Russia gains a foothold in Palmyra in Syria thanks to archaeological restoration

In accordance with three agreements signed with the Syrian government, Russia has announced the launch of a project to restore artifacts from the ancient city of Palmyra in the eastern countryside of Homs, in central Syria.

The first agreement, concluded in November 2019 between the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, concerns the restoration of the Archaeological Museum of Palmyra and its collections.

The second agreement, with the Institute of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is to train Syrian personnel and exchange information on image-based 3D modeling when assessing damage caused by the Islamic State (IS). The Russian Stone Industry Association signed the third chord in November 2020 to restore the Arc de Triomphe in Palmyre.

The COVID-19 epidemic in 2020 prevented the implementation of the agreements.

Syrian media quoted Dmitry Medyantsev, the project manager in Palmyra, as saying on June 13 that Russian experts involved in the restoration of the ancient city have already completed the first stage of the project, which includes measurements and field surveys. Secondly, they will remove the rubble, scan the fragments of destroyed monuments and draw up an inventory. Russian experts will create an interactive model of the city, which will reveal the missing parts to be recreated, he added.

In this context, Mohamad Hasan al-Ayid, director of the Palmyra News Network, an opposition affiliate in Palmyra, told Al-Monitor: “Russian interest in Palmyra started when ISIS was in control. still the city. At the time, Russia supported regime forces to regain control of Palmyra. Russian forces have overseen mine clearance efforts and the removal of explosive remnants of war in the city. [After IS was expelled in 2016], Russia has shown interest in the restoration of the ancient city, part of which is destroyed.

“ISIS destroyed the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin and the Triumphal Arch, in addition to several artifacts on display in the city museum. In the beginning [2017], the terrorist group destroyed the Tetrapylon, which the UN has called a war crime. Meanwhile, regime forces also targeted archaeological sites in the ancient city on the pretext that ISIS cells were hiding there, ”he added.

Ayid continued, “In addition to its cultural significance, Palmyra is located close to phosphate mines and gas fields, making it a priority for Russia. The city has become a hub for archaeological excavations. We have no idea what the fate of the artifacts was after the regime took over the city and the Russian and Iranian militias entered. We do not know the extent of the destruction or the number of stolen artifacts. Russia has transferred hundreds of artifacts, including the lion statue, to Damascus for restoration. More than 60 reliefs and funerary portraits, destroyed, have been restored by Syrian experts at the National Museum in Damascus. Still, field visits and surveys are needed in large parts of the city to assess the damage. “

Nasr al-Yousef, a Moscow-based Syrian-Russian journalist and expert on Russian affairs, told Al-Monitor: “The most important Russian statements on Palmyra were made in 2016 when Russia urged UNESCO to help to restore the ancient city. In addition, then-Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov met with UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in May 2016 to discuss a plan to send international experts to Palmyra to assess the damage.

“Moscow proposed a 3D model of the city, including the [Roman] theater and the Temple of Bel. Natalia Solovyova, deputy director of the Hermitage Museum, affirms that the model would make it possible to assess new excavation sites, to study the costs of town planning and reconstruction without being present in the city ”, he said. added.

Yousef went on to say that “in early August 2020, 12 Russian experts arrived in Damascus with the aim of overseeing archaeological excavation work and assessing the archaeological sites of Palmyra. Contracts have been signed with 35 Syrian experts to carry out excavations. On September 17, 2020, the team found 28 artifacts that were extracted in 48 hours of continuous work. Then they were transferred to warehouses 30 meters long and 20 meters wide built at the Palmyra military airbase where the artifacts were housed until the arrival of the cargo plane where the artifacts were loaded. .

“With this, Russia seeks to draw the world’s attention to the destruction suffered in Palmyra in order to obtain restoration funds, although it does not have the experience of restoring antiques. Moscow is also aiming to take over the city through antiques and the reconstruction process, to steal UNESCO funds and open up new investments in the city. Previously, most of the missions working in Syria were mainly German and French, in addition to some Japanese, Belgian and American missions. Russia had only one mission operating intermittently at Tell Khazneh in Hasakah. We have not seen any scientific publication of [this Russian] mission, ”he added.

Russia seeks to control most of the sectors in Syria that would serve its economic interests in the future. Moscow has a particular interest in the city of Palmyra and the monuments of the city, given its tourist importance and the possibility of implementing large projects if the situation stabilizes in the country. The Russian army has built a military base in the ancient city of Palmyra to prevent Iranian militias from taking over the area.

Wael Olwan, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor: “Russia seeks to seize all the files that would generate economic gains in Syria, including the raw materials, the file of the reconstruction and tourism, which is mainly focused on the Syrian coastal and archaeological areas. It also seeks to show that the Syrian regime is the one who won the battle, that it is actively seeking to achieve social stability, and that Syria’s tourism and investment projects have started their recovery. Russia is trying to drive Iran away from the ancient city because militias have stolen and smuggled antiques through Lebanon. Since Russia controls the area, it seeks to prevent such operations from taking place in order to avoid any accusation in this regard.

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