Palmyra’s recapture a blessing, but much of the ancient city is lost

Historian of the ancient world Maurice Sartre explains what Syria's capture of Palmyra from ISIS will mean

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Historian of the ancient world Maurice Sartre explains what Syria's capture of Palmyra from ISIS will mean for the UNESCO World Heritage site.

PHOTO GALLERY: Palmyra after liberation from ISIS

Palmyra after liberation from ISIS

Q: What is your initial response to the news that the Syrian army has recaptured Palmyra?

A: One can only rejoice at the ousting of ISIS, which is founded on extreme violence and organised the systematic destruction of ancient artefacts. It's a blessing both for the site and the people who live nearby. There's no question about that -- even if we know the city is now in the hands of another dictator, (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad.

Q: What now?

A: First we need a precise record of the destruction. The Syrian director general of antiquities left for Palmyra from Damascus this evening to complete a survey.

There will be two types of destruction. First, the most famous and visible, which we know about because ISIS made a point of showing us: the destruction of the two major Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, the triumphal arches, the seven tower tombs.

Then there will be what is not visible, by which I mean the destruction of underground tombs and everything that has been pillaged from the site.

The Syrian regime will obviously try to pin all of the blame on ISIS, but some of this will not have been their fault. We are well aware that before the arrival of ISIS, Assad's army also pillaged Palmyra.

The tombs of the south-eastern necropolis, which were brilliantly restored by Japanese architects in the 2000s, were totally destroyed. There are photographs of soldiers carrying busts from the site.

My fear is that we will focus on the destruction of the major sites, which is obviously extremely serious, at the expense of what has been lost through pillaging, especially those artefacts which are not known.

One mustn't forget that only around 15 to 20 percent of Palmyra had actually been excavated, and so there was an enormous amount yet to discover. All the tombs we hadn't excavated and have now been totally pillaged are lost to science forever.

Q: What purpose will the survey serve?

A: We must see what can be recovered. I've watched videos posted by journalists on the scene, and it's clear that we will likely to be able to completely reconstruct the main arch, which was bulldozed by ISIS, because all the blocks are still there.

What we don't know, however, because journalists couldn't get there -- there are probably mines -- is the state of the stones that made up the two temples. If they've been reduced to dust, as is well possible, there is nothing we can do, but if the stones themselves remain we can reconstruct the temples. It would be extremely expensive, but it's possible.

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