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Palmyra: the modern destruction of an ancient city

Ancient Palmyra's tomb portraits, a critical link in the Silk Routes, suffered irreparable harm when ISIS overran the city. The destruction and looting of these cultural treasures sparked global outrage. The tragedy underscores the need to protect world heritage sites and the cultural identities they represent. A conversation between Dr. Salaam al-Kuntar and Dr. Steven Zucker about Palmyra while looking at six funerary reliefs, c. 150-200 C.E., varying dimensions, limestone (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). An ARCHES video. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(Slow music) - [Man] We're on the 2nd floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Looking at Tomb portraits. That come from the ancient city of Palmyra. In what is now Syria and this city which is on the edge of the desert is an oasis. And was this point in the Caravan route. Between the Roman Empire and Asia. They controlled this critical link in wahat we call the Silk Routes that linked The Mediterranean region with Central Asia as far as China. Palmyra in 2015 and 2017 was overrun by ISIS. - [Women] Isis had to mobilize what ever resources they had. And these were resources they could use to draw media attention and that was a unique opportunity at Palmyra because for them the whole event is the video. ISIS marched to the site over 5 days and the U.S Military and its allies were holding major operations in Syria against ISIS at the time. Many American archeologist and international archeologist appeal to the protection to the site of Palmyra because they saw that ISIS was marching there. But there was no response what so ever. So there was no intention of protecting the site. It is shameful that in the 21st Century with all the appreciation of cultural heritage and art it still happened to a world heritage site. And then we start asking ourselves what is the meaning of a world heritage site if that site cannot be protected? - [Man] So in sense there was a double failure on one hand we allowed ISIS to take the city hostage to use it for its own propaganda purposes. But in an more permanent sense the monuments of Palmyra suffered irreparable harm and this was an event that possibly could have been stopped if the U.S Army, if the Isac Regime had tried to turn ISIS's path away from this treasured archeological site. - [Women] These wars em limited ease. They'd show you how even in the 21st Century we have little apriciation of culture. Culture comes at the bottom of priorities of all governments. - [Man] But it is this heritage that makes up peoples identity of their sense of self. And so I can't imagine something more important in the long run. - [Women] People under estimate how much damage to cultural heritage effects people and their identity self awareness. If you think about the trauma that people go through. It's not only their very personal story of killing and torture and forced migration but it's also the destruction of the beloved places. The loss of the homeland with all this cultural heritage, that what makes a homeland a homeland. - [Man] We're look at 6 relive carvings that originally functioned as closing stones for tombs that were placed within towers just on the outside of the city of Palmyra. These 6 are of the many thousands that existed and that have been collected since the 18th century. ISIS didn't just destroy objects, they also looted and raised money through their elicit sale. - [Women] There were looters who went in to take advantage of the instability and lack of security. So what ISIS did is regulate the looting and considered antiquities as resources like oil. So they said okay what ever that is not a figurative artifact you can sell it and we will tax you and of course the looters are finding these and figurines, so they would hide those from ISIS and then sell them off market. It was a very ad hoc situation. - [Man] And the Tower Tombs met a tragic fate on under ISIS in 2015, they targeted the most intact and the largest of the tombs. Destroying 7 of them. - [Women] They did blow them up and they did them one by one. Some of them the publicized it and others we found out through satellite imagery. - [Man] The event that upset the archeological community most deeply was the murder of the the long time Director of Antiquities of the site. A man that have given his life to understanding and protecting the antiquities of Palmyra - [Women] Khaled-Asaad, he's a Syrian Archaeologist from Palmyra. He studied Palmyra very deeply no one knows Palmyra the way he knows it, he knows every stone. He refused to leave even though the threats of ISIS coming. He was executed in a horrific way. - [Man] This crisis is not ended but as we begin to look towards the future the archeological community the community concerned with historical preservation and of course most centrally the Syrian people themselves. Need to start grappling with how do we retrieve ancient history while respecting the loss of life that has happened recently. - [Women] We need to look back and document even the destruction event itself. So it's not an easy process international organizations UNSCO should not take decision on behalf of the people of Palmyra who are still refuges. We wanna learn from the Syrian Civil War and the destruction. How are we going to tell the story, the ancient story and the destruction story. Any visitors to the site in the future they need to see it same way as lots of the atrocities of Nazi Germany is still there to see and learn from. So we need to carefully think about how we're going to tell the story of this modern event. Not only go back and erase any traces of destruction and build the site back as like nothing happened. This is important for people to know and learn from. (upbeat music)