenly, here is a virtual tour of what Palmyra--and especially the Temple of Bel--looked like before the destruction wreaked in August 2015. What some people have a difficult time wrapping their heads around is that this isn't just a loss to the study of history, of heritage, of humanity, of art, and of architecture--although it is a loss to these things. It is a loss to diversity and religious diversity. It is a loss of sacred holy places touched by the deities themselves, and touched over generations of hands in devotion to these gods. Although the argument can be made that these were "dead" sites where devotion no longer occurred, consider that even just the heroic octogenarian archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad was beheaded simply for wanting to preserve what little he could of Palmyran antiquities. How can anyone practice devotion or rebuild the crumbling temples in that environment, when practicing simple preservation of artifacts is considered an offense fit for death?

The damage isn't to Palmyra alone. They target temples, statues of deities, and the images of lions or magnificent beings who stand guard at gates, or the gates themselves. They destroyed the gateway lion statue at Al-Raqqah. They've jackhammered a lamassu guardian gateway statue at Nergal's Gate in Nineveh. They bulldozed an Assyrian palace in Nimrud and destroyed the lamassu guardian statues there. And they've been busy since March bulldozing Hatra. At Hatra, they've also shot at sacred images and have done their best to behead these images. They blaze their path of destruction using jackhammers to smash these things and guns to pelt these things with bullets, and they use bulldozers and explosives. 

At Palmyra, just look at what Daesh destroys--for this will harm them. They would try to blot out Bel Marduk, thus undermining their own legitimacy, strength, and claim to rule, as well as bringing sterility to the land they try to live in, and they would try to destroy a bringer of destinies. In trying to blot out Ba'al Shamin, they bring drought to the desert further destroying the fertility of the land they would try to live on, they would destroy a being who could have protected them from all manner of enemy and malady, and they would destroy wisdom itself. Not to mention the djinn who frequent ruins and are now homeless: remember, Daesh didn't just destroy the homes of these djinn, but they destroyed the Temple of Bel Marduk, and Bel Marduk is a god of exorcism. 

Daesh destroy not just old statues and sites known for tourism and history, but sacred places and blessings themselves. They literally destroyed a blessing. They literally destroyed an avenue through which the goddess Al-Lat and her consort pour their blessings when they destroyed the last guardian at the entrance of the already ruined Temple of Al-Lat. Destroying blessings is not only disgraceful, it is also a keenly stupid thing to do.

Beyond Palmyra, they smash the guardians at the gates, and they smash the very gates themselves. They smash the remnants of things cherished by protector guardian beings. Smashing things favorable to guardian beings is not a good way to ensure the guardians' continued support, protection, and guardianship; but it is certainly a way to encourage these guardian beings to remove their blessings and take those blessings elsewhere.

How egregiously stupid they are to try to pit themselves against the very forces, the very gods that make life livable and make life worth living. They have not assured their legitimacy. They have not blotted out the memory of the gods, and they surely have not killed the gods themselves. Instead, they have assured their own demise. 

A host of angry gods, several displaced protective guardian spirits, and a pack of furious homeless djinn biting at their heels? It's an image that soothes me to sleep when the hot, bitter tears threaten to overcome me. 

Let us mourn the loss of these Temples, the deity statues, the guardian statues, the holy gates, and these sacred things. Let us mourn the loss of sacred and holy space, of avenues through which the deities communicate and pour forth their grace and their blessings upon the world. Let us mourn that we cannot rebuild these temples, we cannot bring them back they way they were. We cannot see their grandeur again, and our children and their children and their children will never see these things either. We must mourn these things honestly and fully and deeply. We must experience the horror, the rage, and the sorrow. We must be fully cognizant of the depth of this loss for the deities, the ancestors, other beings, ourselves, and our future generations, and the devastation that these acts of violation cause to the relationships amidst us and the Divine Beings. Let us curse the ones who erase, and let us curse them with every drop of venom we have. But even as we mourn the loss to our deities, and even as we curse the ones who erase, let us also prepare for the future. 

We must not just rebuild, but build anew. The ones who erase have one fear, and that is that their erasure will fail, and that we will remember these deities and that we will remember and keep well the sacred places and the sacred things that these Divine Beings would share with us. We must honor these gods and keep them in name, in devotion, in memory, in art, in song, in poetry, in conversation. We must ensure that they are Gods Not Forgotten....

No matter how powerless we feel at seeing this rampant horrific destruction and violation, we have the two powers that matter most: Memory and Devotion. We should use them well. 

Image Credits: