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The Warsaw Voice » Society » July 13, 2016
Archeology
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What’s Next for Palmyra?
July 13, 2016   
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Polish specialists representing the University of Warsaw’s Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology (PCMA) visited Palmyra a few days after its recapture by Syrian government forces.

They did so at the request of the Syrian Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums, which asked them to urgently come to Palmyra to assess damage to objects they had excavated and conserved before the so-called Islamic State seized Palmyra in May 2015.

The Polish archeologists were in the middle of preparations for an exhibition entitled Endangered Heritage: Syria and Iraq in the Research of the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology when they were asked to come to Palmyra.

“Organizing the exhibition … we expected to be telling the story of our excavation and conservation projects suspended in 2011 with the advent of the Syrian civil war,” the center said in a statement. “The takeover of Palmyra from the Daesh by government forces a few days ago changed that. With fresh news on the situation in Palmyra, the scene of almost half a century of Polish archaeological research, representatives of the Syrian Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums approached the PCMA to send experts urgently to Palmyra to assess the damage to objects excavated and conserved by our mission.”

Conservator Bartosz Markowski and archaeologist Robert Żukowski arrived in Palmyra on April 8 and stayed there until April 14.

Photographs showing the destruction of Palmyra and of the museum left no doubt that urgent action was needed. Archaeologists and conservators with an expert knowledge of the Palmyra collection were needed to help identify and secure fragments of individual objects with a look to their future reconstruction. Many of these objects came from PCMA excavations, and Markowski had arranged the display in the exhibition halls. A decade ago he had also reconstructed the Lion of Allat, one of the most recognizable symbols of Palmyra.

According to Markowski and Żukowski, “The museum building has been devastated and seriously damaged in the fighting. The equipment in the rooms has been completely destroyed; there are no windows, the ceiling panels have caved in, the furniture is broken, and the display cases are overturned and lying on the floor. Most of the museum objects have been damaged. The most affected are the sculptures and reliefs on the ground floor. The faces and hands of portrait statues were especially targeted on ideological grounds. The scale of the destruction is unprecedented: of the roughly 200 exhibited portraits, only four have survived unscathed. Statues and larger funerary reliefs were thrown down and broken.

“We have protected the damaged sculptures on the ground floor, where most of the collection was housed. The rooms have been cleared of glass and rubble. Sculpture fragments recovered from the rubble have been matched to sculptures and stored in cardboard boxes. Whenever possible, the recovered face fragments and larger pieces were reattached with a handy supply of conservation materials brought specifically for the purpose.”

Masterpieces discovered by the Polish mission were also damaged. The sculpture of Athena-Allat was decapitated, its arms broken off and the folds of the robes and facial features hammered. The monumental Lion of Allat, conserved by the PCMA mission a decade ago, was toppled with a bulldozer, breaking the reinforced concrete support structure. The muzzle and other details of the sculpture had been smashed to pieces. The recovered fragments of these sculptures will be refitted once conservation begins.

Tomasz Waliszewski, Ph.D., director of the PCMA, said, “We decided to send our experts to Palmyra reacting to the specific needs of our Syrian partners protecting the cultural and archaeological heritage of their country. Being part of the international community of archaeologists and conservators, we have been monitoring the situation in Palmyra with dismay. There is an urgent need now to help in the damage assessment of objects in the archaeological museum. The long-lasting presence of Polish scholars in Palmyra made this a necessity from our point of view. Our teams from the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology worked there from 1959 until 2011, and have contributed many important discoveries stimulating research on this unique oasis city.

“Our Syrian partners are currently defining the most urgent needs in the situation. On our part, we are considering a Polish contribution to the preservation of Palmyra’s monuments. Our archaeological and conservation experts could participate in the revival of the Palmyra Museum. Their work could involve cooperation in inventorying the damage, conservation of objects and initial arrangement of the exhibition halls. These actions are scientific and cultural in essence, but they will also benefit the residents of Palmyra.”

The Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw has coordinated Polish archaeological research in the Eastern Mediterranean since 1959 (since 1990 under its present name). In recent years it has broadened its scope of interest to include the Arabian Peninsula and the Caucasus. At the moment, it is involved in about 30 archeological projects in Egypt, Sudan, Cyprus, Lebanon, Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Georgia and Armenia.

FACTFILE
Palmyra is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage site in present-day Syria. It hosts some of the world’s best preserved ruins of antiquity.

An oasis in the Syrian desert northeast of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world, according to UNESCO. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences, UNESCO says.

In recent months Palmyra gained worldwide attention after it was seized by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in May 2015. ISIS fighters destroyed some of the site’s iconic temples. They also looted graves and used the local open-air theater to stage executions, according to media reports.

The first images of Palmyra after Syrian government forces drove ISIS fighters out of the city showed large swaths of destruction but also suggested that several important archaeological sites were intact.
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