With ISIS Finally Out, What’s Left of Syria’s Ancient City of Palmyra?

A general view taken on March 27, 2016, shows part of the ancient city of Palmyra with the citadel in the background.

Syrian government forces (with a little help from Russia) battled for and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the grip of ISIS this weekend. The retaking of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage site that brims with ancient artifacts dating back to the Roman Empire, is a big strategic and moral victory for Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Islamic militants took control of the historic city last May, and since then the world has looked on in horror as terrorists have destroyed and dismantled monuments — with some evidence that ISIS indulged in their blood thirst by blowing up prisoners and artifacts at the same time.

The ancient oasis city of Palmyra, northeast of the capital Damascus, during a military operation by Syrian pro-governement forces. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

In the days that followed, antiquities experts and historians began their assessment of the damage. They confirmed some of the most horrendous vandalism, much of which had already leaked out from the Islamic State: the destruction of the columns of the Temple Baalshamin, a 2,000-year-old structure built to honor a Phoenician god. ISIS also vandalized and blew up the 2,000-year-old Temple Bel (below), the “jewel” of Palmyra, and also ransacked the museum.

A general view shows graffiti on a stone reading in Arabic "Shooting without the permission of the chief is prohibited" near the remains of the entrance to the iconic Temple of Bel. Photo: Maher Al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images
A picture shows on March 29, 2016, the remains of the Temple of Bel. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Despite that, historians say the destruction isn’t as bad as first feared. Syria’s antiquities director, Maamoun Abdulkarim (known as Mr. Palmyra), said that about 80 percent of the protected sites remain intact. For one, it seemed ISIS — despite some of its high-profile destructions — slowed or almost stopped the pace of its plunders. “I think Daesh understood very strongly that if they continued to destroy buildings, they would be attacked by the local community,” Abdulkarim told the New York Times.

A general view taken on March 27, 2016. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Second, ISIS sometimes failed at obliterating ancient treasures. “The Arch of the Triumph — when ISIS blew it up, they didn’t do a very good job it seemed — fortunately, didn’t do a very good job,” a former Syrian antiquities official told NPR. “There is still a fair amount of it still standing, a lot of the stones that were originally part of the arch were on the ground in front of it. And I think it is possible to repair that, you know, fairly quickly.”

A general view taken on March 27, 2016. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Palmyra’s citadel (below), which dates back to the 13th century, sustained heavy damage to its walls (though likely also from Syrian government bombings last fall), but can also be repaired. Its recapture this weekend was also a symbolic win: When ISIS took the city last May, the terrorists had hoisted its black flag above its ramparts. 

A picture taken on March 27, 2016, shows the citadel of the ancient city of Palmyra. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

ISIS also wrecked many of the statues and structures in the Palmyra Museum, but restoration is probable for many of those. Still, that’s going to take time and money — and quite a bit of it, given the scale of the destruction and the messiness of the current political and humanitarian situation. So even if ISIS’s attempts to erase history did not wholly succeed, rebuilding Palmyra will be a long-term challenge. 

A picture taken on March 27, 2016, shows heavily damaged buildings in a residential neighbourhood of the modern town of Palmyra. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
What’s Left of Syria’s Ancient City of Palmyra?