Russia announced in 2019 it would help to restore several sites in Syria damaged by the retreating Islamic State in 2016, including the ancient city of Palmyra. But Moscow’s effort is seen by some as a geopolitical move aimed at gaining more influence in the Middle East by trying to improve its international reputation through cultural engagement.
Additionally, according to experts, Russia and its Syrian allies seek to obtain funding from international organizations, such as UNESCO.
Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites are considered among the world’s most important ancient cultural collections, including ancient settlements in Aleppo, Bosra, Damascus and Northern Syria. Twelve other sites are under consideration.
Once called the “Pearl of the Desert,” Palmyra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. It is renowned for its unique blend of Greek, Roman, Persian, and Islamic cultures, according to ArtNet.com.
In 2019, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Institute of the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus agreed to jointly collaborate on the restorations. In July, the head of the National Defense Management Center of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Mikhail Mizintsev, announced that work had begun on Palmyra and several other historical sites in Syria.
Russia is using Palmyra as one of many vehicles to show that it is a power to be reckoned with.
The dispute for Syrian cultural heritage is complex, going well beyond culture and archaeology. Russia is using Palmyra as one of many vehicles to show that, despite its weaknesses, it is a power to be reckoned with in the multilateral arenas of the United Nations or UNESCO, explained Gertjan Plets, anthropologist and associate professor in cultural heritage at Utrecht University, Netherlands.
The agreements give Russia the appearance of “protectors of cultural heritage” in Syria, according to Lubna Omar, visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University in the State of New York. If Russia convinced UNESCO to fund the restoration projects, this would polish its image on the international stage.
Russia could also justify its military presence through this “protector” role of antiquities, Omar noted. At the same time, the Syrian government indirectly collaborating with the international community through this Russian channel, could attach some legitimacy to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Plets said that the Kremlin tends to depict Russia as a “normal and civilized” nation amid a chaotic world, and Palmyra is presented as their effort in maintaining and preserving civilization. On the other hand, “the lack of international support for reconstruction projects in Syria are described in the Russian media as political games played by the West to undermine Russia’s ambitions and civilizational work in the world,” he told Inside Arabia.
While Palmyra is a very popular topic in Russian media, some experts have raised doubts about whether Russia possesses the expertise and experience to restore the ancient site. Opinion varies, but Russian proponents often justify their engagement by reminding critics that the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has the largest collection from Palmyra outside of Syria. Not everyone agrees with that assessment.
French archaeologist Annie Sartre-Fauriat, who has worked on Palmyra for more than 40 years and is a member of the UNESCO group in charge of Syria′s World Heritage monuments, said Russia’s concern for Palmyra is hypocritical. Russia is among those responsible for devastating many Syrian historical sites: Palmyra during the takeover in 2015, including the destruction of a museum and castle and Aleppo-East in 2016. And in December 2016, Russia constructed a large military camp over the antique necropolis, and then abandoned the site to Daesh (another Arabic acronym for Islamic State or ISIS) who destroyed the stage wall of the theater and the tetrapylon, she added.
“Russians never performed cultural scientific work in Syria: no excavations, no scientific publications and have not participated in the enhancement of any sites.”
“Russians never performed cultural scientific work in Syria: no excavations, no scientific publications and have not participated in the enhancement of any sites,” Sartre-Fauriat told Inside Arabia. “They only received as a gift the Palmyra Tariff by Sultan Abdulamid II in 1884. The tariff was discovered by the Prince Abamelek-Lazarev, an amateur archaeologist, who put it in the Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg.”
She disputes, too, that the Hermitage Museum has “the largest museum artifacts of Palmyra outside Syria.” In fact, “There are only nine or ten funeral busts, some fragments of sculpture and tesserae (small block of stone),” Sartre-Fauriat said. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen, the Louvre in Paris, and the British Museum in London, all have more artifacts from Palmyra than any other museums outside Syria, she affirmed.
“The Russians do not have in their possession any scientific documentation about the temple of Bel (French excavations) or Baalshamin (Swiss excavations) or other parts of the site such as the tombs (Polish or Danish excavations), an essential precondition for envisaging any restoration,” Sartre-Fauriat Added.
Plets contends that criticism about expertise “tends to be from the West, and this discourse is often textured by colonial dispositions, especially since this is about a region the West has dominated since colonial times. … the discussion is always about the right level of expertise; it is never about the politics of archaeology in the Middle East.”
Russian archaeologists are extremely well trained, Plets said, and have experience with large projects.
Russian archaeologists are extremely well trained, Plets said, and have experience with large projects. Archaeological teams have worked around the Black Sea where there are a lot of famous classical sites such as Chersonesos (today’s Crimea) which is recognized by the UN as Ukraine but has been governed by Russia since being annexed in 2014. Plets said that conservers will closely work with the Ministry of Culture of the Syrian Arab Republic, and the local directorate of antiquities, which have the expertise and experience.
Omar said she fears that excluding experts who worked on the site for decades displays the external power play over Syria. Syrian authorities refused to renew the expired credentials of archaeological teams from countries that oppose the regime of President Bashar Assad, according to media reports, while granting almost exclusive access to Russian archaeologists.
Since the Russian Geographical Society, which is supported by the Ministry of Defense, has funded restoration, Plets said he fears that Russian teams will cave to political pressure, and rush to reconstruct Palmyra with limited resources resulting in sloppy work.
Sartre-Fauriat said international collaboration has been elusive on the restoration, and the discussion about it has been heavily political.
Omar said she thinks that UNESCO and the international community are facing an ethical issue. “Should we forget and forgive and come together to protect World Cultural Heritage, even though the perpetrators who played a crucial role in the destruction of these sites are asking to play a part in this process?” she asked.
The lack of agreement leaves Syrian cultural heritage highly exposed to further looting and pillage.
Some observers say Russia’s goal is to establish a monopoly on antiques in Syria and to control the sizable restoration funds provided by UNESCO. Plets thinks this would be difficult to achieve. UNESCO is cash-strapped, he said, and funding is not as free flowing as it once was.
Meanwhile, the lack of agreement leaves Syrian cultural heritage highly exposed to further looting and pillage. “Everything in Russia and Syria is political,” said Sartre-Fauriat, noting that “the ruins of antique cities could wait for better days. It is just necessary to protect them against looting.”
In Plets’ opinion, foreign presence will only momentarily halt the trafficking of antiquities out of Syria. Omar reminds that Syrian territories are subjugated to various military powers: Russia, Iran, and Turkey, each of them having its own political agenda and opinion about what should be protected at the cultural heritage sites. And even if the international community comes to a consensus and joins in the efforts to protect the sites, how will they enforce the halt of looting? Would they have the authority to stop soldiers from looting? Or would their authority be limited to the activities of locals?
While Omar remains pessimistic about this, Plets thinks that local organizations, stronger regional cultural institutions, and Syrian archaeologists are the only sustainable buffers against looting. He suggests that the international community must crack down on the global art market. Perhaps sending international peace troops to Brussels or Hong Kong— two of the major hubs through which loot and blood antiquities, or those acquired during conflicts, are sold— might suppress the demand and steer illegal trade in a better direction.