Watching the sun set over the ancient ruins of Palmyra from the ramparts of the nearby mediaeval hilltop castle is one of the most enchanting sights in the Middle East. The stonework of the temple that has stood for 2,000 years turns red, the shadows of the grand colonnaded street stretch further out across the sand, and the silence of the desert only seems to grow ever more profound.
Soon the sun could be setting on this scene forever. When I visited Palmyra with a friend in March 2011, the Syrian uprising was just two weeks old – but already the propaganda billboard that stands beside the road into the town, bearing the face of President Assad, felt like a bad omen. Now the barbaric forces of Isis are reported to be little more than a mile away, and already they are said to have begun the ritual killing of villagers living on the outskirts of the modern town of Tadmur.
The thought of the militants laying waste to this deeply treasured Unesco World Heritage site – blowing up antiquities like they did with such glee among the Iraqi ruins of Nimrud, and slaughtering the people who relied upon their local history to make a paltry living from a modest tourist trade – is sickening.
The scale of Palmyra is vast. The oasis went from serving as a staging post for the ancient caravan trade to become a vital crossroads in civilisations and the capital of Queen Zenobia’s empire, with all the majesty that befits that title.
Those who did venture out to the site - a day’s drive north east of Damascus – could happily spend a whole day exploring the ruins. Minibuses would carry small groups of tourists out to the Palmyrene Valley of the Kings, where coffins containing ancient rulers were once shelved away in the walls of stone towers.
Yet even before the Arab Spring protests and the ensuing violent crackdown that spread and spread, relatively few visitors made it this far into the desert, which made it seem all the more wonderful. Besides a couple of coachloads of French pensioners sheltering from the sun with their umbrellas, we had the grand Temple of Bel pretty much to ourselves.
Palmyra has already suffered in this civil war. The castle has been occupied by regime troops, rocket launchers have been used within the ruins, and columns have collapsed amidst the fighting with the rebels. Earlier this year the Syrian government reported that 120 looted antiquities including tombtones had been recovered, but many others are still missing.
It’s also one of just many historical sites to have been targeted in Syria; the imposing crusader castle of Krak des Chevalliers, the Byzantine "dead cities", and Aleppo’s grand citadel and souk have also taken severe hits.
But Palmyra is something special. Even if Isis are somehow held off, what it will look like afterwards – and how many locals will be left to offer tours and welcome visitors in decades to come – is painful to contemplate.
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