Report

The Battle for Palmyra

London

9 January 2018

“It is the natural and common fate of cities to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins.” That quote comes from the traveller Robert Wood in his 1753 book The Ruins of Palmyra, Otherwise Tedmor, in the Desart [sic]. It’s an account of an expedition to the ancient ruined city of Palmyra in the western Syrian desert, in which he questions the “silence of history,” with regards to Palmyra, which is not referred to in any of the classical annals: “The works of Palmyra scarce mentioned, become vouchers for those so much celebrated of Greece and Egypt.” Today, however, the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra lie at the heart of international debates surrounding the systematic looting and destruction of cultural heritage sites by armed groups in Syria, Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq and Yemen.

Deliberate attacks on cultural property – such as the destruction of the Buddhist Statues at Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001, or of 12 mausoleums in Timbuktu by the militant Ansare Dine group in 2012 – are now being addressed at the level of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in the Hague. “The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime, it has become a tactic of war to tear societies [apart] over the long term, in a strategy of cultural cleansing,” said Unesco’s director general Irina Bokova when she addressed the UN Security Council in March 2017. This prompts moral debates about the recovery of cultural heritage in times of armed conflict. How can cultural property be protected in the chaos of war? When are stones more valuable than people’s lives? Is culture a tool for peace, or a tactic of war?

The ancient city of Tadmur, as Palmyra was originally known, was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world and is known to have existed since at least the second century BCE. The Palmyrene’s “funereal customs were from Egypt, their luxury was Persian, and their letters and arts were from the Greeks,” noted Wood in his report on the city. “Their situation in the middle of these great nations makes it reasonable to suppose they adopted several other of their customs and manners.” A colonnaded street over 1km long forms the axis of the ancient city, which contains several major public monuments. Among its five temples, the Temple of Bel, dedicated in 32 CE, was celebrated in a series of drawings of its carved ceiling executed by the draughtsman Giovanni Battista Bora, one of Wood’s travel companions. The Temple of Baalshamin, built in the 2nd century CE, had survived up until the 21st century as one of the most complete structures in the city, with an architectural style that mixed ancient Syrian and Roman influences. Less well preserved were the Baths of Diocletian, although the structure’s foundations had survived, as had a Corinthian colonnade marking the entrance. Before the war, music and theatre performances for the annual Palmyra Festival were held at the site’s Roman theatre. Behind the theatre are ruined senate buildings and a large agora, within which 200 plinths used to hold statues of prominent citizens. Beyond the city, in the Valley of Tombs, are vast necropolises with important funerary reliefs.

In April 2015, new satellite imagery showed that the jihadist group IS was advancing across the Homs province in central Syria. The militants were headed for the city of Tadmur (also called modern Palmyra), a resettlement of the ancient site that sits around 500m from the city’s ruins. IS’s forces met little resistance from the national Syrian Arab Army in Tadmur and the international community chose not to intervene. Nonetheless, a global media campaign expressing shock and horror ran for months after Tadmur’s capture. The then London mayor Boris Johnson called for military intervention in The Daily Telegraph in April 2015 – despite Britain’s earlier decision not to intervene in Syria in 2013. “I accept that some readers will be left cold by an appeal on behalf of a bunch of ruins. But I can’t see it like that. For me, Palmyra embodies the great ideas we owe
to the Greeks and the Romans,” he wrote, “It may not be too late for some kind of exclusion zone around the site, or at least for air strikes.” When IS began to destroy parts of the site, documenting their actions in embellished propaganda videos, headlines such as ‘Why it’s all right to be more horrified by the razing of Palmyra than mass murder’ appeared in The Guardian, while the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stated the implications of reconstruction: ‘Palmyra muss seine Geschichte selbst erzählen’ (Palmyra must tell its own story). This media attention was followed by a series of exhibitions and public monuments across Europe, the USA and Middle East. A 3D-printed replica of Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch, developed by Oxford University’s Institute for Digital Archaeology, was erected in London’s Trafalgar Square in April 2016, and subsequently travelled to New York and Dubai.

Sites Eternel, an exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais that was inaugurated by the former French President François Hollande, also included a display exploring Palmyra. The list of initiatives marking outrage at the city’s destruction continues to grow. “The media outcry focused on the ruins and often ignored the plight of the people of Tadmur,” says Khaled Al Homsi, a citizen journalist and native of the city who now lives in Gaziantep, a Turkish city close to the Syrian border. Al Homsi is a member of the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) of Palmyra, a part of a network of citizen-led LCCs (“tansiqiyya” in Arabic) created early on in the revolt across Syria. He set up palmyra-monitor.net, which brings together news about the city and the nearby ruins. “There is a lot of information about Palmyra circulating online, and the website aims to aggregate it and provide an accurate news source,” he explains. The destruction of Palmyra and the assaults on its citizens began well before IS’s encroachment, however, when the Syrian regime took control of the city in 2012. Palmyra had 50,000 inhabitants according to a 2005 census, rising to 70,000 in 2015, according to Al Homsi. In March 2016, however, Unesco’s Rapid Assessment Mission to Palmyra noted that “The city was currently not inhabited; the houses show traces of fire and vandalism, and the streets show traces of combats.” Today less than one per cent of Palmyra’s pre-war population lives there: “Their homes are destroyed,” says Al Homsi.

Since 2015, Palmyra has been caught in a brutal battle between IS and the Syrian regime. From May 2015 to March 2016, the city was held by IS, before being retaken by the national Syrian Arab Army (SAA). In December 2016, IS militants moved back into the city, although the SAA – which is supported politically and militarily by Russia, and by Shi’a militias from neighbouring countries – drove them out again in March 2017. Among cultural property affected during this long series of occupations and counter-occupations, the Unesco mission noted the Lion of Al-lāt, (known as the Lion Statue of Athena) and the Triumphal Arch, as well as cellas (chambers) in the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, had been deliberately destroyed. Three columns and six funerary towers were blown up. Sculptures stored inside the Palmyra Museum were beheaded. A document from the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA), which Al Homsi collaborates with, highlights further damage to the site by the regime between 2012 and 2015. Archaeological layers from among the tombs were removed to prepare artillery positions. Roads and earth dykes were built around the site. Important tombs, such as those of Artaban and Tybul were looted. Airstrikes in 2013, meanwhile, damaged the porticos and cellas of the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin.

Palmyra’s global significance is largely due to the many symbolisms that it has held throughout history. Following its heyday as a trading centre, the city met its downfall in the 3rd century when the Palmyrene ruler Queen Zenobia – since elevated to an almost mythical hero in both Middle Eastern and Western annals – conquered most of the eastern Roman empire before being defeated in 272 CE by the Roman Emperor Aurelian. After the city’s demise, the population of Palmyra was reduced to a small village and lived for centuries among the ruins of the Temple of Baalshamin. The ruins and the village of Tadmur were rediscovered in 1681 by European travellers and, for the vast majority of the modern era, the ancient city existed as a Western cultural imaginary. Travellers on the Grand Tour ventured with difficulty into the territories of the Ottoman Empire, with journeys typically ending in Italy. But as a result of Wood’s expedition, Palmyra and its mythical warrior Queen Zenobia appear in paintings, literature, architecture and design of the period, while Bora’s renderings of the Temple of Bel appeared in the ceilings of a number of English country homes, most notably Osterley Park in London. The poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who had never visited Palmyra, described it in his poem ‘Lebensalter’ (1804): “Euphrates’ cities and/ Palmyra’s streets and you/ Forests of columns in the level desert/ What are you now?”

Today, ongoing conflict in the region prohibits access to the ruined city for Syrians, cultural heritage specialists and tourists alike. Most of the initiatives that safeguard cultural heritage in Syria are therefore managed from outside of the country. The Unesco Syrian Observatory for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage was set up in 2014 in Beirut, and works directly with Syria’s Ministry of Culture’s Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), while the World Monuments Fund Britain recently launched stonemasonry traineeships in the Jordanian border town of Mafraq. Meanwhile, the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises Unesco on cultural heritage, has launched Project Anqa to document cultural heritage sites across the Middle East, using new technology such as 3D laser scanning, photogrammetry and aerial imaging through drones. In the case of the organisation’s Syria programme, archaeologists in Damascus will be trained from Beirut. “So far the challenges have been simple day-to-day things,” says Elizabeth Lee, vice president for Programs and Development for CyArk, a Californian non-profit which has partnered with ICOMOS on Anqa. “There are frequent power cuts, which makes it difficult for anyone who has documented a site in Syria to send us the data.”

However accurate they may be, the imaging technologies used by Anqa and other initiatives only provide a partial image of what is happening in Palmyra. “The best documentation is done on the ground,” explains Bijan Rouhani, a conservation architect and also the vice president of ICOMOS’s International Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP). Conservationists in exile are in touch with specialists and concerned citizens in Syria to document the damage caused by the ongoing conflict and looting. APSA’s report on Palmyra used documents published by the DGAM, analysis of aerial photos, and data supplied by the LCC. Photographs showing the Temple of Baalshamin were taken by the anonymous Palmyra-based photography group Lens Young Tadmouri, and show how airstrikes in 2013 broke a part of the temple’s lintel, before subsequent strikes caused the lintel to crumble and fall down. This on-the-ground documentation is not only limited, but also dangerous to procure. “People are more concerned about saving their lives and getting basic needs,” says Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist and research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who works with archaeologists on the ground in Syria and organisations including the Smithsonian’s Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq (SHOSI). “Two colleagues of mine were trying to document the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites near Idlib earlier this year, and they were arrested by the local militia,” she says. “I followed this from a distance. Can you imagine how terrifying it was?” The Syrian activist and open-source web developer Bassel Khartabil created a 3D rendering of Palmyra’s sites, using his own images. The project, among Khartabil’s other open-source contributions to Creative Commons, a non-for-profit organisation devoted to legally sharing creative works, came to global attention after he was arrested in 2012 by the Syrian government. The rendering became known as #NewPalmyra after it was adopted by MIT Labs in 2015. It is thought that IS executed Khartabil in 2015.

Territorial divisions in Syria further aggravate these kinds of challenges. “We need more support for the archaeologists and specialists working in opposition-held areas,” says Al Kuntar. Amongst the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria, Palmyra, the ancient city of Damascus and Krak des Chevaliers (a 12th-century castle built by Crusaders) are in regions controlled by the Syrian government. But the ancient city of Aleppo – another World Heritage Site – was only recently retaken by the regime having been heavily damaged by persistent shelling from the Syrian Arab Army and its allies, while the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, which falls within Unesco’s Ancient Villages of Northern Syria site, lies in an area that is still being contested by pro-government forces, the opposition and the Kurds. Finally, the ancient city of Bosra in southern Syria is controlled by a local militia. US and EU sanctions apply to the regime-held areas of Syria, but opposition-held areas are often controlled by militias that members of the international community do not publicly support. International agencies such as Unesco and ICOMOS are legally required to work with the government’s DGAM, which limits their scope and territories, meaning that opposition-held areas of Syria are under-served. “If they work with the opposition, the DGAM will simply cut ties with them,” says Al Kuntar. The sites for Project Anqa, for example, were selected by ICOMOS in the regime-controlled areas of Damascus. “I don’t work with the DGAM because I don’t want to work for a body represented by the regime, who are criminals,” explains Al Kuntar, who has worked with SHOSI to organise training for Syrian archaeologists in Gaziantep, a border town in Turkey. “We’re in a much better position to receive aid and money than the DGAM, because the US and EU sanctions on Syria don’t apply to us,” says Al Kuntar. Equally, however, opposition-held areas have no access to UN funding. “Visas for archaeologists in Syria are impossible to obtain, particularly since the EU-Turkey agreement concerning migrants smuggled through Turkey.”

Those working in the cultural heritage sector are frequently faced with the dilemma of prioritising stones over people. “The media outcry over Palmyra was bad, but the actual work that archaeologists are doing in Syria and Iraq is not taking away from humanitarian resources,” says Al Kuntar. “Foreign aid for cultural heritage projects is small compared to the humanitarian budget.” Indeed, according to The Financial Times, the UK is one of Syria’s biggest donors and has committed £2.46bn in aid since 2012. In 2016, the British Council launched
a £30m Cultural Protection Fund for projects in the Middle East, and François Hollande announced a joint French-Emirati fund of $100m from public and private donors. Meanwhile, the aforementioned World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) project in Mafraq also addresses this dichotomy. The project aims to provide conservation stonemasonry training to displaced Syrians, as well as Jordanians living in Mafraq. “The emphasis is on building capacity and supporting communities,” says John Darlington, WMF’s executive director. “There is a huge itinerant population from Syria in Jordan and we’re providing them with a skill which we know they can benefit from. When you have cultural heritage destruction on this scale, international aid money pours in but what prevents the project from happening is a lack of qualified people on the ground. There is already a stonemasonry tradition in Jordan, but not one in conservation.” These workshops, which began in August 2017, address one of the central issues that will affect postwar recovery in Syria: the absence of the local community. “In the old city of Aleppo, most of the population has left, and they have no incentive to go back, as the city has been entirely destroyed,” says Rouhani, “In Iraq, there are no Christian families left in Mosul. It was once an important Christian city in that country, with a lot of heritage sites. In scenarios like this, who can be the local stakeholder?” The similarities with Syria are striking. In March 2017, the UN announced that more than five million Syrians had fled the country and 6.3 million had been internally displaced since the war began in 2011.

Today, the destruction of cultural heritage has seeped into the language, actions and policies of international agencies acting beyond the sector. On 24 March 2017 the UN Security Council Resolution 2347, which “deplores and condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage [...] in the context of armed conflicts, notably by terrorist groups”, was unanimously adopted – the first security council resolution to address the destruction of cultural heritage. Arguing that this destruction was a “war crime” and a “tactic of war”, Unesco director-general Irina Bokova told the Council that “defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue, it is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives.” In part, Resolution 2347 attempts to deal with changes to contemporary warfare which are underserved by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict. “The nature of conflict has changed. We are no longer dealing with wars between sovereign states, but conflicts between states and non-state armed groups. Often these groups are divided along sectarian lines, which puts culture and cultural identity at the forefront,” explains Giovanni Boccardi, head of Unesco’s Emergency Recovery and Protection unit. International Humanitarian Law, or the laws of war, were devised to deal with armed conflict between two sovereign states, but contemporary warfare, as Boccardi set out, is increasingly fought by a range of different non-state armed militias. Since the trial of the war criminal Duško Tadić by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, such groups have theoretically been bound by International Humanitarian Law, although they continue to cause legal complications. These issues now extend to protection of cultural heritage, having come to the fore in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan. “The Hague Convention did not apply in that case, as it only applies to countries which have ratified the Convention and their regular combatants. Conflicts involving state and non-state armed groups are not covered by the Convention,” says Christian Manhart, who served as the Unesco project manager in Afghanistan after the statues had been destroyed. Resolution 2347 will now aim to address “the involvement of non-state actors, [...] in particular the threat posed to international peace and security by the Islamic state”.

The passage of Resolution 2347 was preceded by a series of events highlighting culture as a tactic of war. In 2014, Bokova described IS’s destruction of cultural heritage as “cultural cleansing”, a loaded term that implies that the destruction of cultural heritage – which is a war crime – can be used as a tactic of genocide. “To prove genocide, it must be established that crimes such as killing took place with the intent to exterminate a group,” says William Schabas, professor of international law at the Universities of Middlesex and Leiden. “Evidence that killing was associated with attempts to destroy the culture of a group, including its cultural property and assets, is relevant in this respect.” Certainly, Bokova initially used the term to describe IS’s attacks on the Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority group who were displaced from their ancestral lands in northern Iraq and subjected to brutal crimes such as rape campaigns and mass murder. While calls to launch formal investigations into the possibility of a genocide of the Yazidis by IS have been made, most notably by the barrister Amal Clooney, the term “cultural cleansing” continues to be used rhetorically to describe the wider cultural destruction by IS. In February 2015, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2199, which condemned trade with Al Qaeda-associated groups. Three paragraphs in the resolution were devoted to the illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts, which were used to fund terrorist groups, and in September 2015, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, the Islamic militan, responsible for destroying nine mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu, Mali. This was the first trial at the ICC to focus on the destruction of cultural heritage and presented itself as an opportunity for the ICC to address the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage by armed forces. The trial was opened after Al Mahdi’s arrest in September 2015. He was found guilty of a war crime and sentenced to nine years imprisonment in August 2016.

Within this context, it may appear that the world is better equipped than it was nearly 20 years ago, when the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003 highlighted the need for better measures to protect cultural property in warfare. Yet as the case of Syria shows, while non-state armed groups may still be difficult to define within a legal sphere, in practice they have proven far easier to condemn than member states. The destruction of cultural heritage by the Syrian regime had been well documented, along with the looting of cultural artefacts to fund pro-Assad forces. Nonetheless, it is the armed militants from opposition forces and IS who receive the majority of international condemnation and media attention: “The world became IS obsessed,” says Al Kuntar. It is an argument with which Sam Hardy, Honorary Research Associate at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, agrees. “There needs to be extensive policing too of (profiting from) illicit trafficking of cultural objects by other state and non-state forces,” says Hardy when I ask him about Resolution 2199 on Twitter. “Journalists have documented indirect testimony from arms-for-antiquities smugglers since 2012, as well as direct testimony from the Free Syrian Army since 2013.” Equally, many have doubts about how effective these new developments have proven to be. “Are militias aware of Al Mahdi’s trial?” asks Al Kuntar, “it’s not a deterrent unless they are.”

While culture has been demonstrated as a tactic of war, it can also be described as a potential tool for peace. “We believe that the soft power of culture can contribute to achieving the objectives of peace, stability and resilience,” says Boccardi. But Unesco’s cooperation with the Syrian government, which is required by law, has raised questions about the body’s neutrality. When IS withdrew from Palmyra in 2016, Unesco issued two statements. Firstly, Bokova “welcomed the liberation of the Palmyra archeological site”. Secondly, Unesco announced Bokova’s telephone discussion with Vladimir Putin in which she “reiterated her full support for the restoration of Palmyra.” Both statements implied that with the fall of IS, freedom and peace had been restored. The following month, multiple petitions were published online by archaeologists and heritage professionals, condemning Bokova’s announcements. Ali Othman, a Syrian archaeologist exiled in Paris, accused Unesco of “adding fuel to the fire” in an open letter posted on Facebook. Archaeologists opposed the prospect of an imminent restoration and reconstruction of Palmyra while the conflict was still raging. A petition on the activist group Avaaz’s website by Al Kuntar described the possibility of reconstruction as “inopportune and unrealistic,” pointing to the absence of archaeologists in Syria, the loss of communities, and the humanitarian crisis. They also strongly opposed collaborating with Russia in restoration efforts, which the petition described as “an active player in this gruesome conflict and a perpetrator of human and cultural violations”.

“The [Unesco Syrian] Observatory held a meeting with us as a result of the petition,” says Al Kuntar. When the DGAM hosted a meeting of international archaeological experts in Damascus in December 2016, Unesco did not attend – a decision seen as encouraging. “But they are still not actively engaging with opposition-held areas. They would not facilitate visas for archaeologists living in these areas,” adds Al Kuntar. In response to this, I ask Boccardi about Unesco’s perceived bias. “Experts from all sides of the conflict have attended our events, because they recognise Unesco’s neutrality and credibility,” he says. “In their personal lives they have different political orientations, so bringing them together is complicated. We find a common value shared by all, which is the preservation and protection of cultural heritage.” Al Kuntar disagrees, however: “There’s no ‘neutral’ in this context. Its not about having different political opinions or taking sides. It’s about refusing to engage with a government that is committing war crimes and human rights abuses.”

In the 20th century, political leaders used cultural heritage in the formation of the modern nation state of Syria. Archaeology became a way of uniting people in a secular state, by pointing back to a pre-Islamic national identity as a reference. In his 2004 book Reviving Phoenicia: the Search for Identity in Lebanon, the academic Asher Kaufman highlighted different strands of national sentiment in Syria and Lebanon in the wake of the Ottoman Empire. As well as a nationalism drawn from Islamism and a common Arab identity, a “secular non-Arab Syrianism [...] relied heavily on works of French scholars who wrote about the existence of a Syrian nation based on a unity of geography and race,” noted Kaufman. With the rapid growth of a global tourist industry in the 20th century, sites such as Palmyra presented economic opportunities for the local communities around the sites. They were also beneficial for the soft-power image of the autocratic Syrian government. Palmyra was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1980, just one month before the former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad ordered the mass killing of thousands of inmates in the nearby Tadmur prison. To Syrians, the name “Tadmur” points to a dark recent history. From the late-1970s onwards, dissidents against the regime, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood and branches of the secular Communist Party in Syria, were routinely detained in Tadmur, where they were tortured and often killed. “It’s a collective trauma from which much of our present cultural history is based,” says Majd Abdelhamid, a Syrian- born, Palestinian artist working with satellite images of Tadmur prison before and after its destruction by IS in 2015. “Many of the prisoners were intellectuals, writers, poets, or doctors.” IS were aware of the dual symbolism of the city. After destroying the prison, they released a video allowing the public to look inside it for the first time. The film revealed tiny cells with small windows and poor hygiene conditions.

Potent symbolisms have therefore made Palmyra a subject of propaganda for both the Syrian regime and IS. Nowhere is this more evident than in the two performances that took place in the city’s Agora amphitheatre in 2015 and 2016. The first of these was the public beheading of Khaled Al Asaad, the head of antiquities in Palmyra. The 83-year-old had refused to lead the jihadist group to artefacts that he had helped to hide. His execution prompted obituaries across newspapers worldwide and in Italy, the flags of all museums were own at half mast. The second was a concert given by St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alexey Gergiev, music director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert saw Syrian government officials, Russian soldiers and journalists in attendance. While the adjacent city lay in ruins, Gergiev praised President Putin and described the concert as “a protest against the barbarism and violence of the IS”. IS’s execution may have attracted the world’s horror, but Gergiev’s performance was also the subject of heavy critique. The UK’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that the concert was “a tasteless attempt to distract attention from the continued suffering of millions of Syrians. It shows that there are no depths to which the regime will not sink.” Abdelhamid agrees. “These performances highlight two forms of violence. IS’s execution of Al Asaad was a Hollywood-style video aimed to provoke shock and horror. In the Russian performance the violence is concealed. The Russians and Syrians presented themselves as liberators and the guardians of culture and civilisation.”

As such, the city and its ruins have been caught up in an ongoing battle of narratives. Journalists and commentators described the 2016 recapture of Palmyra as a “PR coup” for Assad. The success of this position can be seen in an argument made by Boris Johnson, writing in The Telegraph in 2016: “No matter how repulsive the Assad regime may be – and it is – their opponents in [IS] are far, far worse.” Such a statement ignores the humanitarian figures, however. A report by the Syrian Human Rights Committee, an independent research group based in London stresses that of the 633 documented assaults on civilians in 2016, 483 were committed by the Syrian regime and Russian forces – only 27 were committed by IS. Cultural heritage has been affected by similar communication strategies elsewhere in Syria and Iraq. In June 2017, the Chechen Kadyrov Foundation announced a fund of $5m to restore the destroyed Ummayad Mosque in Aleppo. When the 12th-century mosque of Al Nuri and its leaning minaret were destroyed in the battle for Mosul that same month, the Iraqi army signalled it as the final defeat of IS in Iraq, ending a nine-month siege by Iraqi and coalition forces. Yet both IS and the US army accused each other of destroying the mosque, with IS maintaining, despite video footage indicating otherwise, that the site was hit by US airstrikes.

The World Heritage Committee defines Palmyra as being of “outstanding universal value” but the site has held a number of different meanings throughout history. In modern Europe, it symbolised the glory of the ancient world, and values that define European identity such as tolerance, culture and civilisation. For Syrians and others in neighbouring countries, Tadmur prison continues to haunt the collective memory of the place. To IS militants, it is a symbol of pagan blasphemy, and to the Syrian regime, it is a strategic target in the battle of narratives. These many symbolisms raise questions about how the site can and should be remembered. “Until the conflict is over, we shouldn’t talk about reconstruction,” says Al Kuntar. “Any conversation should include the people of Palmyra and Syrians.” Meanwhile, the universal significance of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites makes their destruction an international crime and their protection an imperative for humankind. Yet as a form of soft power, culture is also vulnerable to rhetoric and politicking. International agencies positioned culture as a tool for peace and resilience and thus argued for its protection, but in the context of Syria, this message is heavily undermined by their collaboration with a government and coalition whose war crimes and numerous human rights abuses have been well documented.

“At the post-conflict stage, when you have a humanitarian rush and a drive to rebuild and modernise, sometimes the past gets swept away,” says Darlington. “We don’t want the world to look the same, and heritage helps to define what is unique and special about a place.” Few will dispute the importance of preserving cultural heritage, or can ignore the great cultural loss that has occurred in Syria, both for Syrians and the wider world. Culture is an expression of identity and a testament to the diversity of humankind. As such, it is defined as a human right. Yet as conversations conducted for this article show, heritage professionals involved in Syria are often unable to reconcile the impact of their work with the large-scale humanitarian emergency caused by the ongoing war. “I have given up,” says Othman. “When I see the human catastrophe in Raqqa [IS’s self-declared capital of the caliphate], I no longer want to work there. As an archaeologist, I am preserving the past to provide incentives for the future. The past was written by people for people. If the people are no longer there, why write it?”