Thursday, 31 March 2016

Palmyra recaptured: restoration begins

Syrian troops recaptured Palmyra from the Islamic State last week, at the close of three weeks of intense fighting. The ancient city had been occupied by the jihadists since May 2015.

A Syrian Army soldier on patrol near the Great Colonnade in Palmyra
(Image: TASS / Barcroft Media)

Palmyra, known as the “pearl of the desert”, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and was one of the most important cultural centres of antiquity. At the crossroads of several civilisations, its art and architecture combines Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. The ancient city counts among its losses the 2,000 year-old Temple of Bel, the shrine of Baal Shamin, the Arch of Triumph dating from around 200AD, and its head of antiquities, Khaled al-Assaad, who was killed for refusing to reveal to the jihadists where valuable artefacts had been hidden for safekeeping. Some sites, such as the Roman amphitheatre, were preserved for use in the Islamic State’s public executions.

The Syrian Army also discovered that the IS had planted at least 150 mines scattered around the historic quarter and residential area of Palmyra, where many of the city's most famous ruins are, as they had retreated from the city.

Nonetheless, the mood was jubilant. President Bashar al-Assad hailed the victory as an "important achievement" and declared his intention to rebuild the city: "Palmyra was demolished more than once through the centuries ... and we will restore it anew so it will be a treasure of cultural heritage for the world."

Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s head of antiquities and museums, told AFP: “We were expecting the worst. But the landscape, in general, is in good shape. 'We could have completely lost Palmyra. The joy I feel is indescribable”. Some news sources report that no greater damage was inflicted as the result of a secret talks between Islamic State and the Syrian authorities, who warned of the dangers of sparking a popular uprising with their activities.

Abdulkarim suggested that “if we have UNESCO's approval, we will need five years to restore the structures damaged or destroyed by IS”. Whilst doubt has been cast by one UN expert over how realistic this timeframe is, work has already begun. Russia intends to send explosives experts and robots to help remove the mines, and is working with UNESCO to send a mission of experts to assess the damage and begin the task of restoration. Abdulkarim has promised a blueprint for reconstruction by next month: “We will assess how much damage the stones suffered and we will re-use them in order to scientifically put back the temples…we have the plans and the images and we will rebuild the missing portions until the temples of Bel and Baalshamin are rebuilt.”