New Palmyra Agreement Demonstrates Russia’s Continuing Soft Power Influence on Syria

The two countries signed a memorandum on the restoration of monuments and artifacts in the ancient city.

A Funerary Temple at Palmyra (via Wikimedia Commons)

Palmyra, an ancient city that was invaded and pillaged twice by Islamic State forces, has become a symbol for Russia’s expanding influence over war-torn Syria. A new agreement signed between the countries on Monday, November 25, gives Russia exclusive privileges in restoring Palmyra’s ravaged monuments and artifacts.

The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg announced on Monday that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Syrian Museum and Antiquities Authority to restore some of the historical sites in Palmyra that still lie in ruins.

“Part of the agreement has already been implemented, and a unique 3D model has been put in place, without which nothing can be done or even talk about any work,” said director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Petrovsky, in an interview with the Russian news agency Sputnik. Petrovsky added that Syrian restoration experts will be invited to a residency at the Hermitage to exchange knowledge with their Russian peers.

Piotrovsky, who is fluent in Arabic, signed the agreement with Mahmoud Hammoud, Head of Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums of Syria. Before the signing ceremony, he delivered a lecture about the Hermitage Museum in Arabic and opened a photographic exhibition titled Two Palmyras, which draws parallels between Palmyra and St. Petersburg.

ISIS destroyed the city’s Arch of Triumph, the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, and the Lion of Al-lāt when it first occupied Palmyra in 2015. Palmyra’s museum was looted and carvings bearing human figures were torn off. The amphitheater was used as a backdrop for public beheadings.

The Lion of Al-lāt outside the Palmyra museum in 2010 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In May 2016, shortly after the Syrian regime regained control of the city, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led a concert in the ruins. The concert, Prayer for Palmyra: Music Revives Ancient Walls, was streamed on the state-funded Russian Today (RT).

“Since Russian and Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, Putin has moved to upcycle the remains of the ancient city into a stage for his own political theater,” Jennifer MacKenzie and Mohammad Raba’a wrote in an essay for Hyperallergic in 2016. “Rather than wait for UNESCO to accept the Hermitage’s offer of aid in restoration, on May 5, the Symphony Orchestra of St Petersburg serenaded the West from its newly demined Roman theater with a ‘peace concert’ that cast Russia as the savior of Western culture.”

A few months later, in December 2016, Palmyra fell again to ISIS, and the stage on which the Russian orchestra performed was blown up. In March 2017, the Syrian regimes reconquered the city.

“The world is starting to forget about Palmyra,” Piotrovsky warned, promising a series of publications about the restoration of the historic site.

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