Syrian Troops Find Palmyra’s Ancient Ruins In Better Shape Than Expected

The “Jewel of the Desert” is out of the hands of people who would see its wonders demolished

Ruins of the temple of Baalshamin destroyed by ISIS militants in Palmyra, taken after government forces retook the city. Valery Sharifulin/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

After nearly a year of being under ISIS’ control, Syrian government troops, backed by Russian air strikes, drove militants fighting for the Islamic State from the ancient city of Palmyra on Sunday. Losing the 2,000-year-old ruins after a three-week-long offensive is being seen as a major setback for the Islamist group. While assessments of the historic site’s condition have only just begun, some experts say that the ancient city sustained much less damage than originally thought.

ISIS fighters originally took control of the Unesco heritage site in May 2015. At the time, the occupation was seen as a major victory for the extremist group against the Syrian government, which used the site as a staging ground and propaganda tool, publically demolishing several of the site’s most iconic ruins and putting them to use as propaganda tools, Hwaida Saad and Kareem Fahim report for the New York Times.

"Palmyra has been liberated. This is the end of the destruction in Palmyra," Syria’s antiquities chief Mamoun Abdelkarim tells Dominic Evans for Reuters. "How many times did we cry for Palmyra? How many times did we feel despair? But we did not lose hope."

During the 10-month-long occupation, ISIS demolished several of the city’s most iconic and ancient monuments, including the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin, as well as the iconic Triumphal Arch. ISIS heavily publicized the destruction of these monuments and looted the city for ancient artifacts, drawing condemnation from antiquities experts around the world. The destruction was called a war crime by Unesco officials who feared that ISIS’ continued occupation would result in a jewel of the ancient world being lost forever, Kareem Shaheen reported for the Guardian in August 2015.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces and ISIS fighters were still fighting in pockets around Palmyra’s outskirts, though the bulk of the extremist fighters fled the city on Sunday. The loss of Palmyra is one of the biggest setbacks the militant group has experienced since it first seized swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, Daniel Politi reports for Slate, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad plans on using the city as staging grounds for future assaults on ISIS fighters.

"We were expecting the worst. But the landscape, in general, is in good shape," Abdelkarim tells the Agence France-Presse (AFP)."We could have completely lost Palmyra. The joy I feel (today) is indescribable.”

Government forces are still sweeping Palmyra to clear its streets of land mines, but preliminary surveys of the ancient ruins indicate that ISIS fighters did much less damage to the city than archaeologists originally thought. In particular, Abdelkarim was excited that a famous statue known as the Lion of Al-Lat that was thought destroyed by ISIS fighters is in good enough condition that it can be restored, the AFP reports. However, not everyone is as optimistic about the extent of the damage, as anti-government activist and Palmyra native Khaled al-Homsi says the militants  “did damage to ruins that can never be compensated,” Saad and Fahim report.

Al-Assad has touted that the retaking of Palmyra shows that his government forces, along with help from his Russian allies, are the best-equipped for pushing ISIS fighters out of the region. Whatever the future holds for Palmyra, archaeologists can breath a little easier now that the “Jewel of the Desert” is out of the hands of people who would see its wonders demolished.

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