Should Palmyra be rebuilt? And under what conditions? No sooner had Syrian forces and the Russian Army freed the “pearl of the desert,” a spectacular Greco-Roman city with traces of Eastern influence, from the yoke of the Islamic State (ISIS), then the debate over how to restore it to its former glory was underway. Scientists, archeologists, historians and architects have all weighed in on the question, but it’s also become a source of political exploitation.
Half-way between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea, this “irreplaceable treasure” was once a wealthy hub for trade between the East and West. In the first century, Palmyra became a Roman province. With their caravans composed of hundreds of camels, Semitic tribes ferried silk, cotton, precious stones and spices from China and India, as well as Arabian incense, all sold at exorbitant prices in Rome. Thanks to this booty, they were able to finance the construction of an enormous city.
Palmyra was still among the most impressive historical sites in the Middle East until ISIS jihadists, moved by their crazed obsession with wiping away all traces of ancient civilizations, attacked it in August 2015, much the way they had previously done in Mosul, Nimrud, Hatra and Ninive. They sacked the museum and packed explosives into a dozen burial towers, the city’s two major sanctuaries – the Temple of Bel (God) and the charming Temple of Baalshamin (god of fertility) – and a monumental arch that opens onto a 1,200-meter (3,937 ft.) long colonnade, the center of this shining cultural beacon.
In this newly liberated city, should we turn the page as soon as possible to erase the devastation wrought by ISIS? Rebuild no matter the cost, with faux sites snuffing the originals out from memory? Or should we preserve this jewel —a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980 — exactly as it is, ruins and all? That last option was what was decided in Bamyan, Afghanistan, where all that remains of the giant Buddhas carved into the cliffs are the indentations that once housed them. The Taliban blew these figures up with dynamite in 2001, viewing them as idols from a past they despise, and now, their empty shells are a testament to the brutality of Afghan religious fundamentalists. In the case of Palmyra, on the other hand, political pressure has led some to fear an overly hasty reconstruction.
At the end of March, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, caused an uproar with the following statement: “The President of the Russian Federation, and the General Director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, have agreed that UNESCO, Russia and Syria will take necessary action to assess the damage caused by the terrorists in Palmyra and initiate a reconstruction plan in the near future.” According to UNESCO, Putin told Bokova by telephone that Russia was ready to send Russian experts from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to support reconstruction efforts in Palmyra.Then, on May 5, the Symphonic Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg performed Bach and Prokofiev in the heart of ancient Palmyra, in the very the amphitheater where ISIS had staged the killings of local citizens using children as executioners. The event was broadcast live on Russian television, with taped commentary from Putin.
Reactions to this offensive move by Russia were immediate. On March 27, a petition with 500 signatures urged UNESCO to “act as a neutral scientific, technical and educational organization” unifying all Syrians. Shirin, an international organization composed of 49 excavation site directors and 36 researchers, archaeologists, and historians who work in Syria and the Near East, added its voice: “To restore Palmyra, yes! Hastily, no.”
“Palmyra is clearly being used in a political manner, and we reacted to that,” said Shirin president Frank Braemer. “Putin’s video is what we typically call appropriation over an event or a site. Protesting on behalf of the community is the least we can do. We have a very good relationship with Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director of Antiquities and Museums in Syria. I am convinced that what drives him is a scientific, not political, interest in preserving cultural heritage. There is a Syrian government responsible for the country’s future and it provides a respectable service, just a like education.”
Braemer believes a rushed rebuilding effort that does not rely on the site’s existing structures would be disastrous. “We must first make a general assessment of the damage. Once peace has returned to Syria, we will be able to consider how to restore Palmyra,” says Rolf Andreas Stucky, a Swiss archaeologist from the University of Basel. “Let’s imagine for a moment that we were talking about Paris. It would be as though there were no more Notre-Dame, no more Sainte-Chapelle, and the necropolis of the French kings at Saint-Denis had been pillaged and sacked. As though the roof of the Louvre were so damaged that water flowed through all the rooms; paintings were slashed; sculptures were destroyed; and small items had been stolen. As though the Opéra Garnier and the city’s Haussmann building façades were ruined.”
In Stucky’s opinion, the damage inflicted on Palmyra is just that extensive.
On February 16, Cambodian Chau Sung Kerya – advisor to the Apsara Authority government body in the former capital of the Khmer empire – presented a document titled “From Angkor to Palmyra” to the French Ministry of Culture, illustrating how the country had restored its Angkor temples.
For the past 23 years, this restoration project has been supervised by the UNESCO International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor, an ad hoc body created in 1993 to manage contributions from various countries and organizations. The committee meets each year under Cambodian stewardship to discuss and decide on each restoration projects. Could this be a good model for restorations in the Syrian city?
“This system works well, with a technical committee that evaluates propositions and closely monitors work on the sites,” says archeologist Mounir Bouchenaki, director of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage in Bahrain. He is responsible for of 76 World Heritage sites, and is also an Angkor expert.
“We will rebuild the buildings in some cases, but we should also leave some areas in ruins to show the destruction ISIS caused,” he adds.
Pierre-André Lablaude, one of the UNESCO experts working to protect the Angkor site, says reconstruction should account for the passage of time and any particular local factors. “It’s like in medicine: we proceed on a case-by-case basis. In Palmyra, what is the state of the materials? To what extent are they recoverable? Taking inventory is the first step. The restoration business is one of doses, proportions, and subtleties. It is a matter of aesthetics, public acceptance and the poetry of ruins.”
UNESCO has indicated that a complete report of recommendations and measures to safeguard Syrian heritage will be presented in July in Istanbul, during the 40th meeting of the Committee of World Heritage.
Abdulkarim, the director of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, tries to reassure the public. “Our goal is not to rebuild the city in the same fashion as modern buildings,” he says. “That would completely go against a century’s worth of scientific professionalism.”