Palmyra – it’s all over the news. It’s been recaptured. It’s damaged, but how badly? What are we going to do about it? Is it really safe? How long will it be safe? Can we fix what was damaged? Well, I’m here to try and answer just a few of those burning questions. Let’s start with ‘What is Palmyra?’
Palmyra, ‘the city of palms’, is an ancient city located north-east of Damascus in the Syrian desert. An oasis, the city was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. The Greco-Roman ruins are connected by an 1100 metre long street, the crossroads of which link together the Temple of Ba’al, the Agora, Diocletian’s Camp, a Roman theatre, several other temples, funerary monuments, churches, and examples of dwellings. The whole city is dotted with monumental colonnades, and just outside the city’s walls lay the remnants of a Roman aqueduct and a necropolis (cemetery) with an elaborate complex of tombs.
The so-called “pearl of the desert” is overlooked by two mountain ranges and is surrounded by an impressive array of palms. Mentions of the city can be dated back to the 19th century BCE, when it was a popular resting stop for travellers navigating the Silk Road. It was during the reign of the Roman Empire when Palmyra really rose to prominence, though, becoming popularly known for being a luxurious, cosmopolitan metropolis.
Upon the visiting of the Emperor Hadrian in 129 CE, Palmyra was declared to be a ‘free city’ of the Empire. During the third century, Palmyra declared its independence from the Roman Empire in a revolt lead by Zenobia – the woman who would become Queen of the Palmyrene Empire, which included all of Syria and parts of Egypt.
Palmyra has a rich and colourful history that is far too detailed and interesting to do justice to with a few short sentences. It is a site which has yielded archeological evidence from every period from the Neolithic, to the aforementioned, and beyond into the Byzantine period and through to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Although, it would be fair to say that this most recent period is surely the most devastating the city of Palmyra has had to endure.
At the very top of the Syrian Civil War, fears were held that the site had been looted and pillaged. Shortly after those reports, the Temple of Ba’al was damaged by mortar fire and several columns were stuck by shrapnel. This was as the result of a battle between the Syrian Army and opposition soldiers which took place on the ruins-grounds.
In May of 2015, ISIS attacked a nearby local town. By late May some precautionary removals of Palmyran artefacts had begun; however further looting also occurred which lead to some busts, jewellery and other objects turning up on the black market. The very same day that the precautionary measures were carried out – May 21st – is when ISIS invaded the site.
Photography: Joseph Eid and Maher Al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images.
Upon capturing the ancient city, ISIS began using the theatre of Palmyra as an execution site. In June of 2015 it was reported that the Syrian air force had bombed the city, which caused damage to the Temple of Baalshamin. It was in that same month that ISIS destroyed the Lion of al-Lāt; an ancient statue. Several other statues and monuments were also destroyed.
By August, it was reported that ISIS had blown-up the first century Temple of Baalshamin. Later that month, the Temple of Ba’al was also destroyed, with satellite imaging showing that almost nothing remained of the ancient temple. That same month ISIS beheaded Palmyra’s retired chief of antiquities, Khaled al-Assaad, who had refused to give up any information regarding the city and its treasures.
In September of 2015 it was announced that since June of that year, ISIS had obliterated several ancient tomb towers in Palmyra, as well as the second century Tower of Elahbel – a funerary monument – and the ancient tombs of Iamliku and Atenaten. The Arch of Triumph was blown-up in October 2015, although it was thought that half of the arch may have remained standing. Only during the last few weeks of March this year did fortified efforts to reclaim the city begin, with Russian backed airstrikes aiding in a successful outcome on the last weekend in March.
Images of the damage sustained by Palmyra are still emerging, but it wouldn’t be an understatement to call what we have seen, devastating. The damage is immense. There are parts of Palmyra that are almost unrecognisable, and other sections which have been completely destroyed. Even the museum buildings themselves have been turned upside down, having been converted into impromptu ISIS courtrooms and dungeons.
The severity of the damage is yet to be fully evaluated, and in any case that is something which will take time to properly do. UNESCO have pledged their support in helping with evaluations, documentation, and prosecutions, whilst Syria’s foremost archeologist Maamoun Abdelkarim has promised that what can be, will be rebuilt. He told the Guardian: “We will not leave the temple destroyed… We will assess how much damage the stones suffered and we will re-use them in order to scientifically put back the temples,”.
The final question – can we fix the damage? – is perhaps the hardest one to answer. Because the answer is no. Palmyra, or Tadmur as it is known to Syrians, was violated, obliterated, and senselessly so. It is a massive loss for the world but a bigger one for Syria, and all we can do now is hope for small mercies, and for peace.