To approach Constantinople was to be dazzled by the most awesome cityscape in the world. So rapidly had it grown that the proud and ancient city of Chalcedon, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, now served merely as its gateway. The Persian ambassadors – boarding a ship in Chaldecon’s harbour and negotiating the waters that surrounded Constantinople ‘like a garland’ – would have found marks of urban sprawl wherever they looked: for the conurbation, spreading in a ribbon along the European coastline, had long since broken through even the outermost ring of walls. Inevitably, though, it was to what lay within those hulking fortifications that the visitor’s gaze was drawn: for it was there that human effort and ingenuity had most astoundingly enhanced the already stunning setting. Along the waterfront, once a bleak wilderness of mud and reeds, everything now proclaimed the voracious appetites of the capital: a three-and-a-half mile stretch of harbours and warehouses, granaries and wharfs. Beyond them, packed so tightly together that visitors would often find themselves 'cramped and walking in danger because of the great number of men and animals’, there spread the homes of the city’s almost half a million inhabitants: a concentration of people vaster even than Ctesiphon. Nevertheless, as the Persian ambassadors neared their destination, the skyline of Constantinople would have conveyed to them an impression, not of seething clamour, but rather of order, monumentality and space. Along the spine of the promontory, the smog bred of countless furnaces and hearths, and which hung in a pall over the lower reaches of the great conurbation, diminished upon the sea breezes, to reveal the hills that originally, before the arrival of Constantine upon them, had constituted the upper reaches of Byzantium, and now provided the New Rome, and the Roman Empire itself, with its mighty heart.
The ambassadors, once they had disembarked and made their way up from the Golden Horn, would have approached these hills along a broad, sumptuously porticoed road: the Mese – 'Middle Street’. Ahead, framed by colossal arches and gateways, stretched a succession of marmoreal open spaces. It was in the first of these, at the foot of a column pointedly adorned with depictions of Roman military triumphs, that the ambassadors would have been officially welcomed to the city; it was in the second, the circular forum built by Constantine, that the Palladium, supposedly lay buried. It was not this forum, however, but a third, the square known as the Augustaion, that most magnificently embodied the capital’s pretensions. On its eastern flank stood the Senate House; to the south, adorning a massive bath-house, was the city’s foremost collection of domed and double-arched mass of brick and marble named the Golden Milestone. This was the monument from which imperial cartographers measured the distance to every known location: for just as the sun, and the moon, and the stars revolved around the earth, so too, it pleased the Romans to imagine, did all kingdoms revolve around Constantinople. She stood, in their confident opinion, upon the axis of the world. She was, quite simply, the 'Queen of Cities’.
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.
Syrian antiquities experts were to travel to Palmyra on Monday to begin a closer evaluation of damage done to the city’s ancient ruins by “Islamic State” extremists who were driven out last week by Syrian government forces after being in power there for 10 months.
“My expert colleagues arrive today in Palmyra. I have asked them to assess the stones and the old city. They are taking pictures of the damage and documenting everything, and then the restoration can begin,” Syria’s head of antiquities and museums, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told the AFP news agency.
“Eighty percent of the ruins are in good shape,” he said, adding that his department would need five years to restore the damage done by IS, which harmed or destroyed a number of the city’s spectacular old ruins.
Among other things, the Islamist jihadists destroyed the shrine of Baal Shamin, the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the Roman Arch of Triumph dating from around 200 AD.
IS also killed scores of people, including the city’s 82-year-old director of antiquities, Riad al-Asaad.
The extremist group claims that ancient relics promote idolatry and that it is destroying them to prevent a spread of paganism. However, it is also believed to have sold off a large number of looted antiquities to gain funds for its operations while trying to set up a “caliphate” across the Middle East.
Abdulkarim said his department had, however, prevented the entire city from being razed.
“We were working with 45 to 50 people inside the city in order to convince Daesh, with public pressure, not to destroy everything,” he said, using an alternative name for the group.
However, not everyone shares Abdulkarim’s optimism about the possibilities of restoring the legacy that has been damaged or demolished. Some other Syrian experts have said they were deeply shocked, among other things, by the extent of the damage in the city museum, where scores of priceless relics and statues are now lost for ever.
A expert from UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, also told AFP on Monday that she was “very doubtful” that the destruction to the city’s ancient monuments can be repaired.
“When I hear that we are going to reconstruct the Temple of Bel, that seems illusory. We are not going to rebuild something that has been reduced to dust,” said Annie Satre-Fauriat.
She also pointed out that Syrian government forces themselves did not have a blameless record when it came to looting and damage.
“As long as the Syrian army is there, I am not reassured,” she said. “We should not forget that the army occupied the site between 2012 and 2015 and caused a lot of destruction and pillaging.”
“It’s not because Palmyra has been retaken from Daesh that the war is over. This was a political and media operation designed to win over public opinion for the regime of (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad,” she added.
Satre-Fauriat also described the city’s museum as being “totally vandalized,” saying that staff there had not had time to empty the building of its collection before IS arrived.
But she said there was still hope for a huge statue of a lion that had been overturned and smashed, saying it “might possibly be recovered because it has not been pulverized.”