Among the major turning points of the Syrian conflict, few have been laden with as much symbolism—or geopolitical posturing—as the recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016. After a weeks-long campaign by Russian bombers and Syrian regime soldiers, the withdrawal of ISIS forces from this extraordinary desert oasis was celebrated as bringing an end to an infamous reign of barbarism.
Connecting Rome and the civilizations of the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia and the empires of the East, Palmyra had been one of the great trading centers of antiquity; for centuries, its incomparable ruins had stood as monuments to Arab glory and Levantine cosmopolitanism. Over the previous ten months, however, the jihadists had reduced to rubble its most important shrine, a soaring, exquisitely decorated first-century-CEtemple dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel, who was central to Palmyra’s religious cult.
ISIS also blew up a second temple, dedicated to the other supreme Palmyrene deity, Baalshamin; it toppled the triumphal arch on the colonnaded main street, which may have commemorated a Roman victory over the Parthians in the late second century CE; demolished several of the city’s distinctive tower tombs; and sacked the archaeological museum at the site. Most chillingly, it executed the eighty-one-year-old Syrian archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, who had for decades been in charge of the site.
At the end of his moving new book, Palmyre: L’irremplaçable trésor, which is dedicated to al-Asaad, the French archaeologist Paul Veyne describes one of the extraordinary artworks on the Temple of Bel that was lost:
Last July…one could still have seen, in bas-relief, a procession of people coming to venerate the god Bel. At the front approached the men, but behind them, huddled together, as if immobilized by the artist, were a group of women veiled from head to foot in an arabesque of billowing fabric, a beguiling and astonishing cluster of wavy silhouettes blending into each other…. It’s an abstract composition…[in which] the artist has suddenly broken with the logic of his subject and with realism. This image has no equivalent that I know of in ancient art…. What seems likely is that the sculptor, faced with all the possible styles inspired by the West and the East, has decided to amuse himself by inventing his own.
The frieze was destroyed, along with nearly all of the temple itself, in August 2015.1
But after its victory this March, the Assad regime could assert that civilization had won. Even before ISIS had been chased out, Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums in Damascus, was vowing that the temples would be “rebuilt” and that the ancient city would “rise again.” Almost immediately, world leaders and international officials clamored to take part. On the day of the recapture, Russian President Vladimir Putin was on the phone to Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, offering to help in the “preservation and reconstruction of the cultural heritage of Syria.” Over the next few days, Germany’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation offered “every form of help” to the reconstruction effort, while a team of Polish archaeologists was flown in and given a few hours to “assess” the site; and a US State Department–funded monitoring project released a report on the damage sustained.
A few weeks later, in London’s Trafalgar Square, a group of experts from Oxford’s Institute of Digital Archaeology erected a replica of the destroyed triumphal arch—designed with the aid of a 3D computer model. And then on May 5, at Palmyra itself, in an act of cultural propaganda that seemed explicitly aimed at contrasting the jihadists’ brutality with the victors’ enlightenment, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra in an open-air concert at Palmyra’s still-standing Roman amphitheater. To witness the performance, which included the Chaconne from Bach’s second unaccompanied violin partita and Prokofiev’s First Symphony, the Kremlin flew in one hundred Moscow-based international reporters—including for The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, and many other Western news organizations. (The journalists, under heavy military protection, were whisked in and out of the site as hostilities continued nearby; Gergiev said the musicians “heard explosions” as they were rehearsing.)