Syrian antiquities experts have said it will take “many days” to ascertain the extent of the damage to the ancient citadel of Palmyra as work starts to make the city safe.
Heritage officials will soon begin the onerous task of assessing the scale of the destruction caused by Islamic State (IS) militants after they seized the historic site.
With government forces now back in control of the region, bomb squads are scouring the streets to remove explosives planted by the extremists, before a team of scholars and conservationists moves in to examine monuments and artefacts.
Maamoun Abdul-Karim, director general of the department of Syrian antiquities and the official tasked with leading what is likely to be a lengthy and expensive rebuilding project, said there was damage at the two main temples at the archaeological site, the Arch of Triumph and the funeral towers. He added that experts still need “many days” to determine the exact extent of the destruction.
However, he praised the “professional way” in which Syrian troops liberated Palmyra from IS, saying that the “renovation work wouldn’t be as complicated as we thought” initially.
During the fighting for Palmyra, Syrian forces avoided inflicting additional damage to its monuments, he explained.
Before Palmyra fell to IS, authorities were able to rescue more than 400 statues and hundreds of artefacts and move them to safe areas, but large statues were left as they could not be moved.
Footage broadcast on state television at the weekend showed the rubble left after the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, as well as the damaged archway, the supports of which remain standing.
Artefacts inside the city’s museum also appeared heavily damaged. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was decapitated, while the museum’s basement appeared to have been dynamited, leaving the hall littered with broken statues.
The recapture of Palmyra by government forces on Sunday scored an important victory over IS fighters who had waged a ten-month reign of terror in the Unesco world heritage listed citadel, known as “the bride of the desert”.
During their rule of Palmyra, the extremists killed scores of people and demolished some of its best-known artefacts and monuments, including two large temples dating back more than 1,800 years and a Roman triumphal arch.
In August, IS beheaded the archaeological site’s 81-year-old director, Riad al-Asaad, after he reportedly refused to divulge where authorities had hidden some of the treasures before IS swept in.
The militants also demolished Palmyra’s infamous Tadmur prison in the town centre, where thousands of people were reportedly tortured.
The Sunni extremist group, which has imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, claims ancient relics promote idolatry and says it is destroying them as part of a purge of paganism – though it is also believed to have sold looted antiquities for significant sums of money.