ISIS Hasn’t Destroyed Ancient Palmyra Ruins—Yet

Last week, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, closed in on the Syrian city of Palmyra, fears mounted that the group would destroy the city’s wondrous ancient ruins. After all, ISIS had demolished ancient ruins elsewhere and has looted museums.

But according to a statement from a purported ISIS commander, corroborated by recent satellite photography, the ancient caravan oasis is still in tact. While ISIS says they’ll smash any statues—which they view as religious idols—the remnants of the buildings will be left alone.

palmyra-sunset
Palmyra's salad days produced a profusion of stunning buildings.

Palmyra’s history stretches back as far as 2000 B.C., and over hundreds of years it served as a vital node in the trade network connecting the Roman Empire with Persia, China, and India. Temples, theaters, and a colonnaded avenue over a two-thirds of a mile long came to define the ancient city’s prosperous era. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city came under Byzantine control and later was ruled by a series of caliphates. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it emerged as a tourist destination for Europe’s well-to-do.

Zach Zorich, reporting for Science, interviewed Michael Danti, the academic director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston. He has more details on the outlook for Palmyra:

Danti reports that sources in Palmyra told him that most of the artifacts held in the Palmyra museum were removed before the Islamic State group arrived. What might remain are the large statues and bas-reliefs that were affixed to the museum’s walls, he said.

Some damage was reported at Palmyra long before the group took over. Combat injured the ruins, and Assad regime forces bulldozed earthen berms and created other fortifications in the ancient city. Satellite evidence also showed that ancient tomb entrances had been dug out and reopened. As Syria’s civil war dragged on, artifacts from Palmyra had been showing up on the illegal antiquities market, Danti says.

While it appears Palmyra is safe for now, Danti told Zorich that lesser known, but equally important sites. ISIS is intent on destroying anything with religious value for local people, and since it began its campaign, it has demolished hundreds of those sites.