|Palmyra: has this ancient Syrian city suffered
a fatal blow, or will it rise again?
Temple of Bel in March 2014, and the same view two years
later. Credit: Getty Images
By Chris Ray
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald,
August 31, 2019
State barbarians almost destroyed this World Heritage-listed
site. Its wonders can be saved so why is there such
little international will to do so?
"Your heart will break when you see Palmyra, says Tarek
al-Asaad, looking out the window pensively as we cross the wide
Syrian steppe on the road towards the ancient city.
For Tarek, Palmyra represents a deep reservoir of sorrow that includes
the public execution of his father Khaled, a renowned archaeologist
Khaled had been instrumental in achieving Palmyras UNESCO
World Heritage listing in 1980.
The world stood by, horrified, while the fanatics of Islamic State,
also known as IS, took to its majestic monuments with explosives
and sledgehammers 35 years later.
We stop at a roadside store, where a young boy with old eyes is
gathering aluminium cans to sell for scrap.
Inside, soldiers of the Syrian Army guzzle sugary vodka drinks and
Its May and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when Tarek
eats and drinks nothing from dawn to dusk, but the young conscripts
are on leave and in a mood to celebrate.
Tarek buys supplies for his first night in Palmyra since he fled
the city in 2015 for the relative safety of Damascus, Syrias
Tareks father, Khaled al-Asaad, was 83 when he was beheaded
He had devoted more than 50 years to uncovering, restoring and publicising
the remnants of this historic Silk Road hub that reached its peak
in the third century.
Tarek, one of his 11 children, grew up in the modern town of Tadmur
next to the site.
Every day I would rush out of school to ride in the wheel-barrows
and buckets that carried the soil from the diggings, he remembers.
Khaled retired as Palmyras head of antiquities in 2003 but
stayed on as an expert much in demand. Fluent in ancient Palmyrene,
a dialect of Aramaic, he translated inscriptions, wrote books and
advised foreign archaeological missions.
Meanwhile, Tarek, now 38, a nuggety, full-faced man with a ready
smile, ran a successful tourism business.
Were travelling towards Palmyra from the western city of Homs,
through undulating pasture sprinkled with crimson poppies.
Bedouin herders, austere and watchful, graze flocks of long-haired
goats and fat-tailed sheep. Soldiers hitch rides on passing trucks
through concrete-block settlements edged with green rectangles of
wheat and barley.
Roadside military checkpoints mount extravagant displays of patriotism:
the double-starred national flag is painted on concrete barriers,
oil drums and blockhouse walls while banners depict Syrias
president Bashar al-Assad looking resolute behind aviator sunglasses,
or waving to crowds. Sentries who inspect identity papers are relaxed
and happy to banter.
I hope the fasting is going okay for you? asks a driver.
Were not fasting, were kuffar [non-believers],
jokes a guard, alluding to the jihadist insult thrown at adversaries.
Further along, pasture gives way to stony ground studded with pale
Remnants of the war are more evident here; burnt-out trucks and
tanks, toppled electricity pylons and fortified berms of rammed
earth crowned with barbed wire.
Near a military airbase ringed by radar stations the checkpoint
is heavily guarded and businesslike.
A Russian tank transporter going our way is a reminder that IS still
fights in the desert beyond Palmyra, where several Syrian troops
were reportedly killed this month.
While IS lost its last Syrian stronghold of Baghouz in March, small
bands continue to mount guerrilla attacks.
This is my first visit to Palmyra since a trip as a tourist in 2009,
drawn by the mystique of its spectacular architecture beside a desert
Two years later, Syria was torn apart by war.
As we approach Palmyra through a gap in a low mountain range, one
question is playing on my mind: has the remote and mesmerising site
suffered a fatal blow, or can it rise again?
Palmyra's Grand Colonnade suddenly emerges out of a sandy plain.
It is the citys still magnificent spine, a kilometre-long
avenue of towering limestone columns that slowly turn from pale
gold to burnt orange in the setting sun.
We park near the ruins and set out on foot to take a closer look.
At the Grand Colonnades eastern end, the great temple of the
Mesopotamian god Bel lies in ruins though its portico somehow
survived ISs explosives and the ornately carved triumphal
arch is a pile of massive blocks.
The invaders also blew up the tetrapylon that marked the citys
crossroads and the Baalshamin temple, a richly decorated combination
of Roman and indigenous building styles.
The theatres finely chiselled facade is a pile of rubble along
with several multi-storey burial towers that sat on a bare hillside.
On the crossroads of international trade, cosmopolitan Palmyra developed
an unorthodox and pluralist culture reflected in its surviving art
That, along with its location between the Mediterranean coast and
the Euphrates river, made it a tempting symbolic and strategic target
for modern-day fundamentalists.
Muslims lived at Palmyra for 13 centuries, establishing mosques
in structures that earlier functioned as Byzantine churches and
pagan temples, but the bigots of IS were scandalised by almost everything
Every act of vandalism was videoed for use in IS propaganda, its
shock value aimed at attracting extremist recruits and intimidating
Islamic State-released photo showing the destruction of
Palmyras 1900-year-old Baalshamin temple. Credit:
IS occupied Palmyra twice: between May 2015 and March 2016, and
between December 2016 and March 2017.
During its first takeover, Tarek escaped, but Khaled refused to
leave. I phoned my father and begged him, Please leave;
Palmyra has been lost to evil people and you are not safe,
Tarek says. He answered, Im glad you got away,
but this is my home and Im not leaving.
After six weeks of house arrest, Khaled was imprisoned in a hotel
basement and tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasures
that Tarek says never existed.
After a month in the basement, the old man was beheaded with a sword
in front of an assembled crowd.
He refused to kneel for the blade, so they kicked his legs
out from under him, Tarek says.
An online photograph showed his corpse tied to a traffic pole and
his head, spectacles in place, positioned mockingly at his feet.
A placard tied to his body labelled him an apostate who served as
director of idolatry at Palmyra and represented Assads
government at infidel conferences abroad.
Before war broke out in 2011, tourism and agriculture supported
more than 50,000 people in Tadmur.
Only a few hundred have returned, burrowing into half-demolished
buildings along streets that sprout giant weeds from bomb craters.
Tarek is not among the returnees; he lives with his mother Hayat
in Damascus, where he manages a cafe.
Russian sappers have cleared Tadmur of IS mines and booby-traps
and power and water is back on. Commerce has made a tentative recovery,
with a bakery, a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy and a simple restaurant.
Its owner, Ibrahim Salim, 45, grills chicken on the footpath under
a banner portraying President Assad and his Russian patron Vladimir
Putin. Salim says he fled Palmyra after IS killed his wife Taghreed,
a 36-year-old nurse, for the crime of treating an injured government
Security is good, so I can sleep peacefully in Tadmur now,
he says. We hope the school will reopen soon, so more families
UNESCO has extolled Palmyrene art particularly its expressive
funerary sculpture as a unique blend of indigenous, Greco-Roman,
Persian and even Indian influences.
As IS battled Syrian troops for control of Tadmur in 2015, Tarek
rushed to save the most valued examples in Palmyras two-storey
With him were his archaeologist brothers, Mohammed and Walid, and
their brother-in-law, Khalil Hariri, who had succeeded Khaled al-Asaad
as museum director.
They packed sculptures, pottery and jewellery into wooden crates
and were loading them into trucks when mortars exploded around them.
Shrapnel hit Tarek in the back and Khalil took a bullet in the arm.
They got away with hundreds of pieces, but left many more behind.
UNESCO has praised Syrias wartime evacuation of more than
300,000 exhibits from the countrys 34 museums as an
We walk to Palmyras museum. Khaleds former workplace
is a desolate shell, its walls pockmarked by bullets, windows blown
out and the foyer roof holed by a missile.
Galleries that showcased the accomplishments of millennia are bare
save for a few statues and bas-reliefs.
They are minus heads, faces and hands desecrated by IS cadres
enraged by idolatrous objects, Tarek says, adding: They
even pulled the embalmed mummies out of their cabinets and ran over
them with a bulldozer.
I find only one intact exhibit a portrait of Khaled (pictured)
by Sydney artist Luke Cornish, a work that I and Cornish assumed
had been lost.
Painted onto a steel door, the portrait is propped against a wall
and covered in a protective sheet of clear plastic.
Tarek doesnt know how it survived or who put it in the museum.
Someone must have hidden it from IS, because they would have
destroyed it for sure, he says.
al-Asaad with the portrait of his late father, Khaled,
by Sydney artist Luke Cornish. Credit: Alex Ray
No fewer than 15 employees of Syrias museum network have
suffered violent deaths in the eight-year war, but only Khaleds
murder made world headlines.
The news prompted Cornish to pay him a remarkable tribute. Cornish
makes art by spraying aerosol paint over layers of stencils.
Twice a finalist for the Archibald Prize, his award-winning work
achieves a near-photographic realism and carries strong humanitarian
In June 2016, he went to Syria to film a group of Australian boxers
on a hope-raising mission led by a Sydney Anglican priest,
Fighting Father Dave Smith, known for his use of boxing
to help at-risk youths.
Between bouts and training, Cornish held impromptu stencil-art demonstrations
for children in war-ravaged places such as Aleppo, once Syrias
The kids were fascinated by the immediacy of the medium,
he told me in Sydney.
Most were very poor and had never known anything but war,
so it was great to see them having fun putting stuff like [cartoon
character] Dora the Explorer on a schoolyard wall or along a bombed-out
Even with soldiers around and artillery going off, we always drew
a curious crowd.
Before leaving for Syria, Cornish prepared a stencil in the hope
of painting Khaleds portrait somewhere in the country.
He got the chance when the boxers went to Palmyra.
They arrived more than two months after a Russian-backed offensive
first expelled IS from the city, and a week after St Petersburgs
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra played a concert there to celebrate
prematurely, as it turned out Palmyras liberation.
The orchestra performed Prokofiev, Bach and Shchedrin in a Roman-era
theatre that IS used as a backdrop for mass executions.
Cornish chose the door of the theatres electrical room to
paint the man he calls a hero who sacrificed his life for
what he loved.
A YouTube clip of Cornish working on the painting led Tarek to contact
Lukes painting was a beautiful gesture and a very kind
gift to our family.
We think of him as our friend and brother, Tarek says.
But six months later, IS retook Palmyra, dynamiting the theatre
and posting a gloating video of the damage. Cornish had assumed
his painting was lost, too.
Im used to having my work destroyed on the street, but
having it blown up by IS is something else, he says.
beheaded and mutilated statue in a Palmyra museum. Credit:
Syria boasts six World Heritage cultural sites and all are
on UNESCOs endangered list.
Normally, World Heritage funds would be released to protect the
In Syrias case, UN support has been limited to the restoration
of a single Palmyrene statue, and training for museum staff.
A UNESCO emergency appeal for $US150,000 ($222,000) to safeguard
the portico of Palmyras Temple of Bel has failed to attract
support from potential donors.
At the national museum in Damascus, white-coated conservators have
begun the exacting job of repairing hundreds of Palmyras damaged
It is an almost entirely Syrian effort, done on a tiny budget.
We hope for more international help because Palmyra belongs
to the world, not just to Syria, says Khalil Hariri, the Palmyra
He says the fallen stones of the triumphal arch, theatre and tetrapylon
are mostly intact and can be put back together, but the museum service
cant afford to employ workers and buy machinery.
Says a Palmyra specialist at the Damascus museum, archaeologist
Houmam Saad: All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra,
Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside
Syria does anything to help.
More than two dozen European and US organisations have sprung up
to promote Syrias imperilled heritage.
They collect data, hold meetings and issue statements of concern.
One such group spent £2.5 million ($4.1 million) to erect
a two-thirds-scale model of Palmyras triumphal arch in Londons
Trafalgar Square, then repeated the exercise in Washington, D.C.
Money raised for Syrian antiquities would be better spent where
the damage was done, writes Ross Burns, a former Australian ambassador
to Syria and author of four books on its archaeology and history:
Putting money into faux arches and 3D models vaguely mimicking
historical structures does little more than salve the consciences
of outsiders whose nations have encouraged even funded and
armed, then walked away from the conflagration that grew
to overwhelm Syria.
"All the world
talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World
Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does any thing
museum archaeologist, Houmam Saad
Syria is a nation of many faiths and ethnicities that emerged
in its present boundaries only in 1945.
Its rulers have popularised a shared history as a tool to promote
national identity and social cohesion.
In 2018, UNESCOs Director-General Audrey Azoulay acknowledged
this heritage as a powerful force for reconciliation and dialogue.
She added a caveat: UNESCO would help rebuild Syrias historic
sites when conditions allow. That could mean a long
The UN has banned its agencies from providing reconstruction aid
until a genuine and inclusive political transition negotiated
by the parties is achieved.
The ban reflects the stance of the US, European Union and other
nations which have imposed economic sanctions on Syria.
The Australian government did the same in 2011 in response to what
it called the deeply disturbing and unacceptable use by the
Syrian regime of violence against its people.
A year later, the Gillard government applied further sanctions and
called for intensified pressure on Damascus to stop its brutality.
Luke Cornish ran up against the sanctions when he tried to send
$28,000 raised for Syrian orphans to SOS Childrens Villages
International last year.
Sanctions have isolated Syria from global banking and payment systems,
so the charity advised him to wire the money to its German bank
However, his Australian bank declined the transfer, Cornish says,
adding: I made the mistake of using the word Syria
on the transfer description.
The UN Special Rapporteur on sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, says the
restrictions have contributed to the suffering of the Syrian
people by blocking imports ranging from anti-cancer drugs
and vaccines to crop seeds and water pumps.
Though not endorsed by the UN, the sanctions have had a chilling
effect on humanitarian aid and obstruct efforts to restore
schools, hospitals, clean water, housing and employment, Jazairy
reported in 2018.
What, then, are the prospects for restoring Syrias endangered
antiquities, including Palmyra? Answers may lie in an ambitious
Russian-funded project to rebuild Aleppos Great Mosque.
Its a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and symbol of the
city, which lies north-west of Palmyra and lost one-third of its
famed Old Quarter in fighting which ended in 2016.
The mosques 45-metre minaret stood for more than 900 years
until it collapsed during fighting in 2013.
Today, it is a thousand-tonne pile of limestone blocks overlooked
by a towering crane.
Putting the minaret back up is the job of an all-Syrian team of
architects and engineers, stonemasons and woodworkers.
They must also restore the badly damaged columns, ceilings and walls
of the prayer hall and arcades surrounding the mosques vast
Project director and architect Sakher Oulabi, who showed me around
the site, says the workers feel a heavy responsibility:
We all understand we are doing something very important for
the soul of our city and our country.
Driving the rebuild is the Syria Trust for Development, chaired
by Asma al-Assad, the Presidents wife so the project
has considerable clout.
Nevertheless, its technical challenges are almost as formidable
The minarets 2400 or so fallen stones must be weighed and
measured, strength-tested with ultrasound and photographed from
many angles so that photogrammetry the science of making
three-dimensional measurements from images can help to determine
where every stone fits.
Materials and techniques must be as close as possible to the original:
An expert may notice the difference between new and old, but
the public must not, engineer Tamim Kasmo says.
However, limestone that best matches the original is in a quarry
outside government control, in Idlib province.
As a senior US Defence Department official, Michael Mulroy, noted,
Idlib harbours the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates
in the world right now.
Grand Colonnade, built in the second and third centuries;
noted by UNESCO as an example of Romes engagement
with the East. Credit: Alex Ray
Palmya's giant stones are as white as old bones when we
leave the site one evening at dusk.
Tarek joins friends for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan
fast and begins with dates and water in line with a tradition supposedly
begun by the prophet Muhammad.
Our driver, Ahmad, has put aside the pistol hes been carrying
in his belt.
He insists there is no prospect of an IS comeback, but says he carries
the weapon because local roads can be dangerous.
All the towns hotels are destroyed, so we bed down in a private
home and hear artillery fire throughout the night.
At dawn, a steady wind blows cold off the mountains.
A road runs past the wreckage of a luxury hotel, where guests once
dined while overlooking the ruins and below which Khaled al-Asaad
was chained for his last 28 days, to the high perimeter walls of
the Temple of Bel complex.
From here, having sought the blessings of temple deities, ancient
camel trains made the long desert crossing eastward to the Euphrates,
with merchandise destined for markets as far away as China.
At the temple entrance today, a young soldier is hunkered down in
a guard-post made from ammunition boxes and corrugated iron plastered
I was here all winter, but at least it didnt snow,
he says. He apologises for having to inspect our papers and invites
us to wait on plastic chairs while he clears our visit with a superior.
I ask about the nights gunfire. It was only the army
practising, he says, pointing to a nearby mountain with a
medieval citadel on its summit.
A decade ago, I stood on its ramparts to take panoramic photos of
Palmyra, but now it is an off-limits military zone.
Tarek and the soldier discuss welcome news: the spring that feeds
Palmyras oasis is flowing for the first time in 27 years.
The source of the citys historic wealth, it has watered settlements
here since Neolithic times.
The springs revival has come too late for Tareks family
orchard; its olive and pistachio trees have withered and died.
But he takes it as a hopeful sign that enough of fabled Palmyra
can be restored, for the prosperity of its people and the wonder
of the world.
Southeast Asian Times, September 4, 2019
First Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 31, 2019