Palmyra mostly untouched but fears remain
DAMASCUS - More than two months after their fall into the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS), the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, a World Heritage Site, are mostly undamaged but a Syrian antiquities official said he fears Palmyra could end up destroyed by militants like the Iraqi city of Nimrud.
“I live in constant fear and apprehension that I might receive bad news from Palmyra,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, director general of Syria’s Antiquities and Museums Directorate. “But I have big hope and confidence that the local civil society will play a vital role in protecting the city, which is essential to their future and the economic well-being of their children.”
ISIS destroyed Nimrud because, militants claimed, it promoted idolatry and violated Islamic law but Palmyra, a 2,000-year old city remarkably preserved in the middle of the Syrian desert, has been spared ISIS’s wrath, so far.
“Since its fall on May 21st, the ancient city is still in a secure condition, in the sense that there are no criminal acts targeting it, except the mass crime carried out in the magnificent ancient amphitheatre in which 25 soldiers and government employees had been executed before the eyes of the city’s residents,” Abdulkarim said.
“This place, which had been built 2000 years ago to stand witness for cultural and artistic manifestations, has been tarnished and stained today and this is very, very sad.”
While sparing the main ruins, militants have smashed dozens of religious shrines and mausoleums for ideological reasons.
Abdulkarim pointed out that the Palmyra museum has been sealed off by militants and that he had no information about its condition.
“The museum is under their tight control and we know that the stone statue of the Lion of al-Lat has been destroyed,” he said in reference to the figure at the entrance of the museum.
The Lion of al-Lat was a statue of soft limestone, more than 3 metres high and weighing about 15 tons, dating to the second century BC.
“It is the greatest crime committed against the treasures of Palmyra,” Abdulkarim said. “We covered the statue with metal plate and concealed it under sandbags to protect it from destruction but obviously they managed to find its place.”
Anticipating the risks posed by more than four years of a devastating civil war, authorities moved valuable artefacts and archaeological treasures which could be transported from the sites and museums to safe places. But Abdulkarim said he was concerned about treasures yet to be unearthed.
“The biggest fear of all is that ISIS could be granting thieves and archaeology gangs the permission to excavate the suspected treasures still lying under the sands,” he said.
“Thus far, none of the excavation mafias has undertaken any such action for reasons that we do not know but this is bound to happen sooner or later, especially if the city remains under ISIS control.
“We fear that they would be using heavy excavation tools and machinery which would lead to a systematic destruction of a big part of Syria’s archaeological heritage.”
The Syrian official noted, however, that smugglers and thieves have been active in Palmyra, as proved by the seizure by ISIS of seven statues in the eastern countryside of Aleppo from a smuggler who was trying to take them out of Syria.
“Unfortunately, the pieces that came from tombs in Palmyra were destroyed by ISIS in the city of Manbaj in front of a big crowd and we have original photos proving that,” Abdulkarim said. He revealed that 400 artefacts, including statues, torsos and heads in addition to hundreds of figurines, jars and pottery pieces, were removed from Palmyra and stored in secret places.
However, “a number of sarcophaguses and statues were left behind because we did not have enough time to evacuate them when ISIS launched its sudden offensive and seized the city in a matter of a week,” he added.
Abdulkarim could not confirm reports that ISIS had placed mines and explosives in the Greco-Roman ruins, saying: “What we have heard is popular talk but until this minute we are not sure that it happened.
“Our sources in the field, which we trust and rely on, did not relay such information and I hope that these reports are not true, especially that ISIS had said they did not want to destroy Palmyra.”
Palmyra had suffered before ISIS’s arrival with clashes between rebels and government forces, which marked columns with shells and bullet holes.“The damage done to the columns so far was superficial and easy to repair by the antiquities department, as long as it stays like that,” Abdulkarim said.
Even if Palmyra emerges intact from the Syrian war, its name has become associated with massacre and violence, according to Nazir Awad, the director of the archaeological buildings at the Directorate of Antiquities. “When civilisations build such a majestic amphitheatre it indicates that they have reached a high level of cultural and social awareness,” Awad said.
“The Palmyra theatre was meant to build cultural bridges between peoples, bringing happiness and enlightenment but ISIS came 2,000 years later and stained this monument, which is now synonymous to fear and terror.”