Much of Palmyra's treasures lost to ISIS destruction, pillage by Syria army: Expert

Part of the ancient city of Palmyra, after government troops recaptured the site from ISIS on March 27, 2016.
Part of the ancient city of Palmyra, after government troops recaptured the site from ISIS on March 27, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

PALMYRA (AFP) - Archaeologists were rushing to the ancient city of Palmyra on Monday (March 28) to assess the damage wreaked by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after it was ousted by the Syrian army in a bloody battle.  

President Bashar al-Assad hailed the victory as “important” as Damascus reportedly dispatched experts to check the damage wreaked by the extremists on the Unesco world heritage site.  

An AFP correspondent inside Palmyra said some monuments, including the iconic Temple of Bel, lay in pieces almost a year after ISIS fighters seized the site, but much of the ancient city was intact.

Residential neighbourhoods in the adjacent modern town, where 70,000 people lived before the war, were deserted and damage there was widespread, the correspondent said.

Syrian soldiers, pro-government militiamen and Russian fighters strolled among the ruins in awe after seizing the city on Sunday, while regime troops kicked around a football in the middle of a street.

The Islamic State group sparked a global outcry when they started destroying Palmyra’s treasured monuments, which they consider idolatrous, after taking the city in May 2015.  Syria’s antiquities chief said the priceless artefacts had survived better than feared from a campaign of destruction Unesco described as a “war crime”.

“We were expecting the worst. But the landscape, in general, is in good shape,” Maamoun Abdulkarim told AFP from Damascus.  “We could have completely lost Palmyra... The joy I feel is indescribable.”

Historian of the ancient world Maurice Sartre told AFP that Abdulkarim was already on his way from Damascus to begin a survey of the ruins. 

Sartre explains what Syria's capture of Palmyra from ISIS will mean for the Unesco World Heritage site.

Q: What is your initial response to the news that the Syrian army has recaptured Palmyra?

A: One can only rejoice at the ousting of ISIS, which is founded on extreme violence and organised the systematic destruction of ancient artefacts. It's a blessing both for the site and the people who live nearby. There's no question about that - even if we know the city is now in the hands of another dictator, (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad.

Q: What now?

A: First we need a precise record of the destruction. The Syrian director-general of antiquities left for Palmyra from Damascus this evening to complete a survey.

 
 

There will be two types of destruction. First, the most famous and visible, which we know about because ISIS made a point of showing us: The destruction of the two major Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, the triumphal arches, the seven tower tombs.

Then there will be what is not visible, by which I mean the destruction of underground tombs and everything that has been pillaged from the site.

The Syrian regime will obviously try to pin all of the blame on ISIS, but some of this will not have been their fault. We are well aware that before the arrival of ISIS, Mr Assad's army also pillaged Palmyra.

The tombs of the south-eastern necropolis, which were brilliantly restored by Japanese architects in the 2000s, were totally destroyed. There are photographs of soldiers carrying busts from the site.

My fear is that we will focus on the destruction of the major sites, which is obviously extremely serious, at the expense of what has been lost through pillaging, especially those artefacts that are not known.

One mustn't forget that only around 15 to 20 per cent of Palmyra had actually been excavated, and so there was an enormous amount yet to discover. All the tombs we hadn't excavated and have now been totally pillaged are lost to science forever.

Q: What purpose will the survey serve?

A: We must see what can be recovered. I've watched videos posted by journalists on the scene, and it's clear that we will likely to be able to completely reconstruct the main arch, which was bulldozed by ISIS, because all the blocks are still there.

What we don't know, however, because journalists couldn't get there - there are probably mines - is the state of the stones that made up the two temples. If they've been reduced to dust, as is well possible, there is nothing we can do, but if the stones themselves remain we can reconstruct the temples.

It would be extremely expensive, but it's possible.