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Palmyra and ISIS: yesterday, today and tomorrow

Syrian government forces have recaptured Palmyra after a 10 month-long occupation by ISIS. Why did the Islamic State want the city so badly?

Syrian regime forces have regained control of the city of Palmyra, ten months after its capture by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The Islamist militants were driven out of the ancient site on the 27th of March following three weeks of intensive military operations backed by Russian air strikes and Lebanese militias.

 

During its occupation of the UNESCO World Heritage site, also known as “the bride of the desert”, ISIS destroyed numerous historical artifacts and killed Khaled al-Asaad, the 82-year-old archeologist who had looked after the ancient ruins for forty years. Along with death and destruction, it also planted at least 150 mines scattered around the ancient city, reports The Independent.

Palmyra and ISIS: the damage

A first analysis of the damage carried out by officials and experts on the ground suggests that the situation is not as bad as initially feared. Some of the archeological sites have survived, including the agora and Roman theatre. “The landscape, in general, is in good shape,” Maamoun Abdelkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, said to the Guardian.

 

However, for many it is impossible to overcome the inestimable damage inflicted as a result of ISIS’ campaign of destruction. “That can never be compensated,” according to Khaled al-Homsi, antigovernment activist and native of Palmyra.

 

The terrorist group demolished some of the site’s most well-preserved and ancient ruins, including the iconic temples of Bel and Baalshamin and 2,000-year-old Arch of Triumph, looted graves and used the city’s amphitheatre as a stage for executions.

The ideology and interests behind archeological destruction

Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria have publicly and gratuitously broadcast the destruction of antiquities. On the surface this is propaganda to discredit the “idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah,” an ISIS member told National Geographic. But at the same the terrorist group uses these very same invaluable artifacts to finance its activities.

 

Palmyra will never be restored to its original splendour. However, as we wait for a more detailed analysis of the conditions of its ruins, experts have confirmed that the longstanding local experience in conservation will be immediately put to work to achieve restoration as best as possible.

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