As the Two-Way reported on Sunday, the Syrian government says its forces have retaken the desert city of Palmyra, in the center of Syria.
The self-declared Islamic State seized the city in May of last year — and soon unleashed a wave of destruction on its defenders, inhabitants and archaeological treasures.
Captured Syrian army soldiers were reported to have been slaughtered in the city’s ancient Roman amphitheater, and hundreds more government officials, medical personnel and women and children from tribal groups despised by ISIS were killed in the streets and on the outskirts of the city.
Much of the world’s attention, though, was focused on the destruction of Palymra’s ancient ruins, and the beheading of Khaled al-Assaad, the elderly head of Palmyra’s antiquities, who The Guardian reported was killed after he refused to reveal the location of artifacts he and his staff had hidden.
The city of Palmyra is a World Heritage site, and as UNESCO notes on its website, has been inhabited for more than three millennia.
“Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria. It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilisations in the ancient world.
“A grand, colonnaded street of 1100 metres’ length forms the monumental axis of the city, which together with secondary colonnaded cross streets links the major public monuments including the Temple of Ba’al, Diocletian’s Camp, the Agora, Theatre, other temples and urban quarters.
“Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style. Outside the city’s walls are remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises.”
In June 2015, ISIS began destroying the ancient tombs at Palmyra, which as the CBC reported, were some of the best preserved examples of early Islamic mausoleums. The militants also filled the Temple of Baalshamin with explosives and, as Deutche Welle reported at the time, blew up most of the inner area of the building.
This is the majestic Temple of Bel, once the center of religious life in ancient Palmyra, as it looked before ISIS had taken over the city.
In August 2015, ISIS destroyed the Temple of Bel — and this is what it looked like after Syrian troops recaptured the area on Sunday.
But although there has been massive damage to Palmyra’s historic sites, some of which can never be rebuilt, some of the major structures remain, including the amphitheater where the Syrian army soldiers were said to have been killed.
In an op-ed in the Guardian on Saturday, the man in charge of Syria’s antiquities and museums called for “international solidarity” in a campaign to restore Palmyra: “Syria’s heritage is part of humanity’s heritage. It cannot be divided among those who support the government and those who support the opposition,” wrote Dr. Maamoun Abdelkarim. He added, “We are optimistic that we can restore this ancient city, a prospect that fills us with happiness and joy, despite the war we are still living through.”
And what of the people of Palmyra? Those who had not fled before the arrival of ISIS, and who were not executed by the militant group while it was in occupation, are reported by NPR’s Alison Meuse to have fled to the cities of Raqqa or Deir Ezzor, which are both under near constant air attack.