5 Oct 2015

Palmyra: Syrians condemn destruction of ancient site

Every evening, Abir Shalil used to look out over the ancient city of Palmyra and wonder at its beauty. The family home where she lived with her parents and six sisters was right there – she grew up amongst the ruins.

Now aged 23, she lives in a shabby tenement in the half-destroyed city of Homs. She didn’t want to think about the horrors she saw fleeing the militants of the Islamic State who seized her home town and the historical site back in May.

Dead bodies, people who had been beheaded, terrifying men with guns, awful things, she said. She was passionate about the wanton destruction of her beloved Palmyra.

“We’re angry because they are destroying our culture,” she said, sitting on a thin grey mattress in the bare room where she sleeps. All seven sisters plus their two children are sharing the house.

People sometimes say that foreign journalists like me make too much of the wanton demolition in historical sites such as Palmyra and Nineveh. People’s lives matter more, they say, and worrying about ancient stones is a middle class fetish.

Abir gives the lie to that. Married at 14, scarcely educated, she has a profound feeling for her culture and history.

“When we hear they are blowing up those monuments we feel it’s not just the stones they’re destroying but the people too,” she said.


Abir’s father disappeared – she has no idea if he’s alive or dead. Her mother remains in Palmyra, trapped or unwilling to take the risk of fleeing. Her sister, Asma, just a year older, told me that she supports Russian bombing if it stands a chance of driving Islamic State from Palmyra.

“Of course I wouldn’t be happy if the Russians killed my family and neighbours but I would be happy to get back to my old life and home,” she said. “OK, we are safe here but it’s not like the life we used to have. In our town, you might be poor but at least you were at home.”

Visiting Tartus a few days earlier, I happened to run into the Director of Syria’s Department of Antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, conducting a workshop for senior staff members (see video above).

Two thousand five hundred staff, living all over the country, on all sides of the civil war, are still risking their lives to protect their country’s heritage.The site director at Palmyra, Khaled Al-Asaad, was beheaded and his body displayed by IS militants in August.

Dr Abdulkarim took me round the 12th century Crusader Castle known as the Salah Eddin Citadel, near Latakia. In this peaceful part of Syria, they’re trying to continue the work of preservation. He showed me Christian frescos that have been uncovered underneath layers of plaster from later periods.

It was before the latest news came in that the vandals of the Islamic State have blown up the Roman Triumphal Arch at Palmyra. They blew up the Temple of Bel Baalshamin back in August. He was already fearing the worst.

“What I have in my heart is the moment of the liberation of the Palmyra,” he said, as we stood amongst the ancient citadel walls.

“We should all coordinate: the opposition, the Russians, the US, the coalition, the Syrian official army. Because we will lose Palmyra if it stays under control of the terrorists. Future generations will never forgive us.

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