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Archaeologists Are Figuring Out How Badly the Islamic State Damaged Palmyra

Nearly a year ago, Islamic State militants drove government forces from Palmyra's ruins and then proceeded to release images and videos of fighters blowing up ancient structures.

by Samuel Oakford
Mar 29 2016, 7:40pm

Photo via AFP/Getty Images

Following the ancient city of Palmyra's recapture by the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday, archaeologists and antiquities experts have begun to remotely determine the extent of damage inflicted by nearly a year of Islamic State control.

Despite widescale looting and several high-profile demolitions, much of the city's Roman-era structures appear to still be intact. The United Nations said on Tuesday that it plans to send a mission to the World Heritage site as soon as possible.

Last May, IS militants drove government forces from Palmyra's ruins and the modern city, also known as Tadmor, that lies beside them. Confirming the fears of local officials and UNESCO, the UN's cultural agency, the group proceeded to release images and videos of fighters blowing up several structures, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel — the city's largest and best known building — and the temple of Baalshamin. Much of the oasis settlement's architecture dates to the first two centuries AD, when Palmyra was a crossroads amid the far reaches of the Roman Empire.

In August, UN satellite photos confirmed that the Temple of Bel had been reduced to rubble, though its surrounding walls appeared to remain standing. In October, IS destroyed a triumphal arch that had been constructed by the Romans to commemorate victory in battle against the Persians. Though the temples were religious structures and theoretically un-Islamic in the eyes of IS, the arch was not.

"The temples that were destroyed were dedicated to local gods, and there were different kinds of worshiping and practices that went on in those temples compares to other ones in the empire," said Giovanni Boccardi, chief of the culture sector at UNESCO's emergency preparedness and response unit.

'It's one of the great archeological sites of the world, and certainly one of the most important in the Middle East," he went on. "It was a different kind of Roman city. Although the architecture that you could see seemed Greco-Roman in style, in fact what went on in these buildings had a very different flavor and character."

Related: Syrian Regime Forces Have Ended the Islamic State's Reign of Terror in Palmyra

On Sunday, regime forces announced that they had secured the city. The next day, the government's antiquities director reported that about 80 percent of the artifacts and ancient structures in it had not been dismantled.

"The general panoramic view of the city is still intact," said Maamoun Abdulkarim. "The walls of the Temple Bel and its gate, as well as the sanctum's gigantic door, are still standing, along with monuments along the central road, the agora, the amphitheater, the crossroads [and] the citadel."

But Boccardi said that significant damage was found inside the city's museum, where many of the larger pieces in its collection were unable to be relocated to Damascus last year as staff fled.

"In addition to what we knew had been destroyed, we have seen in the last few days some awful pictures of the interior of the museum, which has been vandalized — statues lying on the ground, damaged or destroyed," he said.

"We would certainly like to go to Palmyra and conduct more in-depth assessments as soon as possible," he added. "At the moment it is not clear that security conditions are in place, but we are certainly in touch with the Syrian Antiquities Department."

Abdulkarim reported that a statue of the Lion of al-Lat, constructed in the 2nd century and located at the entrance to the museum, had also been obliterated.

"They transformed the museum into a court and dungeon, and blew up two Islamic shrines near the ruins," he said, adding that "dozens of tower tombs" — tall, stone funerary towers — had had also been confirmed destroyed.

When IS captured the city last May regime, it was seen as a sign of the Syrian government's increasingly tenuous military position. At the time, Assad said his forces were forced to retreat from the desert enclave in order to protect heavily populated areas farther west.

Related: Looting and Destruction Feared as Islamic State Seizes Syria's Ancient City of Palmyra

Nearly a year later, the situation on the ground is far different. Last fall, Russia began bombing rebel positions, leading to gains by Syrian forces and militias allied to them in places like Aleppo. With their backs up against the wall and under a hail of Russian bombs, Syrian rebel groups, excluding IS and the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, agreed late last month to a UN-brokered ceasefire that continues to be observed, with sporadic violations.

The truce has further flipped the dynamic of last May: instead of retreating from Palmyra to fight elsewhere, the regime was able to focus its efforts in the city while battles against more moderate opposition quieted in other regions. In the process, it scored an important military and public relations victory.

Despite heavy media coverage of IS's capture of the city and the group's advertised destruction, looting in Palmyra, as in other parts of Syria, predated IS rule. The terror group has also attempted to sell antiquities in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria, a lucrative trade that contradicts their public messaging on pre-Islamic artifacts.

Amr al-Azm, a former antiquities official in Syria who has relocated to the US where he now teaches, said that he's been shown documentation of various artifacts taken from Palmyra that have appeared in illicit marketplaces in Raqqa, the self-declared IS capital in Syria, as well as in Turkey. The items had been stolen both before and after the IS takeover, he said — testament to looting carried out by Syrian government personnel since the civil war started.

"Both sides were looting, both sides were profiteering from this," Azm remarked.

Related: Islamic State Blows Up Ancient Temple in Palmyra

Abdulkarim, the antiquities chief, said that the Syrian government could, with sufficient funding, rebuild "the damaged monuments."

"The Temple of Baalshamin, Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumph and dozens of tower tombs are going to be rebuilt," he said. "We are going to assess the damage to the structures so we can determine what we can reuse in the restoration and rebuilding of the two temples, and when necessary we will use stones from the quarries of Palmyra."

Azm, who says he supports the country's moderate opposition, said he was happy that IS had been driven out with minimal damage during this month's fighting.

"That was our biggest fear, that it would grind down into this slugfest and some of it would center around the arch areas because it's good terrain for a lot of that, and in the process the destruction would be catastrophic," he said. "To our surprise and pleasure that didn't happen."

But the professor cringed at the prospect of Assad's regime receiving positive press after Palmyra's recapture after, he noted, "they worked systematically for the last year or two to destroy any viable alternatives to ISIS."

"Saying 'we are going to rebuild it' is something that plays well with the regime," Azm said. "It means they will get international recognition. It means UNESCO will talk to them more."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford