When ISIS fighters captured the Syrian city of Palmyra in 2015, militants stormed through museums and heritage sites, wreaking havoc on Palmyra’s ancient relics. Among the artifacts targeted by ISIS was a 2,000-year-old statue of a lion, which once stood proudly outside the Museum of Palmyra.
The Lion of al-Lāt, as the statue is known, was badly damaged, but it was not destroyed. As Kinda Makieh reports for Reuters, the towering relic has been restored, and on Sunday, it was put on display at the National Museum of Damascus.
The statue, which stretches 11 feet high and weighs 15 tons, was moved to Damascus after Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra in March 2016. Polish archaeologist Markowski was able to restore the Lion of al-Lāt over the course of two months, and says approximately half of the resurrected statue is comprised of the original.
"It is an exceptional statue, there are no more such statues in Palmyra," Markowski tells Makieh of Reuters. “Every tourist visiting Palmyra and the museum had a photo with it."
Long before it captured the attention of museum-goers and incurred the wrath of ISIS, the Lion of al-Lāt guarded the entrance to a 1st-century B.C. temple in Palmyra, once a bustling cultural center on the trade route linking Persia, India and China to the Roman Empire. The temple was devoted to the goddess Al-lāt, a pre-Islamic female deity associated with love, sex and warfare, according to Kanishk Tharoor and Maryam Maruf of the BBC.
Ancient depictions of Al-lāt often show the goddess in the company of a lion, but this element of her iconography conveyed more than simple aggression. The Lion of Al-lāt, for instance, has bared fangs and bulging eyes, but it cradles an antelope gently between its paws, as the BBC's Tharoor and Maruf point out. “The lion was a symbol of protection,” they write. “[I]t was both marking and protecting the entrance to the temple.”
Indeed, an inscription on the lion’s left paw seems to designate the temple as a space free of violence. “May Al-lāt bless whoever does not spill blood on this sanctuary,” it reads.
The limestone statue was discovered by a team of Polish archaeologists in 1977, and was restored in 2005 by another team Polish archaeologists, which included Markowski. The ancient treasure was then put on display in front of the museum in Palmyra, where it became one of the many victims to ISIS during its two phases of occupation in Palmyra.
When ISIS first captured the city in 2015, militants destroyed the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, and the monumental Arch of Triumph. After retaking Palmyra in January 2017, ISIS continued its campaign against the city’s cultural artifacts. As NPR’s Camila Domonoske reported at the time, ISIS forces quickly set about demolishing an ancient Roman theater and the Tetrapylon, a collection of monumental pillars located near the entrance of the city.
ISIS was ousted from Palmyra in March of this year. For the time being, the Lion of Al-lāt will stay at the Museum of Damascus. But Mahmoud Hammoud, director of Syrian antiquities, told Makieh of Reuters that the statue may one day return to stand watch again over Palymra.