Palmyra Temple

Russia, Syria, and the Sacking of Cultural Heritage

One of the many serious issues buried by the Trump scandals of late is the fate of Middle East countries such as Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and by extension the cultural heritage within their borders, which has already been highly compromised by decades of war. There has even been an effort by the American military to establish a new corps of “monument men” to protect artifacts and buildings from the kind of destruction seen in recent ISIS campaigns in the region. Col. Scott DeJesse, one of these new officers, said in an interview on NPR that he felt personally responsible for saving things that were essential to the cultural identities of people in the Middle East. 

Of course, American and UNESCO World Heritage officials can be effective in these efforts only if they are part of either military operations or the peace process. When looters ransacked several of Iraq’s most important museums during the second Gulf War, U.S. troops were slow to respond but eventually stepped in to stop the atrocities. They were reminded of the vacuum that existed after the destruction of the Mostar Bridge in Kosovo and the beheading of the great Buddhas in Afghanistan during the first conflicts there during the 1990s. It seemed that the international community and NATO were prepared to intervene when such cultural terrorism occurred. There was even international funding for the reconstruction of the bridge following the war. 

Unfortunately, during the latter days of the Obama administration and throughout Trump’s disastrous presidency, no one has been paying attention with regard to protecting some of the world’s most precious archaeological sites. The entire city of Aleppo, home to priceless artifacts and many Jewish and Muslim sanctuaries, has been leveled by bombing—and not just from Russia and the Assad regime. Most alarming to mainstream architectural history and archaeology researchers has been the wholesale destruction of several ancient cities like Palmyra, Dura Europos, and Raqqa, as well as mosques in Mosul and Al-nuri.

Though ISIS had backing from Iranian militant groups, its war was contested by Russian-backed Syrian militias that were equally oblivious to cultural heritage at the height of the conflict. Many diplomats were also shocked that the U.S. did not more forcefully protect some of these world heritage cities when ISIS mounted its most audacious assaults on monuments associated with several religions and cultures in 2014 and 2015. When the well-preserved Temple of Bel in Palmyra was blown up in August 2015, some archaeologists suggested the need to begin creating models for its reconstruction immediately, so great was their sense of loss. Though the militants claimed to be “cleansing” the sites of shirk (polytheistic idols), later evidence showed that artifacts were being sold on the antiquities market to raise money for their army. 

When Donald Trump abruptly pulled U.S. troops from Syria in early 2019, many saw this as capitulation to Putin, who has long sought influence in the region. Indeed, no sooner did troops move from defensive positions than Russian air strikes struck civilian and militia targets, regaining control of most of the country. Only months later, the Russian government began solidifying economic and political ties to the Assad government. 

Russian and Syrian officials signing documents in the Palmyra agreement, December 2, 2019.

Fast-forward to last week, when the Hermitage, Russia’s largest repository of antiquities and home to its archaeological institute, announced a “mutual” agreement to manage the “reconstruction” of Palmyra and other damaged sites in Syria. Such a blatant power play, paternalistically swooping in to “save” world heritage sites, has no one fooled. Putin’s government is well aware of the meaning attached to heritage sites in the Middle East, to both East and West. In fact, Russia is a country addicted to monuments that extol the false virtues of czars, artists, soldiers, writers, despots, and tyrants. When the Soviet Union fell, one of the first actions taken by democracy advocates was to pull down effigies of Stalin, Lenin, and other Communist leaders. These statues had significance akin to that of icons in the Orthodox Church—objects of mystical deification. 

Architects, art historians, and archaeologists throughout the world are already watching Russia’s moves with concern. A high-tech aerial mapping survey of Palmyra gave the Russian/Syrian team a leg up on not only assessing damage but also preparing for the kind of Disneyland restoration efforts that rebuilt churches destroyed by Stalin in Moscow and St. Petersburg in a matter of months after oligarchs raised millions of rubles to fund the efforts. (They went heavy on the gilding.) Though there was some quibbling when Polish and Russian conservation experts worked for decades to rebuild the Summer Palace near Leningrad after World War II, no one challenged the accuracy of their efforts. This campaign will be different, and there is good reason to doubt the sincerity and scholarly rigor behind Putin’s cultural bribery. Yet who will intervene to stop him?

UNESCO, the world body most invested in cultural conservation, has few cards to play when dealing with Russia. Its leading supporters—France, Germany, and Great Britain—are mired in their own internal economic and cultural battles. The U.S. has pulled away from the United Nations and is unlikely to push for restraints on Russian cultural imperialism, especially in war-ravaged Syria or Iraq. 

Palmyra, scene frons of theatre, via Wikimedia Commons.

Architectural conservation has been forever changed by a half-century of ethnic cleansing and cultural terrorism throughout the world. When combined with the effects of climate disasters, the field will have its hands full during the next hundred years just maintaining and protecting existing heritage landscapes, buildings, and urban ensembles from significant damage and even total loss. Many leading conservationists and scientists currently studying prehistoric and ancient sites are strategizing on how to deal with the new order among nation states. Their research is in grave jeopardy, even as new discoveries promise better understanding of civilizations long dead and poorly documented. 

It is hard to imagine a world in which the most precious heritage and knowledge from historic places is held for ransom by tyrants, oligarchs, and miscreants like Putin and Assad. Yet that world is rapidly approaching, and it will not yield to half-hearted efforts to control its hold on our lives. Like the natural world suffering under climate change, the human-made environment of important buildings, structures, and artifacts is facing its own mass extinction, by the very creatures that built it. It isn’t too late to block the destruction, but no one has yet built a levy to stem the tide.


Featured image: Palmyra, Temple of Bel before destruction.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.