ISIL retook Palmyra: how the hell that happened?

[Jakarta, LttW] War never has a positive side, no matter how we look at it. It’s an atrocity that gives nothing but agony, revenge, destruction, and death. The life-taking conflicts and war in the Middle East and some parts of Africa have again (and again) reminded us how destructive war is.

The War in Syria has also resulted in the demolition of Palmyra, one of historic ancient civilization sites that possesses a great significance to human life. Palmyra is a piece of human history that cannot be repeated, and that’s what makes it so invaluable to the world. The ignorant ISIL recently retook the site from the Russian-backed Assad regime, and based on their previous act, we already know what they are going to do with the site; what else but to destroy it.

The retaking of Palmyra by ISIL from the Russian-backed Assad regime raises big questions. Is the site not important to the Assad regime and Russian? If it were, then why didn’t they safeguard the site once they kicked out of ISIL? They certainly have more than enough armed forces to do so. The Russian even showed a positive cultural gesture when they organized a Classical music concert on site when they captured Palmyra. While we let the Russian and the Assad regime answer these questions, let’s take a look at the importance of Palmyra featured in the article below. [Ed.]

Why Palmyra was such a spectacular and unique archaeological site

The city’s major monuments were destroyed by so-called Islamic State who took back the city this week.

by Lea Surugue, IBTIMES, UK, December 15, 2016

The ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert has seen renewed fighting in recent days after the so-called Islamic State recaptured it on 11 December.

Before Palmyra was ravaged by the war, it stood as one of the most important cultural centre of the ancient world. Its monuments displayed impressive artistic and architectural features associated with several different civilisations. It remains on the UNESCO World heritage list.

“Palmyra was worth being on the UNESCO list because it was one of the best preserved classical sites anywhere, it had a lot of unique architecture, and combined many different cultural elements, including from the near-East, Europe and elsewhere”, Mark Altaweel, reader in Near East Archaeology at UCL, told IBTimes UK.

The history of Palmyra is very ancient and goes back to Neolithic times. First mentions of the site are documented on tablets that date as far back as the 19th century BCE. However, Palmyra rose to prominence when it was established as a caravan oasis, after it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria.

While the city lost some of the former autonomy that it had enjoyed for much of its early history, it also became an important point of passage situated on the trade route between the East and the West.

It connected the Roman world with Mesopotamia and other Eastern civilisations like China and India, so it quickly turned into an important cultural hub, and a crossroads of the different civilisations of the ancient world. “It was a diverse place of traders connecting the incense route and silk road and for this reason, it was wealthy”, Altaweel added.

Palmyra was also the capital of Queen Zenobia’s Empire – the queen who challenged the authority of Rome between 235 and 284 CE.

Monuments with multiple cultural influences

The different cultural influences that shaped the city were visible in all of Palmyra’s landmarks.

A grand colonnaded street formed the monumental axis of the city, linking together Palmyra’s most important monuments such as the Temple of Ba’al, the Agora, the Theatre, other temples and urban neighbourhoods. Architectural ornaments of these structures combined Greco-roman art with indigenous and Persian influences, giving the city a very original and unique style.

Remembering Palmyra

Because the so-called Islamic State believes ancient temples and artefacts to be idolatrous, there was great concern that the group would cause significant damage when it occupied the town in May 2015. In August 2015, they beheaded the archaeological director of the city before turning against the city’s buildings.

That same month, the group released pictures that appeared to show the Temple of Baal Shamen being demolished with explosives, and in September 2015 the United Nations released satellite photos showing the Temple of Bel nearly completely destroyed. The terrorists also demolished Palmyra’s arch and funerary towers that gave it a distinctive skyline.

Archaeologists around the world have condemned the destruction of the site, saying that it was “unique and irreplaceable”. Digital reconstructions of the site may nevertheless be possible based on pictures taken over the years, allowing for the reproduction of the monuments – in September 2016, a copy of Palmyra’s arch was unveiled in New York.

Dr Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist whose studies focus on the damage sustained by archaeological sites in the Middle East in peace and war, told IBTimes UK: “The recent 3D reconstruction of Palmyra’s arch has shown that not everything is lost. However, most these reconstructions are done from tourist pictures and not from images carefully taken as part of archaeological research, so it is not known what level of reconstructions of the other buildings will be possible”.