CHICAGO - He is one of the world’s leading experts on ancient Mesopotamia who has traveled to Syria often.  But all University of Chicago professor McGuire Gibson could do during Islamic State’s rampage of destruction in the historic city of Palmyra and other sites was watch helplessly from afar.

“This is the worst it’s ever been. This is totally out of control,” Gibson mourns.

Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was retaken from Islamic State last month. The city dates from the 1st century A.D. when it was situated along a major trade route of the Roman empire.

The expulsion of IS forces from Palmyra brought some relief to Gibson, who believes that with a return to government control, what’s left of the ancient city’s past might be back in safe hands.

“I hope the government gets more and more control.  And actually, thank God for the Russians,” said Gibson.

Gibson believes Russia’s military intervention and cooperation with the Syrian government was the best hope to stop further destruction of Syria’s irreplaceable cultural heritage.

FILE - This photo released March 28, 2016, by the
This photo released pm March 28, 2016, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows some damage at the ancient ruins of Palmyra, central Syria.

Much still at risk

Gibson’s view is not universal. Other preservationists, like Shawnee State University professor Amr Al Azm, warn that much remains at risk. “This sense of euphoria, of ‘anything to get ISIS out’ is, in my opinion, shortsighted and naïve.”

Al Azm is a member of the Syrian opposition who once worked at Syria’s Department of Antiquities. He has been studying the destruction of Palmyra from the air and says it is every bit as bad as was feared.

But he said indiscriminate airstrikes by the Russians, as well as the Syrian government, were just as dangerous as deliberate acts of destruction by IS militants.

“The Russians and the regime have no consideration.  They’ll bomb anything that’s in their way,” said Al Azm.

Al Azm receives reports and images of the destruction in Syria daily from a network on the ground. While critical of the role of Russian and Syrian forces, he does agree with Gibson on the larger threat to Syria’s heritage.

“But the looting, which is far more destructive in my opinion, it has done far more damage to Syria’s cultural heritage, that goes shall we say… unmentioned,” he said.

Much of the trade in historic artifacts from Syria is illegal. But the chaos of war and international demand have created a black market for Syrian artifacts. 

“This is organized gangsterism,” said Gibson. “But there’s a market for it.”

Al Azm said there’s only one solution that will stop the widespread looting and destruction: “What really needs to happen is for the war to stop.  That is what is going to save Syria’s cultural heritage.”

Special Project

More Coverage