Syrians hope world will help in Palmyra restoration
DAMASCUS - Syria’s Director-General of Antiquities Maamoun Abdul Karim sighed with relief after the liberation of the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (ISIS) by Syrian forces and their allies. However, his confidence that the damaged site could be restored was not shared by international experts.
“I am filled with joy. We were expecting the worst, but the landscape of Palmyra is still very beautiful, and I can say that more than 80% of the city is still in good shape,” Abdul Karim said.
“What we have seen [from images taken after liberation] gives us a big hope that restoration and rehabilitation of the archaeological sites will be possible and not very complicated, though it might take several years.”
Although drone footage and images of the city showed appalling devastation, Abdul Karim insisted that the damage sustained by the UNESCO World Heritage site was “under control and could be remedied”.
“They were mostly known to the directorate already, as they were inflicted by ISIS during its 10-month occupation, while no harm was caused in the fierce fighting to recapture the city, except for the 13th-century Fakhr-al-Din al- Maani castle,” he said.
ISIS destruction of Palmyra’s iconic antiquities, including the 2,000-year-old temples of Baalshamin and Bel, the intricately carved Arch of Triumph — the most famous of its ruins — in addition to a series of tombs and artefacts in the city’s museum, caused outrage, with UNESCO blasting ISIS’s action as “a war crime”.
The monumental stone blocks of the Roman Arch of Triumph appear to be intact and it may well be possible for conservators to eventually re-erect it, Abdul Karim said. The biggest challenge remains the reconstruction of the two major temples and the tombs’ tower.
Spared from ISIS’s wrath were large parts of the Great Colonnade that links the Temple of Bel to the city’s West Gate, along with the amphitheatre, which was used by ISIS as a site of public executions.
Abdul Karim said a team of the directorate’s archaeologists had been dispatched to Palmyra to assess and document the extent of ISIS’s actions.
A full evaluation would not be completed until land mines and explosives planted around the site were cleared.
The scope of the damage appeared to be much bigger at the city’s museum than at the archaeological sites. The Lion of Al-lat, a 15-ton limestone statue at the museum’s entrance, was among the first victims of ISIS’s occupation. Although the directorate’s staff had moved many artefacts to Damascus for safe-keeping before ISIS arrived, the floor was littered with smashed statues and artefacts.
But Abdul Karim stressed that “the broken and defaced statues could also undergo restoration because they were not completely destroyed and turned into powder, like the statue of the lion”.
The liberation of the World Heritage site was hailed worldwide, with UNESCO and several countries volunteering expertise and money to return the city known as the “bride of the desert” to its former glory.
Russia’s State Hermitage Museum said it would aid Palmyra’s restoration work in cooperation with UNESCO. The museum is recognised for its expertise in the restoration of St Petersburg’s landmark buildings damaged during World War II.
Abdul Karim said the UN agency would have a conference in Paris in April on the restoration of Palmyra’s antiquities. “We need to discuss with our international partners how we are going to do it” he said “UNESCO has to authenticate the documentation [of damage assessment] because the site is a World Heritage. I believe that if we agree on a vision and budgets are there, we will be able to restore matters to what they were and in excellent shape within five years.”
However, his optimism was not echoed by UNESCO expert on Syria, Annie Sartre-Fauriat. “I am very doubtful about the capacity, even with international aid, of rebuilding the site at Palmyra. When I hear that we are going to reconstruct the temple of Bel, that seems illusory… We are not going to rebuild something that has been reduced to dust,” Sartre-Fauriat told Agence France-Presse.
Syria’s former director of antiquities, Bassam Jamous, bemoaned illegal excavations and the wide-scale looting of artefacts by gangs. “We have photos of artefacts that were looted from Palmyra and hope international treaties protecting cultural heritage in time of conflict will help return all the artefacts to their original place,” he said.
“Throughout history Palmyra experienced many conquests and invasions only to return to life afterwards. What ISIS did is no different from the action of past invaders,” Jamous said. “We are confident that Palmyra will rise again with everybody’s help because it is not a Syrian heritage only but belongs to the whole humanity.”