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'Palmyra is in no danger of Disneyfication'

Interview: Elizabeth GrenierJune 3, 2016

Those who claim the Palmyra ruins could be turned into a Disneyland don't know what they're talking about, says UNESCO's Francesco Bandarin. He's now in Berlin for a conference on the preservation of Syria's heritage.

Palmyra Syrien UNESCO Welterbe
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/V.Sharifulin

World heritage body UNESCO has reacted promptly to a DW interview with historian Annie Sartre-Fauriat, who on Wednesday harshly criticized Russia's presence in the oasis town of Palmyra. She fears restoration plans could ruin the authenticity of the ancient site.

As an international group of experts gathers in Berlin to discuss the future of Syria's heritage sites, DW talked to UNESCO's Assistant Director-General Francesco Bandarin.

DW: How did UNESCO's recent technical mission to Palmyra contribute to developing a concrete strategy for the preservation and reconstruction of the site?

Francesco Bandarin: This was a first mission, not quite a technical mission because it would have been longer. We sent four of our experts on Syrian heritage sites for a rapid assessment. It wasn't a complete survey of the situation and of the damage. We wanted to gain an understanding of the situation to determine the priorities in the next phase of the operation. What the mission reported back is that the situation there is still very critical.

The city is still undergoing a demining process. The security situation does not allow anything to happen for the time being. We can't send people to an area where the army is trying to demine.

Obviously, we have to give priority to the humanitarian situation. We don't want to start anything before there is a city. There are no inhabitants in this city. It was completely destroyed and everybody has left: 50,000 people have been displaced.

Satellite pictures of destruction of Baal-tempel, Copyright: dpa - Bildfunk
Despite satellite photos and visits to the site, no one yet knows the true extent of the damage in PalmyraImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The conclusion, therefore, was: Let's first aim some initial recomposition of social life, and then we can start talking about things that are more systematic for the site. A few initiatives can be taken with more urgency, but we certainly have to understand the situation there first. As of today, nobody really knows.

People have been observing the situation at the temples and the tombs, but nobody has done a serious survey of the destruction that has taken place, including the type of destruction. It is very important to understand the kind of explosions that were used, where they were used, and their impact. All these things cannot be judged by pictures.

We also have to plan the protection of the site, once the military have finished their demining work.

What is UNESCO's position on Russia setting up a military camp near the ancient ruins?

Francesco Bandarin UNESCO, Copyright: UNESCO
"Restoration work always takes decades": BandarinImage: UNESCO

We will have to look into this issue of the Russian camp. It took us a bit by surprise, we didn't know about it. It is very difficult to tell an army doing its work not to do anything. They told me - and we will have to verify - that it is not a military base with military equipment. It is essentially a camp for the deminers. It doesn't have the same impact on the site as tanks or cannons. We still see that this camp shouldn't be there. The army did it without much care and improvised a camp; it's certainly not something that should remain there.

So UNESCO isn't in a position to intervene and tell Russia how to approach the site?

Yes, we are in a position to intervene and discuss with Russia. We were not in the position to stop them when they were doing it, because I'm sorry, but we don't have troops on the ground. We are based in Paris and have offices in Beirut and we are a technical organization, we are not a military force. Sometimes people overstate our power, they make me feel like Superman!

What about the concert they organized on the site, shortly after Palmyra came back under the control of the Assad regime in late March?

This was an act of publicity, obviously. We were not there. The Russians "liberated" Palmyra and they wanted the world to know. But let's talk about serious things. The post-conflict celebrations are over now; let's move on to the real business.

How would you describe Russia's role in Palmyra right now? Is it one of leadership?

If we talk about the military situation, I presume, without being a military specialist, that the Russians are playing a leadership role, as they are supporting the army of Syria. But I don't think the same judgment can be applied to the archeological site. The Russians are not playing a leadership role in Palmyra because they are referring to us.

They are here at the conference today, along with the West Europeans and the Syrians. It will be an interesting meeting because, for the first time, we are bringing together all the actors who normally don't speak to each other because of their political divergences. When it comes to putting those aside and concentrating on heritage, they are all here.

Many of Syria's World Heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed, including Aleppo and the ancient town of Bosra. Who has the authority over the management of heritage sites in Syria?

Syria, unfortunately, is not a country at peace. So to say that someone has the authority on the territory is a bit exaggerated. Syria is a fragmented country: there are areas under the control of certain powers, the Syrian government or the Kurds in the north and the opposition groups in Bosra. But as far as UNESCO is concerned, this is not the primary consideration. We are concerned with heritage preservation. As an intergovernmental organization, we have limits. I'm not sure I can go to Bosra tomorrow, but we will support everybody who is interested in preserving Bosra as a heritage site.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's war has also contributed to damaging the country's heritage sites. How is the collaboration with Syria on these matters working out?

Let's make things clear: we are not working with the Syrian government. This is a job for world politicians. We work with the department that deals with heritage, the Department of Antiquities.

These people are not only very serious and professional, they are very courageous, risking their life every day trying to avoid further destruction of their heritage. It's a war zone.

There are different propositions for Palmyra's ancient ruins. Some believe that a careful reconstruction can also serve as a form of memorial, whereas others fear it would lack authenticity and turn the site into a kind of a Disneyland. What is UNESCO's vision for Palmyra?

We want to have a very serious technical approach to this issue. We can't throw ourselves into conjectures on what Palmyra will become. We are now approaching the site with emergency measures. We are not talking about bringing tourists. Tourists aren't going to Palmyra now, please, it's a war zone! There's no risk of Disneyfication for the time being!

If you look at the restoration of the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it started in 1992. It was handled by hundreds of experts around the world, with whole scientific committees who are really serious. It is not something that one person can decide, to make Disneyland in Palmyra. I'm really shocked when I see so-called professionals saying things like that, because clearly they have no idea what they are taking about. We are working in many conflict and disaster areas in the world and it always takes decades. It will be the same thing in Palmyra: restoration will be established by a very elaborate scientific decision-making process.

And let's not forget that Syria is a country where half of the population was displaced. It's the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II, and this is the real issue.

Russia's Mariinsky Orchestra concert in Palmyra, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Voskresenskiy
After retaking Palmyra in March, Russia organized a concert on the ancient siteImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Voskresenskiy

Since there is so much to do on a humanitarian level, is the international expert meeting on the preservation of Syria's cultural heritage, now taking place in Berlin, putting the cart before the horse?

We are heritage professionals: that's why we are focusing on this aspect, but we always say this is part of the humanitarian operation. Heritage is part of the life of a community. We want to help the reconstruction of communities through our tool, which is heritage.

Which results are you expecting from this conference?

The conference brings all the experts around the table and has two main goals: First, to exchange information on the situation. It is not only about Palmyra, but all the Syrian sites. We want a full map. An indirect benefit of the conference is that people will talk to each other, even those who throw stones at each other on paper.

The second goal is to find a consensus on the initial priorities. It's too early to call it an action plan, but rather a consensus on emergency measures. We also have to consider the resources, who will be paying this very expensive operation, with years and years of involvement of specialists.

We also want to find out how we can re-establish archeological missions. This has been the strength of Syria, which has had hundreds of archeological missions over the last 100 years.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.