PALMYRA WITH PRICELESS HERITAGE FALLS TO ISLAMIC STATE
NEW DELHI: Islamic State militants have taken control of the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, home to some of the world’s most magnificent ruins. Reports emerging from the region indicate that government troops have almost entirely withdrawn, leaving the city and its priceless ruins in the hands of the militants.
The news has led to concerns about the preservation of the ruins, as IS militants have destroyed several ancient sites that pre-date Islam in Iraq, including Hatra and Nimrud. In recent days, the militants have demolished much of north Tadmur, the modern town adjoining Palmyra, after defeating forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Hundreds of Palmyra’s ancient statues were moved out of the city as citizens in and around were evacuated, but much of the city’s valuable heritage is immovable. "This is the entire world's battle," said Syria's head of antiquities Maamoun Abdul Karim as quoted by the BBC. Dating back to the Neolithic, Palmyra was first attested in the early second millennium BC, as a caravan stop for travelers crossing the Syrian Desert. The city is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and in the annals of the Assyrian kings, then it was incorporated into the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, followed by the Roman Empire which brought great prosperity.
Even prior to the militants moving in, satellite imagery showed significant damage to the ancient city of Palmyra. In fact, it is not only Palmyra that has been damaged by the conflict in Syria -- first in the form of a civil war and now as a coalition of countries battles the Islamic State. A recent report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and the Smithsonian Institute, uses high resolution satellite imagery to examine the current status of Syria’s world heritage sites.
Syria has six world heritage sites: the ancient city of Aleppo, the ancient city of Bosra, the ancient city of Damascus, the ancient site of Palmyra, the ancient cities of northern Syria, and Crac de Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din.
Figure 1: Overview of World Heritage Sites in Syria
The report states that the purpose of the assessment was to determine the “current status of each site.” It concluded that five of the six world heritage sites in Syria exhibit “significant damage.” Damage was observed at every site except for the ancient city of Damascus.
The Ancient City of Aleppo
Aleppo has witnessed much violence. The report notes that “considerable damage was seen within the old city, including damage to the Great Mosque of Aleppo and the ancient Suq al-Madina covered market. Since then, the fighting in Aleppo has intensified, which has led to damage to multiple important historical sites throughout the ancient city.
Figure 2: Damage to the Great Mosque and the surrounding area
Much of the heaviest damage was concentrated in the area immediately south of the citadel. This area contains government buildings, such as the Ministry of Justice headquarters, a police headquarters, and the Grand Serail of Aleppo -- which was the main government building in the city under the French mandate. Other historical structures that were damaged and destroyed include the Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry (late 15th century), the Khusruwiye Mosque (mid 16th century) and the Carlton Citadel Hotel (19th century).
Figure 3: Damage to the area south of the citadel
The Ancient City of Bosra
Bosra and its surrounding region in the Da’ara governorate have seen increasing violence during the conflict. Signs of this violence is evident in the imagery of Bosra, and include roadblocks, destroyed buildings and earthen fortifications in the modern city. Within the boundaries of the world heritage site, the Roman theater, often considered the primary attraction of the ancient city, showed no visible sign of damage. However, earthen ramp construction over a staircase seemed evident.
Figure 4: The Bosra Roman theatre and nearby sites
Further, in the northern portion of the heritage site, two small high-albedo areas are visible in a pattern that is consistent with mortar impacts. A hole observed in the nearby Al-Omari Mosque (AD 720) provides further evidence that this area was bombarded by mortars.
Figure 5: Structural damage at Bosra world heritage site
The Ancient City of Damascus
The report, whilst noting that the Syrian Ministry of Culture’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums has reported mortar damage in the vicinity of the old city, satellite images employed in the report’s analysis “could not identify or locate this damage.” The ancient city of Damascus, fortunately it seems, has been protected from the violence that has impacted surrounding areas.
The Ancient Site of Palmyra
The ancient site of Palmyra and its surrounding archaeological area have all sustained significant damage, the report notes. The satellite images show new roads, flanked by earthen berms, cut through the Northern area of the Palmyra Archeological Park, and groups of military vehicles occupying fortified positions, as well as a parking area built atop the ancient city wall, which was destroyed by the construction.
Figure 6: Disruptions in the northern section of the Palmyra archeological park
Figure 7: Destruction of the ancient city wall
The Ancient Villages of Northern Syria
The ancient villages of northern Syria are also known as the “Dead Cities.” Marked by an abundance of standing archeological ruin dating back to 1st - 7th centuries, the villages are at risk because of their proximity to contested areas. Bab al-Hawa is a major border crossing between Syria and Turkey and the entry point for supplies to armed combatants throughout Syria.
Further, there is concern regarding the rehabilitation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). World heritage sites in northwestern Syria have reportedly been used as locations to house IDPs as well as armed combatants.
Figure 8: Ground photos of a tomb from the site of Al Bara in the Jebel Zawiya Archaeological Park
Satellite images also show changes to the archeological park. There seems to be a creation of two compounds: two inside the park and one outside it.
Figure 9: The creation of new compounds at Jebel Barisha
At the northern compound, 148 structures, possibly tents, were observed.
Figure 10: Tents at the northern compound
Satellite images also showed damage to archaeological sites.
Figure 11: Damage to Dar Qita archeological site
Crac de Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din.
Satellite images indicate that Crac de Chevaliers suffered moderate structural damage. There seem to be craters that have penetrated the lower part of the structure, and some damage to the northern wall. Qal’at Salah El-Din seemed to suffer no visible damage, although a single structure, which may have been temporary, seems to have disappeared between 2010 and 2014.
Figure 12: Damage to Crac de Chevaliers