The National Museum of Palmyra, Syria, which was vandalized by Islamic State, is shown in 2016 after its recapture (Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images)

The Battle for Palmyra: Where Archaeology, Propaganda, Politics Intersect

Several countries have expressed interest in restoring Syria’s cultural heritage, devastated by civil war

 The sunset colors the ancient ruins in rosy pink, and the music flows in the dry desert air. On August 30, a few hundred Syrians attend a concert in Palmyra, organized by the government to celebrate the “many victories of the Syrian army.”

The attendees fly national flags in the air, sing with the band and smile on camera. But no amount of festive lights and banners can mask the grim reality. The modern town of Tadmor that lies adjacent to Palmyra is nearly empty; only a few dozen refugee families have returned. ISIS is reemerging in the area and is once more carrying out attacks, while the shattered pieces of magnificent temples and columns lie everywhere, reminders of recent dramatic and terrifying events.

In 2015, the world watched in horror as the black-clad mercenaries of ISIS desecrated the ancient capital of Queen Zenobia, who cherished the arts, philosophy and science back in the third-century. They smashed the faces of the statues, bombed the temples and looted the fabulous Palmyra Museum. Archaeologists were beheaded and the local population abandoned the town.

Twice Palmyra fell into the hands of the Islamic State group, and twice the Syrian regime recaptured it, with the help of the Russian army.

It became one of the most famous symbols of the alliance between Moscow and Damascus. Syrian and Russian authorities declared that they would restore Palmyra to its glory, while in Russia parks and nuclear missiles were named after the fabled city.

Last year, Damascus announced festively that the ancient city would be restored soon and be opened again to tourists by 2019. But there are no tourists in Palmyra today, and restoration is stalled indefinitely.

‘I was surprised they didn’t ruin everything’

Evgeny Poddubny, a military correspondent for Russian state-owned Channel 1 (VGTRK), recalls well his first impressions of Palmyra. “The site is breathtakingly beautiful. I remember looking at it and thinking that it was incredible, that many pillars and buildings still survived from the pillage,” he told The Media Line.

Poddubny was the first reporter to arrive in the city after the Syrian army, with the support of Russian airstrikes, retook it from ISIS for the first time in March 2016.

Palmyra initially fell in 2015. Then the fanatics destroyed the Arch of Triumph, the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, and the famous Lion of Al-Lat. The museum was looted and carvings bearing human images were torn off. The amphitheater became a stage for public beheadings.

In May 2016, soon after the first liberation of Palmyra, the renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led a concert in the ruins where ISIS had carried out its executions. The performance was titled “Pray for Palmyra”; the goal was to show the world that Palmyra’s treasures could be safeguarded.

The prayers didn’t help. In December 2016, ISIS reconquered Palmyra. The city’s new quarter was emptied of people, and the stage where Gergiev and his musicians had performed was blown up.

By March 2017, the city was once more under regime control, and Poddubny was again walking through its storied alleys, observing yet more pillage and desecration. Still, he believes that this important heritage site, founded circa 2500 B.C., can be restored, as not more than 25 percent of it was seriously damaged.

Alexander Sedov, director-general of the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, seconds his sentiments. “Palmyra can and should be restored. I would go to restore it myself. There is no doubt that Russia is interested in the restoration of Palmyra and other heritage sites in Syria,” Sedov told The Media Line.

“We have the knowledge and the experience, as after the Great Patriotic War [World War II] we had to restore many museums and heritage sites, such as Pavlovsk [an 18th-century imperial palace in Saint Petersburg] and others.”

Dr. Eyal Zisser, the vice rector of Tel Aviv University, believes that the restoration of Syrian heritage sites is not in the cards anytime soon, given the grave humanitarian situation. “The whole country is in shambles. Critical infrastructure lies in ruins, and the rehabilitation will be long and costly. All of this talk about the restoration of heritage sites is mere propaganda,” Zisser told The Media Line.

Prof. Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist who left Syria and now works at Shawnee State University in Ohio, explained that only “cosmetic work” that served the purpose of propaganda could occur today.

“It’s nice that the Russians will restore the Palmyra Museum, since they were the ones who destroyed it,” he told The Media Line. “The experts from Poland, who were the first to enter the museum after Palmyra was recaptured from ISIS, told me that the Russians caused most of the damage…. They bombed the building, not ISIS who saw the heritage as a resource. They [the Islamists] looted the museum and sold many items online. But the vast damage to the museum was caused by the Russian army,” he said.

“And then there is a question of funds,” Azm continued. “Nothing is happening at the moment. The Russians don’t have the money to pay for it, and the international community will not fund anything today, since you can’t even wire money to Syria, due to sanctions. UNESCO made it very clear that there will be no dealings with DGAM (the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria).”

The main issue is money, or more precisely, the lack of it. Giora Solar, an Israeli architect and an expert on conservation who was a member of the Israel World Heritage Committee (Israel National Commission for UNESCO), believes that the only thing that Syrians can do is to keep the damaged sites from deteriorating further.

“No one knows today how much the restoration work will cost,” Solar told The Media Line, “The task of estimating it has still not been accomplished. But there is no doubt that it will cost a fortune. For now, I would advise the Syrians to assemble all of the stones and the rubble that is left on-site and to put them aside. This way looting and further pillage can be prevented, and when the money will be available, the reconstruction can begin,” he said.

Security is another issue that stands in the way of restoration efforts. Less than a month ago, the reemerging ISIS carried out an ambush on the Palmyra-Deir ez-Zor highway, targeting a Syrian military convoy. Several soldiers were killed and others were critically wounded. Although Palmyra, situated in central Syria, is far from the frontline in Idlib Province in the northeast, in recent months ISIS fighters have been carrying out more attacks near the historic city.

To rebuild or not to rebuild? 

Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic in Russia, donated $14 million for the restoration of the Great Mosque of Aleppo. The Syrian government has supposedly budgeted funding to restore the Lion of Al-Lat (it is currently on exhibit in Damascus). In Palmyra, foreign activists are teaching residents who returned the art of masonry, so that they will be able to take part in reconstruction.

But even when the time comes, there is likely to be serious debate about the ethics of reconstruction, since so many historical temples, arches and statues were completely destroyed.

“The famous Temple of Bel can’t be restored; there is nothing left of it. And the Arch of Triumph – you will be restoring a restoration since the damaged part already had been restored,” said Prof. Azm. ” The question of ethics should be addressed. Many historians will tell you that restoration is not an appropriate approach today. It’s wise to stabilize what is left and then to decide what to do next.

“Recreating ancient temples that were shattered to dust has less to do with restoration and more to do with propaganda,” he said.

Giora Solar said that in some cases, the recreation of destroyed monuments was a worthwhile endeavor.

“There is a debate, and these days many experts do not completely rule out full restoration when the building in question is of symbolic importance. That’s why I supported the restoration of the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City [of Jerusalem] that was blown up by Jordanians in 1948,” said Solar.

Museums in the United Kingdom, France and Germany have also shown interest in the restoration of Palmyra and other heritage sites in Syria. During the 20th century, these countries dominated the excavation and research of Syrian antiquities. Some Italian and French teams are already working in Palmyra, assessing the damage and teaching locals to carve stone.

In 2016, Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph was recreated in London by the Institute for Digital Archaeology, in a joint venture with Harvard, Oxford and Dubai’s Museum of the Future. The replica, however, was slammed by critics as inaccurate and many archaeologists accused the creators of “building a Disney fabrication.”

Russian media ridiculed such efforts, and in July 2018, government-run TV announced: “The Syrians and the Russians begin restoring Palmyra on their own.” Not surprisingly, the channel released this story under the headline “The West drops the ball,” clearly indicating that ancient Palmyra had become part of a very modern political game.

Today, Palmyra and thousands of other important heritage sites lie in ruins all across Syria. The Assad regime tries to show that things are getting back to normal, arranging concerts and showing off minor construction and restoration work. But most view this as nothing more than a blatant lie and a distortion of reality.

The story of the restoration of Syria’s heritage is part of a broader intersection of politics, security and humanitarian issues. As long as there is no political process or reconciliation, the world will be reluctant to invest in the rehabilitation of modern and ancient Syria.

Until then, the implementation of any grand plans to restore Palmyra and its museum, and other sites, will likely have to wait for better times, when Syria will be able to embrace its past and look to its future, without fear.

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