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We can still save Palmyra (Tadmur) but we must move fast

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From flickr.com/photos/34561917@N04/5515205992/: Temple of Baal at Palmyra, Syria.
Temple of Baal at Palmyra, Syria.
(image by isawnyu)
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Office of the Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Damascus

The observer has met dozens of Syrian patriots these past few years while traveling across this ten millennia crucible of civilization and chronicling Syria's Endangered Heritage. Among them, two particularly stand out in my experience. They are Syria's indefatigable Minister of Tourism Becher Riad Yazji and Dr. Maamoun Abdel-Karim, the General Director of Syria's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). I met with each of them again this past week just as the Palmyra crisis was unfolding and both are indeed not only Syrian, but also international patriots, given their work--day and night to preserve and protect the global heritage of all of us.

With respect to Dr. Abdel-Karim, who even knows when the gentleman last got some sleep, as he has become the international go to source on the current fast moving and potentially catastrophic developments at Palmyra (Tadmor). It is here, just 200 miles northeast of Damascus, and fewer than 20 miles from raging Da'ish (ISIS) fighters who have stunned the world and terrified the more than 70,000 citizens by invading eastern Homs governance, that jihadists are currently closing in on the UNESCO World Heritage site, Palmyra.

Every 30 minutes Dr.Abdel-Karim takes an assessment call from staff at the Palmyra Museum where this observer has spent time and was given tours last year of its breathtaking collection of antiquities, some having been recovered from looters, with the help of INTERPOL along with modest, but not enough, help from the neighboring governments of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordon.

Just posted Videos on U-tube on the Protect Syrian Archeology website show the fighting on 5/15/2015 between the Da'ish and the Syrian army near the Citadel. The day before, 5/14/2015, the UK Guardian presented a report showing ISIS jihadists at the gates of Palmyra while the UK Telegraph published a series of high-resolution photos two days ago. According to the provincial governor, Talal Barazi, Da'ish has now brought up reinforcements from the Euphrates Valley to the east.

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Da'ish has also carried out successive attacks on the outskirts of Palmyra, seizing full control of the town of Al-Sukhna that lies on the Palmyra-Deir Ezzor highway 65 kilometers northeast of Palmyra and subsequently attacking Al-Sukhna, Al-Amiriyah, the Al-Amiriyah storehouses and dozens of checkpoints around Al-Sukhna, managing to take complete control of the towns within 10 hours, according to sources at the scene. In nearby Amriya, Da'ish is reported to have executed 23 family members of Syrian government workers on 5/16/2015 and the same source reports Da'ish executed 26 people in al Amriya and nearby al Sukhna on 5/14/2015. Both villages are about 45 miles (70 kilometers) northeast of Palmyra.

As of mid-afternoon 5/18/2015, the threatening situation at the archaeological site is eerily calm. For the moment. A source at the scene reports that the Syrian military has forced ISIS militants to withdraw to the borders of the archaeological site and fighting is raging outside Palmyra with heavy artillery exchanges in the west of the town. Dr. Maamoun has just reported to us that ISIS has not entered the city yet, and added that "we hope these barbarians will never enter"if the militants make it to Palmyra, it will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra, and Mosul. If that happens, a major chapter in Middle Eastern history and culture will be yet another casualty of this tragic conflict.

British historian Tom Holland describes the Palmyra as "an extraordinary fusion of classical and Iranian influences intermixed with various Arab influences as well and the destruction of Palmyra wouldn't just be a tragedy for Syria, it would be a loss for the entire world." This is because Syria's cultural heritage isn't just about Middle Eastern history. Syria is a wellspring of the global culture of all of us. The consequences of its destruction could not be more ominous in terms of conservation and the identity of our specie.

Why Palmyra matters

Palmyra, is known here as the 'Venice of the Sands", an appellation applied by Thomas Edward Lawrence and others because like Venice, this magnificent city formed the hub of a vast trade network, only with the desert being its sea and camels its ships. Among the massive ruins at Palmyra this observer was shown a plaque taken from T.E. Lawrence's autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom where the archeologist-soldier wrote : " Nothing in this scorching, desolate land could look so refreshing."

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Crime novelist Agatha Christie who accompanied her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, to the site, called Palmyra "lovely and fantastic and unbelievable." And so it is--as of this afternoon (5/18/2015). But another world wonder may well be on the brink of destruction. Palmyra is in the crosshairs of militants fighting with the self-proclaimed Islamic State who three months ago severely damaged archeological sites at Nimrud and Hatra across the border in Iraq.

Da'ish and like-minded jihadists deny their destruction of archeological sites in this region are acts of vandalism or terrorism. Rather, they argue that what they are doing is honorable religiously. It is obligatory "idol destruction." In a recent article in its online magazine Dabiq it is claimed that archeological sites like Palmyra must not be excavated and restored, but rather viewed with "disgust and hatred" and destroyed because they are pre-Islamic. ISIS propaganda claims the Islamist militants should be supported, even praised, for destroying idols or false gods and that their 'work' with bulldozers and jackhammers are following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed, who smashed pagan statues in Mecca.

Among the greatest architectural monuments at the Palmyra site endangered at this hour is a wide, colonnaded street over half a mile long and the Temple of Baal, as well as a theater and the Agora. In addition, a Roman aqueduct and huge necropolises are on the outskirts.

According to UNESCO, "From the first to the second century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences." The site "represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world," UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said on 5/15/2015. "I appeal to all parties to protect Palmyra and make every effort to prevent its destruction." The site has already suffered four years of conflict; it suffered from looting and represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world,"

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Since 2013, Professor Franklin P. Lamb has traveled extensively throughout Syria. His primary focus has been to document, photograph, research and hopefully help preserve the vast and irreplaceable archaeological sites and artifacts in (more...)

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