Waleed Khaled al-As’ad is director emeritus of antiquities and museums at Palmyra and a former resident of the Syrian city. He speaks to art and archaeology historian Ridha Moumni about his childhood and life’s work among the historic ruins as well as his hopes for the site’s future.
In 2003, when al-As’ad became director of antiquities and museums at Palmyra, he took up the post his father, Khaled al-As’ad, had held for 40 years. Known as the “martyr of Palmyra,” Khaled al-As’ad was publicly murdered by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2015.1
The interview has been edited and condensed.
How does a small child grow up in an archaeological site like Tadmor (Palmyra)?2
First off, let me thank you all. I’m honored to be with you, of course. It was incredible luck for a person like me to be born, to live, to grow up in an exceptionally important place. Undoubtedly, Tadmor is an exceptional historic city or site on the global cultural map, important to the history of the world, particularly during the classical period. It is especially lucky for one to be the child of such a place, and to have lived alongside these great monuments, to be able to touch and see, to coexist with this massive, singular collection of antiquities, it is always a point of happiness and pride.
The things I saw studying at university, while traveling and so on, they showed how important Tadmor is relative to other sites. Sometimes when you meet someone and introduce yourself as being from Tadmor, they’ll say something like, “Oh, you’re a descendant of Zenobia! You’re from her city!” Even in Europe you sometimes run into people who have been to ancient sites in Syria, for example. When you tell them you are from Tadmor, they’ll say, “Oh, I visited Tadmor! I have such memories.” Some of them showed me pictures of themselves with their families in Tadmor.
If someone who doesn’t live in the city, someone who has just visited, feels as though some of the city’s honor or respect has rubbed off on them, how much more so for someone who lives there? So, my feelings are stronger. They are also more intense because I was so close to these antiquities. I mean, I heard all the news about them, not just at school or in the streets but hearing directly from someone [my father] who work[ed] night and day in Tadmor, exclusively among Tadmor’s ancient monuments. This has a special impact on one’s psyche.
What was your life like as a small child living and playing in the city of Tadmor and among Tadmor’s antiquities?
In the beginning, with a child’s intellect, you are not aware of how important or how beautiful the place is, you do not understand what it all means. Over time, with constant contact, your understanding increases and deepens.
Like I said, it was my great fortune to be the son of Khaled al-As’ad, who had been appointed the director of antiquities in Tadmor about six or seven years before I was born. This meant that I was in direct, daily contact with practically every new discovery as it occurred. Of course, I did not understand it all in the beginning. But as time passed, when, for example, an expedition or delegation came to visit the city or something, I’d hear what they talked about and my father, God rest his soul, would share some of the details. This gave me a sense of how important the city is.
Even more than this, I grew up very close to the museum. The house was only a few meters from the museum. So, when school let out during elementary school—and, by the way, my school was called the Queen Zenobia School—it was only a few minutes, no more than five, away from the house. When I left school, the city didn’t have parks or playgrounds or anything like that at the time we’re talking about, in the ’70s. There weren’t many. So, I was fortunate enough to have access to the museum, to the collections; I could see them every day.
How many generations of your family can you say lived in Tadmor?
In addition to my own generation, I know of five generations. But some families, for example, have documentation that can reach back about 400 years.
There are some families that have historic documentation or evidence, even written—writing was discovered in Tadmor, written in Arabic of course, in the Kufic script, mentioning the Bani Zaytoun family, [who were] named after olives. This family is still in Tadmor to this day.
The al-Qayyim family is also a very old family. The Ash-Shaykh family, they say its origins go back about 400 years as well to one of the first men of the faith to have a grave here, until ISIS blew it up. It was in the oasis, he had a small tomb people would visit. The man’s name was Shakkas, Sheikh Shakkas. His descendants were called Ash-Shaykh.3
They say your late father was very interested in genealogy and the history of Tadmor’s residents.
Yes, he tried; he was very interested. He wanted to build a massive family tree for the main families—the ones we were talking about and a few others—and link them to their ancestors. Whenever he had the chance, he would go back to his efforts to find any genealogies, documents, books, or references that might shed some light. He was also constantly working, and I went with him sometimes. Or I might attend a meeting he was having with some of the men, the older sheikhs, for example. He would record every word about this person or that and the ancestors and so on.
He tried to connect it all, and in, I think it was 2010, 2011, or 2012, we handed all of these handwritten documents off. It might have been a mistake, unfortunately. We didn’t make a photocopy or digital image of these papers. We gave them to someone to input them on the computer. This man had a daughter who worked in IT [as] a data engineer, and he promised that she would process the file and convert it to a digital file. However, after a little while, around 2013 or 2014, the matter was set aside. I tried to get in touch with her in order to get a copy of the papers, but she kept saying the papers were still in Tadmor and she hadn’t been able to make a digital copy of them.
There were two files I was really hoping to get digitized: this family file, the ancestral family tree of Tadmor, and another file he had been working on at the same time on the language of Tadmor. He was trying to put together a curriculum on how one could read it, could learn it, and a sort of dictionary between the language of Tadmor and Arabic. But we weren’t able to get it out with us. Sadly, the file is gone along with thousands of other documents.
Tell us about your late father. For the majority of people who don’t know the modern history of Tadmor, how would you describe your father?
As you know, it is not easy to talk about someone who spent about 50 years working in one field and who had no desire to abandon it. When he was a student, education was only available up to the fourth grade in Tadmor, only the first four or five years of school. After that, there was no one to teach them.
My father and some others who went before he did (people I’ve since met), up until the 1940s, ’50s, or ’60s, until they opened schools in Tadmor, they had to go to Damascus at 10 years of age to learn. This was not a simple matter in the 1940s, at the end of the 1930s, for a 10-year-old boy to go and live on his own in Damascus in order to learn. We are in a desert, a village, we could even say a tribal place. The people here care about tilling the soil, about farming, about ensuring they have enough to live on in general. The rural areas did not have, or let’s say that, essentially, they did not have any teachers.
My father finished his studies in Damascus and Homs, earning a master’s degree in archaeological studies, and was given an appointment in the Directorate-General of Antiquities. Maybe it was all the time he spent as a student living at the Zenobia Hotel in Damascus or growing up among Tadmor’s ruins that inspired him to study history and led him to decide to return to Tadmor when the other directors wanted to establish an office and a museum for local antiquities.
He worked to improve himself, of course, by working with the other missions and with antiquities scholars from around the world. He was able to take on a massive task in a difficult situation, under harsh conditions, and with very few resources; there were few archaeologists and scholars in other fields in Tadmor. These kinds of degrees were not available. So, he surmounted the hardships, making the Tadmor Antiquities Office one of the most active and productive antiquities offices in the country.
He was a person who worked for about 40 years, from 1963 until 2003—he retired in 2003—and despite his retirement, he was always there because I was there and, more importantly, because of his love for Tadmor. Then, because I was there as the president of the Antiquities Office after him, he was around almost every day, two or three times a week at least; he had to come visit the museum, give some advice, and he never stopped translating texts and providing advice and expertise on development projects, projects from the European Union and UNESCO and so on.
He was in touch with all of these things because, even in the eyes of others, he was respected as the kind of expert one could rely on at all times. So, people called on him to welcome delegations, even after he retired, to translate Palmyrene inscriptions, to evaluate some ancient artifacts and determine whether they were authentic or not; he did all of these things out of the goodness of his heart, not for any remuneration.
When did your father start teaching you about the history and monuments of Tadmor that surrounded you?
I was very fortunate, and I am proud to be the son of this man, a man who was open intellectually and ideologically, a man who prided himself on his belief in Islam, which he understood correctly. He was proud of being an Arab, proud of being a human being. He believed that this place was a part of him.
He tried to explain the projects he was working on. He would answer any question; if he knew the answer, he would say, “The answer is this.” If he didn’t know the answer, he was able to say, “I don’t know.” He had a famous saying: “Half of knowledge is [accepting] not knowing.” That is why he helped us read, why he let us visit the museum, why he took us with him to visit the various [archaeological] missions, to visit work sites. This constant contact sparked a desire or a sort of zealotry for working in this field.
When I was in high school, he advised me to study engineering. He told me that there were already people who had studied history and antiquities but [that] in Tadmor we needed engineers. Very few engineers would work in the Ministry of Culture because the other ministries [had better] benefits and high incomes. Moreover, most engineers immediately started looking for work in the Gulf because the salaries there are 10 times what you could get in Syria. But my father said, “If you want to study engineering, if you love this city and want to work here, it would be more valuable than money. You will build a good reputation, you will build something that other people are looking for; even if you spent all the money you earned to try and buy it, you could not obtain it.”
Thank God, you know, I embraced his idea. I went into engineering and I studied. I immediately returned to Tadmor and, believe me, I had offers for work in Syria and other places, including the Gulf, and I refused. He told me, “It is up to you, but so far you are the only engineer. Tadmor needs engineers.” I made him a promise, it was an oath I made: I would not leave the work in Tadmor, regardless of circumstances, no matter what.
What is the general feeling in Syria regarding pre-Islamic landmarks?
Not long ago I started to say that Tadmor was a place of international trade. It was a center for every religion. You will find more than 20 or 30 temples there. The remains of 13 temples have been identified in Tadmor; these are the ones that are known in Tadmor and the surrounding area. There are more than 60 gods mentioned in the Tadmor area. If you happen to visit Dura-Europos, you will find the remains of a church, the Jewish synagogue, and in Palmyra likewise you will find the church, the pagan temple, and other places of worship. Then, you will notice that they all indicate a particular dogma. The site inspires visitors to open their minds. If you are going to be a commercial broker between the East and the West, dealing with different ways of thinking and different lifestyles, you have to work with both sides and try to be the link between them.
Thus, even when the Romans were persecuting Christians, there was a Christian community in Zenobia’s court. Another example leads us to the Temple of Bel. The cella (Holy of Holies) in the Temple of Bel was in use until 1930 as a mosque. It had been used as a church, as evidenced by the wall paintings of the Virgin Mother and Jesus Christ and the apostles on the western wall inside the cella.
This wall painting was there until the day the temple was destroyed [by ISIS]. That means that even when they [Arab worshippers] went in, when the mosque was in use, these drawings were present. This shows you how even in the 1930s and before that, for the period when it was in use from 1230 or 1130, when the temple was converted into a fortress and the sanctuary was converted into a mosque, these images, these iconic Christian images were on the wall of the mosque and were not touched or harmed.
You can find a lot of similar examples throughout Syria. That is because the Syrian people are intermediaries between all peoples due to their geographical location—we are talking about the nature of Syria. This is a people open to religious diversity, to all customs, to all cultures. So, the way of thinking brought by ISIS and other groups is completely foreign to this society. ISIS presents a negative image that cannot be an expression of Islam. It just tried to clothe itself in Islam and distort the image of the religion. They were used by Muslims, non-Muslims, governments and nongovernment groups, [and] other organizations; everyone took advantage of ISIS. Everyone took a piece and made use of this phenomenon to further their own political goals. Unfortunately, the antiquities were the scene of complex calculations.
What is the state of the village today?
Sadly, it’s destroyed. It’s rubble. I think the number of residents was close to 90,000 in 2015. If we want to put a number to it, I am sure that, of the people of Tadmor, there are no more than a thousand left, at the absolute maximum no more than 1,500 people. Electricity is not fully available in all parts of the city. The destruction is widespread. Water is only available in certain areas near the northern part of the city. Health services are sort of acceptable. The level of electricity and water is bad. If you go, you are going to a ghost town, really. It is sad for me to say this. I hope to return to Tadmor one day.
For the people of Tadmor who left like you did, is there hope they will return to Tadmor and rebuild the village?
The city? Certainly. No one can ever abandon his homeland. “Move your heart to every desire / Love belongs to your first love / No matter how many places a man lives in on earth / He always longs for his first home,” as the Arab poem goes. A person’s homeland is part of his identity, a part of his psyche—childhood memories, memories of family and relatives. This place is a part of your personality. Wherever you go, you will harbor a desire to return.
And we did not go, we did not leave because we wanted to. We were forced out. Forced to search for a life, to search for security, fleeing the death that would have claimed most of the people there. Everyone aspires to return, but it seems to be out of our hands. It is an international issue now, sadly. Too many cooks spoil the soup. So, we will not be returning soon. But we hope that everyone can go back. Everyone will help, everyone fervently wants to go back and rebuild this place.
How is your life today in Lyon, France?
To put it simply, I am a Syrian refugee. It is a very normal life. Of course, I never considered leaving Tadmor at first, nor leaving Syria, but my health forced me to seek refuge in Europe. And what happened to me, what happened to my father and what happened to us as a family, as well as what happened to Tadmor, you know, it was a serious blow for me. That is why I had to get away, so I could get the health care I needed. God willing, as I said, I will be able to go back and be a part of the construction effort if it starts soon or if it is my destiny to do so.
In Lyon I live a simple life like any ordinary person, outside of issues with my health. I have a lot of time to read and learn. Being in France has given me the opportunity to read a lot of important books and documents about Tadmor, for my knowledge and familiarity with Tadmor, and also regarding the future that I consider, in case I am able to return and help with reviving the city.
Lyon’s museum holds some important sculptures. How do you feel about these pieces from your city being there, thousands of miles from their home in Syria, though now they are close to where you are?
Yes, yes. For a moment you are upset or hurt to see these remnants of a culture or civilization from sites scattered around the world. But I also believe that these witnesses to history are messengers of a sort, so for someone who goes into the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, for example, or the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, or other museums around the world, when someone sees these relics and learns that they are from Tadmor, they will ask about Tadmor, they will study Tadmor, they will try to go to Tadmor. [In] normal times, this is a kind of advertising; this is a way of introducing Tadmor. Culturally, scientifically, economically, you are making a sort of investment in Tadmor’s future.
So, at first, like I said, I felt hurt. But I consoled myself that these objects were refugees like me. At least they are there in Lyon. Those statues or engravings are mementos of Tadmor in Lyon and other museums; they make me feel even though I am thousands of kilometers away, I’m close to Tadmor. I thank God that every European museum has things that come from Syria and from Tadmor; through these objects, I find a piece of myself in every museum.
I have one last question: What do you want people to know about Tadmor?
I hope that everyone understands the importance of preserving what remains of Tadmor. I hope they know how important it is to preserve these human heritage sites in general, whether registered on the UNESCO list or not. This is part of what makes us human, part of the process of the life we live, part of ongoing history.
Preserving history is how we preserve our identity [and] personality, how you preserve the components of the self. As my father, God rest his soul, used to say, “A human being without a past is a human being with no present and no future.” We must hold on to the past and learn from history. The history we are talking about, these civilizations, they represent a part of the human experience.