The reconquest of Palmyra

The art war of Isber Sabrine. Daesh can be defeated also through the defence of cultural heritage.

Palmyra, the ancient Roman city in the middle of the Syrian desert, has been liberated. Daesh was put to flight by the army of Bashar al Assad and Russian aviation. Now it’s time to recover and rebuild everything that was destroyed by the blind fury of the Islamic State. But it’s not enough. Isber Sabrine, a young Syrian archaeologist, founder of the NGO “Heritage for peace” affirmed: “Palmyra’s reconstruction must be not only material but also moral.” His thought goes also to the city’s population, 70 thousand people who today need concrete help. The care and the defence of Syria’s cultural heritage “is our obligation towards the victims of terrorism. Their memory cannot be erased as well as our common historical roots.”

28 marzo 2016: liberazione di Palmira

The ancient Roman city of Palmyra was liberated after three weeks of a military campaign launched by the army of Syrian president Bashar al Assad and by the air force of his Russian ally Vladimir Putin, Thousands-year-long historical artefacts looted, annihilated by ISIS fury, blown away. Ancient vestiges stolen and sold on the black market to finance mindless violence, as happened months ago in Iraq in Mosul, Nimrud and Nineveh: a scar of unprecedented proportions. Aerial footage of Palmyra revealed the destruction of ancient temples, dynamited ancient Roman tombs, the destruction of the Arch of Triumph. Such “cleansing” operation could have been even more dramatic if scholar Khaled Asaad, head of antiquities in Palmyra, among the most prominent Syrian archaeologists, hadn’t had the courage to defend Palmyra till the end, until he was beheaded by ISIS for having refused to reveal the site where he had hidden a large number of artefacts before the arrival of the Caliphate.


Symbol of Syrian identity. “Erasing a heritage of the past like the site of Palmyra means undermining the future of Syria – declared in no uncertain terms Isber Sabrine, 31, Syrian archaeologist –


Palmyra is a symbol of Syrian identity, thus it represents a value that extends beyond the purely cultural and artistic dimension.”


The archaeological site in the midst of the Syrian desert, “that was brought into a perverse game of opposing powers”, is now celebrated worldwide – said the archaeologist, founder of the NGO “Heritage for Peace” with headquarters in Girona (Spain) – and today many are those claiming the merit of its recovery. UNESCO, Russia and President Assad in this way have diverted international attention from the ongoing civil war in the Country and the atrocities that have been perpetrated.” Material reconstruction. The liberation of Palmyra has stirred great emotion and there is already talk of reconstruction. Sabrine determinedly pointed out: “The reconstruction must be not only material but also moral.” Any proposal for its recovery and conservation remains valid, such as “3D technology enabling the reconstruction of the temples of Bel and Baal Shamin that were severely damaged.” The challenge against the iconoclastic barbarism of Daesh can also be won with “the deployment of Italy’s ‘blue helmets’ for cultural heritage, a task force composed of Cultural Heritage Protection officers and civilian experts.” The purpose of the proposal advanced by Italian Minister for Cultural Assets and Activities Dario Franceschini, approved by UNESCO, is to raise the awareness of the international community on the artistic and cultural sites targeted by international terrorism. “It will take at least 5 years to rebuild the site, remarked the young Syrian archaeologist – but we urgently need to know exactly what has been destroyed and plan the first conservation works.”


Moral reconstruction. Moreover, there is also a “moral form of reconstruction” which is dear to Sabrine and its NGO “Heritage for Peace”, founded in late 2011, with the aim of protecting Syria’s cultural heritage, by promoting dialogue between the conflicting parties and asking them to preserve the common heritage of art and history. “Everyone wants to contribute to the recovery of Palmyra – said the archaeologist as if to remove a pebble from his shoe – but


I find it shameful that nobody, starting with international media outlets, has mentioned the possibility of giving concrete support to the people of Palmyra, with its 70 thousand inhabitants. Many of them have fled the city and now they have to return to their homes and lands. They need material support.

Recuperating the site is the right thing to do, but it’s even more just and urgent to attend to the people of Palmyra. The recovery of Palmyra – he reiterated firmly – has human implications that must not be overlooked.

The reconstruction of Palmyra implies mending the heart of its population.”


Not only Palmyra. Syria’s artistic and cultural heritage is not only represented by Palmyra. Sabrine reiterated it over and over again: “some areas are in worse condition than Palmyra, the site shrewdly used by ISIS as an instrument of propaganda to obtain global resonance. There is an urgent need to protect all of Syria’s cultural and historical heritage. However, there should be no form of political exploitation. It belongs to Syria and to the heritage of all peoples, without distinction.” “I hope this point will be the object of due consideration in the ongoing talks in Geneva, by the regime and the opposition alike. Palmira must not be exploited for power games. The cease-fire is bearing fruits, but further efforts are needed to protect our entire cultural and artistic heritage. The new Syria also starts from here.” Palmyra has taught a lesson: “the terrorists are attacking the world by destroying its heritage and its culture, namely, its very roots. What has happened in Syria could happen in Nigeria, Kenya, in the Philippines or elsewhere.

“We have the duty to defend our heritage as an obligation towards the victims of terrorism. Their memory cannot be erased, as well as our common historical roots.”