Syrian antiquities experts were to travel to Palmyra on Monday to begin a closer evaluation of damage done to the city’s ancient ruins by “Islamic State” extremists who were driven out last week by Syrian government forces after being in power there for 10 months.
“My expert colleagues arrive today in Palmyra. I have asked them to assess the stones and the old city. They are taking pictures of the damage and documenting everything, and then the restoration can begin,” Syria’s head of antiquities and museums, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told the AFP news agency.
“Eighty percent of the ruins are in good shape,” he said, adding that his department would need five years to restore the damage done by IS, which harmed or destroyed a number of the city’s spectacular old ruins.
Among other things, the Islamist jihadists destroyed the shrine of Baal Shamin, the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the Roman Arch of Triumph dating from around 200 AD.
IS also killed scores of people, including the city’s 82-year-old director of antiquities, Riad al-Asaad.
The extremist group claims that ancient relics promote idolatry and that it is destroying them to prevent a spread of paganism. However, it is also believed to have sold off a large number of looted antiquities to gain funds for its operations while trying to set up a “caliphate” across the Middle East.
Abdulkarim said his department had, however, prevented the entire city from being razed.
“We were working with 45 to 50 people inside the city in order to convince Daesh, with public pressure, not to destroy everything,” he said, using an alternative name for the group.
However, not everyone shares Abdulkarim’s optimism about the possibilities of restoring the legacy that has been damaged or demolished.
Some other Syrian experts have said they were deeply shocked, among other things, by the extent of the damage in the city museum, where scores of priceless relics and statues are now lost for ever.
A expert from UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, also told AFP on Monday that she was “very doubtful” that the destruction to the city’s ancient monuments can be repaired.
“When I hear that we are going to reconstruct the Temple of Bel, that seems illusory. We are not going to rebuild something that has been reduced to dust,” said Annie Satre-Fauriat.
She also pointed out that Syrian government forces themselves did not have a blameless record when it came to looting and damage.
“As long as the Syrian army is there, I am not reassured,” she said. “We should not forget that the army occupied the site between 2012 and 2015 and caused a lot of destruction and pillaging.”
“It’s not because Palmyra has been retaken from Daesh that the war is over. This was a political and media operation designed to win over public opinion for the regime of (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad,” she added.
Satre-Fauriat also described the city’s museum as being “totally vandalized,” saying that staff there had not had time to empty the building of its collection before IS arrived.
But she said there was still hope for a huge statue of a lion that had been overturned and smashed, saying it “might possibly be recovered because it has not been pulverized.”