TV historian Dan Cruickshank and veteran war photographer Don McCullin risked their lives when they travelled to Syria to film the BBC4 documentary The Road to Palmyra.
Cruickshank was on a mission to document the cultural destruction wrought by so-called Islamic State, who attempted to destroy the 2,000 year-old-city.
He told Tony Dewhurst about his perilous journey into the heart of Syria’s war ahead of an appearance at Clitheroe’s Grand Theatre on November 13th.
DAN Cruickshank’s voice trembles with emotion when he describes the troubling moment when he and veteran war photographer Don McCullin met the grieving sons of the Director of Antiquities of Palmyra’s ancient city.
McCullin knew the 83-year-old archaeologist and protector of the World Heritage site – he’d visited the museum and taken photographs there – and he wept when the director’s son told of their father’s savage death at the hands of Islamic State.
Battle-hardened McCullin, whose brilliant photo-journalism was shaped by the Vietnam War, said he had never heard of such an evil deed perpetrated on a defenceless human being.
“I was appalled that they had killed a defenceless old man, and what we heard felt like a mental assault on all our raw senses,” said Cruickshank.
“The Islamic State were sending a chilling message of terror, that if we can do that to such an important man in the community, then what we can do to you?
“And the sons, understandably, were full of venom and fury towards their father’s murderers.
“It just felt cruel and barbaric and that cycle of anger will go on and on in Syria.”
He adds: “I’ve been to some places that now seem unbelievably tragic and outlandish, like Palmyra and Mosul.
“I travelled to Iraq and Afghanistan before they befell these terrible disasters, but this is the most shocking disaster of them all.”
A decade ago Palmyra was said to be the most beautiful and ruined classical city from the ancient world.
But the 2,000-year-old Syrian city of temples was wrecked by the jihadist fanatics, and the terrible human cost of war continues for the Syrian people.
“After Islamic State was finally ejected I wanted to return to see the true extent of the damage, find out what had really happened to the ancient city.
“Because all we had to go on was propaganda films of Islamic State blowing up objects.
“What we actually found was difficult to comprehend, and in other parts of the country like Homs, it was a horrific human tragedy and far worse.”
Cruickshank and McCullin risked their lives on the perilous trek from Damascus to Palmyra - and along the way they met people with extraordinary stories to tell.
Although they were protected by President Bashar Al-Assad’s soldiers, Syria is the most dangerous country in the world and there was always the fear of kidnap or worse.
Cruickshank paints a vivid picture of Homs where the rebel protests against Assad’s regime sparked the seven-year war.
“When you approach Homs there’s nothing at all to suggest anything had happened there, it’s the strangest thing,” he said.
“It is the Manchester of Syria, an industrial city.
“There were pizza restaurants, ice cream parlours, pretty teenage girls sat on benches in the sunshine and boys watching football on TV.
“However, a mile down the road, though, you enter a scene of utter devastation - a landscape so startlingly extraordinary and bleak that it almost defies description.
“Homs was besieged for three years and now it could be Stalingrad at the end of the Second World War, with every building flattened or blown up.
“There’s no people, just destruction as far as the eye could see and there’s little prospect of the refugees from Homs ever returning to a place that was once their home.”
Cruickshank and McCullin were allowed to gain entry to museums long closed to the public and to see shattered and salvaged collections of ancient art, but it was the terror of the Islamic State terrorists that haunted them both.
The pair witnessed Russian troops, tanks and helicopters rushing to the front line and were only allowed to spend a very limited period in Palmyra as they explored the destruction of the ancient city.
“They put us up in a tiny flat in a place called Tadmor and the one below was full of people’s possessions: children’s toys, school books, CDs, passports, their lives strewn across the floor.
“It was heart-breaking to see those things.
“Those poor people had fled because they had heard that Islamic State were coming and were in fear of their lives.
“The village was in ruins, but sometimes the human spirit can overcome anything.
“On the next block, a chap had opened a little tourist shop in a bombed-out shop, selling postcards and pictures of Palmyra.”
Cruickshank firmly believes that the sites of the toppled temples should be treated as a war crime but while the west remains in dispute with Assad and his regime it is difficult to see how this can happen soon.
At the Temple of Bel, for example, ancient faces were hacked from sculptures and other architectural treasures were simply blown to bits or chopped up with power-saws.
And the subterranean tombs, the Hypogeum of the Three Brothers, dating back to the 2nd Century, had been used as a bomb-proof barracks by Islamic State who had painted over the ancient frescoes.
The damage is so terrible, large scale reconstruction is hard to imagine, but we have to try,” he said.
“But do we shrug our shoulders and do nothing?
“Or do we say, ‘evil will not have the last word and we will respond?
“At the end of the Second World War many people did that.
“The Poles rebuilt Warsaw and by doing so they were saying ‘we can’t let the Nazis have the last word on our capital city.
“The attacks on the buildings of Palmyra are not just an attack on history and beauty, they’re also an attack on people’s sense of pride and identity.
“Maybe in this case, rather than attempting a complex reconstruction using new stone, it might be more meaningful to leave this ruin (Temple of Bel) as a statement to man’s inhumanity to man.”
On the return journey to Damascus, McCullin and Cruickshank paused for refreshments at a café close to Homs.
“They were surprised I think to see a couple of cranky old English guys sat eating a pizza, but we were given a very warm welcome, and of course they wanted to know why we were in Syria,” he added.
“Most of them, it turned out, had relatives in Britain and they said that the western media had completely misrepresented the Assad regime in their reporting of the conflict.
“They told us that they were fighting on the front line against terror, keeping Europe safe from the threat of so-called Islamic State.
“Superficially Syria is a land of freedom, but it if feels like a parallel world has been created by the regime and what has happened is a terrible tragedy for the world.”
There will be a question and answer with Dan Cruickshank who will also speak about the history of a couple of local landmarks in Clitheroe in the second half of the show.
Dan Cruickshank: A Return to Palmyra, Grand Theatre, Clitheroe, 01200 421599 or www.thegrandvenue.co.uk