Having gotten the Gergiev concert and the propaganda blowback out of the way, we may now proceed to discuss in more detail the antiquities of Palmyra and their future fate. Hence, returning to our original source material, if you are emotionally ready for some additional translation and discussion, then onward and upward!
Director of the Russian Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky announced on Thursday that the Hermitage is standing ready and willing to help restore Palmyra to its former glory. “As a museum with a huge experience (in this regard), we are prepared to participate in any actions necessary to restore Palmyra. We are prepared to collaborate with the Syrian officials, we have already asked from the Syrian side for a list of their greatest needs (so that we can priotize) and help them in any way.”
Step 1: De-Mining
Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was captured by the barbarians just over a year ago, in May of 2015.
And liberated a year later, by the Syrian army, with significant assistance from Russian air support and special ops; also with help from the Iranians and Hezbollah. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu remarked at a recent press conference: “Now we have the obligation to restore this world heritage site: To clear it of mines, and to secure the safety and normal working conditions for the UNESCO specialists.”
On 27 March President Russian Vladimir Putin sent a telegram to his colleague, Syrian President Bashar Assad, congratulating him on the liberation of Palmyra and promising him the assistance of Russian sappers in de-mining the city.
In the first couple of weeks after its liberation, it was impossible to just walk down the streets of the city. The ISIS terrorists, while retreating, had laid mines everywhere. Mines and homemade bombs had been left every 50 meters or so on the main roads. Sappers from the Syrian army were assisted by Russian technical specialists. Two groups of Russian sappers arrived on April 1. The Russian military is utilizing a robotic complex called “Uran-6” in the Palmyra operation. On 12 April Shoigu reported that in the first twelve days of April Russian sappers had cleared 180 hectares of territory. Then, just last Thursday Yury Stavitsky, Head of all the Engineering Troops of the Russian army, reported that the de-mining operation was fully completed.
What is often overlooked is that actual people live in the area around Palmyra, which town is known to them by its modern name, Tadmur. In the course of the fighting, normal functions of town living, such as water and electricity, were destroyed; and many homes were looted, burned or bombed out. Nonetheless, there are signs that the civilian residents are returning, and that normal, peaceful, life is resuming.
Step 2: Restoring
When the town was under the rule of the ISIS terrorists, it became a place of looting, destruction, and mass executions. The best-known victim of the terrorists was 81-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist and historian. For many years, since the 1960’s, it had been Asaad’s job to curate the Palmyra antiquities. The terrorists accused the elderly scholar of “worshiping idols” and “collaborating with infidels” (referring to his participation in international conferences). According to other accounts, Asaad refused to lead the terrorists to a hidden cache of precious relics, which they intended to re-sell on the international black market of stolen antiquities. Be that as it may, the terrorists be-headed the old man and threw his headless body out into the road. Al-Asaad died protecting the antiquities that he loved and cared for like his own children.
In the summer of 2015 the terrorists announced a “plan of cultural politics” which was the reason, or so they claimed, why they had taken Palmyra in the first place. In other words, to destroy “heathen” (pagan) works of art and relics.
Among others, the terrorists destroyed the following list of priceless objects:
- A statue called the Lion of Al-lāt. This amazing object was discovered in 1977 by a group of Polish archeologists working under Dr. Michał Gawlikowski. The roaring Lion holds between its paws a timid but loving gazelle. Notice how the gazelle places her hoof familiarly on the lion’s paw. In ancient times this Lion guarded the temple of a goddess named Al-lāt. The awesomely strong lion was Al-lāt’s boyfriend. The gazelle is Al-lāt herself, secure in the protection of her feline consort. On the lion’s left paw an ancient enscription reads: “tbrk ʾ[lt] mn dy lʾyšd dm ʿl ḥgb”
“Al-lāt will bless whoever will not shed blood in the sanctuary.”
Also on the list of undesirable objects to be destroyed by the wanton vandals:
- The pagan temples of BaalShamin and Bel. In ancient times this area was settled by a people called the Canaanites. Their main god was named Baal, or Ba’al. When the Phoenicians arrived, they also worshiped various gods, including Ba’al. In the Semitic languages, Ba’al was simply an honorific title, which meant “Lord”. Hebrew scriptures (aka “The Old Testament”) often used the term Ba’al loosely, just to refer to one of the variants of the male pagan gods. In Biblical times, Hebrews and Canaanites lived side by side and worshiped many of the same deities. Hebrews were by no means monolithically monotheistic, and in fact many of the rantings of the Old Testament prophets were directed at their own people who were perceived as too liberal and eclectic in their beliefs. Here is a selection of Old Testament verses which testify, backhandedly, to Baal’s popularity among Israelites as well as non-Israelites living in this region; for example: Judges 3:7: “The sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth.” The Israelite hardliners, just like their ideological descendants, the Taliban and ISIS, fought back against this heresy by destroying “idols” and even executing people who worshiped a different faith; for example Kings II 11:17, in a passage eerily reminiscent of the murder of Khaled al-Asaad: “Then Jehoiada made a covenant between the LORD and the king and the people, that they would be the LORD’S people, also between the king and the people. All the people of the land went to the house of Baal, and tore it down; his altars and his images they broke in pieces thoroughly, and killed Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. And the priest appointed officers over the house of the LORD.”
- Funerary towers and the Triumphal Arc built in Roman times.
- Farther to the West, closer to the Mediterranean Sea, the citadel of Salah Ed-Din (aka “Saladin Castle”) and the National Museum. The Saladin Castle dates from Crusader times and has a fascinating history. It is a mystery what could the ISIS headchoppers possibly have against this monument to a significant Muslim military victory.
- The National Geographic reported in its Summer 2015 edition about the theft from Syria’s National Museum, and disappearance of priceless Greco-Roman sculptures, ornaments and jewelry, some of which appeared later on the world’s black market of antiquities. It can be expected that some of these exhibits will end up in private collections, never again to be viewed by the public.
The VZGLIAD piece then goes on to discuss a drone that was sent over Palmyra on 28 March, to photograph the scene and evaluate the level of destruction. It is assumed that the drone belongs to the Russian military, and that these photos were taken prior to sappers and ground troops arriving. The 1:30 minute video shows a fascinating aerial view of the Palmyra outdoor exhibitions, and what remains of them. The video is embedded in the VZGLIAD piece, but I also fund a copy on youtube:
A scholar named Alexei Lebedev discussed the images with the VZGLIAD reporters. Lebedev is a “Scientific Culturologist” – his official title is Head of the Russian Culturology Institute Museum Planning Workshop. Lebedev feels upbeat about the Palmyra situation: “From the drone video we can see that a portion of the exhibits survived. The destruction is not catastrophic.”
The drone images revealed that, in the case of the Bel temple, the destruction was significant, and yet fortunately a portion of the temple, including the portal and the “Holy of Holies” survived. Of the parts which were blown up, some of the fragments are large enough, that there is hope they can be put back together again and restored.
In the case of the BaalShamin temple and the Ark, the destruction is, unfortunately, complete. Restoration would consist of a complete rebuilding.
According to Lebedev, French specialists from something called the Institute of Cyber Archaeology, have already begun to assemble 3-D photographs of the Syrian antiquities. This may be the only way left to get an accurate image of what these treasures looked like before they were destroyed. This site has been created to assist this effort.
The good news is that an estimated 80% of ancient Palmyra survived the wanton destruction of the ISIS bullies.
What Will It Take To Put Things Right?
According to Syrian experts, the ancient part of the city of Palmyra can be restored to around 70-80% of what it was. The work of the specialists could take from 3 to 5 years. The restorers will take stone from the nearby stone pits of At-Tar. This is where the original stone came from, they believe.
On 13 April Russian experts estimated the damage and delivered their report to the Secretariat of UNESCO. Syria’s Minister of Culture Issam al-Khalil, after meeting with UNESCO delegates in Palmyra, reported that “We have received a proposal from representatives of UNESCO, who offer their complete support, both financial as well as expertise, in the restoration of this great historical city, which is included in the list of cultural heritage sites.”