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Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank tells Stortford literature festival about rebuilding Palmyra

Dan Cruickshank at BSC Festival of Literature
Dan Cruickshank at BSC Festival of Literature

The last moments of innocence of some of the world's greatest architecture was the sombre subject of historian Dan Cruickshank's lecture to complete this year's Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature.

The television presenter’s scheduled appearance on February 6 was delayed after he was commissioned to travel to Syria for the BBC and investigate the remains of Palmyra, the ancient Semitic city devastated by so-called Islamic State’s “cultural terrorism” in 2015.

The Unesco World Heritage site, once one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, was retaken by the forces of President Assad in 2017.

In a programme set to be broadcast in May, he evaluates the scale of the damage to the settlement first documented in the early second millennium BC – but the audience in the Ferguson Lecture Theatre on Saturday night got a sneak preview of his conclusions.

The area, shaped by some of the world’s greatest empires, is familiar to Cruickshank and he described clambering and crawling over the shattered remains of the Temple of Bel, dedicated in 32AD, the biggest casualty.

Its intricate stonework has been blown apart by the militia, in some cases leaving just fragments of architectural detailing and a monumental reconstruction task.

Other landmarks in the city fared better with colonnades and arches tumbled like children’s toys but still mostly intact and ready to be reassembled.

His dismay at the senseless destruction was obvious to the audience in an impassioned talk, finished with a question and answer session, which spanned two hours.

Palmyra, the Venice of the Sands, is one of the locations featured in his book, A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings, which formed the basis of his festival address.

The writer, who first found fame on screen in The House Detectives and One Foot in the Past, took his audience on a whistle=stop tour around the world and clearly had much more he wanted to say before he was beaten by the clock.

Working without notes, his encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject was impressive and his love of history and humanity was inspirational, but the intimacy of television, where he can speak directly to the viewer in a more measured way is a better medium for his message than a podium and a microphone in a packed lecture hall.


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