‘How much damage has Palmyra actually suffered?'
Peter Akkermans, Professor of Archaeology of the Middle East, cannot say for certain how much damage the destruction by IS has caused in Palmyra.
‘They may have looked at what's underground’
‘What you first notice is that in Palmyra the ruins have largely been left untouched, but that the Roman temples have been blown up. That was to be expected from IS. The ancient temples are a symbol of idol worship, so destroying them had good propaganda value.' But, according to Akkermans, this is only the visible part of the location. 'We know that IS trades in plundered heritage artefacts. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they have also looked at what's underground. We'll find out in the coming weeks.'
Inventory of the damage
A team of Syrian archaeologists are due to travel shortly from Damascus to Palmyra to make an inventory of the damage. Akkermans: ‘They will need to be very careful because mines may have been planted there. Until then, the area is being monitored by drones.' But Palmyra is already the focus of attention from archaeologists. The facebook page of the Tell Sabi Abyad Project - Syria talks about how the archaeologists involved are already seeing the appalling extent of the destruction of the location via DigitalGlobe Satellite Imagery.
Intense debate on restoration or reconstruction
An intense debate is currently raging between proponents and opponents of rebuilding the monuments that have been destroyed. The Syrians themselves would prefer this option, using local stone. 'Apart from the fact that Palmyra was an important tourist destination, I can understand their reasoning,' commented Akkermans. ‘I think that by rebuilding the temples they mainly want to show that it was pointless to destroy them.' Akkermans himself is not in favour of rebuilding monuments that have been razed to the ground. 'You really have to watch out that the area doesn't become a kind of Disneyland.'
Restoration is a different matter, in his view. 'I understand that sections of the great gateway could be salvaged. If it's possible to reconstruct the gateway from authentic pieces, I would be in favour of that.' Unesco is also involved in the discussions because Palmyra is on the world heritage list. Almost everyone who gets involved in the debate agrees that restoration or reconstruction is something for the longer term: peace and security are the first priorities.
Depot plundered by IS
Before the civil war that broke out in 2011, Akkermans worked for 25 years in Syria. In particular in Raqqa, in the province of the same name, to the north of Palmyra. Since 2013, Raqqa has been the headquarters of IS. Soon after IS moved in, they plundered the depot where Akkermans and his colleagues had stored their finds. Over the past week Akkermans has given his view of the situation in Palmyra in the Dutch media.
In a week's time Akkerman will be travelling to the Middle East again, this time to Jordan.
Palmyra (Central Syria, in the province of Homs) has a long and turbulent history. The first buildings date from 2000 BC, but the region was inhabited even before that. In the course of the centuries the city has had periods when it has flourished as a strategically located trade and transit centre, as the architecture from these periods shows; the city originally developed around an oasis, an important junction on the Silk Route. But the city has also been overrun scores of times by different armies. Palmyra was under Roman influence for a long time, but later the Islamic influence came to dominate. At its height, in the second half of the third century, Palmyra had no fewer than 200,000 inhabitants, and it still covers an extensive area. In the course of the first millennium the city's role as an important trading centre came to an end and the inhabitants gradually left; having first been reduced to the size of a village, by 1932 Palmyra was completely deserted.
The destruction of recent years is nothing new. In 273 Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius largely destroyed Palmyra after the city revolted against him. Most of the valuable treasures were lost through destruction and looting, although Marcus Aurelius did take some of them back to Rome with him.