Assessing the Damage at Palmyra
On March 27 Syrian troops loyal to the Assad regime, with the help of Russian air power and special operations forces, recaptured the ancient ruins of Palmyra and the modern town of Tadmor. The town had been captured by ISIS in May of 2015 and in August several well publicized photos were released showing the temples of Bel and Baalshamin being destroyed. That same month ISIS beheaded Khaled al-As’ad, the site’s retired chief archaeologist and hung his body from a lamp post. During the ensuing months more reports came in regarding the destruction of other ancient structures in Palmyra, some of which were confirmed by satellite photography.
Palmyra is the second major archaeological site to be recaptured from ISIS (the first was the early Islamic site of Samarra last year). It is the first site to be retaken which has suffered sustained destruction at the hands of ISIS, giving us an opportunity to examine the damage.
The recapture of ancient Palmyra is a potent propaganda victory for Bashar Assad, whose regime heavily promoted the site in the past as symbolic of Syria’s alleged stance against western imperialism and irredentist goals of ruling “Greater Syria.” The government has brought in a steady stream of journalists to photograph the ruins, leading to a large number of photographs becoming available which will be analyzed below.
ASOR’s Syria Heritage Initiative has already published two reports on the damage done to the site:
Palmyra: Heritage Adrift (February 2012-June 2015)
Special Report: Update on the Situation in Palmyra (May 2015-September 2015)
UNESCO has also published a report on damage to the site from looting and military operations prior to October 2014.
Update 4/5/2016: ASOR has released a report analyzing the new footage from Palmyra. The report offers the following:
These findings add to a growing list of damage to Palmyra. Over the course of the war the Palmyra Museum, eight mosques, and Islamic cemetery, a church, two Shia shrines, the Baalshamin Temple, the Temple to Bel, the Triumphal Arch, Qalaat Shirkuh, Funerary Temple S103, and twelve Tower Tombs have all been damaged or destroyed. Undoubtedly more damage will be uncovered as preservation experts assess the site in the future.
The Ancient Site
Russian TV channel Russia 24 has obtained footage from a UAV flying over the ruins of Palmyra:
Analysis of the footage by ASOR showed that many major structures such as the theater, tetrapylon, agora and temple of Nabu are still standing. Despite being hit by airstrikes several times, the medieval fortress of Qalaat Shirkuh on the hill overlooking Palmyra seems to have only sustained light damage.
Further analysis of satellite photographs by ASOR shows that a funerary temple situated near the tower tombs was demolished. This was not previously reported.
Journalist Maher al-Mounes from the AFP gained access to the ruins on March 27. He posted the following short video of the Triumphal Arch, which was reported to have been destroyed last September but had never been confirmed:
Al-Mounes’s photographs were also hosted on the website of the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). These images show that the arch was destroyed by dropping its middle span, leaving the columns along the sides still standing.
Al-Mounes’ photos appear to show that the theater and the colonnaded streets are largely undamaged. Reports that ISIS tied prisoners to columns and blew them up remain unconfirmed and will require a thorough on-site or satellite survey of all the remaining standing columns.
Al-Mounes’ photos also show the Temple of Bel, which was blown up by ISIS in September 2015. The doorway has survived, as was previously seen in satellite photographs.
Footage from the Russia 24 drone shows the Temple of Nabu seemingly undamaged. The Temple of Nabu can also be seen in the above picture of the triumphal arch, behind the four columns standing to the left of the photo.
The Temple of Nabu was likely left alone due to its low state of preservation compared to the temples of Bel and Baalshamin. Ironically the temple of Bel was preserved so well because it was converted into a mosque in 1132 or 1133.
There is currently no reliable information about the status of the Temple of Allat, built within the Camp of Diocletian. A picture hosted by Russia Today claimed to show that the area known as the Camp of Diocletian had been razed, but a careful examination of surrounding landmarks in the photo with maps and Google Earth imagery shows that the picture cannot show the Camp of Diocletian and must have been taken from a point along the north wall.
Update 4/5/2016: According to satellite imagery included in the latest ASOR special report, the Temple of Allat and Diocletian’s Camp have survived without visible damage.
The temple of Baalshamin is not seen in any of the new footage, but was previously confirmed to have been destroyed through satellite imagery.
There is of yet no information on the status of the Temple of Belhammon.
According to al-Mounes the ruins are believed to be littered with landmines and have not yet been cleared, which would limit the ability to make damage assessments.
According to Syrian antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim most antiquities were removed from the museum at Palmyra to Damascus for safekeeping. However they did not have time to move extremely heavy objects such as sarcophagi, which had to be left behind.
In July 2015 reports surfaced in the media that ISIS had destroyed a relief statue of a lion from the temple of Allat which stood outside the museum. No confirmation of its destruction ever surfaced. Photos released by the DGAM show the lion was broken at the base and tipped over backwards, with severe damage to the face. The pattern of damage is consistent with being knocked over by a bulldozer or other large earthmover, a tactic ISIS has used to destroy other large statues such as the portal lions in Raqqa.
Inside the main entrance hall of the museum there was an exhibit of finds from the Paleolithic cave site of Jerf al-Ajla, located northwest of Palmyra. The display featured mannequins representing scenes of the everyday lives of paleolithic peoples. The statues are missing from the exhibit and are reported to have been destroyed.
Other exhibits inside the Palmyra museum appear to have suffered extensive damage.
Numerous photos have been released of the museum’s East Gallery which housed its most impressive sculptures. The rooms have suffered heavy damage in a manner similar to the videos of the Mosul Museum, with statues being toppled from their stands and dismembered.
(All photos of the museum destruction below were released by the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency).
Standing at the far end of the gallery is what remains of a statue of the goddess Allat portrayed in the style of Athena. The head and right arm of the statue appear to have been broken off.
In the left foreground of the above photograph the torsos and lower extremities of two statues can be seen. They are also seen in another photograph. I have not been able to identify the togate figure on the right. The statue on the left was found in the Temple of Allat and is described as a “cuirassed statue of a god.” It was not damaged by ISIS, the breaks are ancient.
In another image two togate figures are seen lying on the floor in a corner. I have likewise been unable to identify them and it is unclear to me if the roughness of the one closest to the camera is a result of poor preservation or deliberate destruction.
A row of five statues of persons in Persian dress were all toppled face forwards, breaking them in several places.
Above the damaged display cases to the left of the last two images an undamaged relief showing a hunting scene can be seen.
In one image a large sarcophagus with six standing figures can be seen in the middle of a room:
A large banquet relief appears to have sustained recent damage. This item was found in the hypogium of Malku, is dated to 188 AD, and belonged to a Palmyrene individual named Be’elai.
A second banquet relief was also defaced. I have not been able to definitively identify this relief as the iconography of two men and two women on the lower register is very common:
Update 4/1/2016: New video released by Maher al-Mounes shows the above banquet relief along with numerous funerary busts. As the banquet relief is a common type with several similar examples it is not possible to identify it from these photos. (Another view is available from The Guardian)
Many photos show funerary busts which have been defaced. Since thousands of Palmyrene funerary busts made in this style have been discovered it is impossible to identify the examples from these photographs and such identifications will have to be made on site.
Finally one photo shows a number of small altars, some of which were knocked over and lightly damaged. Once again identification of specific pieces is difficult without being able to read the inscriptions.
It should be noted that there are a large number of empty mounts on the wall, and all display cases appear to be empty. The smaller portable artifacts may have been looted, but more likely they were removed by the DGAM before Palmyra fell to ISIS.
Update 4/1/2016: Maher al-Mounes has released several more photos which can be found here. They show additional views of damaged funerary reliefs, including several banquet reliefs and damaged architectural elements.
The Modern City
Al-Mounes has also posted pictures from inside the modern city of Tadmor showing devastation from the recent fighting.
During the ten months in which ISIS ruled the city they staged public executions in the ancient theater, left headless bodies lying in the streets, executed or “disappeared” numerous political opponents and in one case reportedly massacred 400 civilians at once.
Where Was The Propaganda?
What is most puzzling about the damage to the Palmyra Museum is that even though the museum seems to have been subjected to an attack like that which was done to the Mosul Museum in February 2016, no propaganda videos were ever released and no one outside of Tadmor was aware of the extent of the damage before now.
There are a few possible options. The first is that the damage to the museum was done very recently, just before ISIS retreated from the city. This seems unlikely, since early reports concerning the destruction of Paleolithic exhibits and the Lion of Allat turned out to be correct.
Another option is that ISIS simply did not record the destruction. However this is not consistent with normal practice regarding the destruction of ancient sites by the group, which have invariably been filmed or photographed and featured in propaganda publications and videos. It is also not consistent with ISIS practice at Palmyra, where the demolition of the temples of Bel and Baalshamin was photographed and published in the propaganda magazine Dabiq.
Yet ISIS also demolished a large number of ancient structures with little fanfare, including a funerary temple, many of the tower tombs, and the victory arch. Why were these not publicized?
Atypically, as soon as ISIS seized the town field commander Abu Leith issued a statement by radio on May 27, 2015 saying that their forces would limit their efforts to destroying idols but “As for the historical monuments, we will not touch it with our bulldozers as some tend to believe.” On June 25 a decree was issued which declared that “It is forbidden to move or deal in any type of historical artefacts that the brothers find in Tadmur” and “All shown to be dealing in any historical artefact from the town for outside the borders of the wilaya will be reprimanded.”
On March 28, Syrian DGAM director Maamoun Abdulkarim made a few remarks to the AFP revealing that the DGAM had launched a “secret effort” to keep ISIS from destroying the city.
“We were working with 45 to 50 people inside the city in order to convince Daesh, with public pressure, not to destroy everything,” Abdulkarim said, using another name for IS.
“Daesh saw that there would be a popular uprising against it if it destroyed everything. It didn’t steal and it didn’t destroy everything,” he said.
Mr. Abdulkarim said that in October, after the militants destroyed the triumphal arches, the Islamic State had begun to regard its campaign as potentially dangerous provocation to locals, for whom the ancient city was not just a treasure, but also a central pillar of the local economy.
Mr. Abdulkarim, who works in Damascus, said he had pushed residents to warn the Islamic State to stop the destruction, delivering the message through employees of his ministry still working in Palmyra, as well as the family of Mr. Assad, the murdered antiquities head.
“I think Daesh understood very strongly that if they continued to destroy buildings, they would be attacked by the local community,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The story that DGAM plotted a civilian uprising in Tadmor and then threatened ISIS with it in order to convince them to desist from destroying the ancient city seems unlikely. An uprising must be planned in secrecy, and therefore the act of issuing the threat would seem to alert ISIS as to what was being planned and trigger a crackdown. Strategically, in the summer and early fall of 2015 the Syrian regime had very little to threaten ISIS with.
Almost everything destroyed by ISIS at Palmyra could be classified as either a pagan temple/idol or a grave and therefore must be destroyed under ISIS’ interpretation of Sharia law. With the exception of the less well preserved Temple of Nabu and the Temple of Allat most of these were destroyed, which would seem to cast doubt on any claim to have effectively stopped ISIS from destroying Palmyra.
The exception is the Triumphal Arch, and its destruction seems to have been a turning point. Destroying the arch does not have obvious religious sanction and could have been seen as a precursor to destroying the remainder of the site. It is possible that ISIS misidentified the arch as a temple, but they left similar structures elsewhere on the site untouched, including an actual temple to Nabu situated only a few meters away from the arch.
The admission of covert contact between the Syrian government and ISIS is important. In March 2015 longstanding rumors that the regime was buying oil from ISIS blew up into the open when the European Union sanctioned regime acolyte George Haswani for brokering millions of dollars in oil and gas sales with ISIS. Later the US State Department accused the Assad regime of being ISIS’ primary customer for black market oil sales. Channels for communication and deal-making exist between the two parties. The evidence in this case is entirely circumstantial, but given ISIS’ unusual behavior concerning publicity along with the regime’s admission of contacts made with ISIS as well as their lack of leverage over the group it does not seem impossible that some sort of a quid pro quo was arranged.
If this was the case ISIS either did not publicize their destruction as part of the arrangement or they double-crossed their partners and destroyed sites anyways while trying to cover it up. Alternatively they may have destroyed the arch as a negotiating tactic.
This is all conjectural, and a better understanding of the timeline of destruction is needed before anything further can be said on this matter.
In conclusion, the new evidence which has emerged this week demonstrates damage to Palmyra is extensive and underreported. While many structures thankfully survive intact, many others have been demolished and the museum was ransacked in a manner similar to the Mosul Museum. Some one-of-a-kind sculptures such as the lion and statue of Allat have sustained serious damage. Palmyra’s tombs have been mostly demolished and its best preserved temples obliterated. Calls for reconstruction are already being made, but one can hope that immediate humanitarian considerations will take precedence.
Update: A previous version of this post suggested that the Temple of Allat has been destroyed. Thanks to a commenter below it can be shown that this photograph was mislabeled and the status of Diocletian’s Camp and the Temple of Allat is unknown.
 Adnan Bounni and Khaled al-As’ad, Palmyra: History, Monuments & Museum (Damascus, 1988), 67-71.
 Bounni and al-As’ad, Palmyra, 48-53.
 Khaled Al-As’ad, Welcome to Palmyra (Damascus: Al-Incha Print Office, 1966), 79-88; Bounni and al-As’ad, Palmyra, 104; P.J. Julig, D.G.F Long, H.B. Schroeder, W.J. Rink, D. Richter and H.P. Schwarcz, “Geoarchaeology and New Research at Jerf al-Ajla Cave, Syria,” Geoarchaeology 14, No. 8 (1999): 821-848.
 Katsumi Tanabe, Sculptures of Palmyra, Vol. 1 (Tokyo: Ancient Orient Museum, 1986), 27, 190.
 Tanabe, Sculptures of Palmyra, Vol. 1, 41, 431.
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.