Palmyra’s archaeological heritage under ISIS attack


ISIS militants, Palmyra. File photo

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has confirmed the destruction of Palmyra’s famed tetrapylon and the facade of the ancient Syrian city’s Roman theatre.

Condemning the destruction at Palmyra, the UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova said: “this destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.”

She noted that this “new blow against cultural heritage, just a few hours after UNESCO received reports about mass executions in the theatre, shows that cultural cleansing led by violent extremists is seeking to destroy both human lives and historical monuments in order to deprive the Syrian people of its past and its future.”

“The tetrapylon was an architectural symbol of the spirit of the encounter and openness of Palmyra – and this is also one of the reasons why it has been destroyed. Its position and shape are unique in ancient architecture and testified to the specificity of Palmyrene identity, as a source of pride and dignity for all Syrians today,” declared the Director-General.

Palmyra’s theatre, dating from the 2nd century AD and was built in the centre of a semicircular colonnaded piazza located to the southwest of the main colonnaded street. UN analysis of satellite imagery shows damage at its formerly well-preserved proscenium wall, which was decorated with ten curved and nine rectangular niches placed alternately.

Satalite image analysis of damage to Palmyra’s Roman Tetrapylon and Amphitheatre. Image: UNITAR

In a response to the already known destruction, and after taking note of the recent detailed devastating findings of the emergency mission, Ms Bokova said “this situation calls for immediate action and the highest sense of responsibility and coordination.”

“I call on all parties to refrain from targeting cultural monuments and educational institutions, in accordance with international and humanitarian law,” stressed Ms Bokova, adding that “culture and education should never be taken hostage of conflict – we must unite to protect them.”

On December 11, 2016, the ISIS hardline group recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra in Homs Governorate. Activists and military sources confirmed the rout, reporting that the Syrian army had been forced to withdraw under fire. “The army withdrew after the clashes reached the city center and it became impossible for them to push ISIS back,” local media activist Abas al-Omar told ARA News.

Russia had supported the Syrian Army in Palmyra, with airstrikes and logistical support but their efforts were apparently insufficient to save the city.

ISIS first took over Palmyra in May 2015, following  a protracted battle with regime forces. The Islamic State’s occupation was exceptionally brutal, even by the standards of Syria’s 5-year-long conflict.


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