The loss of Palmyra by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is also an ultimate loss for Palmyra itself. The historic city in Syria has recently been reclaimed by forces loyal to President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. The recapture of Palmyra by Syrian government forces on March 26, 2016, was a key victory over ISIL, which had fought there for close to a year. ISIL captured the city, also known as Tadmur, in May 2015. After retaking the city, government forces were able to use this area to launch local offensives and began reasserting control of surrounding areas on April 3, 2016.
Reports revealed that 280 people were killed by the radical Islamists while they occupied the city. During post-recovery efforts, a mass grave was discovered. On April 3, the media network, Al Jazeera, reported that the grave contained the remains of 40 Syrians. Examination of the bodies indicated that these victims had either been beheaded or shot to death.
A source told a Syrian Arab News Agency reporter that as the engineering units and groups loyal to the regime were carefully searching the area they uncovered the mass grave. Five women and three children were among the 25 bodies that were extracted. The Times of Israel reported that its sources revealed that the grave, discovered on April 1, was “a grave of officers, soldiers, members of the popular committees (pro-regime militia) and their relatives.”
When ISIL captured Tadmur it destroyed some ancient sites and used others to stage mass executions. The rebels have bulldozed ancient mosques, blown up archeological ruins, and looted artifacts. These included items dating back to King Solomon, ancient Persia, and Greco-Roman times. ISIL averred that these were used to promote idolatry and must be removed. Even though ISIL lost Palmyra, the greater loss is to Palmyra and Syria.
The 9th Century B.C.E. Northwest Palace at Nimrud, in Mosul the 12th Century Khudr Mosque, and Imam Awn al-Din holy place were destroyed. ISIL continued across the border into Libya, destroying all idols and places of worship in their path. In March of this year, the rebel fighters started to destroy sacred places and shrines close to Tripoli.
After the destruction first began in Syria, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said that it was trying to establish an Emergency Heritage Management program. This was a sort of emergency response team to save Iraqi antiquities. Stephen Bayley, a specialist in the culture of people, said: “Civilisations are remembered by their artefacts. What a fine rebuttal of nihilism to reconstruct what it has destroyed.” When ISIL first overran Palmyra, they obliterated the 1,900-year-old God Lion (Al-Lat) statue.
The Ancient Cities of Damascus, Bosra, and Aleppo, together with Site of Palmyra, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, as well as, Ancient Villages of Northern Syria are locations listed as World Heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Five out of these six were reported to have suffered massive destruction.
The outrage against the extremists was fierce. The U.N. cultural organization said, the deliberate destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage was a war crime. Irina Bokova, the director-general of this agency, accused ISIL of seeking to “deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity, and history.”
Upon ousting the rebels and retaking the city, the Syrian antiquities experts evaluated the damage. More ancient landmarks than expected were still intact and the historic ruins were in better condition than anticipated.
ISIL came, it saw, and it did not conquer. It instead, killed and massacred, pillaged and destroyed. ISIL caused Palmyra to lose a major part of itself.
By Bob Reinhard
Edited by Jeanette Smith & Cathy Milne
BBC News: Islamic State photos ‘show Palmyra temple destruction’
Daily Mail (UK): Britain Sets Indiana-Jones-Teams Rescue Relics ISIS Barbarians Threatening Destroy Forever
The Times of Israel: Mass grave of IS victims, some beheaded, found in Palmyra
Al Jazeera: Mass grave discovered’ in Syria’s recaptured Palmyra
International Business Times: Palmyra Ruins: Unesco World Heritage Site In Better Shape Than Expected
UNESCO: World Heritage List
Reuters: Syrian forces seize IS-held town near Palmyra
Photo Courtesy of Yeowatzup’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License