- - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

AMMAN, Jordan — Images of Islamic State militants dynamiting irreplaceable Roman ruins in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra sparked anguish and outrage among scholars and archaeologists around the world.

But optimism is cautiously rising about the ability to restore the damaged sites despite the destruction of several World Heritage monuments in the complex, say some of the first outside specialists to reach Palmyra after Islamic State forces were wrested from the city.

“We still don’t know about the underground damage and the looting because of the mines planted by the Islamic State, but we can say that 80 percent of the archaeological architecture is undamaged,” Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, said in an interview.

Russian teams are clearing explosives left behind when Islamic State fighters fled the city last month.

Dating to around 2000 B.C., Palmyra flourished as a crossroads between east and west. The trading hub blossomed into one of the most significant cultural centers of the ancient world.

Mr. Abdulkarim estimated that it would take six years to restore Palmyra to its former glory. “Tourists who will visit Palmyra in the future will enjoy the historical city as they used to, even with the terrorism wounds that will leave scars,” he said.

Meanwhile, inhabitants of the modern city beside the ancient site hope they won’t be forgotten as international attention focuses on the restoration of the artistic treasures in their midst.

“Our house was destroyed completely, and mines were planted all over the city. How can we go back?” said Abu Ahmed, a former Palmyra resident.

Mr. Ahmed is living with relatives in the Syrian city of Homs, 100 miles to the west, and hoping for authorization to go to Germany.

“I would not dare go back,” he said. “We have survived miraculously. Our neighbor and his family died during their escape as he drove over a mine. It was a nightmare.”

Last week, a convoy of buses from Homs took several Palmyra residents back to their hometown for the first time since Islamic State militants captured the city in May 2015. Given the damage, unexploded ordnance and a lack of water or electricity, most stayed only long enough to check on the state of their former homes and salvage a few belongings.

Yet even the brief stopover has raised expectations.

Amal Ibrahim, a 42-year-old Palmyra native who arrived as a refugee in Sweden this year, said she hopes to go back one day. “I cannot stop my tears since I heard the news. I called some of my neighbors who went back to check their homes, and they confirmed that my house is not destroyed,” she said.

Before the Islamic State’s advance on Palmyra, the city was home to about 60,000 people. Only about 5,000 are thought to remain, according to Syrian government statistics.

Local help

Involving residents in restoration of historic sites could help heal the wounds of Syria’s brutal 5-year-old civil war, said Lynda Albertson, chief executive of the Rome-based Association for Research into Crimes against Art.

“Local people, where appropriate, should be involved in the rebuilding initiative as a means of healing of the fragmented community,” she said. “This could help the citizens of the modern city in their own recovery.”

Ms. Albertson cited the experience of Britain and Poland in rebuilding cities destroyed during World War II. “Heritage damage in wartime is symbolic of what has been lost, and rebuilding that shattered symbol is often symbolic of citizens’ own desire to return to normalcy,” she said.

Islamic State fighters blew up or damaged many monuments, including the 2,000-year-old temples of Baalshamin and Bel and the Arch of Triumph built to celebrate a Roman victory over the Persians. They also destroyed Islamic tombs and ransacked the museum. As they were chased out by Russian-backed Syrian government forces in March, the militants blew up parts of the city’s 13th-century castle, causing extensive damage.

Despite the devastation, specialists say it could have been much worse.

“The photos of the archaeological site shows that we’ve been lucky,” said Amr al-Azm, an opposition-affiliated archaeologist and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. Mr. al-Azm also founded the The Day After Heritage Protection Initiative, a Syrian nongovernmental organization.

He pointed to the landmark Arch of Triumph — which was restored once before in the 1930s — as one monument that can be rebuilt using many of the original stones.

Mr. Abdulkarim, head of the state antiquities office, said he also believes damage to the castle and even the wrecked Temple of Bel can be restored without resorting to extensive rebuilding using modern materials that might destroy the character of the ancient ruins.

“We need to assess the status of the stones, how much could be restored and how much could be rebuilt,” he said. “We are not going to build a new temple. We will restore it.”

UNESCO has approved a Russian offer to help fund the preservation and restoration of Palmyra and other cultural facilities in Syria. Other international groups are stepping forward to help, too.

The Syrian opposition is pleased the militants have been driven from Palmyra, said Mr. al-Azm, but he cautioned that the continued threat posed by the group makes talk of immediate reconstruction premature.

“ISIS repeatedly counterattacks,” he warned, using another term for the Islamic State group. “To start restoration right away is too fast. Stabilization is what’s needed right now. The city is still within reach for them.”

One monument the militants did not destroy was Palmyra’s spectacular Roman theater. Instead, the jihadi group used the second-century building for public executions.

The extremists slaughtered at least 280 people during their 10-month occupation, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor.

Among them was renowned archaeologist Khaled Asaad, 83, who was publicly beheaded by the group after helping to transfer some of the museum’s treasures to safety in Damascus before the Islamic State captured his city.

His son, Tareq Asaad, 35, who works in the National Museum in Damascus, believed the militants who killed his father were local people who sympathized with the Islamic State.

“I asked him to leave. We were worried that the Islamic State fighters would harm him, but he refused,” Mr. Asaad said. “He worked there his entire life. It was impossible to persuade him to leave.”

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