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In The Ruins Of Palmyra, How Many Of The Syrian City's Antiquities Remain?
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In The Ruins Of Palmyra, How Many Of The Syrian City's Antiquities Remain?

Middle East

In The Ruins Of Palmyra, How Many Of The Syrian City's Antiquities Remain?

In The Ruins Of Palmyra, How Many Of The Syrian City's Antiquities Remain?
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The Syrian army has retaken Palmyra from ISIS. The city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known for its ancient ruins — many of which were destroyed by ISIS. Scholar Amr al-Azm assesses the damage.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Syrian army and its allies have retaken the Syrian city of Palmyra from ISIS. Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the first century A.D. when it sat along a major trade route of the Roman Empire. ISIS controlled the city for nearly a year and destroyed many ruins there and priceless antiquities, and they beheaded a Syrian archaeologist who'd worked to protect them.

Now that ISIS is gone, scholars are beginning to understand how much damage was done. Amr al-Azm is a former Syrian antiquities official and an active member of the Syrian opposition. He's now at Shawnee State University in Ohio, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

AMR AL-AZM: Thank you.

MCEVERS: You have been studying the photos and videos that are being taken by Syrian troops who are entering Palmyra. Describe it for us. What was it like before, and what do we know about what's happened to it now?

AL-AZM: The site is obviously a very well-known site. It's also a very huge site. And when ISIS took it over, our worst fears came true. They initially destroyed the lesser-known Temple of Bel. They blew that up completely. And there, they also then destroyed some of the tower tombs that are found in the Necropolis to the west of the city.

MCEVERS: And so is the destruction as bad as was originally thought?

AL-AZM: As far as what ISIS had already destroyed, yes. We're also very fearful that as the offensive rolled on into Palmyra, that this was also going to really cause new damage to the archaeological areas as the fighting would rage around that - between the ruins. And fortunately for us, this did not happen. They came through this relatively unscathed.

MCEVERS: In addition to the ruins, we know that some of the damage was done to the artifacts inside the city's museum. What else do we know about that?

AL-AZM: The first view of the inside of the museum was yesterday when some of those photos became available. And it was, you know, very disappointing. Clearly, they'd gone through the museum and they had smashed up many of the artifacts and objects in there. You could see statues that had been pushed over. You could see reliefs in carvings that had been defaced, their faces smashed, other parts of their bodies just obliterated. That's unfortunate.

MCEVERS: Syrian authorities have said they will restore the ruins that have been destroyed. Is that even possible?

AL-AZM: Yes, I mean, it is possible to do some restoration. I think, for example, the Arch of the Triumph - when ISIS blew it up, they didn't do a very good job it seemed - fortunately, didn't do a very good job. There is still a fair amount it still standing, a lot of the stones that were originally part of the arch were on the ground in front of it. And I think it is possible to repair that, you know, fairly quickly.

But when you come to the Temple Bel, the situation there is really, really awful. It's going to be almost impossible to repair that. I think maybe at some point they might be able to rebuild it mostly with modern stone and incorporating some of the older stones in it just to give it a sense of the history. But it'll gone. It won't be the same monument.

MCEVERS: The ouster of ISIS from Palmyra has been praised by the head of UNESCO, praised by the U.N. secretary-general. How big of a victory is this for the regime of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad?

AL-AZM: On a political level, it's huge. I mean, this is really the culmination of months, if not years of effort both by the regime and by the Russians and by the other allies of the regime to essentially rehabilitate the regime in the international community's eyes and present it as a viable partner, if you want, particularly when you consider right now the United States and Europe's top priority is fighting terrorism, is fighting ISIS. And they are looking for allies wherever they can find them, and if the regime can persuade the international community that they are the best ally in this, then that would be a huge coup for the regime. Now, whether they succeed in doing that or not is another matter.

MCEVERS: That's Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official and an active member of the Syrian opposition. He now teaches at Shawnee State University in Ohio. Thank you.

AL-AZM: Thank you.

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PHOTOS: Ancient City Of Palmyra After ISIS Was Driven Out

As the Two-Way reported on Sunday, the Syrian government says its forces have retaken the desert city of Palmyra, in the center of Syria.

The self-declared Islamic State seized the city in May of last year — and soon unleashed a wave of destruction on its defenders, inhabitants and archaeological treasures.

A combination of images shows a general view of the Arch of Triumph in June 2010 (top) and the remains of the iconic structure after government troops recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from IS fighters.

A combination of images shows a general view of the Arch of Triumph in June 2010 (top) and the remains of the iconic structure after government troops recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from IS fighters. Louai Beshara, stringer/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Louai Beshara, stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Captured Syrian army soldiers were reported to have been slaughtered in the city's ancient Roman amphitheater, and hundreds more government officials, medical personnel and women and children from tribal groups despised by ISIS were killed in the streets and on the outskirts of the city.

Much of the world's attention, though, was focused on the destruction of Palymra's ancient ruins, and the beheading of Khaled al-Assaad, the elderly head of Palmyra's antiquities, who The Guardian reported was killed after he refused to reveal the location of artifacts he and his staff had hidden.

The city of Palmyra is a World Heritage site, and as UNESCO notes on its website, has been inhabited for more than three millennia.

"Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria. It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilisations in the ancient world.

"A grand, colonnaded street of 1100 metres' length forms the monumental axis of the city, which together with secondary colonnaded cross streets links the major public monuments including the Temple of Ba'al, Diocletian's Camp, the Agora, Theatre, other temples and urban quarters.

"Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style. Outside the city's walls are remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises."

In June 2015, ISIS began destroying the ancient tombs at Palmyra, which as the CBC reported, were some of the best preserved examples of early Islamic mausoleums. The militants also filled the Temple of Baalshamin with explosives and, as Deutche Welle reported at the time, blew up most of the inner area of the building.

This is the majestic Temple of Bel, once the center of religious life in ancient Palmyra, as it looked before ISIS had taken over the city.

The Temple of Bel, in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, as photographed in November 2004. i

The Temple of Bel, in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, as photographed in November 2004. Dominic Dudley/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Dominic Dudley/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
The Temple of Bel, in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, as photographed in November 2004.

The Temple of Bel, in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, as photographed in November 2004.

Dominic Dudley/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

In August 2015, ISIS destroyed the Temple of Bel — and this is what it looked like after Syrian troops recaptured the area on Sunday.

A general view shows the remains of the entrance to the iconic Temple of Bel this week after Syrian government troops recaptured the UNESCO world heritage site from ISIS militants. i

A general view shows the remains of the entrance to the iconic Temple of Bel this week after Syrian government troops recaptured the UNESCO world heritage site from ISIS militants. Maher Al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Maher Al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images
A general view shows the remains of the entrance to the iconic Temple of Bel this week after Syrian government troops recaptured the UNESCO world heritage site from ISIS militants.

A general view shows the remains of the entrance to the iconic Temple of Bel this week after Syrian government troops recaptured the UNESCO world heritage site from ISIS militants.

Maher Al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images

But although there has been massive damage to Palmyra's historic sites, some of which can never be rebuilt, some of the major structures remain, including the theater where the Syrian army soldiers were said to have been killed.

A view of the theater in Palmyra after the city was retaken by government troops. i

A view of the theater in Palmyra after the city was retaken by government troops. Maher Al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Maher Al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images
A view of the theater in Palmyra after the city was retaken by government troops.

A view of the theater in Palmyra after the city was retaken by government troops.

Maher Al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images

In an op-ed in the Guardian on Saturday, the man in charge of Syria's antiquities and museums called for "international solidarity" in a campaign to restore Palmyra: "Syria's heritage is part of humanity's heritage. It cannot be divided among those who support the government and those who support the opposition," wrote Dr. Maamoun Abdelkarim. He added, "We are optimistic that we can restore this ancient city, a prospect that fills us with happiness and joy, despite the war we are still living through."

And what of the people of Palmyra? Those who had not fled before the arrival of ISIS, and who were not executed by the militant group while it was in occupation, are reported by NPR's Alison Meuse to have fled to the cities of Raqqa or Deir Ezzor, which are both under near constant air attack.

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