Headed by the Director of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, the mission, from 24 to 26 April inspected both Palmyra's museum and archaeological site, taking stock of “considerable damage to the museum, where they found that most of the statues and sarcophagi that were too large to be removed for safekeeping were defaced, smashed, their heads severed and their fragments left lying on the ground,” UNESCO said in a press release on Wednesday.
“Palmyra is a pillar of Syrian identity, and a source of dignity for all Syrians,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.
“UNESCO is determined to ensure the safeguarding of this and other sites with all partners as part of broader humanitarian and peace building operations,” she added.
The experts participating in the mission, who were escorted by UN security forces, identified emergency measures to consolidate and secure the building and the work that will be required to document, evacuate, safeguard and restore whatever is possible. Work to match and document the fragments of destroyed statues has already begun.
At the archaeological site, the experts took stock of the state of conservation of the grand colonnade and agora. They observed the destruction of the triumphal arch and Temple of Baal Shamin, which was “smashed to smithereens,” UNESCO said.
The members of the mission observed a minute of silence in memory of the victims murdered at the amphitheatre.
The experts had to examine damages to the Temple of Bel from a distance, as the edifice is still inaccessible and demining operations have not been completed. Likewise, the Mamluk Citadel, overlooking the ancient city, which also sustained serious damage, remains inaccessible.
The Director-General of Antiquities and Museums of Syria, Mamoun Abdoulkarim, accompanied UNESCO's experts and heads of several departments in charge of World Heritage museums, architecture and sites.
“The participants paid tribute to the courage of all those who work to document and safeguard the heritage of Syria, especially the Directorate-General of Syria's Antiquities and Museums for its dedication to protect this heritage which belongs to all Syrians and to the whole of humanity,” UNESCO stressed.
The mission considered that despite the destruction of several iconic edifices, the archaeological site of Palmyra “retains a large part of its integrity and authenticity.”
UNESCO said it will work with its partners to adopt emergency safeguarding measures.
A full report on the site will be presented to the World Heritage Committee at its 40th session, in Istanbul, Turkey, in July, with a view to determining recommendations for emergency safeguarding measures that need to be taken.
UNESCO plans to send an international mission of experts to examine in greater detail the state of conservation of heritage sites of Syria, including Palmyra.
An international meeting of experts on the preservation of Syria's heritage sites will be held on 2 and 4 June in Berlin, Germany.
The mission completed yesterday followed on a decision taken by the World Heritage Committee during its 39th session in Bonn, Germany, this past July, and a decision unanimously adopted during the 199th session of UNESCO's Executive Board concerning the Organization's role in “safeguarding and preserving Palmyra and other Syrian World Heritage sites.”
The World Heritage site of Palmyra, an oasis in the Syrian Desert north-east of Damascus, contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.
Photo: ©UNESCO/F. Bandarin