In the Daily Telegraph today, Boris Johnson tackles the worrying problem of immigration. If we don’t do something about Syria, says Boris, the immigrants will keep on coming.Boris begins: “Look, I have to admit that I have written about this subject before, and I know from the splenetic feedback that there are plenty of people who don’t give a monkey’s. There are a fair few otherwise well-intentioned readers of the Telegraph who aren’t much moved by the fate of a few old ruins in Syria. They will have looked at the photos of Isil blowing up the temple of Baal Shamin, and turned instantly to the sport, or clicked on the item about Jeremy Corbyn’s “makeover” – or whatever.
I know that there are people who think it doesn’t much matter if terrorists blow up ancient temples – rather than live human beings; plenty of us who secretly think, well, they are already RUINS, aren’t they? Who really cares if they are blown to atoms?
Well, I care, and I would like to persuade you that it matters to you, to your life, and to your security. It is now almost exactly 2,000 years since the inhabitants of Palmyra completed that temple, and the reason it has survived is because every succeeding generation has marvelled at its harmony and elegance of conception.
It has survived every conqueror and every invasion in a region famed for the brutality of its invaders. No one has been so moronic and vile as to destroy an object that so adorned our collective civilisation – no one until Daesh, or Isil, or whatever we want to call them. People feel instinctively that these buildings stand for something remarkable – the willingness of one civilisation to learn from another, to adopt architectural styles, to blend, to merge – to enjoy and accept and build on the legacy of the past. This annihilated temple was consecrated to Baal – the god of the Phoenicians – but it was respected by Greeks, by Romans, by Jews, and by Arabs of all denominations.
It is Isil and Isil alone that has introduced this nauseating nihilism; and when I fantasise about my ideal solution for these people, I think of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazi plunderers are physically vaporised before our eyes. I am sorry to sound vindictive, but that I think is what they deserve – and especially for their murder of the 82-year-old curator, Khalid al-Asaad.
Yeah, you may say, and who is going to avenge him? Who is going to play Yahweh? No one wants to take them on. Everyone is frit of Isil, you may say – and it seems that no one in any Western capital thinks Syria is worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier, as Bismarck put it, let alone of a British grenadier.
Well, I am not sure that this will do any more – not when we look at the tragedy unfurling in the Mediterranean, the hideous fate of the 71 Syrian refugees in that lorry in Austria, the awful scorching sufferings of the migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.
A few years ago I went to Palmyra, and other places in Syria, and realised that it was a place of unbelievable cultural richness. We went to Aleppo and saw the ancient souk. We went to Apamea and saw the lustrous mosaics of hunting and wine-making and agriculture – reminding you that for centuries this place was the very heart of the Christian Roman empire.
I thought then that this country had a lush future. The food was delicious; the people were gentle and civilised and friendly. I imagined brochures for villas called Simply Syria; and trekking holidays and cycling holidays; perhaps even Club 18-30, in the racier parts of Damascus – shades of Beirut in the good old days. At the centre of it all was the magnetic pull of culture, and history, and the touristic notion that you could better yourself by exposure to one of the oldest civilisations in the world.
My optimism was founded entirely on my astonishment at the relics of the past – and if you think heritage is unimportant to tourism, look at the reasons people cite for coming to London, now the number one tourist destination on Earth. Yes, it’s the bars and the theatres and the nightlife – but when people are asked to explain the reasons, they always tick the box marked “history” or “heritage”. Syria has at least 6,000 years of it, and some of the world’s most famous and important sites. Until now.
The fate of all these relics is now either grim or uncertain, lost in the fog of war – as they are destroyed, like the souk of Aleppo; or sold by Isil to fund their operations. One day I hope and pray that this nightmare will end, that Isil will be defeated – and peace will return.
And then what? What future will there be for the country – with their economy in ruins, with the potential for tourism destroyed along with their cultural heritage? I perfectly accept that intervention has not often worked. It has been a disaster in Iraq; it has been a disaster in Libya. But can you honestly say that non-intervention in Syria has been a success? If we keep doing nothing about the nightmare in Syria, then frankly we must brace ourselves for an eternity of refugees, more people suffocating in airless cattle trucks at European motorway service stations, more people trying to climb the barbed wire that we are building around the European Union.
The number one political problem in Europe this summer is the movement of migrants, and there are many potential solutions. The Home Secretary has bravely proposed a fundamental reform to the EU – that we should disallow free movement of labour, unless the migrant worker has a clearly defined job to go to. I believe many people in this country would support such a reform, though the devil, as ever, would be in the detail. But we must also tackle the reasons why people flee their homes – and we cannot let Isil destroy sites that are not only emblems of our civilisation, but which offer hope for the Syrian economy. If the Syrians are deprived of their past, they will have no future.