PARIS â€" Should Palmyra be rebuilt? And under what conditions? No sooner had Syrian forces and the Russian Army freed the â€œpearl of the desert,â€ a spectacular Greco-Roman city with traces of Eastern influence, from the yoke of the Islamic State (ISIS), then the debate over how to restore it to its former glory was underway. Scientists, archeologists, historians and architects have all weighed in on the question, but itâ€™s also become a source of political exploitation.
Half-way between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea, this â€œirreplaceable treasureâ€ was once a wealthy hub for trade between the East and West. In the first century, Palmyra became a Roman province. With their caravans composed of hundreds of camels, Semitic tribes ferried silk, cotton, precious stones and spices from China and India, as well as Arabian incense, all sold at exorbitant prices in Rome. Thanks to this booty, they were able to finance the construction of an enormous city.
Palmyra was still among the most impressive historical sites in the Middle East until ISIS jihadists, moved by their crazed obsession with wiping away all traces of ancient civilizations, attacked it in August 2015, much the way they had previously done in Mosul, Nimrud, Hatra and Ninive. They sacked the museum and packed explosives into a dozen burial towers, the cityâ€™s two major sanctuaries â€" the Temple of Bel (God) and the charming Temple of Baalshamin (god of fertility) â€" and a monumental arch that opens onto a 1,200-meter (3,937 ft.) long colonnade, the center of this shining cultural beacon.
In this newly liberated city, should we turn the page as soon as possible to erase the devastation wrought by ISIS? Rebuild no matter the cost, with faux sites snuffing the originals out from memory? Or should we preserve this jewel â€"a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980 â€" exactly as it is, ruins and all? That last option was what was decided in Bamyan, Afghanistan, where all that remains of the giant Buddhas carved into the cliffs are the indentations that once housed them. The Taliban blew these figures up with dynamite in 2001, viewing them as idols from a past they despise, and now, their empty shells are a testament to the brutality of Afghan religious fundamentalists. In the case of Palmyra, on the other hand, political pressure has led some to fear an overly hasty reconstruction.
At the end of March, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, caused an uproar with the following statement: â€œThe President of the Russian Federation, and the General Director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, have agreed that UNESCO, Russia and Syria will take necessary action to assess the damage caused by the terrorists in Palmyra and initiate a reconstruction plan in the near future.â€ According to UNESCO, Putin told Bokova by telephone that Russia was ready to send Russian experts from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to support reconstruction efforts in Palmyra.Then, on May 5, the Symphonic Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg performed Bach and Prokofiev in the heart of ancient Palmyra, in the very the amphitheater where ISIS had staged the killings of local citizens using children as executioners. The event was broadcast live on Russian television, with taped commentary from Putin.
The Mariinsky Orchestra concert was broadcast live in Russia â€" Photo: Kremlin
Reactions to this offensive move by Russia were immediate. On March 27, a petition with 500 signatures urged UNESCO to â€œact as a neutral scientific, technical and educational organizationâ€ unifying all Syrians. Shirin, an international organization composed of 49 excavation site directors and 36 researchers, archaeologists, and historians who work in Syria and the Near East, added its voice: â€œTo restore Palmyra, yes! Hastily, no.â€
â€œPalmyra is clearly being used in a political manner, and we reacted to that,â€ said Shirin president Frank Braemer. â€œPutinâ€™s video is what we typically call appropriation over an event or a site. Protesting on behalf of the community is the least we can do. We have a very good relationship with Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director of Antiquities and Museums in Syria. I am convinced that what drives him is a scientific, not political, interest in preserving cultural heritage. There is a Syrian government responsible for the countryâ€™s future and it provides a respectable service, just a like education.â€
Braemer believes a rushed rebuilding effort that does not rely on the siteâ€™s existing structures would be disastrous. â€œWe must first make a general assessment of the damage. Once peace has returned to Syria, we will be able to consider how to restore Palmyra,â€ says Rolf Andreas Stucky, a Swiss archaeologist from the University of Basel. â€œLetâ€™s imagine for a moment that we were talking about Paris. It would be as though there were no more Notre-Dame, no more Sainte-Chapelle, and the necropolis of the French kings at Saint-Denis had been pillaged and sacked. As though the roof of the Louvre were so damaged that water flowed through all the rooms; paintings were slashed; sculptures were destroyed; and small items had been stolen. As though the Opéra Garnier and the cityâ€™s Haussmann building façades were ruined.â€
In Stuckyâ€™s opinion, the damage inflicted on Palmyra is just that extensive.
On February 16, Cambodian Chau Sung Kerya â€" advisor to the Apsara Authority government body in the former capital of the Khmer empire â€" presented a document titled â€œFrom Angkor to Palmyraâ€ to the French Ministry of Culture, illustrating how the country had restored its Angkor temples.
For the past 23 years, this restoration project has been supervised by the UNESCO International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor, an ad hoc body created in 1993 to manage contributions from various countries and organizations. The committee meets each year under Cambodian stewardship to discuss and decide on each restoration projects. Could this be a good model for restorations in the Syrian city?
â€œThis system works well, with a technical committee that evaluates propositions and closely monitors work on the sites,â€ says archeologist Mounir Bouchenaki, director of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage in Bahrain. He is responsible for of 76 World Heritage sites, and is also an Angkor expert.
â€œWe will rebuild the buildings in some cases, but we should also leave some areas in ruins to show the destruction ISIS caused,â€ he adds.
Restoration work in Angkor â€" Photo: McKay Savage
Pierre-André Lablaude, one of the UNESCO experts working to protect the Angkor site, says reconstruction should account for the passage of time and any particular local factors. â€œItâ€™s like in medicine: we proceed on a case-by-case basis. In Palmyra, what is the state of the materials? To what extent are they recoverable? Taking inventory is the first step. The restoration business is one of doses, proportions, and subtleties. It is a matter of aesthetics, public acceptance and the poetry of ruins.â€
UNESCO has indicated that a complete report of recommendations and measures to safeguard Syrian heritage will be presented in July in Istanbul, during the 40th meeting of the Committee of World Heritage.
Abdulkarim, the director of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, tries to reassure the public. â€œOur goal is not to rebuild the city in the same fashion as modern buildings,â€ he says. â€œThat would completely go against a century's worth of scientific professionalism.â€
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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