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The liberated city. Interview with Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syrian General Director of Antiquities: "We will repair the damage Daesh inflicted on the site. But first, we need to start talking about cultural reconstruction”

Palmyra is finally returned to Syria’s heritage

“Palmyra has been returned to the Syrian heritage and I have found again the meaning of my work. I chose not to leave Syria in recent years in order not to fail my duties as a scholar and claim my rights as a citizen.” Approximately one week after the expulsion of the militants of “Caliph” Al-Baghdadi from Palmyra – the caravan city registered on the UNESCO list in 1980 – Maamoun Abdulkarim speaks to us by phone from Damascus.

His voices sounds relieved, although his attitude remains combative. A Roman archeology professor at the University of Damascus, Abdulkarim has held since 2012 the role of General Director of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, a mission that, with the escalation of the crisis and the advance of the so-called Islamic State, has required courage, strong nerves and confidence in a lighter future, a future in which men and stones can once again establish a dialogue with the world.

During the interview with il manifesto in September 2015 you defined Palmyra as a hostage city. Now that it was freed, have you been able to go there?

Not yet, but a team of DGAM (Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, editor’s note) is already in action on the field. In parallel, demining is being carried out because – as you know – Daesh intended to blow up the whole site.

Pictures are circulating on different media showing the status of the ruins after the occupation of the jihadists. No doomsday scenario but still dismay caused by the severity of the damage.

We need to look at what we have not lost. From the architectural point of view, Palmyra is almost entirely preserved. The Citadel – although it was damaged during the fighting of the last period – the great colonnaded street, the Tetrapylon, the agora, the Diocletian’s field, the baths and the shrine of Nabu escaped the destructive attempts of Isis. Even the lower burial towers are standing. The landscape of the site is safe, although mutilated. Instead, illegal excavations carried out by Daesh, in collaboration with criminals and ‘mafia’ thugs, devastated areas still to be researched.

From the architectural point of view, Palmyra is almost entirely preserved, although mutilated.

In Europe, despite the fact that the Syrian conflict is far from resolved, there is already talk of reconstruction of Palmyra. Is it appropriate?

For our part, we have identified the buildings hurt by ISIS that can be recovered. For example, the staircase and the podium of the Bêl temple are intact – the inner chamber was blown up -, as well as the monumental gate. Even the walls of the enclosure are still standing. The columns are not crushed but only “broken”. Some of the decorative blocks are intact and in situ.

According to the initial findings, therefore, 30% of the Bêl temple can be restored and or eventually rebuilt with materials extracted from local quarries. The entire project will be evaluated by an international committee and under the auspices of Unesco.

The responsibility must be shared because Palmyra is a heritage site for all humanity. But we never thought of rebuilding the monuments from scratch, our goal is to take action based on scientific assumptions.

Someone in Italy proposed to make copies of the Bêl and Baalshamin temples with a mega 3d printer…

The 3d technology will certainly be useful but for the architectural study aimed at restoration. The issues about the Syrian patrimony are very politicized and threaten to distort reality. In my opinion, Palmyra belongs to all Syrians, whether they are for or against the current government.

Rather, we should start talking about cultural reconstruction. In this sense, I am especially grateful to the Italian and German colleagues who continued their relations with DGAM and indeed supported us. I am also moved by the sensitivity of the different initiatives by Italy to honor the memory of Khaled al-As’ad (the director of the Palmyra Antiquities killed by ISIS last August, editor’s note).

How would you resolve the catastrophic conditions of Palmyra’s museum revealed by the video post-liberation?

Fortunately, Daesh did not apply to the Palmyra Museum the violence expressed in Mosul. The statues you see in the photos are the ones that we were not able to evacuate before the arrival of the militiamen. Many sculptures have been disfigured. Despite this, we will be able to restore even the imposing Allat Lion, the statue which stood at the entrance and was knocked down, but not pulverized.

Was there any looting?

No, because before May 2015, we had rescued the readily marketable objects. Jihadists are not interested in statues because they are against their iconoclastic ideology. They seek gold, silver, coins, vases, precious glasses …

Daesh sold excavation licenses to criminal gangs to dig their own treasures to sell in the black market. One day, we will be able to bring back to Palmyra the items transferred to Damascus, but not until the end of hostilities. Not only at Tadmor. Throughout Syria.

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