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Mr Rory McInnes-Gibbons

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Member of the Department of Classics and Ancient History  


What interests me is classical reception, in particular the constantly changing relationship we have with antiquity and its afterlife. Having studied Classics at BA and taken an MA in Greece, Rome and the Near East, both at Durham University, I have focused my research upon Palmyra in Roman Syria.

My undergraduate dissertation concentrated upon Palmyra’s legendary ruler – ‘Queen’ Zenobia – emphasising the orientalising reception of the ancient figure in modern media during the city’s occupation in the summer of 2015. Such a depiction climaxed with the destruction of iconic sites like the temples of Bel and Baalshamin by Islamic State, the iconoclasm leading western commentators to co-opt Zenobia as a counterbalance of recognisably western multiculturalism against the barbaric militants.

During my MA, I again returned to the subject of Palmyra, but to the ruins themselves, exploring elements of their reception from their rediscovery to the present day. The dissertation featured a case study of Jane Digby’s artwork, an English aristocrat who made the Syrian steppe her home, marrying a local sheikh and visiting the ruins in the mid-nineteenth century. Palmyra provides a rich, but largely untapped, source of material for classical reception which I will now explore in more depth over the course of the PhD.

Research Project: : The Ruins of Palmyra and their Reception from Rediscovery to Rubble

This project investigates the western invention of Palmyra. From Aurelian and Zenobia to Bashar al-Assad and ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, many have either laid claim or siege to its ruins. Palmyra was one of explorer Gertrude Bell’s earliest destinations and was where Vladimir Putin’s symphony orchestra played in the Roman-era theatre in 2016. The reception of the city’s ruins is a constantly evolving narrative.

Although the Syrian Civil War and destruction by Islamic State have grabbed hearts and headlines, the reality is more complex. Featuring over three centuries of reception from the ruins’ seventeenth century rediscovery to the conflict that has ravaged Syria, this project systematically explores the chains of reception that span the renaissance to today.

Methodologically, the work is grounded in Catherine Edwards’ insights into the symbolic value of the ruins of Rome, as well as interventions on the significance of fragments and ruins from works on Romanticism. Theories of classical reception are fused with models from post-colonialism such as Spivak’s deconstructionism and reactions since Said’s Orientalism to investigate ways in which the popular perception of Palmyra has been generated as much by visitors to the site as by the ruins themselves.

Representing a bridge between modern scholarship on Palmyra and reception studies, the work contributes to both fields by engaging with Palmyra through its western invention. It includes many different sources, which together build up a picture of the city’s significance in the western cultural imagination. Books, operas, photographs, the diaries and letters of travellers and archaeologists, sketches and etchings produced of the ruins or stories written about Palmyra: each source plays a part in the production of Palmyra as a site of reception.