The monuments of Palmyra in Russian care
Russian interests in the town of Palmyra, east of Homs, began to take shape when the town was controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS). The Russians, at the time, offered support to regime forces to regain control of the town, which includes a world-famous archaeological site.
The ISIS first took control of the town in May 2015. They were expelled by regime forces in March the following year. However, IS returned to Palmyra in December 2016, before the town finally returned to the hands of the Syrian regime in March 2017.
Since that final stint of regime control, Russian troops in Syria supervised the clearance of mines and war debris from the town. They were also involved in restoration efforts of the historical town, parts of which were destroyed by ISIS when they held control of the site.
The town, whose history goes back to the 2nd Millennium BC, has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1980 in recognition of the importance of its ruins.
Controlling the town for the first time, ISIS destroyed the temples of Baalshamin and Bel, the Roman monumental arch as well as other archaeological finds at the town’s museum. In early 2016, the group also destroyed the Roman Tetrapylon, an act described by the United Nations as a “war crime.”
Russia’s most noteworthy statement about Palmyra came in 2016 when they called on UNESCO to assist in restoration efforts in the ancient site that was vandalized.
Former deputy foreign minister of Russia, Gennady Gatilov, met with UNESCO Secretary General, Irina Bokova, to discuss the organization’s responsiveness and to request assistance from UNESCO to Syria in the restoration of the damaged monuments in Palmyra.
During a meeting of the UNESCO executive board, Gatilov called on international experts to go to Palmyra. “Now it has become necessary for UNESCO to monitor the situation in the Palmyra region, and to send, as soon as the necessary security conditions are met, a team of international experts to estimate the damage,” Gatilov said.
Documentation of Palmyra by the Russians
Russia’s ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO, Eleonora Mitrofanova, proposed in mid-2016 a project for the reconstruction and restoration of Palmyra and other archaeological sites.
And in October 2017 the Russian Academy for Sciences announced that a team of Russian researchers in Palmyra produced a 3D model of the town.
The Russian State Hermitage Museum, through its manager, announced on 30 October 2017 that it will transfer to Syria a 3D model of the city, according to RIA Novosti.
Moscow also announced that it will contribute to the funds requested by the UNESCO World Heritage Center for the purpose of restoration of archaeological sites in central Syria.
Russia has also been working on collecting documents from its archive to assist in the reconstruction. In a statement on March 19 to TASS Russian News Agency, Sergey Shoygu, Russian minister of defense and president of the Russian Geographical Society, revealed photos from 1872 taken by Russian travelers in Palmyra.
The society aims to use these photos to create another 3D model of Palmyra to be delivered to UNESCO within months. The models will help UNESCO estimate the extent of restoration work needed, according to Shoygu.
In a conference titled, “200 years of Russian diplomatic assistance in the Middle East” held on 3 October 2019, Michael Petrovsky, the Director-General of the Hermitage, announced that two groups of Russian archaeologists and architects had returned from studying the state of ancient monuments in Palmyra, Syria.
The two Russian teams, according to TASS, had completed two digitalization projects that will be transferred to Syria in the future in accordance with the agreement reached with the General Directorate for Antiquities and Museums in Syria.
One of the teams, under the leadership of Russian architect Maxim Atayants, worked on a 3D model of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. These models will be transferred to Syria in accordance with the agreement between the two sides.
However, as of today, and in spite of Russian efforts and announcements, restoration and reconstruction works in the ancient city have yet to start.
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