Archaeological experts question Syrian Ministry of Tourism’s plans to reopen site destroyed by ISIS
When considering vacation spots, Syria is unlikely to top most tourists’ wish lists, however, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism recently announced plans to re-open the ancient city of Palmyra to visitors as early as next summer.
Located in the Homs Governorate, Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an ancient city with a glorious past that came under the rule of a series of empires, at one point even comprising its own. The unique city composed of archaeological ruins was captured by the Islamic State group in 2015. Several of its prized monuments were subsequently destroyed, with archaeologists assessing it will take years to undo the damage. Nevertheless, and despite the ongoing war, Syrian officials have indicated that such restoration efforts are well underway and that the area will be accessible to tourists in less than a year.
“The authorities now have a project to repair all the damage caused to Palmyra’s Old City,” Homs’ provincial governor Talal Barazi told Russia’s state-run -Sputnik News. “There are also good offers from the world powers to restore the artifacts and historical value of Palmyra. I suppose that Palmyra will be completely ready for receiving tourists by summer 2019.”
The Media Line reached out to the Syrian Ministry of Tourism for comment, but while a spokesperson did confirm there were plans to re-open the historic site, no further details or timelines were provided.
Barazi’s statements are in line with the ministry’s broader push to revive tourism in the war-torn country, previously an attractive destination for travelers in the Middle East. To this end, the Ministry of Tourism has published dozens of promotional materials highlighting the beauty of Syrian beaches, cities and archaeological sites. As regards Palmyra specifically, though, it may be hard to change the now-pervasive popular association of the site with ISIS’ brutal propaganda video showing the killing of Syrian soldiers before a crowd of onlookers.
“The first thing I think about when [mentioning] Palmyra is the murder of [chief] archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad and all the people shot in the theater,” archaeologist Ticia Verveer stressed to The Media Line, referring to the former head of antiquities in Palmyra who was publicly beheaded by the terrorist group three years ago. “The war in Syria has claimed so many lives. It is impossible to imagine the [magnitude] of the damage and the scope of the suffering.
“We need to take into consideration the archaeological landscapes of war,” she elaborated. “People have died in Syria so by reconstructing [Palmyra] and reviving tourism there it is possible [that we] trivialize the victims. The inhabitants of Palmyra have been in large part, if not entirely, destroyed and their voice is silenced.”
Nada Al Hassan, the Chief of the Arab States at the UNESCO World Heritage Center, visited Palmyra in April 2016—after Syrian soldiers recaptured it from ISIS—as part of the world body’s mission to inspect both the museum and archaeological site. While several key relics were destroyed by ISIS, such as the Temple of Bel, Arch of Triumph and Temple of Baalshamin, among others, she believes the essence of the site remains intact.
“Palmyra is more than monuments, it is a city and I sensed when I visited at that time that it was still there [in spirit],” Al Hassan recounted to The Media Line, before qualifying that the government’s immediate responsibility should be restoring normalcy to urban areas where civilians continue to suffer. “What UNESCO recommends and has asked Syria to do is to not undertake any restorations or reconstruction before a full [archaeological] and scientific consultation is done,” adding that this process could itself take years and can only begin once the war has ended.
Aside from the state of archaeological site, the issue of safety for tourists is also of paramount importance. “Up until today it is not safe to go to Palmyra,” Al Hassan emphasized, noting that Damascus’s statement about reopening the area was likely “a message of defiance” against what transpired there with ISIS.
“I am quite skeptical,” Dr. Ted Kaizer, a professor at Durham University who has written at length about Palmyra, conveyed to The Media Line. “In the first place because it would not be very safe, but also because of the total destruction of the local museum.”
In fact, according to the U.S. State Department’s most recent advisory, “no part of Syria is safe from violence. Kidnappings, the use of chemical warfare, shelling, and aerial bombardment have significantly raised the risk of death or serious injury.” Others familiar with Palmyra likewise maintain that the site remains unsafe and thus questioned the Syrian government’s motives.
“I agree with the UNESCO assessment that rebuilding Palmyra and reopening it for tourism will take a long time and should most definitely not be undertaken in haste,” Dr. Eckart Frahm, a professor of Assyriology at Yale University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, contended to The Media Line. “It is possible that some Syrian-Russian collaboration will put a basic touristic infrastructure into place and that some Russian tourists [will] visit, but I am afraid that would be mainly for propaganda purposes.
“I can’t imagine that any reasonable reconstruction or restoration work can take place without international help, which will require political stability and that remains elusive for the time being.”
Overall, many experts reject the Assad regime’s ostensible goal of re-opening Palmyra to the public, especially while the seven-years-long conflict, which has claimed nearly half a million lives, is ongoing.
“Is it the citizens of Palmyra who want to rebuild it?,” archaeologist Verveer asked somewhat rhetorically. “I think there is a greater need to rebuild the modern city, infrastructure, electricity, running water, a school, houses, a cemetery and there is even a need for a mosque. When the people return and have a life there, [then] we could have a discussion to reconstruct. Palmyra can never be turned into a simple business venture anymore, too much has happened.”