Saturday, April 23, 2016

Some glimmer of hope for the ancient ruins of Palmyra

by Salman Hameed

Things looked quite bleak for the ancient city of Palmyra just a few months ago. It looked like nothing will be left under the occupation of ISIS (ISIL or Daesh). The city has now been taken back by the forces of the Syrian government and some new assessments offer a glimmer of hope. But before we get to the hope part, here are some pictures of Palmyra destruction (for more pictures, see The Senseless Destruction of Palmyra):

The Arch of Triumph in 2010

The Arch of Triumph in April 2016

But couple of hopeful things. First, most of the museum artifacts were moved to Damascus before the arrival of ISIS. Second, some of the sites were spared, including the spectacular Roman Theater (below):
The Roman Theater in April 2016

A recent issue of Science has an article that talks about the path to recovery for Palmyra:
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.
Interestingly, we can also get some useful information about the ISIS pattern of destruction:
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.
You can read the full article here (though you may need subscription to access it). 


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