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After ISIS militants wrecked the Palmyra museum in 2015 following their capture of the Syrian city, they left in their wake fragments of artifacts amid the building’s rubble. One of their targets was a 2,000-year-old statue of a lion, which archaeologists have now restored as part of a massive effort to mitigate the loss of Syrian cultural heritage in conflict zones. Originally poised at the entryway of an ancient temple to the goddess Al-lāt, the lion had served a similar function at the museum, standing at its entrance to welcome visitors.
Known as the Lion of Al-lāt, the 15-ton limestone sculpture is now on display at the National Museum of Damascus after two months of restoration. The work was undertaken by archaeologist Bartosz Markowski, working with UNESCO’s Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Cultural Heritage project, a European Union-funded initiative that seeks to monitor, document, and safeguard the country’s cultural heritage.
“It was an internationally known symbol of Palmyra,” Markowski said in a press release. “It is an exceptional statue. There are no more such statues in Palmyra.”
UNESCO had sent a team to assess the museum’s condition following the Syrian Army’s ousting of ISIS in March 2016. In addition to fragments of the lion, archaeologists found beheaded busts, smashed sarcophagi, and statues lying around the building, which the terrorists had converted into a court and dungeon. They sent the lion’s fragments to Damascus for restoration, and about half of the resulting statue is original, as Markowski told Reuters.
Before it stood at the museum, the lion had remained buried in the ruins of the ancient city until Polish archaeologists dug it up in 1977 and restored it for the first time. While it appears to proudly stride forward, mouth open to reveal its teeth, the lion isn’t a threatening symbol; instead, it serves as a guardian. An antelope tucked between its legs nods to this role as a strong protector, and as the BBC reported, its left paw carries a Palmyrene inscription: “May al-Lat bless whoever does not spill blood on this sanctuary.” The lion was a consort of sorts to the pre-Islamic goddess and appears in reliefs by her side.
The restored statue will remain at the Damascus museum for the foreseeable future, according director of Syrian antiquities Mahmoud Hammoud, but it may one day go home to Palmyra.