Government soldiers, backed by Russian air strikes, try to extend their gains after taking back control of ancient city.
Last September, Maamoun Abdel-Karim was a broken man.
Syria’s director of antiquities had just received news of an explosion at the hands of fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, an ancient structure dating back to the third millennium BC. The museum at the site had been turned into a prison.
Back then, the satellite images were not clear; Abdel-Karim could only hope that the columns around the temple were still standing, despite the force of the blast.
Six months later, days after Syrian troops announced they had wrested the ancient site back from ISIL, Abdel-Karim finally has a full picture of the damage. “The news is, it’s not bad, but it’s not good,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone from Damascus.
With international support, he added, Palmyra can be rebuilt.
On Sunday evening, experts from the Syrian directorate of antiquities visited Palmyra to assess the destruction, providing Abdel-Karim with a stream of photographs from the site of the ruins. They will need “several days” to complete their appraisal of the damage, said Abdel-Karim, who was awaiting clearance from the Syrian army to head to the site himself.
“We had the idea in our heads, because of the barbarity of Daesh [ISIL], that everything was destroyed,” he said. “But the pictures confirmed to me the destruction of Palmyra does not preclude restoration.”
The recapture of Palmyra by Syrian troops is considered an important and symbolic victory over ISIL, which seized the area 10 months ago. ISIL fighters killed many people as they overran Palmyra, including the archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who was beheaded in August after he reportedly refused to reveal where authorities had hidden treasures on the site.
The Lion of al-Lat, a limestone statue standing 10 feet tall outside the museum of Palmyra, was initially believed to have been annihilated, but photographic evidence now shows that it remains intact. “This was the most beautiful news,” Abdel-Karim said.
Through ISIL-produced videos and satellite imagery, it was already known that the Temple of Bel, dating back to 32 AD; three funerary towers; the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the most complete ancient structures on the site; and the 2,000-year-old Arch of Triumph had been destroyed. The extent of the damage, however, was not verifiable until now.
The damage wrought on Palmyra’s museum was the most appalling, Abdel-Karim said. Images from the site showed floors littered with shattered statues, harkening back to photographs ISIL published in July, which showed fighters smashing artifacts said to have been looted from the site. Now, Abdel-Karim can confirm that they vandalised and decapitated the heads of some 20 statues from the museum.
This is not just for the Syrian government, or the army. It's for the opposition also. In the end, it's for our common memory.
Before Palmyra fell, the directorate of antiquities relocated 400 statues from the site to safe areas in Damascus.
“We couldn’t get to the rest because of clashes,” Abdel-Karim said, adding: “We can’t restore all of them, but the good news is that we can restore some.”
A group of archeologists and experts sent by the directorate are now working to assess how much of the ancient site – known as the “pearl of the desert” – can be rehabilitated. The appraisal process will look at how many ancient stones remain in one piece and can be used in the rebuilding. New stones, if needed, will be retrieved from a nearby quarry. The intricate work means the two temples will be especially challenging to repair.
Before any reconstruction can begin, however, the directorate of antiquities needs authorisation from UNESCO, which categorises the ruins as a world heritage site. If approved, Abdel-Karim said, the funerary towers, both temples, several tombs and a Mamluk-era citadel could be rehabilitated “easily”.
“We know the area centimetre-by-centimetre – all we need is the help of the international community.”
But not everyone is confident that Palmyra’s former glory can be restored. According to Cheikhmous Ali, the director of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, several buildings, including the temples and burial tombs, “are completely razed”. Illegal excavations carried out by ISIL fighters and other looters have also destroyed areas not yet explored by archaeologists.
For Ali, the most difficult aspect of reconstruction will be the restoration of the architectural layers destroyed by bulldozers and dynamite. The presence of the Syrian army is no guarantee against future looting and destruction, he added, noting that looting was rampant in the area before ISIL moved in.
“The presence of [President Bashar] al-Assad’s army does not reassure me,” he said. “The looting that began in 2012 before the arrival of ISIS and illicit excavations will continue even if the Syrian army takes control of the city.”
The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, working with a network of Syrian archaeologists and local community members, has managed to intercept many Syrian artifacts in the black market. Ali confirmed that some came from Palmyra and were promptly handed over to Interpol. But international help is needed to follow up and repatriate more artifacts, Abdel-Karim added.
“This is not just for the Syrian government, or the army,” he said. “It’s for the opposition also. In the end, it’s for our common memory.”