On any given Monday morning, at approximately 7:30 a.m. a car carrying highly trained archeologists and two Palmyra National Museum security guards, on weekly rotation, departs the Homs, Syria HQ of Syria’s Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) along the previously dangerous 160 km Homs-Palmyra road east to Palmyra (Tadmor), the site of wanton destruction the past few years. Caused in the main by Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists who insist that non-Islamic archeological sites offend God who apparently abhors any possible idolatry-if indeed that is what preserving our global culture heritage for those who follow us amounts to. “It’s both propagandistic and sincere,” says Columbia University historian Christopher Jones, who has chronicled the damage on his blog. “They see themselves as recapitulating the early history of Islam.” Simultaneously, ISIS uses looting as fundraisers for military operations.
Since 2015, DGAM archeologists’ travel to Palmyra has sometimes been curtailed and the route closed by the Syrian army given that the area just to the north and south of the highway harbored jihadists camped deep under the vast desert in tunnels as well as dug into nearby hillsides with heavy weapons. On 5/23/2017 the Syrian army informed this observer that ISIS forces have now been pushed back some 50 km into the desert northeast of Palmyra and no longer pose a threat to those visiting the ruins area. The Syrian army two days ago (5/24/2017) announced that they had captured areas to the south of Palmyra and to the east of Qaryatayn in southeastern Homs province. Moreover, this past month Syrian troops, seeking to expand a buffer zone north of the Homs-Palmyra highway have advanced on ISIS positions in the same area with intermittent clashes between the Syrian Army (SAA) and ISIS units ongoing.
Consequently, an invitation from DGAM for this observer to join the group and again visit Palmyra, one of 300 of Syria’s 10,000 archeological sites damaged and/or looted since the spring of 2011, was most welcomed.
Syria’s current work at Palmyra includes conducting updated assessments of damage by ISIS during their second occupation of the ancient city which lasted for ten weeks between December 11, 2016 and March 2, 2017. Fortunately, this month’s Syrian government assessment shows that ISIS damage at Palmyra is limited to the central part of the facade of the Second Century theater and to the columns of the Tetrapylon, with no new damage to the Tomb of the Three Brothers, Temple of Bel, Temple of Nebo, Camp of Diocletian, the Straight Street, Agora and other monuments. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, who had already arranged the transport of some 800 of the ancient statues and artifacts in Palmyra’s museum to Damascus and elsewhere for safe-keeping explained: “This time, they don’t seem to have damaged Palmyra as badly as we feared.”
Photo: fplamb 5/23/2017. ISIS substantially leveled most of the Tetrapylon a group of raised pillars signaling a crossroads, with only four of 16 columns still standing and leaving the stone platform now covered in rubble. But again, ISIS failed to remove or pulverize the chunks of the columns such that the Tetrapylon will be relatively easily restored. ISIS also left behind most of the rubble at other sites during its first occupation. This means that approximately 80% of Palmyra’s antiquities are in fairly good condition and 15% of those more heavily damaged also can and will be restored.
Photo: fplamb 5/23/2017. As noted above, ISIS also destroyed the carved facade of the ancient Palmyra theatre, where the jihadi group forced locals to watch as it murdered 25 soldiers during the first occupation. If one focuses on the third column from the right, a broken rope is still visible, one of dozens ISIS used to hang prisoners in 2016. This theater was also where musicians from St Petersburg’s Mariinsky orchestra had performed at a “victory concert” after the area was recaptured from ISIS the first time.
Photo: fplamb 5/23/2017. Not reported in the media following ISIS’ 2nd occupation of Palmyra were 14 excavation holes counted by this observer. These struck me as odd given their random locations and absence of evidence that anything was excavated in contrast to other excavation areas around Syria where one sees hundreds of dug holes approximating rows. My tentative assessment is that during their second coming the original 4000 fighters quickly moved south to fight regime forces and try to capture the T4 Airport which is a critical security installation, providing regime forces with close air support. ISIS jihadists were able to storm into the base after seizing security checkpoints in the nearby Mashtal and Qasr al-Hir Districts. Given this priority, ISIS left behind among the ruins of Palmyra only a relatively modest number of forces during this period and these fact likely accounts for the limited ISIS damage to the ruins.
The ISIS success in seizing Palmyra the second time after being forced out of the city in March 2016 underlines the limits of airpower against the group and after four days of Russian airstrike and regime shelling Isis was firmly in control of Palmyra. During December 2016, Isis forces swept into Palmyra as the Syrian army and its allies focused on defeating rebels in Aleppo. ISIS remained in control the second time for ten weeks. Privately Syrian army friend’s blame their heavy troop loses on the Russians for letting their guard down at Palmyra. Simultaneously Russian friends in Syria blame the Syrian forces (in private). But publicly they both blame the Americans, without providing cogent detail, for allowing ISIS reinforcements from Raqqa, the de facto Isis capital in northern Syria, as well as not stopping ISIS from coming to Palmyra from the nearby eastern province of Deir Ezzor to move to Palmyra. Key to regime forces and their allies in expelling ISIS the second time was their success attacking from three sides the ISIS forces based in the Citadel on a hill overlooking the ruins. In any event Palmyra is today better guarded than it was last year—by both Russian, Syria and Iranian forces.
Concrete plans to restore Palmyra are largely completed as a result of many months of Syrian consultations with the global community, UNESCO, and UN Specialized Agencies as well as with dozens of archeological associations, Museums, and the Syrian public.
What is now needed is specialized equipment, specialized restoration craftsmen prepared to come to Syria and funding. All are largely available today but most partners, especially from the West want to wait for the violence to end to ensure the safety of their associates who would be working here and also to ensure that restoration work projects will not likely be attacked again.
Thanks to Syrian citizens and officials working in this 3000 year old town, given all the jihadist attacks it has sustained, Palmyra, like many antiquities sites around Syria in is reasonable condition and ready to be restored. More urgent, as Part II of the Update addresses, is the archeological crisis in Aleppo which requires immediate attention. Government cooperation with the local citizenry is needed so that invaluable damaged artifacts and pieces of treasures scattered around are not confiscated and removed as part of the current urgency citizens feel about returning to their smashed homes and start rebuilding with whatever material they can fine.