Palmyra, pearl of the desert, contains the ruins of a great city. Its art and architecture between the first century BC and the third century AD blended Greek and Roman techniques, local traditions and Persian influences.
Palmyra, or Tadmur, was known centuries before the Greco-Roman eras, and during Roman rule its oasis was a station for caravans from the Roman principality in Syria. Its importance rose because of its position along the Silk Road, linking trade routes in Persia, India and China with the Roman empire – a crossroads of the ancient world.
When it was invaded by the Daesh terrorist group in May 2015, I felt that life had stopped, that the ancient city was facing an unknown fate. The terrorists destroyed the Lion of al-Lat statue, which dates back to the 2nd century AD, at the entrance of the Palmyra museum.
They transformed the museum into a court and dungeon, and blew up two Islamic shrines near the ruins. Daesh sought to obliterate Syria’s cultural and historical landmarks. They destroyed the Temple of Baalshamin, much of the Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumph [Monumental Arch] and dozens of tower tombs.
Theft and looting became commonplace and grave robbers descended on the burial chambers to find antiquities they could sell to fund their terrorist operations.
In August they beheaded the antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad, mutilated his corpse, tied it to a pole and left it there for people to see.
Faced with this dark scene, we called on the international community to stand with us in this cultural battle.
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. Our message to the world is to unite to save Palmyra. Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali have all endured the destruction of their heritage at the hands of an ideology of extremism and terror.
Reports and images indicate that the walls of the Temple of Bel and its gate, as well as the sanctum’s gigantic door, are still standing, along with monuments along the central road, the agora, the amphitheatre, the crossroads, the citadel.
In the next few days, once the security situation is stable, we will visit the site to find out the reality of the situation on the ground in order to put in place a full plan that includes assessing, reinforcing, restoring and rebuilding, and we will breathe life again into Palmyra. We will assess the damage to the structures so we can determine what we can reuse in the restoration and rebuilding of the two temples, and when necessary we will use stones from the quarries of Palmyra.
We will issue a challenge to international terrorism, that no matter what you do you cannot erase our history, and we will not sit idle and weep over the ruins.
We have exceptional local experts in engineering and archaeology, and employ over 2,500 people still working with us, and during this crisis we have conducted numerous emergency restoration and rebuilding projects in many historical areas, including Old Homs and the city of Maaloula as well as Krak des Chevaliers, where we have completed the first part of a restoration program that included emergency reinforcement works, clean-up and sorting of ancient stones, and we will complete this year the second phase of the renovation of this great castle, in cooperation with the Unesco office in Beirut and its emergency program to preserve Syrian heritage.
We need today this international solidarity, because what brings us together is our common heritage.
I am grateful to all the international cultural organizations, scholars, intellectuals and media personnel who stood by us, and to the Institute for Digital Archaelogy at Oxford University and their partners who created a 12 tonne replica of the Arch of Triumph, which was destroyed by Daesh [ISIS].
This replica will be on display temporarily in London and in New York….
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.