Palmyra's fame will outlive the Islamic State group

Palmyra's fame will outlive the Islamic State group
Comment: IS are poised to take the Roman ruins of Palmyra, but their capture will not mean the end of the world heritage site, says Diana Darke.
4 min read
18 May, 2015
Palmyra still occupies an important strategic site for the regime [AFP]
What a moment for the Islamic State group to attack Tadmur, deep in Syria's eastern desert. 

Tadmur, with 55,000 inhabitants, is unremarkable in itself, but on its perimeter stands Syria's greatest archaeological treasure - the Roman caravan city of Palmyra.

Known as the bride of the desert, it is the country's premier Unesco world heritage site.

The Syrian regime is fully stretched on three fronts following rebel offensives in the western Qalamoun mountains, the southern province of Daraa, and in the north in Aleppo, Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour.

Bride of the desert

IS has seized the opportunity to speed across the desert from its headquarters in Raqqa. If the offensive is not halted then it looks inevitable that it will capture Palmyra.

Already IS is reported to have captured the prison of Tadmur, which was reopened in 2011 to imprison hundreds of regime opponents. No doubt those freed will add to their manpower and help secure their target.

But what is their target? Is it really the extensive unfenced archaeological site itself, so vast it used to require three separate tickets to visit, or is it something else?

Certainly the threat to Palmyra commands the world attention that IS craves. 

Fresh from destroying Iraq's priceless sites of Nimrod, Hatra and Mosul, they have seen how effective such strategies are gaining huge international publicity.

Palmyra is significant for reasons other than archaeology.

Its location, at an oasis that became a staging post for trade routes between the Mediterranean, the Euphrates then eastwards on the Silk Road, meant Palmyra always had geopolitical importance.

For the same reasons, this is where Syria's largest military air base is positioned - Tiyas, better known as T4 - with 54 concrete shelters and two, 3km long runways.

The second and third largest air bases are located along the road between Palmyra and Damascus. These bases are where the regime launches aircraft to carry out its notorious barrel bomb campaign across Syria.

The big question now is what is the level of security for these bases, given that the Syrian regime is under strain from a series of surprisingly successful rebel attacks? 

The Syrian military has been severely weakened after potential recruits fled the country during a recent conscription drive.

They have been so desperate to avoid being sent to the frontline that they prefer to risk their lives on precarious boats crossing the Mediterranean.
     The regime positioned multiple rocket launchers inside the camp of Roman emperor Diocletian.

From the Romans to the regime

The level of Iranian support the regime has relied on is not what it was. Their Shia militias are heavily engaged in Iraq, and Hizballah are only prepared to fight along the Lebanese border.

Palmyra may therefore be very vulnerable and exposed.

At the site itself some damage was already done in 2013 when rebel fighters took up positions inside the Temple of Bel, the ancient city's chief religious sanctuary dating back to the 1st century.

The regime shelled it from the medieval Arab castle overlooking the site, felling a couple of columns and damaging its stonework in places.

They also positioned multiple rocket launchers inside the camp of Roman emperor Diocletian, and built earthworks across the main site for their tanks and heavy vehicles to pass through.

However, an earthquake could cause worse damage and one is said to be due around now.

Fortunately Palmyra has very little figural art and sculpture of the type that IS destroyed in Iraq.

What there was has been largely boxed up from the on-site museum and carefully moved to safe locations by the staff of the directorate general of antiquities and museums.

These statues and artefacts represent the great legacy of Palmyra, and its people's style of dress and fashion which illustrated the cultural fusion at this crossroads between the Roman empire and the cultures of the east - the Persians, Parthians and Babylonians.

A place such as Palmyra will always capture the western romantic imagination. But damage can be repaired.

Innovative techniques exist to recreate 3D images of the site's buildings based on thousands of photos taken by the visitors to Palmyra. 

A reconstruction could be housed at a visitor centre, alongside the damaged site, and might attract even more visitors when the fighting ends, thanks to the notoriety IS has brought it.

Publicity cuts both ways, and Palmyra's fame will outlive IS.