by Franklin Lamb
Palmyra, Syria, May 23, 2017:
On any given Monday morning, at approximately 7:30 a.m. a car carrying highly trained archeologists and two Palmyra National Museum security guards, on weekly rotation, departs the Homs, Syria HQ of Syria's Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) along the previously dangerous 160 km Homs-Palmyra road east to Palmyra (Tadmor), the site of wanton destruction the past few years. Caused in the main by Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists who insist that non-Islamic archeological sites offend God who apparently abhors any possible idolatry-if indeed that is what preserving our global culture heritage for those who follow us amounts to. "It's both propagandistic and sincere," says Columbia University historian Christopher Jones, who has chronicled the damage on his blog . "They see themselves as recapitulating the early history of Islam." Simultaneously, ISIS uses looting as fundraisers for military operations.
Since 2015, DGAM archeologists' travel to Palmyra has sometimes been curtailed and the route closed by the Syrian army given that the area just to the north and south of the highway harbored jihadists camped deep under the vast desert in tunnels as well as dug into nearby hillsides with heavy weapons. On 5/23/2017 the Syrian army informed this observer that ISIS forces have now been pushed back some 50 km into the desert northeast of Palmyra and no longer pose a threat to those visiting the ruins area. Moreover, this past month Syrian troops, seeking to expand a buffer zone north of the Homs-Palmyra highway have advanced on ISIS positions in the same area with intermittent clashes between the Syrian Army (SAA) and ISIS units ongoing. Consequently, an invitation from DGAM for this observer to join the group and again visit Palmyra, one of 300 of Syria's 10,000 archeological sites damaged and/or looted since the spring of 2011, was most welcomed.
Syria's current work at Palmyra includes conducting updated assessments of damage by ISIS during their second occupation of the ancient city which lasted for ten weeks between December 11, 2016 and March 2, 2017. Fortunately, this month's Syrian government assessment shows that ISIS damage at Palmyra is limited to the central part of the facade of the Second Century theater and to the columns of the Tetrapylon, with no new damage to the Tomb of the Three Brothers, Temple of Bel, Temple of Nebo, Camp of Diocletian, the Straight Street, Agora and other monuments. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's director of antiquities, who had already arranged the transport of some 800 of the ancient statues and artifacts in Palmyra's museum to Damascus and elsewhere for safe-keeping explained: "This time, they don't seem to have damaged Palmyra as badly as we feared."
ISIS substantially leveled most of the Tetrapylon Tetrapylon a group of raised pillars signaling a crossroads, with only four of 16 columns still standing and leaving the stone platform now covered in rubble. But again, ISIS failed to remove or pulverize the chunks of the columns such that the Tetrapylon will be relatively easily restored. ISIS also left behind most of the rubble at other sites during its first occupation. This means that approximately 80% of Palmyra's antiquities are in fairly good condition and 15% of those more heavily damaged also can and will be restored.