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Forget digital recreations. Palmyra’s own future must come first

31 March 2016

When the Syrian army took back the ruins of Palmyra and the neighbouring modern town of Tadmor not a few held their breath, wondering whether the archaeological site would suffer another bout of destruction along the lines of the mindless violence unleashed by so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) in May last year. In August, IS turned its explosive experts loose on the great classical-period landmarks – the Temple of Bel, the smaller Temple of Baal-Shamin (built around the time of Hadrian’s visit to Palmyra in 129), the city’s ingenious Monumental Arch (which disguised an otherwise distracting bend in the great one-kilometre long Colonnaded Axis stretching across the desert site) and at least seven of the most intact of the tower tombs that stood like sentinels for almost 2,000 years in the Valley of the Tombs.

Syrian government troops retook the city of Palmyra from so-called ‘Islamic State’ militants on 27 March 2016 after a major offensive operation. Here, smoke can be seen billowing from the Palmyra citadel during the fighting, on 25 March. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The second fear was that IS might have done even more damage in recent months. The Archaeological Museum housed many of the site finds and had provided a splendid survey of the city’s history, not only in the classical period but through all the city’s life. The site and the museum must have sorely offended IS’s objective of taking Syria back to a Year Zero, wiping out all memory of what archaeologists have revealed through their work over the past century: that Palmyra was a city where civilisations replaced each other without necessarily eliminating the capacity of communities to live side by side. Such research inspired the life work of the former Director of Antiquities at Palmyra, Khaled al-Asaad, whose beheading by IS came amidst their efforts to efface even Islamic monuments that offended their agenda.

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Cella of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra – from the northeast. Photographed in 2004. Photo courtesy the author

The remains of the Temple of Bel after it was blown up by Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. Photographed on 29 March, 2016. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

What is the tally of the last 10 months? Luckily, as the Syrian Director-General of Antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim has noted this week, the prospect of losing the ruins appears to have given the townspeople of Tadmor the courage to get across to the Islamists that the city, without its past, would be without hope. This may be why there was no major return to the destructive frenzy which marked IS’s initial attempt to gain world attention. More tower tombs may have been destroyed in addition to the seven originally recorded via satellite imagery last year: Abdulkarim has noted that 12 are lost. Drone images posted on Russian television, however, give few other indications of new material damage. Until the current Russian-aided mine clearing of the site and the first on-ground inspection by the Syrian antiquities authorities are completed, a full appreciation is still pending. At least fears that the removal of IS might have triggered a last-ditch stand among the ruins or an attempt to hold the site to ransom have not come about.

Eastern end of the Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra, at dawn. Photographed before the conflict: the two tall towers at the end are gone. Photo courtesy the author

The damage at the Palmyra museum was unknown, though IS had boasted of destroying the massive lion figure which had been retrieved, in pieces, from the Temple of Allat 50 years ago and reconstructed at the museum entrance. This, it is now clear, was not a thorough ‘destruction’ job. Many of the original stones survived, albeit battered and toppled. It was hoped that the Syrian authorities had been able to remove most of the small pieces and statuary inside the building, as part of a rescue operation that was underway when IS moved in. These hopes may need to be revised: photos taken inside the museum in recent days show some middle-sized statues (as opposed to smaller reliefs and busts) have been dragged off their plinths and had their faces smashed.

A view shows damaged artefacts inside the museum of the historic city of Palmyra, after forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad recaptured the city, in Homs Governorate in this handout picture provided by SANA on March 27, 2016.

Damaged artefacts inside the museum of the historic city of Palmyra. Handout picture provided by SANA on 27 March, 2016. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

The Syrian authorities will no doubt use Palmyra as an answer to the fundamentalists’ agenda. Palmyra’s reconstruction will be a first goal, giving the long-suffering population some possibility of a future. There are many in the outside world, though, who want to use the victory to explore other agendas. It is sad the extent to which, for example, those who have access to copious funding want to prioritise the ‘re-creation’ of Palmyra using ingenious technology well away from Syria. Those efforts are misguided. The regeneration of Palmyra must serve (a) the regeneration of Tadmor and (b) restore Palmyra’s real lesson for humanity: that cities can survive for millennia only by building on the memories of their past.

A general view (top) of the Triumphal Arch taken on 19 March 2010, prior to being destroyed by Islamic State (IS) jihadists in October 2015; and the remains of the structure after government troops recaptured the city of Palmyra from IS fighters on 27 March, 2016. LOUAI BESHARA,STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Syria has long harboured some of the Mediterranean world’s most active stonemasons; the quarries of Palmyra are still there. We don’t need to make the Monumental Arch out of polystyrene and we have the detailed plans of researchers into all these monuments. The funds would be better reserved to help Syrians regenerate their heritage, not for outsiders anxious to try out ephemeral adventures into ‘new technology’ whose significance will pass in the twinkling of an eye.

Ross Burns is the author of Monuments of Syria (I.B.Tauris, 3rd edition 2009) and the accompanying website documenting the trail of destruction in Syria since 2011. He is publishing with Routledge in August the first history of Aleppo in English: Aleppo–A History. Many of the author’s photographs are also available on the Manar al-Athar website based at Oxford University.

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