By Blake Smith
The world watched in horror last year as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) ravaged Palmyra. Once a flourishing city connecting the ancient Mediterranean to Asian trade routes, the Syrian city had been devastated by the Romans in 273 CE, but remained an imposing ruin filled with archaeological and architectural treasures. Their destruction at the hands of ISIS inspired an outpouring of grief and commentary in Europe and North America, as footage of the violation of these antiquities fed into a larger narrative of the regime’s wanton, apocalyptic violence. Yet Palmyra had been entangled with Western thinking about social upheaval, international conflict, and Western intervention in the Middle East, long before 2015.
Indeed, if Palmyra was part of the West’s collective consciousness, available as an object of grief or as a justification for military action against ISIS, it was in large part because of an eighteenth-century French traveler, Constantin François de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney (1757-1820). Contrasting the grandeur of ancient empires with the supposed decadence and backwardness of Islamic societies of his own day, Volney offered justifications for European imperialism, inspiring Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Yet his vision of Palmyra’s ruins, inspired by the destruction of the Bastille, offers still-timely warnings against Eurocentrism, nostalgia and despair, as well as a cautionary tale about the temptations of military solutions.
Volney spent the early 1780s traveling through Egypt and Syria, publishing his memoirs in 1787. They were a Europe-wide success, adding rich detail to the West’s knowledge of the Middle East, and presenting the Ottoman Empire as a tottering state and Arabs as its helpless victims, eager for new rulers. This is the Orientalist Volney, whose Voyages guided Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in both a cartographic and ideological sense. But this is not the Volney who brought Palmyra to European consciousness. Volney had seen Palmyra’s monuments, half-buried in the sand and giving shade to chance passersby, during his travels, but he only began to attach any importance to them after the publication of Voyages, as the French Revolution broke out in the summer of 1789. An ardent republican, Volney began to draw parallels between the crumbling French monarchy and the wreckage of Palmyra, crystallizing his thoughts two years later in The Ruins: or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires.
The Ruins is a prose poem as well as a political treatise. It opens with Volney stumbling upon the deserted city and weeping for the loss of a brilliant civilization. Lost in this fit of romantic sadness, Volney was accosted by the ‘Spirit of Ruins and Tombs’ who condemned his self-indulgent blubbering. The Spirit taught Volney how to read the spectacle of Palmyra’s ruins, cautioning him against a series of interpretive errors. Its admonitions are still relevant for those today who seek to make sense of a Palmyra from which even ruins vanish.
The first mistake, the Spirit warned, would be to think Palmyra had fallen because the center of civilization had been fated to pass from Asia to Europe. Rather, it had been destroyed by rising economic inequality and political oppression, which weakened the state and invited foreign invasion. There could be no comfort in Eurocentric illusions that history favored the West; in Europe and Asia alike, states fell because of their own ‘cruel abuses, which are precisely the source of their weakness.’ It had happened to Palmyra; it was happening in France.
The Spirit cautioned that nostalgia was as dangerous as Eurocentrism. Looking at the city now, a ‘melancholy skeleton’ lost in the desert, it would be easy to imagine how much better things had been in the city’s prime, when it was the center of a cosmopolitan trading empire. But this would be to forget the injustices at the heart of classical societies founded on slavery. The violence that destroyed Palmyra should not obscure the violence that sustained it.
If nostalgia and Western self-satisfaction were serious errors, pessimism, the Spirit insisted, was still worse. Palmyra had fallen, as other states had fallen and would fall. The French monarchy would disappear, and so too, the Spirit prophesied, would the Ottoman Empire. As the Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and Jews ‘rediscover their ancient differences, a general anarchy will rise’ throughout the Middle East. But there was reason for hope amid the inevitable ruin of particular regimes. The last few centuries had seen the spread of print, allowing ideas to survive the collapse of states. As people throughout the world used this new medium to communicate with each other and with the past, a global ‘general society’ was coming to being, paving the way for a just, democratic and universal political order.
Speaking now in his own voice rather than the Spirit’s, Volney rhapsodized about the coming golden age. With the world more inter-connected than ever, he argued, all that was needed to bring about a global revolution was a spark from a single country. If one ‘powerful and just people’ could throw off its oppressive institutions, and if a ‘virtuous leader’ could point the way, the whole world would follow that example. A revolutionary France could save the world.
Volney, of course, was deceived. When a strong leader did emerge to channel the French Revolution’s energies outward, the world received not a humanist Messiah but Napoleon. Volney’s words had smoothed the way not only for Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt but also for his devastating wars across Europe.
The West is not sufficiently powerful, just, or virtuous to impose a new world order. But if Volney was wrong, his Spirit of the Ruins and Tombs was right to insist that what happens in Palmyra cannot be separated from what happens in Paris. Indeed, the Spirit’s warnings are as timely as ever. Catastrophic violence in the Middle East must not be contemplated in poses of aestheticized melancholy, nostalgia for a repressive order that retrospectively seems less terrible than the present, or smug assurance that some law of history will keep these terrors distant from the West.
Blake Smith is a doctoral candidate in history at Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and current International Fellow at New Europe College. His research, focusing on the connections between eighteenth-century France and South Asia, has appeared in French Cultural Studies, La Révolution Française, and Outre-mers: revue d’histoire. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further readings list:
Anthony Pagden, “The Immobility of China: Orientalism and Occidentalism in the Enlightenment” Anthropology in the Enlightenment, ed. Larry Wolff and Marco Cipolloni (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2007). This essay considers Volney’s Ruins in a broader context of Enlightenment thinking about Asia.
Juan Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
A nineteenth-century English translation of Ruins is available here.