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Archaeologists are getting their first look at how a nearly year-long occupation by the group known as the Islamic State (IS) has affected the World Heritage Site of Palmyra in Syria. Government forces retook the historic city late last month, and although satellite images and recent photos show substantial damage to the city’s ancient art and architecture—some of it deliberate—researchers are encouraged that the destruction was not worse. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Michael Danti of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), a scholarly organization based in Boston, which this week released an assessment of the damage.
Officials are already discussing plans to restore damaged sites to their former glory. But some experts disagree about how restoration should proceed, whereas others worry that such talk is premature given that IS still poses a threat to the city and that there is no end in sight to the 5-year-old Syrian conflict. “Things in Palmyra went from frying pan to fire, and now it’s back to frying pan,” Danti says.
Palmyra has long held a special place in Middle Eastern studies. The city, which sits in central Syria about 200 kilometers northeast of Damascus, reached its cultural peak in the first through third centuries C.E., when it was a Roman empire trading center that attracted Greek, Persian, and Arab merchants. The cultural blending left a distinctive mark, including unique sculptures, tombs, and temples.
IS fighters destroyed many of these cultural treasures after they captured Palmyra in May 2015, and researchers are beginning to tally the losses. Danti says the path of devastation documented by satellite images and local residents reveals the group’s priorities. First, IS fighters destroyed Tadmor prison, a 20th century structure where the Syrian regime jailed political prisoners, perhaps in a bid to curry favor with city residents. Then, the group’s focus became “cultural cleansing,” Danti says. It razed ancient sites that were holy to Islamic groups whose beliefs IS rejects, including the tomb of the Sufi saint Shagaf as well as a number of Sufi and Shia cemeteries and shrines. IS fighters then targeted prominent sites with less direct religious connections, including a massive Roman triumphal arch and a famous statue of a lion in the Palmyra museum that had once adorned a temple of the Semitic goddess al-Lat. The battle to retake the city took an additional toll, with bombs and artillery shells hitting mosques and other major structures. “A whole landscape has been attacked, not just the World Heritage Site,” Danti says.
Still, the destruction could have been even greater, researchers say. Many important sites appear to have survived, including a military camp and theater dating to Roman times, a historic tax collecting center, and a temple to the Babylonian god Nabu.
Thorough field assessments are not yet possible, because crews are removing thousands of mines and booby-trapped explosive devices left behind by IS group fighters. In the meantime, Danti and his ASOR colleagues have been examining recently released satellite images. They show that at least a dozen Roman-era towerlike tombs, built to house the dead of wealthy families, have been destroyed, according to the forthcoming ASOR report. Five of the stone tombs were destroyed within the past 5 months, the images suggest.
Photos taken by journalists show that the museum has been ransacked, with pieces of statues littering the floor. Curators moved much of the museum’s collection to Damascus before Palmyra became a battleground, according to Syria’s Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), but left behind some larger objects.
Specialists should be able to reconstruct the shattered sculptures, given enough time and money, says Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of DGAM in Damascus. He is already in discussions with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization officials about plans for bringing back the larger sites. It could take just 5 years to restore Palmyra, he estimates, given sufficient money and help from the international community.
Some specialists, however, are skeptical of that timeline and predict restoration will pose complex problems, including how any reconstruction should reflect Palmyra’s recent violent history. “It’s not just a heritage site anymore. It’s a war zone, it’s a grave, it’s a place where people were executed,” says Allison Cuneo of ASOR. She notes that IS fighters used a Roman amphitheater to stage the executions of at least 25 men. “That theater where they killed all those soldiers is a place where they were holding plays and ballets,” she says. “Now, people are going to remember it as the place where their son
Others worry that talk of restoration is premature. Amr Al Azm, a Syrian archaeologist now at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, notes that the Russian military forces that helped the Syrian government retake Palmyra are slowly withdrawing from the country. And a cease-fire that provided the government with a tactical advantage is coming to an end. Another shift in the balance of power, he worries, could put Palmyra’s treasures back in the hands of IS.
Zach Zorich is a journalist based in Fort Collins, Colorado.