Antiquities expert on Palmyra visit: 'Syria can’t possibly restore the destroyed artifacts'

In May of last year, the Islamic State captured the ancient city of Palmyra, in Homs province. Over the next 10 months, IS fighters used the city’s ancient amphitheater for public executions, all the while systematically destroying and damaging some of the UNESCO World Heritage site’s most treasured monuments and artifacts.

Just over a month ago, the Syrian Arab Army backed by Russian air support retook Palmyra after days of intense fighting left several of the town’s neighborhoods flattened.

When antiquities expert Sara Noureddin, living in regime-controlled Damascus and working at the National Museum, heard that Palmyra had been retaken, she “felt joyful and glad,” she tells Syria Direct’s Bahira Zarier.

Three days later, Noureddin travelled alongside other archaeology and antiquities specialists to see for herself what became of the “bride of the desert,” as Palmyra is known among Syrians. Noureddin saw damage to the two main temples, the triumphal arch and the ancient cemetery.

“Specialists are still working to estimate the exact scale of the damage, but it’s around 30 percent.”

 The National Museum of Palmyra earlier this month. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Q: You were in Palmyra alongside several other antiquities experts three days after the Syrian army retook control. What kinds of damage did you see?

There is damage to the two main temples, the triumphal arch and the funeral towers. Many statues are in need of restoration. The Islamic State destroyed their faces, though their bodies are intact. 

Specialists are still working to estimate the exact scale of the damage, but it’s around 30 percent. That is because the Syrian army was able to send around 400 artifacts out of Palmyra before IS took control.

Q: Have stolen artifacts been identified? Do you think that they could be recovered?

The Ministry of Antiquities and Museums has not been able to identify the stolen items due to the large destruction in Palmyra city. In my opinion, we won’t be able to recover all of the artifacts because there isn’t a list of their type, age, size and specifications.

Q: It was recently reported that the cost of restoring historic Palmyra will be around $50 billion. Does Syria have the ability to cover those costs under the current circumstances?

Syria can’t possibly restore the destroyed artifacts. That is due to the high cost and the lack of Syrian experience. Most specialized personnel in this field have left the country, and we lack the necessary technology to bring the artifacts back to their luster and splendor.

Q: Isn’t it also true that it is not possible to restore the ruins without permission from UNESCO?

We can’t rebuild Palmyra without UNESCO’s consent. Palmyra is considered a city that belongs to all the countries in the world. It isn’t consequential to Syria alone because it represents the history and heritage of all peoples.

Q: How did you feel when you saw the scale of the destruction in Palmyra?

When I first heard that the regime forces retook Palmyra, I was joyful and glad. Once more, I would be able to see the ‘bride of the Syrian desert,’ which represents our ancient history. But when I saw the ruins that our grandfathers and ancestors had protected destroyed in this brutal way, I realized that nobody knows the value of what these ruins represented except for somebody who truly loves his country. The one who truly loves his country is the one who safeguards its history and its earth.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.