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palmyra to babylon

by Matthew Parry


"Palmyra?" asked Sergeant Bayly. "You're kidding, the next ruin is actually called Palmyra?" The Sergeant hadn’t shown any interest in the ruins until now.

Thomas looked up from his notebook. Almost a week into the mission, and this was the first interest any soldier had shown. "You've studied Syrian history? Really?"

"No." Bayly chuckled. "There's a Palmyra in New York state, too."

"You from there?"

"Nah. I just know about it." The Sergeant said no more and rummaged in a pocket. 

Private Wheelock yelled from the opposite bench: "It's important in our religion."

Sergeant Bayly gestured with a can of chewing tobacco. "More your religion than mine."

The ridiculously large military truck, an MRAP, rumbled along as the craggy road did its best to rearrange Thomas’s spine. Soldiers hunkered and napped under bouncing armor. During his training and orientation Thomas had learned how to slouch under his heavy equipment and lean back against the armored walls for a nap, but that had been in Texas and not Syria.

Palmyra, Syria would be their second stop. Thomas had met this squad at a forward operating base and their mission would take them back to Baghdad. Thomas was assigned to document the damage ISIS had done to invaluable artifacts and the squad would keep him safe. 

He hadn’t wanted this assignment, but he was the most qualified. This squad hated babysitting him in Syria while the rest of their division was already home. This tour would be good for Thomas’s career, and the soldiers were happy to finally head home themselves.

In Palmyra, Thomas’s first stop was the tower tomb of Elahbel. He had seen pictures of the beautiful loculi frescos and the gorgeous ceiling plasterwork. The frescos were so detailed one could not help but imagine life in millennia past. The brilliant blue ceiling plaster hinted at a vibrant culture. The tower tomb had stood for millennia as a common heritage to mankind.

Millenia old, and now it was a pile of ruins after ISIS and their explosives. This building had held the earliest silks traded from China, bodies buried in Egyptian and Greek traditions in a Roman world, and other historical treasures. All irreplaceable. All gone.

Their Iraqi translator took a break to chew khat, and Sergeant Bayly followed Thomas with a wad of tobacco in his lip and pointed at the destroyed tower tomb. “Doc, you look like you’re gonna cry. Was that building important?” the American asked in mocking tones.

Thomas didn’t answer. They walked to the Temple of Bel. Along the way the Sergeant dropped an empty can of chew on the same road used by temple worshipers centuries ago.

“Pick that up,” Thomas said. “I don’t toss rubbish in your duffels, so don’t leave any in the historical record.” Thomas had made it clear on the first day that they would carry their refuse in bags until they found dumpsters. Armies had spoiled enough throughout the centuries.

Bayly weighed his options, then grabbed the can and put it in a pocket at his shoulder. At the temple, Private Wheelock and other soldiers admired the main entrance arch. It stood on a checkerboard of bone-white stone, amidst rubble, hinting at lost grandeur. 

“Before ISIS, how much of this was standing?” Wheelock asked, gesturing a where explosives and bulldozers had left the rubble.

“A lot more,” Thomas sighed. “It’s… beyond tragedy isn’t it?”

“It must have been incredible.”

“This isn’t the temple in New York,” Sergeant Bayly jeered. “Why would you care? This wasn't a temple for Christ, just some pagan thing.”

“It’s just sad.” Wheelock answered.

“This was dedicated while he was teaching.” Thomas said, setting up the 3D camera.

“While who was teaching?” asked the Sergeant.

“Christ. This temple was dedicated 32 years after his birth, best we can tell. Now only the temple’s narrow entry gate remains.”

The Sergeant looked again at the arch, this time more thoughtfully. He almost said something, but he instead spit brown tobacco juice on the stones and walked away, his expression daring Thomas to call him out for spitting on ancient stones.

Thomas captured images of the arch. He wrote as the camera scanned. He had already documented the destruction of a church memorializing the Armenian genocide, defacement of multiple lion statues, demolition of ancient gates, missing Ottoman documents from a half dozen libraries, and a one thousand year old church annihilated with four children still inside.

“These were some bad people,” Private Wheelock said, almost too quiet to hear.

“The people of Palmyra weren’t any more good or bad than us, Private Wheelock. They lived differently. Palmyra was one of the first examples of the Aramaic, the Greek, the Arab, and the Jew living together in harmony. They wove their tribes into a unique society.”

“I meant ISIS. Who would do something like this? It’s evil.”

“Oh, that's true,” ISIS Salafists destroyed old polytheistic ruins. Yet they sold the more portable relics on the black market, not much minding polytheism if it funded their rampage.

The soldiers left Thomas to record what remained. The 3D camera had been funded by US Secretary Kerry, since defending actual ruins proved too costly. Thomas had hours to document what had taken centuries to develop before they moved to a safer place for the night.

They bid Palmyra farewell, and in his heart Thomas bid farewell to ruins forever lost.

He could only read archeology journals for so long on the bumpy road. It grew dull. 

The next three days were the same: travel, boredom, and priceless artifacts lost. Thomas passed the time by watching the squad. They were interesting, as an anthropological study. It wasn’t often that soldiers could be so candidly observed. Thomas found himself writing notes about them. Private Wheelock was the oldest of his rank, and while this granted him a measure of respect, he was also often the focus of ridicule. 

The Private woke one day to find his patches hidden, and his incomplete uniform was mocked. Sergeant Bayly yelled at Wheelock for his ‘jacked up’ appearance, even though he understood the prank. What interested Thomas was seeing those who mocked Wheelock later confide to him about their families' troubles back home. At each stop, a different soldier would find Wheelock for a chance to talk. He was the squad confidant, their wise man of a sort.

In crossing the border into Iraq, Private Wheelock spoke through their translator to the locals. At first Thomas figured that Brown knew some Arabic, but he only spoke English and Portuguese that he had learned in Brazil. He represented the group because he was trusted. Interesting dynamics, this squad of soldiers. Thomas wrote “Why Brazil?” in his notebook.

Sergeant Bayly stopped trying to toss his tobacco cans, but mumbled about how the locals disposed of their own trash. Thomas’s harddrive was one quarter full of standing ruins and statues. His notebook was half full things forever lost.

Their convoy reached Baghdad, which meant showers and a more comfy cot. Thomas tired of reading his backlog of anthropology journals, and he wondered about the ethics of publishing an ethnographic study of the saintly soldier. They had been an interesting distraction.

Their final stop was Babylon. ISIS hadn’t been here, but his colleagues wanted a study of the damage caused by Polish and US forces in 2003. More armies, more destruction. 

Saddam Hussein had been a tin pot dictator claiming to return Iraq to power lost 2,500 years ago. He built a palace overtop the precious remains of old Babylon. Ancient bricks underneath read “Nebuchadnezzar” with the dates around 650 B.C. The palace was a spacious building with a 30 meter entrance arch, five courtyards, and 250 rooms with images of Hussein and Nebuchadnezzar. The modern bricks too bore a message: "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq."

Thomas found one such brick and read the inscription to the soldiers, who laughed. Hussein had been executed a decade ago after he was found cowering in a small hole.

Underneath this palace lay a wealth of unmolested history. Tyrants like Hussein or madmen like ISIS thoughtlessly destroyed such prizes. A decade ago, Polish and US forces dug trenches and rolled tanks over these buried records. Maybe someday that damage would interest archeologists wondering how such senseless violence continued amid such prosperity.

Thomas set up trash cans and made sure they were used. He was determined to capture a nearly complete surface survey, which would be easy since this place was more secure than Syria. Only 3% of Babylon had ever been excavated, and his colleagues hoped a good map would prompt a new excavation when the country was stable, whenever that might be. He worked through the hot Iraqi day, thinking of how soon he would be home and cool.

He took a break after mapping around the old ziggurat. In the shade of an ancient mound he flipped through his notes.

Over the mound came two voices, Wheelock and Bayly.

“You don’t understand,” Bayly said.

“Maybe not,” Wheelock admitted.

“I feel like there isn’t even enough of me left to go home this time. My family, they’re good people. My dad teaches at Snow College. I can’t fit in with folks in Ephraim any more.”

Wheelock let the silence stretch.

Thomas turned to a blank page of his notebook.

"I used to be one of the good guys, you know.” Thomas said as a gust of wind threatened to cover their voices. “I can't ever go back to what I was."

"Why would you want to go back?"

"I, well, isn't that what I'm supposed to do? Repent and go back to being good?"

"I've always thought of repentance as progressing forward, not going backward."

Thomas wrote a couple of notes about repentance, wishing that he had paid more attention to Christian philosophies in his world religion classes.

Bayly’s voice bit in as Thomas scribbled. "Progress, huh? Like building this joke of a palace over the old bones of greatness? That kind of progress?"

Wheelock didn't say anything, giving Thomas time to write.

"That's what I feel like," Bayly said. "Empty, fake, hiding old skeletons, built on pride and lies. Can anyone know what I've got buried in my past?"

"We've spent the last week seeing the past get wiped away. You can leave your past behind, if you really want to let the old you go. Is that what you want?"

"I don't really know if I can. Can God really do that for me?"

"He has for me."

Bayly was silent a while before speaking. "I'm broken, like all those old statues and temples. I can't be fixed. I’m just rubble inside."

“Christ said he could rebuild the temple in Jerusalem in three days. Maybe...”

Bayly interrupted, almost growling. “You don’t know me, kid. I can't change. Not me. Not anymore. I’m stained. How do you know he would forgive me?”

Wheelock’s voice was quiet, but firm. “Because he’s been there for me. Every time.”

There was a long silence. Thomas almost moved, but he was worried about being found out. He shouldn’t be hiding here at all. It felt wrong to be listening in to something like this.

There was a sniff before the Bayly spoke, his voice choked on a sob. “It’s been so long since I was a good kid, living up in the mountains with my family.”

"Are you ready to leave Babylon and return home?"

Thomas decided to leave his equipment and sneak away. Walking back in the waning heat, he thought that maybe he shouldn't publish his study of the squad. He meant to throw his notes away, but found himself reading them instead. In his tent, his mind traveled through his own buried past, his first marriage, and painful memories hidden at the bottom of his soul.

While changing to sleep he felt a small card in the breast pocket. It bore a picture of Christ, with phone numbers on the back. Thomas had accepted it from Private Wheelock with bemusement. The picture of Christ was historically inaccurate, but as he examined it Thomas thought over Wheelock’s words. He fell asleep wondering what they meant.

The next day the convoy was to bid farewell to Babylon. Thomas went back to get his camera, glad to find it intact. He stowed his equipment in the MRAP and went about gathering bags of trash. In the last bag were all of the Sergeant Bayly’s cans of chew, full or empty, left behind in Babylon as they turned toward home.