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In The Ruins Of Palmyra, How Many Of The Syrian City's Antiquities Remain?


The Syrian army and its allies have retaken the Syrian city of Palmyra from ISIS. Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the first century A.D. when it sat along a major trade route of the Roman Empire. ISIS controlled the city for nearly a year and destroyed many ruins there and priceless antiquities, and they beheaded a Syrian archaeologist who'd worked to protect them.

Now that ISIS is gone, scholars are beginning to understand how much damage was done. Amr al-Azm is a former Syrian antiquities official and an active member of the Syrian opposition. He's now at Shawnee State University in Ohio, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

AMR AL-AZM: Thank you.

MCEVERS: You have been studying the photos and videos that are being taken by Syrian troops who are entering Palmyra. Describe it for us. What was it like before, and what do we know about what's happened to it now?

AL-AZM: The site is obviously a very well-known site. It's also a very huge site. And when ISIS took it over, our worst fears came true. They initially destroyed the lesser-known Temple of Bel. They blew that up completely. And there, they also then destroyed some of the tower tombs that are found in the Necropolis to the west of the city.

MCEVERS: And so is the destruction as bad as was originally thought?

AL-AZM: As far as what ISIS had already destroyed, yes. We're also very fearful that as the offensive rolled on into Palmyra, that this was also going to really cause new damage to the archaeological areas as the fighting would rage around that - between the ruins. And fortunately for us, this did not happen. They came through this relatively unscathed.

MCEVERS: In addition to the ruins, we know that some of the damage was done to the artifacts inside the city's museum. What else do we know about that?

AL-AZM: The first view of the inside of the museum was yesterday when some of those photos became available. And it was, you know, very disappointing. Clearly, they'd gone through the museum and they had smashed up many of the artifacts and objects in there. You could see statues that had been pushed over. You could see reliefs in carvings that had been defaced, their faces smashed, other parts of their bodies just obliterated. That's unfortunate.

MCEVERS: Syrian authorities have said they will restore the ruins that have been destroyed. Is that even possible?

AL-AZM: Yes, I mean, it is possible to do some restoration. I think, for example, the Arch of the Triumph - when ISIS blew it up, they didn't do a very good job it seemed - fortunately, didn't do a very good job. There is still a fair amount it still standing, a lot of the stones that were originally part of the arch were on the ground in front of it. And I think it is possible to repair that, you know, fairly quickly.

But when you come to the Temple Bel, the situation there is really, really awful. It's going to be almost impossible to repair that. I think maybe at some point they might be able to rebuild it mostly with modern stone and incorporating some of the older stones in it just to give it a sense of the history. But it'll gone. It won't be the same monument.

MCEVERS: The ouster of ISIS from Palmyra has been praised by the head of UNESCO, praised by the U.N. secretary-general. How big of a victory is this for the regime of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad?

AL-AZM: On a political level, it's huge. I mean, this is really the culmination of months, if not years of effort both by the regime and by the Russians and by the other allies of the regime to essentially rehabilitate the regime in the international community's eyes and present it as a viable partner, if you want, particularly when you consider right now the United States and Europe's top priority is fighting terrorism, is fighting ISIS. And they are looking for allies wherever they can find them, and if the regime can persuade the international community that they are the best ally in this, then that would be a huge coup for the regime. Now, whether they succeed in doing that or not is another matter.

MCEVERS: That's Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official and an active member of the Syrian opposition. He now teaches at Shawnee State University in Ohio. Thank you.

AL-AZM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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