"We did new restoration, new presentation of this lion, the Lion of Al-Lat. And after, I thought, I'm doing this (to last) for over 200 years or 300 years, maybe more," archeologist Bartosz Markowski told AFP.
"But it appears it was only 10 years." Markowski spoke to AFP at the entrance of Palmyra's museum, where the striking 15-tonne Lion of Al-Lat lay in large, jagged pieces.
It was smashed by the Islamic State group, which overran Palmyra -- known as the "Pearl of the Desert" -- in May 2015. During their ten-month rule over the city, the jihadists executed hundreds of civilians and blew up some of Palmyra's most beautiful temples and funerary towers in the old city. Palmyra's museum lies in the residential parts of the city. The destroyed Lion of al-Lat at the museum's entrance serves as a harbinger for the destruction inside: statues lay in pieces blanketed in dust and debris. Syria's government forces recaptured the city on March 27, and experts immediately set to work assessing the damage to the city's historic ruins.
Markowski, from the University of Warsaw's archeology institute, was the first foreign archeologist to enter Palmyra after the regime win. He arrived in Palmyra with his colleague Robert Zukowski, from the Polish Academy of Sciences, in mid-April for a one-week mission to evaluate the damage. Polish 'heroes' The three-metre-tall Lion of al-Lat dated back to the 1st century BC. It was first discovered in 1977 by a Polish archeological mission at the temple of Al-Lat, a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess. Nearly four decades later, his hair and clothes covered in dust, Markowski patiently catalogued the broken pieces of the limestone monument. "This lion is like our baby. We have had a sentimental relationship with this statue ever since we came in 2005 to help restore Palmyra," Markowski said. As soon as he and Zukowski heard IS was pushed out of Palmyra, "we decided to return at the invitation of the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums of Syria," he added. Maamun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria's antiquities department, says the two Polish workers are "heroes." Markowski said he felt he "had to come back as soon as possible."
"We were excited because we had not seen any photos since one year, or almost one year, since Daesh came here," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. "The first pictures that we saw (were from) one week ago. And we saw that there is something to do here." He told his wife he was travelling to Egypt, "because she would not have let me leave if she knew I was coming to Palmyra." More than 270,000 people have been killed and millions have been forced to flee their homes since the conflict erupted in March 2011. 'Two crazy restorers' After being catalogued by Markowski, each piece was carefully carried by Zukowski and a Syrian colleague into large boxes. The containers will head to Damascus, where restoration can begin. His hands covered in blisters, Zukowski took a photograph of each broken slab of rock. "You know I'm proud -- I'm really proud that we can come back here," Zukowski said. He said he was confident that the lion could be restored to its previous glory but the most difficult parts to restore would be around its nostrils. Since the Syrian regime pushed IS out of Palmyra last month, deminers -- including from a special unit dispatched by Moscow -- have been clearing explosives from Palmyra's old city. Zukowski and Markowski had yet to assess the damage there, where the grand Temples of Bel and Baalshamin once stood, now largely reduced to rubble. The heaviest fighting between IS and Syria's government fighters took place in the modern part of Palmyra. Although residents have slowly begun returning to rebuild their homes and their lives, the residential neighbourhoods remain eerily quiet. "It needs people in the town. Now it's deserted, there is no one here. Only army and some reporters. And two crazy restorers," Markowski said.
2. SAINT PETERSBURG (AFP).- The director of Russia's renowned Hermitage Museum, which has an important collection of sculptures from Palmyra, has offered its expertise to help restore the ancient Syrian city retaken by President Bashar al-Assad's forces from the Islamic State group."Restoring Palmyra is the responsibility of all of us," Mikhail Piotrovsky told AFP, surrounded by displays of tomb stones, sculptures and coins from Palmyra at the museum in Saint Petersburg.Following the IS campaign of destruction, "restoring Palmyra is a long-term task, and it's essential that we take our time," said Piotrovsky, estimating that up to 70 percent of the ancient historic site could have been damaged or destroyed by the jihadists. "We will have to record where every stone was found before taking a decision on how to restore these historic monuments," he said of the painstaking work required.
Syria's antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim on Friday told AFP journalists at Palmyra that he was appealing for "archaeologists and experts everywhere to come work with us because this site is part of the heritage of all humanity."
Among the highlights of the Hermitage's collection from Palmyra are four stone slabs, weighing a total of 15 tonnnes with inscriptions in Aramaic and Greek that show the customs tariffs in the 2nd century AD, when the city became an important crossroads for trading. The slabs were brought to Russia by an aristocrat who was an amateur archaeologist, Prince Abamelek-Lazarev after he travelled to Palmyra in 1882.
The value of such intact treasures is now even greater after the destruction at the historic site. The Hermitage chief noted that Russia has "plenty of experience with restoring destroyed historic monuments", notably after World War II.
He gave the example of Tsarskoye Selo, the tsars' summer palace outside the imperial city, which was almost entirely destroyed in fighting between Nazi and Soviet forces.
Despite this, the palace was entirely restored to the tiniest detail and is now a major tourist attraction.
3. PALMYRA.- A picture taken on March 31, 2016 shows pieces of beheaded and mutilated sculptures on the ground at the museum of the ancient city of Palmyra, some 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. JOSEPH EID / AFP