Over the weekend, Syrian regime forces recaptured the historic Syrian city of Palmyra from ISIS, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State’s territorial organization.
The city represented a strategic crossroads, linking Syria’s capital to ISIS strongholds in the country’s east. The group’s retreat east means that regime forces have captured territory, allowing them to move closer to ISIS’s declared capital, Raqqa.
But Palmyra, now a desert city of about 65,000 residents surrounded by palm trees, is also home to some of the world’s most valuable Roman-style ruins, including 2,000-year-old towers and temples, as well as countless priceless artifacts.
Before the war, the city, a UNESCO heritage site, was also Syria’s top tourist destination for sites like the ancient Temple of Bel, which dates back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin.
Last year, in its takeover of the city, ISIS blew up both structures, along with the famed Arch of Triumph, which was constructed under Roman rule during the late second century, calling them monuments to idolatry.
Now that ISIS has been driven from the city, we checked in with Amr Al Azm, a professor at Shawnee State University who served as the director of the Center of Archeological Research at the University of Damascus from 2003 to 2006. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Michelle Hackman: Can you give a sense of the extent of the damage caused by ISIS?
Amr Al Azm: In the last 24 hours, we’ve seen a lot more photos come out of the city, and we’ve seen a lot less damage than expected. With the Temple of Bel — the damage is extensive. That was the most important monument there, and the destruction is almost complete.
But the Arch of Triumph, for example, was partially destroyed, but most of the stones are still on the ground nearby. That’s much more feasible to put back together.
MH: The Syrian antiquities minister has said he wants to rebuild Palmyra within five years. Is that feasible?
AAA: We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. First, the city itself has to be fully secured. ISIS needs to be rolled back significantly — there’s still a fair amount of fighting being done around there. And the mines need to be removed.
Then you’re going to need to get big teams of experts out to the city to get a full damage assessment and create a reconstruction plan; that takes a long time. And I don’t think anyone will be sending their experts out there right now.
So we have a long way to go before we can even begin talking about reconstruction.
MH: How can some of these most famous Roman ruins be restored after ISIS blew them up?
AAA: With the Arch of Triumph, that can reasonably be reconstructed using a process called anastylosis. Basically what they do is they mark up the stones on the ground, and you try to figure out where they were on the original structure, and you put them back on one by one.
But with the Temple of Bel, because it’s so badly damaged — the stones themselves are damaged, they’re all in pieces — it’s not just a flat, two-dimensional puzzle you’re putting together. It really is an iconic building. It is one of the best-known buildings in Palmyra; it is a temple of the sun god.
You would attempt to go and visit the temple at dawn [before it was damaged]. And on the east face, as the sun rises, it would eventually reach that point where, even though it was dark around you — you were surrounded by stone walls — the sun would touch a particular point on the window, and it was like someone switched on a thousand lights. The whole building would light up instantaneously. Unfortunately, we will never be able to experience that again. That’s how significant the loss is, as far as I’m concerned.
MH: We know that ISIS has also looted objects from the ground and sold them on the black market. How much is lost in the way of those artifacts?
AAA: With something like the Temple of Bel, we have photographs. We know what was lost. But with looting, they are causing a different kind of damage. You’re taking stuff out of the ground that has never been seen or documented before, unless we’re lucky enough to get a look at it before it’s been sold. That’s the stuff that’s really lost — not only physically, but also in terms of knowledge, because it is information we will never know about.
I want to be clear about this. I’ve seen items that were looted from Palmyra that went up for sale in Raqqa. But I’ve also seen recent items looted from Palmyra — I mean busts and relics from tombs and from the museums. These were looted while the regime was still in control. The looting was happening before ISIS took control and it has kept happening after they’re gone. The looting just got taken over by a new group.
MH: So would you say the Syrian regime is equally to blame?
AAA: Like I said, the looting was done by ISIS and by soldiers from the regime. If you’re asking me who’s worse, I would not hesitate to say that ISIS is probably the worst enemy of Syria’s cultural heritage, in the scale and scope of looting they’ve done all over the territory in their control. And the very public and blatant destruction of sites like the Temple of Bel.
MH: How much money has this practice put in ISIS’s coffers?
AAA: That’s the holy grail. Nobody can say, and if they do, they don’t know what they’re talking about. But let’s put it this way: If they weren’t making money off it, they wouldn’t be doing it.
MH: How are antiquities experts like yourself tracking these objects now?
AAA: We track what we can. There are a number of organizations, not many, like the Day After Project, established in Istanbul. It’s a heritage protection initiative that works with site monitors, a group of young men and women, mostly activists and archeologists who live in territories outside of regime control. They take photographs; they document the damage. And we collect that information.
We’re not law enforcement — obviously we can’t do anything. But we track the objects in the hope that one day we will be able to recover these objects.