By Ruth Maclean
9 March 2017
Laughter broke the silence at what was left of the Temple of Bel in the ancient city of Palmyra. A group of Russian soldiers had just screeched up in a car splattered with the mud of the Syrian Desert. In helmets and full camouflage, they clambered out, Kalashnikovs slung from their shoulders and selfie sticks in hand.
Days before, these troops and other forces loyal to the Syrian government had recaptured the Roman city, a world heritage site and an important symbol of Syrian diversity, from Islamic State for the second time in a year.
Graffiti at the entrance read: “No entry without Isis permission – not even brothers.” The Russians crunched up the piles of rubble and posed for triumphant pictures under the arch – all that was left of the central temple.
The once highly decorative but recently destroyed facade of the theatre in Palmyra. Photograph: Ruth MacLean for the Guardian
Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, who had already transported most of the ancient statues in the city’s museum to Damascus, said: “This time, they don’t seem to have damaged Palmyra as badly as we feared.”
But the damage was still devastating. In the past two months, Isis levelled most of the Tetrapylon, a group of raised pillars, and destroyed the carved facade of the ancient theatre, where the Jihadi group forced locals to watch as it murdered 25 soldiers during the first occupation.
This week, Isis militants were still fighting nearby. From their perch up by Palmyra’s castle, built on a hill a millennium after the Roman city, soldiers watched explosions and smoke about six miles (10km) beyond the town, marking the fighters’ location. The thud of mortars came a few moments later.
Samir Mohammed, a Syrian army major, said: “They’re fighting Isis, trying to push them back.” Beside him was a strange collection of objects that had made it up the steep road to the base of the 13th-century castle. Rocks were piled up around a stained sun lounger cushion, adding a touch of comfort to the lookout. A metal desk, its glass top cracked and drawers splayed open, sat waiting for hilltop letter writers.
During its first occupation, Isis blew up the steps to the citadel, meaning access is only possible via a hotch-potch of ladders propped up by crumbling pillars, with a cascade of rubble to clamber over at one end.
Below, a call to prayer from one of the town’s many empty mosques echoed through the deserted streets: perhaps a devout soldier standing in for the absent muezzin.
The main mosque of the town was destroyed except for the battle-scarred minaret, still standing and in possession of its crescent moon. Part of the pale green of the mosque’s dome lay amid the grey rubble, loudspeakers still attached.
“Isis do this – destroy mosques and try to pretend it was us,” Mohammed said. Nearby, each grave in a cemetery had been systematically destroyed for being too high, the same reason Jihadi fighters in west Africa had used to justify the destruction of the ancient tombs of Timbuktu.
Apart from the Russians and the occasional lizard moving across a sun-warmed stone, Palmyra stood empty. Walking into the silent theatre for the first time in three months, a Syrian woman clapped her hands to her mouth when she saw the decorative front, now a pile of stones on the stage. In a corner lay a pile of jam jars, used as candle holders when a Russian symphony orchestra played here to celebrate the first time the site was recaptured, and now home to a family of beetles.
A gold birdcage trolley stood abandoned on the short stretch of road between the theatre and the Temple of Bel. Its days of being piled with tourists’ luggage and pushed around a Palmyra hotel were over. From the stains on the trolley’s red velvet base, it looked as if it had lately seen much less salubrious surroundings.
The trolley’s porter was long gone.
Despite the desecration, Roman Palmyra is still majestic and atmospheric. But the town alongside it, called Tadmur in Arabic, which used to be full of life, noise and thousands of tourists, is desolate.
Some former residents, many of whom are living temporarily in Homs, 160km to the west, visited this week to see whether they could move back home, but found it impossible because there was no water or electricity.
Curtains swung in the gaping windows of the Tetrapylon hotel. Many panes had been blasted out and doors were gone or wide open. The shutters that were still in place had been painted blue, by Isis, the Syrian army said, in preparation for its graffiti. “No mines” was written in Russian on the side of buildings.
A dusty chandelier lay next to an empty Pepsi bottle in another hotel. On the wall outside, as on many buildings, Isis graffiti had been hastily painted over. In a blackened lobby next door were the footprints of a cat that had picked its way through the grey rubble dust.
The Palmyra ruins pale in comparison with the more than 400,000 people killed and millions displaced over the course of Syria’s six-year crisis. But the systematic attempt to destroy the ancient site has been described by the UN as a war crime that, according to Abdulkarim, was intended to terrorise the Syrian people.
“Destroying our heritage is the same as killing a child,” he said. Much of the ancient city could be rebuilt, Abdulkarim added, but apart from some urgent stabilisation, it would have to wait until peace returned to the country.
This week, troops lounged on the steps of Palmyra’s museum, guarding the few statues that were left after the effort to move them out, all of them pushed over or with their faces smashed in.
“He’s sleeping,” joked one soldier, pointing to a statue that would have been lying face down if it still had a face.
The bullet-pocked museum has its own terrible story. In 2015, Isis beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, its 82-year-old director, when he refused to tell them where precious artefacts had been moved to.
Syria is full of ancient artefacts such as the ones from Palmyra and it has been Abdulkarim’s job to try to rescue them. His mission of “cultural diplomacy” between parties to the conflict and foreign powers is not easy, he said, adding that people accuse him of whitewashing for Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Despite this, he said: “The majority of Syrian people accept me and the job I’m trying to do, in government-controlled areas and non-government-controlled areas.”
Still, he would rather not be doing it. Exhausted from five years of scrambling to protect the country’s heritage, he has often tried to resign, but been met with entreaties to stay.
“I have tried to quit four times, but every time, something happens,” Abdulkarim said. “I’m so tired from all the hundreds of emails every week and WhatsApp messages until midnight every night. I haven’t eaten lunch with my wife for five years. In November, I said: ‘Please, now 90% of the [historical] objects in Syria are in Damascus, 320,000 of them, packed and photographed. Please can I leave now?’”
Then Isis retook Palmyra.
When he started out in archaeology decades ago, Abdulkarim thought he would be digging up treasure, not trying to hide it.
“It was a very quiet life, a charmed life,” he said. “But now it’s very dark.”