Late last week, Islamic State (IS) militants were routed from the historic city of Palmyra, a UN World Heritage site. A preliminary investigation of the ancient ruins suggests that the damage is not as bad as feared, and that a significant portion of the relics could be restored quickly.
After ten gruelling months of IS occupation, the ancient city of Palmyra has been liberated. Syrian government troops, backed by Russian air support, encircled Islamic State militants, forcing them to flee into the interior eastern desert. With the extremists gone, experts have had the opportunity to perform a preliminary assessment of the damage inflicted upon the UNESCO World Heritage site. The news is both good and bad.
According to Syrian archaeologist Maamoun Abdelkarim, 80 per cent of the artefacts in Palmyra appear to be largely intact. There is extensive damage — make no mistake — but many of the iconic columns remain upright, along with several key temples and monuments. Speaking to the LA Times, Abdelkarim said that there’s damage to the streets, baths, and some temple fences, but “the panoramic view that tourists know of Palmyra remains”. Encouragingly, he said that a significant portion of the restoration work could take just five years.
An Islamic State photo showing the deliberate destruction of monuments in Palmyra. Image: IS social media/AP
Islamic State militants occupied the historic city last May, and they took it upon themselves to destroy some of the city’s most distinctive monuments, including the Arch of Triumph, the Baalshamin Temple, and the Temple of Bel. They chiselled away the faces of statues and reliefs, declaring them blasphemous pagan icons. The militants also beheaded and crucified Khaled Asaad, a prominent Syrian archaeologist. The vandalism inflicted onto Palmyra, an important stop for traders moving between China, India, Persia, and the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries AD, was greeted with global outrage, leading some to declare the actions of ISIS a serious war crime.
Satellite photo taken last summer shows the extent of the damage done to the Temple of Bel. The image at left was taken in 2010. Image: United Nations/EPA
Preliminary assessments, some done by aerial drones, show that the Lion of Al-Lat — a 15-tonne statue — is still standing, as are the famous columns. Experts will continue to investigate the site over the coming weeks and months as they prepare a report for UNESCO. The area is reportedly strewn with landmines and boobytraps left by Islamic State militants, so the investigation will be slow, tedious, and dangerous. Bomb-disposal crews assisted by Russian engineers and robots will help.
The quality and extent of the pending restoration will depend on previous records kept of the artefacts, which in some cases are non-existent or of poor quality. It’ll also depend on the ongoing civil war in Syria, which is now raging in its fifth year. In all it could take about two to three decades before Palmyra is set right.
“The damage done to Palmyra architectural monuments is enormous, but it has not been razed to the ground completely,” noted Russian archaeologist Mikhail Piotrovsky in RT. “The main symbol of the city — the famous columns, they are standing, and we now have to inspect the site accurately to determine, what else is left there.” [LA Times, RT]