Syria’s fabled desert Greco-Roman oasis of Palmyra saw its last tourist in September 2011, six months after the uprising began. Its most recent visitors are violence and looting. Ancient Palmyra now bears the scars of modern warfare but also greed in the form of pillaged tombs. The Unesco-listed “pearl of the desert” world heritage site in Homs province, just over 200 km northeast of Damascus, was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. It retains its majesty today, despite the tall-columned Temple of Baal suffering damage from shrapnel during artillery exchanges between opposition fighters and the Syrian forces. The Hellenistic building’s eastern wall, its most imposing, now bears whitened slashes where the stone has been gouged by shell blasts. Mortar fire has damaged one entrance and its lintel resting on eight columns with fluted shafts. The perimeter wall has been damaged in several places. The Corinthian capitals of three pillars of the colonnade to the south of the temple have crashed to the ground.
“Armed groups arrived in February 2013 and set up in the huge palm groves to the south until the army chased them out last September,” the antiquities department’s Mohammed al Assad, 44, said. “They opened fire on the town from the groves, and the temple which was in the line of fire was damaged by shelling,” he added. The official said the antiquities building next to the temple was ransacked, but worse than that was the pillaging of ancient burial sites. West of Palmyra lies the kilometre-long Valley of the Tombs where rich merchants built their lavish funerary monuments thousands of years ago. Palmyra Museum Director Khalil al Hariri shows three limestone stelae and parts of a sculpted sarcophagus depicting people including children carved in high relief. “They were sliced away with a chainsaw,” he said. “We recovered them two days ago in the basement of a house.” He does not know how many burial sites have been plundered.
“There are around 500 tombs, and only about 200 have been excavated so far by archaeologists,” Hariri said. “It’s in the ones that haven’t yet been excavated that the looters did their dirty work.” He is grateful that at least some of the tomb robbers’ booty has been recovered. “Since the army took control of the region, I have got 130 pieces back. But I can’t say how many tombs they came from because the thieves made sure they closed them up again,” he said. In addition to parts of stone coffins, recovered items include busts of people long dead, showing them in Greco-Roman costume, and typical Palmyrene wall decorations. The official line is that the “armed groups” want to “sell off our culture and our roots”. However, it is clear that some residents have taken advantage of the turmoil in the country to turn a profit, knowing the value of such antiquities. And Hariri admits that.
“Police found these pieces here, in houses and in orchards and also elsewhere in the country. Fifteen pieces were even recovered at Beirut airport, ready to be flown out,” he said. Last Wednesday, the United Nations urged all parties in the Syria conflict to protect the country’s cultural heritage. “Archaeological sites are being systematically looted and the illicit trafficking of cultural objects has reached unprecedented levels,” a statement said. The world body urged any art dealers or tourists who come across Syrian artifacts to be cautious. Palmyra’s lucrative tourism trade is no more. Mayor Faisal al Sherif says the last official tourist arrival was in September 2011. “We used to get a quarter of a million visitors a year, and then suddenly nothing,” the 57-year-old said. “Of Palmyra’s 85,000 residents, 5,000 worked in hotels, restaurants, shops, as drivers and guides or organisers of desert excursions under canvas,” he said. Tourist establishments are now shuttered. The legendary Zenobia Palace Hotel, built on the site by a French adventurer in the 1920s and named after Palmyra’s famous queen, is a ransacked and half-burned shell.