“Palmyra Forever”: an exclusive proof of the World Heritage archaeological site, emblem of the Syrian culture, severely damaged in recent armed conflicts.

by Maurizio Abbati

It was too good an opportunity to miss and a great audience understood this. On Saturday afternoon, the 13th May 2017, “Palmyra Forever”, an exclusive multimedia conference, was held at the Hall of Honour of the Palazzo Grassi, in the heart of Bologna Medieval historical city centre. The event was sponsored by the Cultural Association “Amici delle Muse” (The Muses’ friends), chaired by Marinella Dogliotti. The public was led by an undiscovered storytelling in pictures towards the archaeological site of Palmyra, before the outbreak of ISIS hostilities. Ilvana Mirto, former professor of Italian Language and Civilisation and Head of the Italian Section at Damascus University, Syria, with extra-academic charges as Cultural Attaché Aide at the Italian Embassy (from 2006 until 2012), acted as voiceover narrator.

The images of the rocky desert neighbouring the well known oasis were running through before the eyes. A boundless ochre-painted territory, free from vegetation, where you could find few nomadic camps and some flocks of sheep camouflaged into the background, here and there. Then, the first surprise: The Baghdad Café. A traditional food court where you could taste a nice cup of Arab coffee surrounded by Syrian handicraft. A quiet environment out of times and out of danger.

The journey goes on. A vast green area extends to the distant horizon. Is all this reality or a mirage? It is all true: the famous palm-tree oasis of Palmyra. Then, the sumptuous vestiges of a thriving city, committed to “international” trade and cultural exchanges. An unforgettable town governed by Queen Zenobia, still considered as the Syrian national hero. The huge Temple of Bel (or Baal), the Septimius Severus’ Triumphal Arch, the Decumano Maximo colonnade, the renowned Roman Theatre, the Tetrapylon, the Temple of Baalshamin and the ancient gravestones, including the Elhabel Tower (103 A.D.), a little further on. They were all witnesses of a multicultural civilisation who made the best of Greek-Hellenistic, Roman and Arabic art. The audience is completely plunged into a rare beauty.

The reality, though, is something else.  And it is a sad one. A visual report of annihilation and looting where most of the archaeological remains are reduced to a pile of rubble. A “war crime”, as stated by Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO. Maurizio Abbati, journalist on culture and sustainable development, reported about the current state of environment in Palmyra through the special testimony of Isber Sabrine, (live streaming from Girona, Barcelona, Spain), Syrian archaeologist and president of Heritage for Peace, a NGO made of international experts whose main commitment is to train “culture soldiers” or the new 21th Century monuments men, as defined by the press, worldwide. A high-value asset which made it possible, for example, to save most of the treasures stored in the Museum of Palmyra.

That constructive engagement remains the basis of this Organization involved in training, information, awareness programs addressed to staff, stakeholders and the same Syrian population, intended for the promotion of the common cultural values to protect the heritage, even legally speaking. This is really the theme of a new project, promoted by Heritage for Peace: “SHELTr”, Syrian Heritage Law Training. A specific training course, for specialised court of justice operators and decision makers, aiming at raising their awareness on rights and obligations fixed by the Syrian, Islamic and International Law, regarding cultural heritage.

This constant effort is bearing good fruit. The support of Syrians is helping Heritage for Peace, strengthened by their wish to reconquer their own identity. That is possible, as shown by a spontaneous initiative held in Palmyra Roman theatre remains, last March. A group of young Syrian men and women gathered to play their musical instruments as a good omen to a future Renaissance of that so emblematic place which will always represent the greatest cradle of civilization for all of us.

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