Following a weekend of fighting, Reuters reported that Syrian government forces backed by heavy Russian air support drove the Islamic State out of Palmyra on Sunday (March 27), inflicting what the army called a mortal blow to militants who seized the city last year and dynamited some of its ancient monuments.
An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains a vibrant modern city and the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. The ruins were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1980.
Reports have indicated that during their occupation, Daesh/Islamic State destroyed the Lion of al-Lat statue, which dates back to the 2nd century AD, at the entrance of the Palmyra museum; the Temple of Baalshamin; much of the Temple of Baal (Bel), the Arch of Triumph [Monumental Arch]; and dozens of tower tombs.
Reuters reported that Syrian television was quoting President Bashar al-Assad’s as saying “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.”
In a guest column in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday, March 26, Professor Maamoun Abdelkarim, the Director of the Syrian Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (Arabic: المديرية العامة للآثار والمتاحف) said that in the next few days, the DGAM will visit the site to find out the reality of the situation on the ground in order to put in place a full plan that “includes assessing, reinforcing, restoring and rebuilding, and we will breathe life again into Palmyra.” When necessary, Syria we will use stones from the quarries of Palmyra in the restoration and rebuilding, Professor Abdelkarim said in the article which was entitled “Restoring Syria’s pearl of the desert: a reason for optimism amid the storm of terror.”
Professor Abdelkarim lauded Syria’s local experts in engineering and archaeology. He also called for international solidarity, “because what brings us together is our common heritage.” He thanked all the international cultural organizations, scholars, intellectuals and media personnel “who stood by us.” He also especially recognized the Institute for Digital Archaelogy at Oxford University and their partners (which include Harvard University) who are creating replicas of the Temple of Baal’s Arch of Triumph. One of these reproductions of the 50-foot arch that formed the temple’s entrance will be installed in New York City’s Time Square next month during International Day for Monuments and Sites/World Heritage Day.
Reuters cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying that clashes continued on the eastern edge of Palmyra, around the prison and airport, but the bulk of the Islamic State force had withdrawn and retreated east, leaving the city under President Bashar al-Assad’s control. Later the Observatory said six powerful explosions were heard in the city triggered by triple car bombings inside the city and its edges by the militant group. Three militants with suicide belts also blew themselves up inside the captured city, inflicting unspecified casualties among army forces and allied troops. Syrian state-run television broadcast from inside the city, showing empty streets and badly damaged buildings.
According to Reuters, Russia’s intervention in September turned the tide of Syria’s five-year conflict in Assad’s favor. Despite its declared withdrawal of most military forces two weeks ago, Russian jets and helicopters carried out dozens of strikes daily over Palmyra as the army pushed into the city. It reported that in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad said Russia’s air support had been essential in taking back Palmyra, and said the city would be rebuilt.
On Sunday, UNESCO reported that following the liberation of Palmyra, the Director-General of UNESCO, Ms Irina Bokova, also had a phone conversation with the Russian Federation President in which they discussed the protection and preservation of the cultural heritage of Palmyra.
“I stand ready to send a UNESCO emergency assessment experts’ mission to map the damages at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra”, declared Irina Bokova. President Putin informed the Director-General of his readiness to provide immediate support and expertise of his country to a UNESCO expert mission to Palmyra as soon as the security situation would allow. He assured the Director-General, UNESCO said, of the wide-ranging experience of Russian experts from The Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg, including from work under UNESCO’s leadership on the preservation and reconstruction of the cultural heritage of Syria.
The UNESCO Director-General also held a telephone conversation with Mr. Abdelkarim, concerning the latest updates on the situation of the site following its recent liberation. She invited Mr. Abdelkarim to come to UNESCO in the next days in order to prepare for the sending of the UNESCO expert mission and she reiterated her full support for the restoration of Palmyra underscoring “the critical role of cultural heritage for resilience, national unity, and peace”.
Mr. Abdelkarim thanked the Director-General, confirming the need to ensure restoration works at the site under UNESCO auspices, as soon as the security requirements will be ensured on the ground. UNESCO also announced that it will be holding a conference of experts on the reconstruction of the cultural heritage of Syria by the end of April.