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A Long Road to Rebuild the Damage in Palmyra, Says Yale Cultural Heritage Expert

Josh Hough
Creative Commons
Desert Fortress in Palmyra, Syria.

Syrian government troops have recaptured Palmyra from Islamic State fighters. There are reports that experts are working now to clear mines left at the ancient ruins.

Palmyra, a World Heritage Site, is considered to be one of the most important cultural centers in the world, with its colonnaded streets -- a unique mix of Greek, Roman, and Persian architectural influences -- and antiquities that date back thousands of years.

WNPR’s Diane Orson spoke with Stefan Simon, director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University, and asked about his response to the initial photos and reports of damage to the Palmyra site.

Stefan Simon: I think the initial reaction of many of us working in the preservation of cultural heritage was the feeling of liberation, and the feeling of solidarity with our Syrian colleagues, that finally that site is not anymore in the hands of ISIS, and not anymore in the hands of people who have damaged it so severely over the past year.

And I think I can share this. I was talking to colleagues in Syria, especially in the Department of Antiquities, and they were very happy for this news. And of course, we know the damage is tremendous, and of course we know it’s a long road for reconstruction and for safeguarding this site.

WNPR's Diane Orson: So the damaged monuments and ruins will begin to be rebuilt. How does that work?

Well, they can work in different ways, and unfortunately mankind has a lot experience in that. Whether you look at the reconstruction of the ancient bridge in Mostar, or whether we look at what happened after the Second World War in Germany, mankind is used to "go back and rebuild."

I strongly believe that what should happen in Palmyra, and many other sites in Syria, is a thorough assessment, a thorough monitoring. And it would be very helpful for the site and the cultural heritage in Syria if that process wouldn’t be rushed.

We also know that artifacts were ferried out of the ancient city before ISIS fighters invaded. What do we know about that?

Well, we know that literally until the very last moment before ISIS took over the site of Palmyra, employees of the DGM -- the Director General of the Antiquities and Museums -- in Syria were trying to rescue objects and bring them to safe places. But of course, many, many objects stayed in the museum.

The first news we’re getting from our colleagues in Syria is they’re slightly optimistic on what concerns the possibilities of restoring and conserving those objects.


Am I correct in that one renowned archaeologist in Syria was executed for not revealing where artifacts were hidden?

Well, I don’t know the reason, but yes in August 2015 Khaleed al-Assad, the former director of the site and the museum in Palmyra was killed in a very gruesome and cruel way. He was a very famous old man who was, all his life, for the protection and safeguarding of the site. People say that it was because he didn’t reveal the location of objects. Well, we don’t really know that.

But I think it’s also not important to speculate about the reason. It was, for us in the conservation community, unbelievable to see somebody whose work and whose life is dedicated to study and to rescue and to safeguard cultural heritage, end in such way.


Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court in The Hague began its first war crimes trial for destruction of cultural heritage. In this case, it was Jihadi leader who was accused of destroying ancient shrines in Timbuktu. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this route? On the International Criminal Court bringing to trial those who destroy cultural heritage?

I very much welcome that, and I’ve followed this news with great interest. What happened in 2012 in Timbuktu with the Mausoleum of Alfa Moya and others by Al-Queda was quite similar to what happens in the ISIS-controlled regions, whether its Syria, whether its Iraq. The destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime.

And I also believe, this is one thing which happens in these countries. The other thing, of course, is the illicit traffic of cultural artifacts which is affecting also countries around the globe. We have seen looting going on, on an industrial scale, and I would like to emphasize that this is definitely not only about ISIS.

And what you’re also I think quite rightly referring to is, what happens at the International Criminal Court is showing that the legal side of this event is also very, very important.

The Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University Institute hosts a major conference in April, with participants from more than dozen countries.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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