The official in charge of Syria’s ancient monuments Sunday vowed that the famed temples of Palmyra, destroyed by the Islamic State extremist group, would be rebuilt now that the ancient city is back in government hands.
“As head of antiquities I am determined to rebuild the two temples,” Maamoun Abdulkarim told dpa by phone from Damascus.
Abdulkarim said that, hours after the Syrian army had entered the ancient city, ending a ten-month occupation by Islamic State jihadists, the general picture that was emerging was encouraging.
“From the photographs and live footage from Syrian television we have seen that the damage is limited,” the Syrian head of antiquities said. “We were afraid we would find total destruction.”
The jihadists had boasted of blowing up many of the Roman-era city’s most famous landmarks.
The massive sanctuary of Bel, the smaller temple of Baal-Shamin, the city’s triumphal arch and a series of elaborately decorated tower tombs on the outskirts where the elite of ancient Palmyra buried their dead were all reduced to little more than rubble.
But the city’s colonnaded main street, its agora or marketplace, the theatre and the Arab citadel that overlooks it from a nearby hilltop all appeared to be in generally good condition, Abdulkarim said.
Abdulkarim said experts would be sent to carry out a detailed assessment of the state of the monuments as soon as possible – hopefully within 24 hours.
He added that the pictures so far available indicate that the stone blocks of the monuments blown up by Islamic State appeared to be in place and could be used in reconstruction.
Experts would, however, need to get inside the temples to assess any damage to the stones themselves.
A German expert warned meanwhile that any plan to rebuild the destroyed monuments would need to be carried out with “tact”.
Reconstruction is possible in principle, but needs to be carefully considered, Markus Hilgert, director of Berlin’s Museum of the Ancient Near East, told dpa.
"It is always about the question of whether the conditions for a World Heritage site still exist," he cautioned.
The question, he said, is: "How do we do that so the integrity of the World Heritage Site Palmyra is not damaged."
Abdulkarim said any reconstruction plans would be presented in the first instance to UN cultural agency UNESCO, responsible for Palmyra’s listing as a World Heritage site.
“If UNESCO approves, then we can go ahead,” he said, pointing out that his department has already built up expertise in “dozens” of major restoration projects in Palmyra and elsewhere in the country.