Palmyrenes: Risking their lives to preserve our Global Cultural Heritage
Palmyra, Homs Governorate, Syria
This observer, seemingly ever miscalculates life's realities. For example, he deluded himself recently into believing that Hezbollah guys were about the wildest, luckiest and fastest drivers from the archeological sites in Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, or for a fast trip from the charming village of Britel, to Beirut's southern suburbs. Even if one takes a public passenger van (the fare is just $ 7.50) and the driver is pro-Resistance, which he usually is, the trip takes only a bit more than half the time than with a more "normal" Lebanese van driver. But these "H guys" as Americans living in Dahiyeh, often refer to them; remind one of some of the more snail-paced rural southern Iowan Sunday drivers compared to how some Syrian taxis drive these days, particularly at night, on the main highways of Syria, as I was just reminded.
During another 20-hour day (3/28/14) at certain critical moments dominated by my border-line insane, but disarmingly charming, taxi driver who I hired. The day began OK as we set out from Damascus at dawn for Palmyra, designated in 1980, as one of six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria and located deep in the Syrian Desert. We were advised to take the M-5 Damascus to Homs highway and then head west toward Iraq even though it is more than 100 kilometers longer than the normal Damascus route to the archeological site. For many centuries, Palmyra (oasis with Palms) was a vital caravan stop for travelers crossing the Syrian Desert and it earned the title, Bride of the Desert for its beauty. In pre-crisis days when there were actually real tourists around here, hundreds a day would visit Palmyra's archeological sites and tour buses used to take my preferred route. But nowadays Daish and Jabhat al Nusra types have cut the road and no way would this observer's driver (or the Syrian army) agree to this shorter more direct route so I kept quiet.
Honored to be allowed to visit Syria's damaged archeological sites during the current crisis, as part of a fascinating research project and often accompanied by Syrian army security, spending time touring Palmyra, founded during the 2nd millennium BC, with its Bronze Age to Ottoman Period antiquities, and its Greek, Roman and Arabic cultural artifacts is deeply inspiring. But no less inspiring, on a human level, in this cradle of civilization, is the dedication, painstaking and sometimes dangerous work, of the Syrian people to preserve, protect, and reconstruct, where possible, Patrimoine Syrient. The latter is also our Global Heritage of which the Syrian people are the custodians.
As is being increasingly well documented to the great credit of Syria's Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) of the Ministry of Culture, hundreds of Syrian World Heritage sites, including those listed by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as warranting international protections, are being threatened, damaged and in some cases substantially destroyed.
Palmyra's Temple of Bel. For ten months Jabhad al Nusra snipers fired at will from atop this structure into the adjoining village of old Palmyra while doing substantial damage to this UNESCO Global Cultural Heritage site, one of six in Syria. (photo flamb 3/27/14)
In Homs Governorate, one of 14 Administrative Districts in Syria, there is extensive damage ranging from the Old City of Homs to the recently liberated Roman fortress, Crac des Chevaliers, 100 km west to Homs, and on to Palmyra, 200 km to east of Homs toward the Iraqi border. For ten months occupied by Islamist rebels but now it's pretty much under Syrian army control. Even further east is Raqaa in the eastern Syria, near Iraq and reported to be under harsh, often drug fueled, Daish rule. Many other damaged antiquity sites still cannot be visited by representatives of the Ministry of Cultures Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) due to rebel control.
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