At its peak, the ancient city of Palmyra was a thriving, diverse trading hub known for its grand architecture and fine arts. Since the site was seized by ISIS militants just over a year ago, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has become better known for more disturbing things: the intentional destruction of ancient architecture, organized looting that funds terrorism, and brutal public executions of civilians—including an elderly archaeologist named Khaled al-Asaad, who had devoted his life to protecting Palmyra's heritage.
On March 27, it was announced that Syrian and Russian forces have wrested control of the city back from ISIS after days of intense fighting. This is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad, but until the dust had settled one question remained unanswered: How much of Palmyra was even left?
One Syrian soldier told French news organization Agence France-Presse, “We were so scared we would enter the ruins and find them completely destroyed.” Fortunately, things aren't quite that dire. As Syrian director of antiquities Maamoun Abdel-Karim told international news organization Al Jazeera, "The news is, it's not bad, but it's not good."
The damage wrought on Palmyra's museum was the most appalling, Abdel-Karim said. Images from the site showed floors littered with shattered statues, harkening back to photographs ISIL published in July, which showed fighters smashing artifacts said to have been looted from the site. Now, Abdel-Karim can confirm that they vandalised and decapitated the heads of some 20 statues from the museum.
Mutilating statues is a powerful religious statement nearly as old as Palmyra itself: early Christians in the Mediterranean world frequently decapitated or chiseled out the eyes of ancient Greek and Roman statues of divinities, symbolically negating the power of the sacred images. One key difference from the current situation is that the ISIS militants "desecrated," like the tombstones visible in the photograph below, were largely secular in nature—they depicted the ancient city's residents, not its gods.
Why did ISIS set its sights on Palmyra in the first place? Though it's most famous for the spectacular ruins in the West, Palmyra is also a modern city that, crucially, was home to Tadmor Prison. One of the most notorious symbols of Syria's Ba'athist regime, this is where guards tortured and killed thousands of political prisoners—not just Islamists, but anyone who was outspoken against the abuses of Syria's government. The prison drew international attention for its human rights violations during the reign of current president Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad. Videos of damage done to ancient temples circulated widely outside of the war-torn country, but the destruction of Tadmor Prison in May 2015 was a bigger propaganda coup for ISIS within Syria.
While getting Palmyra out of ISIS's hands is a huge relief for those who care about Syria's cultural heritage, the fight to preserve and restore the site is far from over. The ruins are an important symbol for Assad's regime, but that doesn't mean they're safe from subtler forms of destruction. As Cheikhmous Ali, the director of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, told Al Jazeera,
"The presence of [President Bashar] al-Assad's army does not reassure me," he said. "The looting that began in 2012 before the arrival of ISIS and illicit excavations will continue even if the Syrian army takes control of the city."
Erring on the side of optimism, antiquities director Abdel-Karim told the Los Angeles Times that restoring the site would not be especially difficult: "We will hopefully need five years, no more." This estimate, of course, depends on Assad wresting control of the rest of Syria back from ISIS and other rebel groups, and on the availability of funding. For now, Palmyra will remain in limbo, not yet restored or accessible to the public, but at least out of immediate danger of further large-scale destruction. As Abdel-Karim put it,
"It's as if someone has a burned face: We did not lose the man, but we lost the beauty of the face. It will not return to what it used to be, but we did not lose the person.”