Palmyra: Recapture & Assessment

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Roman Theatre at Palmyra as of March 2016 with vegetation overgrowth (c) ASOR CHI

On March 27th, 2016, Palmyra was recaptured from the Islamic State by a coalition of Syrian, Russian and Iranian military forces. As some time has passed since then, we felt it appropriate to now consider the state in which the site was found to be when recaptured, and what has been done to fix this. In writing this blog post, I will be primarily drawing from the American School of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiative’s (ASOR CHI) Special Report, a preliminary assessment of the site, as it is the most detailed report, as well as a variety of other news sources.

This blog post will be focusing on the damage to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, I cannot stress enough how the actions of the Islamic State are resulting in a humanitarian crisis throughout the region. There are millions of people who have been left homeless, entire generations of families who have been lost, mosques and cities destroyed in the process of recapturing. This blog post does not in any way wish to draw away from the very real nightmare so many people are currently experiencing. It is merely an attempt to gauge what has been lost and what can be repaired from the heritage of the region. 

Status of the Monuments

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(c) ASOR CHI

Access to visual evidence following the take over of the area by the Islamic State has been difficult for ASOR and other researchers. Now that the site is under Syrian authority, representatives from the Syrian Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) will be able to provide better information, but as of now ASOR CHI has been dependent on footage from journalists, Syrian and Russian news channels, as well as DigitalGlobe satellite imagery released on March 30th, 2016.

Their preliminary assessment reveals that a few of the buildings have no readily apparent or minimal damage. These include the Terapylon (as seen on drone videos and photographers that ventured into the site), the Agora (drone video), the Baths of Diocletian (drone video, there is vegetation overgrowth however), the Theatre (drone videos and photographs, was also used for execution of soldiers in May 2015 and released as a propaganda video in July 2015), the Funerary Temple (drone footage), the Senate (drone footage and photographs, vegetation overgrowth is apparent), the Tariff Court (drone video), the Temple of Nabu (drone video) and the Camp of Diocletian (satellite imagery).

There are several monuments that did suffer apparent damage, however.

The Baalshamin Temple was destroyed in 2015, and no further damage seems to have occurred since.

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Baalshamin Temple Before (c) ASOR CHI

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Baalshamin Temple After (c) ASOR CHI

The Decumanus has a large amount of debris, most likely due to the collapse of the columns and entablature on the colonnade, as well as vegetation overgrowth. Drone footage from August 2015 of the Temple of Bel revealed the complete destruction of the temple cella. In February 2016 reports surged of the temple having been hit by airstrikes. Currently, aside from the loss of the cella, columns on the south side of the temenos have collapsed, and the modern wall on the west side to the right of the monumental gateway has also partially collapsed. Graffiti has been photographed within the temple complex.

 

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Temple of Bel Before (c) ASOR CHI


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Temple of Bel After (c) ASOR CHI

The Qalaat Shirkuh, a fortress, appears largely intact in drone footage and news channel video, however evidence of damage from air strikes and other explosives has been identified by ASOR CHI on the curtain walls and interior. Battlements on top of the walls have also partially collapsed in several locations: the northeastern curtain wall in particular has suffered a major collapse according to DGAM photographs. Allegedly, explosives were detonated at the entrance to the fortress, destroying the entranceway staircase.

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Qalaat Shirkuh Before (c) ASOR CHI


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Damage to the Qalaat Shirkuh (c) ASOR CHI

 

The Southeast Necropolis suffered theft and vandalism, as earlier reports of illegal excavation in 2014 and 2015 demonstrated. To add to this, recent satellite imagery shows additional small looting pits. The Tombs of Taibul and Artaban in particular suffered from looting. The are was also heavily militarized between 2012 and 2013. Funerary Temple S103 has been destroyed.

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Southeast Necropolis Looting Pits and Damage (c) ASOR CHI


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Southeast Necropolis Before (c) ASOR CHI

In the Western Necropolis, which includes the tombs of Atenaten, Elahbel, Kithoth and Tower Tomb No. 22, there was also damage. The tombs of Atenaten, Elahbel and Kithoth were destroyed prior to September 2015. Tower Tomb No. 22 was intentionally destroyed after this, as satellite imagery from March 30th, 2016 reveals it was reduced to a pile of rubble.

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Western Necropolis Before (c) ASOR CHI


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Western Necropolis Destruction (c) ASOR CHI

 

In the Valley of the Tombs, the Tower Tombs of Julius Aurelius Bolma, the Banai Family, Iamliku and No. 71 were all damaged or destroyed before September 2015. Satellite imagery from March 30th, 2016 showed no additional damage to these tombs. However, the Tower Tombs of Elasa, Bene Ba’a, Hairan Belsuri and No. 65, previously unharmed, showed severe damage in the March 30th imagery. While the tomb of Elasa seems to still be standing, the other three have all suffered varying degrees of harm, although they do not seem to exhibit the same features of intentional destruction via explosives seen elsewhere in the site.

The Triumphal Arch and Preserving Palmyra

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Valley of the Tombs Destruction (c) ASOR CHI


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Valley of the Tombs Before (c) ASOR CHI

The destruction of the Triumphal Arch has been known since November 2015 due to poor-quality video footage. More recently, images published by DGAM confirm this destruction. There were reports that the Islamic State tied up prisoners to the columns and blew them up, but this remains unconfirmed. Just a few days ago, a replica of the arch made of Egyptian marble was unveiled in Trafalgar Square, London. It was made by Oxford’s Institute for Digital Archaeology, and it will be travelling to various cities around the world until being set-up in Palmyra itself.

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The Triumphal Arch of Palmyra, as it stood (c) ASOR CHI


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The Remains of the Triumphal Arch Today (c) ASOR CHI

The replica of the arch is an example of how digitizing the past enables us to preserve the future, especially in a time in which it is becoming increasingly important to protect our roots.

“By using digital techniques to map and preserve monuments and other aspects of shared human history, we are able to ensure that nobody can deny history or dictate that their narrative or ideology stands above the shared story of all humanity and our shared aspiration to live together in harmony.”

– His Excellency Mohammed Abdullah Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs and The Future, Dubai UAE, Managing Director of Dubai Museum of the Future Foundation

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The Triumphal Arch Replica in Trafalgar Square (c) Eastaugh 2016


Works Cited

Cuneo, A., S. Penacho, M. Danti, M. Gabriel and J. O’Connell. March 2016. “SPECIAL REPORT: The Recapture of Palmyra.” http://www.asor-syrianheritage.org/4290-2/

Eastaugh, S. April 19 2016. “Palmyra’s Ancient Triumphal Arch Resurrected in Trafalgar Square.” http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/19/architecture/palmyra-triumphal-arch-replica-london/

Gannon, M. April 1 2016. “Newly-Released Satellite Images Show Shocking Destruction of Palmyra.” http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/newlyreleased-satellite-images-show-shocking-previously-unknown-destruction-of-palmyra

Michaels, J. April 1 2016. “Demand still high for ISIL’s stolen antiquities from Palmyra, elsewhere” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/03/31/demand-still-high-isils-stolen-antiquities-palmyra-elsewhere/82476346/

Payne, E. and H. Alkhshali. October 27 2015. “ISIS ties foes to ancient Palmyra columns and blows them up.” http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/26/middleeast/isis-pillar-executions-palmyra-syria

http://digitalarchaeology.org.uk/

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