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Palmyra shouldn't be another 'Disneyland'

Sabine Oelze / cmkJune 1, 2016

Experts disagree on how to deal with Palmyra's ancient ruins after their partial destruction by the "Islamic State." Historian Annie Sartre-Fauriat claims Russia is further damaging the site - under UNESCO's watch.

Syrien Palmyra UNESCO Weltkulturerbe - Rückeroberung durch syrische Armee
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Al Mounes

Ever since the ancient city of Palmyra came back under the control of the Assad regime in late March, world politics have been debating the site's future. Russia, meanwhile, has built a military base in the area and is committed to a rapid reconstruction of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

French historian and Syria expert Annie Sartre-Fauriat has criticized the Russians for wanting to control Palmyra's reconstruction without any real expertise. She points out that they have practically never led archeological research on the site.

In May, she published a book in France with her husband Maurice Sartre, titled "Palmyra: Truth and Legends," which seeks to correct the many varying texts and reports on the city, not least that of Paul Veyne, "Palmyra: Irreplaceable Treasure."

Historikerin Annie Sartre-Fauriat
"The Russians have no experience when it comes to Palmyra": Sartre-FauriatImage: Maurice Sartre-Fauriat

On Thursday, a group of experts will gather in Berlin along with UNESCO representatives to discuss Palmyra's future. Ahead of the conference, DW spoke with Fauriat for her view.

DW: You're a historian and expert on Syrian antiquity, and belong to UNESCO's group of experts that deals with World Heritage sites in Syria, and yet you weren't invited to the conference. Why is that?

Annie Sartre-Fauriat: The participation of historians like me at the conference was apparently not wanted. In my opinion, UNESCO is only holding this conference to show that it's doing something. However, I fear only those scientists were invited who will do nothing to oppose UNESCO. It shouldn't be overlooked that UNESCO's role in Syria has been one big disappointment. I had wished for the organization to take a clear position with regard to the restoration of Palmyra. Especially since most experts have advised that we shouldn't rush things.

Russia wants to support UNESCO in its plans to rebuild Palmyra. What do you think of this proposal?

I don't agree with it. The Russians have never been involved with the Palmyra site, not as archeologists, not as historians, nor as conservators. In my opinion, it's simply a political maneuver. [Russian President] Vladimir Putin only helped [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad recapture Palmyra so that he could be celebrated as a savior, and the Assad regime gladly made use of his help. I'm worried about the situation, because the Russians have no experience when it comes to Palmyra. They lack the expertise to carefully and respectfully restore the World Heritage site.

Why is Irina Bokova, UNESCO director general, open to Russia's offer of assistance?

It's a controversial and highly political situation. Irina Bokova was nominated by Bulgaria as Ban Ki-moon's successor for the post of UN secretary-general, and she's considered a top candidate. But she needs support from Moscow - and she owes her position as UNESCO director general in large part to Moscow's support. For that reason, in no way does she want to make an opponent out of Russia. As a result, she has become entangled in contradictions: at times, she says Palmyra should not be rebuilt with haste; at other times, it seems the Russians can do what they want. By putting her personal ambition first, Bokova's hands are tied.

Are you afraid UNESCO has lost its neutrality?

UNESCO has admitted the Russians are setting the course when it comes to the future of Palmyra. There has been no serious archeological approach: the first thing to do would be to secure the site and make a thorough inventory. But what have the Russians done? They've built a military camp nearby, and organized a "liberation" concert in the ancient amphitheater, for which they flew in hundreds of people. A real propaganda coup.

Syrien Mariinsky Orchester Konzert Wüstenstadt Palmyra
After retaking Palmyra in March, Russia organized a concert in the ancient amphitheaterImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Voskresenskiy

Do you worry that the archeological site has already suffered further destruction?

The area where the Russian military has built its camp was already battered by previous Syrian army maneuvers: army vehicles dug furrows into the ground, buried stones, dug up a path. Unfortunately, it's right there, in the Northern Necropolis, where much archeological excavation remains to be done. Instead, the area is once again being looted and destroyed.

UNESCO has not intervened, or put any pressure on the Russians to be more careful. For example, UNESCO could have required that the Russians build their camps elsewhere in the desert, where they wouldn't do any harm. But now, the numerous people - tourists, soldiers, journalists - who have already been allowed to wander through the ancient ruins or who have clambered about on the stones have already caused further destruction.

Why has UNESCO not intervened?

UNESCO has no options, and is simply not interested in doing something about the situation. Palmyra is being exploited, it has become a political plaything of Assad and the Russians. When the site was retaken from the shackles of the "Islamic State," the Russians called it a "liberation." They didn't "liberate" Palmyra! They only swapped one army for another.

First, the Syrian army devastated Palmyra, then it was the "Islamic State" - and now the Russians are causing trouble?

Palmyra vor und nach ISIS
The so-called "Islamic State" destroyed a number of ancient temples in the cityImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Eid

I call it as I see it: the Russians have built a military base on the site and are sending out patrols, rather than securing the ancient sites and keeping those people out who have no business being there. Of course, land mines must be removed from the area, but safeguards must also be put into place so that not just anyone can wander in.

This all sounds very pessimistic. Can Palmyra still be saved?

Not everything has been destroyed. Parts of the Temple of Bel, one of Palmyra's most beautiful buildings, are still standing. Perhaps it can be rebuilt. But honestly: I wouldn't restore the Temple of Bel. I think it should be left as it is.

In our last interview, you mentioned Palmyra could become a sort of Disneyland if it's rebuilt.

I very much fear that outcome. I'm afraid the Russians and the Syrians want to rebuild Palmyra as it once was. But what era would they base their reconstruction on? Inevitably, it would end up just being a copy of the original, and a poor copy at that. Together with a number of other academics I recently signed a petition in Warsaw against a rapid and ill-considered restoration of Palmyra. Instead a creating a bad copy, the money should be used to further excavate the city's as-yet unexplored areas and bring new historical discoveries to light. That would be more interesting than simply creating a sort of Disneyland. And this isn't just my opinion, but one shared by many other academics.

Palmyra is a symbol, and the Russians and Assad know all too well how to exploit it. They are pursuing their own political interests, and want to be seen as liberators. It's not about protecting the archeological excavations - that much was clear with Putin's "liberation" concert in the middle of a World Heritage site, with no regard for the potential damage. And, even worse, this all happened while hospitals in other towns were being bombed. That's obscene!

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Read the reaction to this interview by UNESCO's Francesco Bandarin here.