Palmyra is retaken from ISIS, but we may never know how much the world has lost

In a season filled with far too much tragedy there was at least a small bit of good news this week. Syrian forces claim to have retaken the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS. Given the historical significance of the site, this a welcome development indeed, but there are now new questions to be answered about how much destruction the terrorists inflicted on the region and what the intentions are of those who now control it. (NPR)


State media are reporting that Syrian government forces are now in full control of the historic city of Palmyra, which has been in the control of the Islamic State since last May.

Syrian TV quoted the state’s military command as saying it has restored “security and stability” to Palmyra, and that the recapture marks the beginning of the Islamic State’s collapse, according to Reuters.

It’s the conclusion of an operation that began earlier this week, and has been slowed by booby traps planted by retreating militants

One expert in antiquities was interviewed about this development and he expressed hope that this signals a return to some measure of stability. But at the same time, he dreads how much we’ve already lost during the year that the terrorists spent defiling the area and perhaps even more disturbingly, the intentions of the Syrian regime now that they’re back in control. (The Citizen, emphasis added)

First we need a precise record of the destruction. The Syrian director general of antiquities left for Palmyra from Damascus this evening to complete a survey. There will be two types of destruction. First, the most famous and visible, which we know about because IS made a point of showing us: the destruction of the two major Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, the triumphal arches, the seven tower tombs.

Then there will be what is not visible, by which I mean the destruction of underground tombs and everything that has been pillaged from the site.

The Syrian regime will obviously try to pin all of the blame on IS, but some of this will not have been their fault. We are well aware that before the arrival of IS, Assad’s army also pillaged Palmyra.

The tombs of the south-eastern necropolis, which were brilliantly restored by Japanese architects in the 2000s, were totally destroyed. There are photographs of soldiers carrying busts from the site.


Rescuing such an ancient, historical site from ISIS can only be a plus, but it’s somewhat tempered if the rescuers were already engaged in looting before the terrorists arrived. Assad has never been a benevolent actor on this part of the world stage, so it’s no surprise to hear that he’s been lining his pockets on the antiquities black market. Still, there’s at least a chance that some of what remains will be catalogued and preserved.

So how bad are conditions on the ground there? There have been running satellite studies of the city for more than a decade (which you can view here) and there was a disturbing amount of destruction going on long before ISIS arrived. This one photo from the American Association for the Advancement of Science was taken in early 2014 and you can see a new road being plowed right through the heart of the archeological digs, disturbed mounds (highlighted with colored arrows) and dozens of open pits which were dug into the ground.


There’s plenty of additional reading at the links above to fill you in on just how grim the situation appears to be. It’s good to see ISIS losing territory in this battle and perhaps the Syrians will be at least moderately better caretakers of the important archeological grounds. But it looks as if what’s already been lost forever may never be known. This is a different sort of war crime than the usual raping and pillaging, but it’s just as bad in its own way. And it’s not just ISIS taking part in it.



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