In March of this year, the Syrian army retook Palmyra, once dubbed the “Bride of the Desert,” ending nearly a year of occupation and destruction by the Islamic State.
That year resulted in the destruction of some of the ancient city’s most precious sites, including its triumphal arch, temples, tower tombs, and the artifacts once displayed in its museum. Islamic State militants bombed most of the major sites, and used the city’s theater to carry out public executions of its opponents, including, in August of last year, the beheading of Khaled Al-Asaad, the 82-year-old retired antiquities chief at Palmyra.
Located northeast of Damascus, Palmyra is one of the most significant cultural centers of the ancient world. It stood at the crossroads of several civilizations during the first and second centuries and is a UNESCO World Heritage Center. Archaeologists and conservation experts are now deeply concerned about the site’s current state and the prospects for restoring it to its former glory.
Assessments of the damage Palmyra had suffered, and plans for restoration, began immediately after Islamic State was driven out. Lina Kutiefan, director of the World Heritage Sites Management and Foreign Cooperation Directorate, told Al-Fanar Media that the situation is not as grim as it could be.
“Reports and photos show that the ruins are, for the most part, in good condition, including the theatre, the agora, the tetrapylon, and the 1.1-km great colonnade,” she said. Some staff members of the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums made field visits to the site during a critical period for stabilization, according to Kutiefan.
The experts “including archaeologists, architects, and engineers—started documentation of the current situation mainly the Sella of Bel Temple, Baalshamin Temple, the Triumphal Arch, the tower tombs, and Athina Al-Lat Lion Statue in the museum,” she said. “They are using advanced techniques to put together the information that will be necessary for restoration, and they are preparing an action plan for the recovery phase based on international standards that give priority to the authenticity of the site.”
Based on these early assessments, and information coming in from site visitors, media reports, and satellite imagery, the condition of the monuments is fairly good. A restoration that preserves original structures is quite possible, with no need for full reconstructions, said Kutiefan. “The standing platform, with its stairs and monumental portal, wall foundations, and several arcade columns, is intact,” she said.
Full assessment, documentation, and restoration plans could be delayed, however, due to the ongoing war and the danger of hidden mines at the site.
“We need more time to assess the full extent of the damage in Palmyra,” said Kutiefan. “The Syrian army is in the process of dismantling explosive booby traps planted by ISIS, and we are still waiting for its clearance to enter the site.”
Doing the reconstruction work properly will require significant funding and international cooperation—and patience.
Emily Porter, an Iraqi-British archaeologist, artist and novelist based stressed that “The first step is to be careful to not remove or move anything from the site, however minor it may seem, and to visually document every minute detail—both destroyed and intact—through photographs from various perspectives. Then comes the role of forensics, to determine the methods and tools used in carrying out the destruction. After that, the photographs will be compared with the available archive, which is a time-consuming process.”
“We do not need to hurry,” added Porter, who has volunteered her time to work at the site to do the photographic documentation. “We should work patiently, and a rich archive is available, as Palmyra was a globally famous heritage site.”
The current situation could, however, complicate restoration efforts.
Barnadet Hanna Almaslob, an Iraqi archaeologist and former curator of the Cultural Museum of Mosul, said: “The work presents several challenges. Firstly, the site is not entirely safe, with ISIS close to it. Also, a restoration or reconstruction plan needs a thorough acknowledgment of the site’s status and the extent of the destruction. And most importantly, there must be strong cooperation with UNESCO and archaeological conservation and restoration experts.”
Nevertheless, work has already begun, with the first units of Russian demining experts arriving in Palmyra, and a Polish archaeological team that is restoring damaged statues in the museum. The Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology has been intermittently working at the site since late 1950s. Scholars from other countries have also offered to help, and collaboration with local experts will be key.
“The next phase includes restoring the city and doing everything that can be done,” said Zachariah Mouvas, a Syrian archaeologist. “This includes engaging the DGAM and museum staff members, as well as our master’s program students. Our spirits are high, and the students are eager to work once the neighboring villages are safe to enter and the site has been de-mined. We are eager to be on ground soon.”
While at this point many experts believe that full rebuilding of the destroyed monuments will not be necessary, Palmyra’s preservation for future generations could very well benefit from the availability of 3D digital reconstruction.
“Recently, the safeguarding, protection and preservation of archaeological sites has gained a powerful tool, thanks to the potential of immersive visualization and 3D reconstruction,” said Kutiefan. “We are glad to share this technology with our international partners to bring life back to Palmyra, as a message of peace against terrorism.”