PALMYRA, SYRIA/DAMASCUS – As pro-government forces entered the famed Syrian city of Palmyra for the first time in nearly a year on Sunday, they feared they would find its treasured sites destroyed forever.
Backed by Russian ground and air forces, the Syrian troops made their final push into the desert city early on Sunday, expelling Islamic State group jihadis.
The extremist Sunni group had destroyed some of Palmyra’s most iconic artifacts, including the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph.
“We were so scared we would enter the ruins and find them completely destroyed,” one Syrian soldier said, speaking on condition of anonymity on the outskirts of the city.
“We were afraid to look. … But when we entered and saw it, we were relieved,” he told AFP.
Much of the ancient city of Palmyra, including the Agora and the celebrated Roman theater, appear to have survived Islamic State’s nearly 10-month reign over the city.
Syrian soldiers, pro-government militiamen and Russian fighters strolled among the ruins in awe, incredulous they were still intact.
They walked slowly in fear of roadside bombs or hidden mines that Islamic State may have left behind, but their joy and relief were palpable.
Some fighters began casually kicking a soccer ball around just under Palmyra’s famed citadel, west of the city.
Another soldier began playing an upbeat rhythm on a small traditional drum as his peers sang songs praising President Bashar Assad.
But one Syrian fighter stood sobbing loudly in the old ruins.
“I’m sad to see some of the old city destroyed, but I’m also weeping for my brother, who died in the battle here,” the soldier said.
“By taking the city, I feel I’ve avenged his death.”
The modern district of Palmyra, where 70,000 people lived before the war, was not as lucky as the old city.
Days of heavy street fighting battered the rows of two- to three-storey apartment buildings, and some completely collapsed into a pile of rubble.
Those neighborhoods were deserted on Sunday, in eery contrast to the relative serenity of the ancient ruins.
“The battle at Palmyra has dispelled this aura surrounding Daesh fighters. They’re just regular fighters, and we can demolish them,” one fighter said, using a the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Syria’s army began a major offensive to retake Palmyra earlier this month, and their victory is a major strategic and symbolic win for the embattled government.
“We’ve been completely cut off for the past 10 days,” one soldier said.
“We’re waiting to have proper mobile phone reception again so we can tell our parents that Palmyra is back and that we’re okay.”
The ancient artifacts in the city of Palmyra are in much better shape than expected, Syria’s antiquities chief said Sunday after regime forces recaptured the desert oasis from the Islamic State group.
Antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim said much of Palmyra’s old city was intact and his department would try to restore relics destroyed during the jihadis’ nearly year-long rule over the city.
“We were expecting the worst. But the landscape, in general, is in good shape,” he said.
“We could have completely lost Palmyra,” said Abdulkarim.
“The joy I feel (today) is indescribable,” he told AFP in a telephone interview from Damascus.
Known to Syrians as the “Pearl of the Desert,” Palmyra is a well-preserved oasis and boasts colonnaded alleys, elaborately decorated tombs and ancient Greco-Roman ruins.
Since it overran the city in May 2015, Islamic State destroyed the grand Temple of Bel, the shrine of Baal Shamin, and several funerary towers, which the ultraconservative Sunni Muslim extremists see as blasphemous.
The jihadis used the city’s spectacular Roman theater for executions and murdered the 82-year-old former antiquities chief of Palmyra.
Abdulkarim said the old ruins, located southwest of Palmyra’s residential neighborhoods, were in better condition than he expected.
Many of the most important ruins, including the Agora, Roman theater, and city walls, were only lightly damaged, he said.
“The really great news is about the Lion of Al-Lat,” the famous 15-ton lion statue destroyed by Islamic State last July, Abdulkarim said.
The limestone statue at the temple of Al-Lat, a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess, dates back to the 1st century BC.
Abdulkarim said the broken pieces “could be put back together — we didn’t lose this great statue.”
The citadel west of the city had suffered some of the most severe damage, with parts of it walls blown off by shelling.
“We will discuss with the United Nations how to restore the two temples (of Bel and Baal Shamin),” said Abdulkarim.
An AFP correspondent said most of the stones from the collapsed Temple of Bel appear to be still on the site.
Abdelkarim said he would travel from Damascus to Palmyra soon to assess the damage.