Stones and lives shattered – the quest to revive Palmyra

The Syrian army has recovered the ancient site of Palmyra and liberated the long-suffering residents of the modern city. Now antiquities experts face the task of restoring its greatness.

Syrian army soldiers stand in the ruins of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, after ISIL’s onslaught of destruction. Omar Sanadiki / Reuters
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Before the Syrian civil conflict, the ruins of Palmyra – a Unesco World Heritage site – was one of Syria’s most-visited tourist attractions. After 10 months under the control of ISIL and, as the military finishes clearing the area of the remnants of war, the full extent of the extremists’ damage to the ancient city is being revealed.

Two thousand years ago, under the Roman Empire, Palmyra was a wealthy city in the heart of the Syrian Desert where merchant caravans traversing the Silk Road would stop for rest and to trade. A failed rebellion against the Empire by Queen Zenobia resulted in the Romans destroying the prosperous outpost, but since then, its sand-coloured pillars and temples have attracted visitors from across the world – until the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.

ISIL seized control of the city in May 2015 and, within months, the militants wreaked havoc. First, they released images on social media of the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baalshamin being blown up. Then, they targeted the Temple of Bel – one of the largest and best-preserved sites in Palmyra – reducing the ancient structure to rubble. After that, they turned their attention to other architectural treasures.

In the aftermath of the Syrian Arab Army offensive to retake the city from ISIL, during which no more damage was inflicted on the ruins, soldiers clambered over chunks of broken pillars and posed for photos amid the ruins. But their victory was tarnished by the scale of the destruction of the country’s ancient heritage, which was felt keenly.

“I couldn’t see what they did to the ancient site because I was in prison after being captured trying to escape, but I heard all these massive explosions,” a former resident told me on a trip to Syria this month. He has been living in a refugee centre in Homs with his family. “I asked my captors what was happening and they told me they were blowing up the antiquities,” he said.

The Temple of Bel was once connected to the other end of the city by the Great Colonnade – a covered avenue stretching more than one kilometre, the pillars of which had remained standing for almost two millennia.

Several sections of the colonnade were demolished by ISIL when they blew up the Arch of Triumph, which stood at one end, but other stretches remain intact.

The head of Syria’s antiquities and museums authority Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim said the Arch was one of several damaged structures that could potentially be rebuilt using ‘anastylosis’ – a reconstruction process utilising remnants of the original building.

One of the few key structures ISIL left intact was the ancient theatre, which they utilised for public executions, particularly of SAA soldiers.

“Daesh didn’t blow up the theatre because they used it to terrify and control local people, making them watch when they slaughtered prisoners here,” said one SAA general on condition of anonymity. “When the Russian Air Force were carrying out air strikes on IS in Palmyra, they had a very good rule not to hit the ancient ruins.”

It was not just the sprawling ruins which the extremists damaged. Before turning Palmyra’s museum of antiquities into a court where punishments were meted out to unsuspecting residents, they ransacked the premises. Statues were ripped from the walls, exhibition cases smashed and ancient sarcophagi defaced.

The head of antiquities, Khaled Al Asaad, who tried to protect monuments from ISIL, was beheaded in August. In the museum grounds, the Lion of Al Lat – a statue dating back to the first century AD depicting a lion with a gazelle sitting between its giant paws – lay in pieces. Abdulkarim said there was hope that the statue could be reconstructed.

Other precious artefacts from the museum have vanished, presumably stolen to be sold in the global market for Greco-Roman artefacts. The Syrian authorities have started a campaign to track down looted items and five statues have been recovered near Homs, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency. The ruined museum is located in modern Palmyra, which has also been extensively damaged.

“ISIL destroyed statues, antiquities and ruins but fighting and air strikes damaged a lot of the modern town,” said former resident Hassan.

Since the retaking of Palmyra, the destruction has continued as bomb disposal units have had to detonate hundreds of booby traps that the retreating militants left rigged across the city.

The destruction of ancient Palmyra provoked an international backlash. Its recapture was better received internationally. Irina Bokova, director-general of Unesco, welcomed ISIL’s retreat from the city, saying: “For one year, Palmyra has been a symbol of the cultural cleansing plaguing the Middle East. The dynamiting and pillage of its treasures, to break an entire society, sparked a unanimous indignation and strengthened the unprecedented mobilisation in favour of the values that unite all humanity.”

The destruction of heritage is a war crime and Unesco aims to document the damage so crimes against the ancient monuments will not go unpunished.

Tom Westcott is a freelance journalist who reports from North Africa and the Middle East.