Palmyra treasures restored after ISIS hammer attack; efforts “erase the act of violence”

Two sculptures from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, disfigured by ISIS fighters armed with hammers, have been painstakingly repaired by Italian restoration experts.

The funerary busts of a man and a woman were among a trove of artifacts spirited out of Palmyra by Khalid al-As’ad, the site’s head of antiquities, in an attempt to save them from complete destruction as ISIS terrorists occupied the region in 2015.

A picture taken on February 16, 2017 shows a man bust which is one of the two funeral reliefs from Palmyra archeological site that will be restored, at the Higher Institute of Conservation and Restoration (ISCR - Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro), in Rome. The busts of a man and a woman, dated from the 2nd and 3rd century AD and destroyed by the Islamic State group (IS), have been entrusted to the care of the technical and restorers of the ISCR in Rome. By the end of this month, they will be returned to their place of origin. / AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

A picture taken on February 16, 2017 shows a man bust which is one of the two funeral reliefs from Palmyra archeological site that will be restored, at the Higher Institute of Conservation and Restoration (ISCR – Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro), in Rome. The busts of a man and a woman, dated from the 2nd and 3rd century AD and destroyed by the Islamic State group (IS), have been entrusted to the care of the technical and restorers of the ISCR in Rome. By the end of this month, they will be returned to their place of origin. / AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

Al-As’ad’s refusal to reveal where he had hidden the priceless carvings cost the 82-year-old university professor his life: he was publicly beheaded by militants in the city’s main square in August 2015.

Italy’s former minister of culture, Francesco Rutelli, organized the transportation of the two statues from Damascus, via Beirut, to Rome, where experts set to work restoring them.

The busts, which date back to the second and third century, are now on display with replicas of other damaged artifacts from Syria and Iraq in a UNESCO-sponsored exhibition at Rome’s Coliseum.

A picture taken on February 16, 2017 shows a woman bust which is one of the two funeral reliefs from Palmyra archeological site that will be restored, at the Higher Institute of Conservation and Restoration (ISCR - Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro), in Rome. The busts of a man and a woman, dated from the 2nd and 3rd century AD and destroyed by the Islamic State group (IS), have been entrusted to the care of the technical and restorers of the ISCR in Rome. By the end of this month, they will be returned to their place of origin. / AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

A picture taken on February 16, 2017 shows a woman bust which is one of the two funeral reliefs from Palmyra archeological site that will be restored, at the Higher Institute of Conservation and Restoration (ISCR – Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro), in Rome. The busts of a man and a woman, dated from the 2nd and 3rd century AD and destroyed by the Islamic State group (IS), have been entrusted to the care of the technical and restorers of the ISCR in Rome. By the end of this month, they will be returned to their place of origin. / AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

3-D printed repair work

“Italy wanted to maintain the request of the martyr of Palmyra, Khaled al-As’ad, who refused to collaborate with terrorists,” Rutelli said.

Now head of the cultural heritage organization Meeting of Civilizations Association, Rutelli said ISIS had “ravaged [Palmyra’s] museums with the purpose to destroy.”

Antonio Iaccarino, from Equilibrarte, the organization which carried out the repairs with Rome’s Central Restoration Institute, explained the new techniques used in the work.

Italian restorer Antonio Iaccarino (L) shows on a computer a 3D model of the two funeral reliefs from Palmyra archeological site that are displayed next to him and that will be restored at the Higher Institute of Conservation and Restoration (ISCR - Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro) in Rome, on February 16, 2017. The busts of a man and a woman, dated from the 2nd and 3rd century AD and destroyed by the Islamic State group (IS), have been entrusted to the care of the technical and restorers of the ISCR in Rome. By the end of this month, they will be returned to their place of origin. / AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

Italian restorer Antonio Iaccarino (L) shows on a computer a 3D model of the two funeral reliefs from Palmyra archeological site that are displayed next to him and that will be restored at the Higher Institute of Conservation and Restoration (ISCR – Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro) in Rome, on February 16, 2017. The busts of a man and a woman, dated from the 2nd and 3rd century AD and destroyed by the Islamic State group (IS), have been entrusted to the care of the technical and restorers of the ISCR in Rome. By the end of this month, they will be returned to their place of origin. / AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

“In the past, in a restoration process like this one, the entire damaged area would have been removed and reconstructed. In our case, we did not modify the original part of the sculpture in any way,” he said.

Reassembled elements of the statue were created by mirroring the artifact using nylon powder and then stamping them with a 3-D printer, Iaccarino said.

‘Erasing the act of violence’

“When I saw the destruction for the first time, I was hit with such distress,” said Daria Montemaggiori, another of the restorers.

“You could see the wickedness to eliminate, erase the human image. Seeing this, I was emotionally charged. The work of restoration allows us to erase the act of violence.”

ISIS has brought destruction to Palmyra — one of Syria’s most important historic sites — since it took control of the oasis city in 2015. Many of the city’s irreplaceable monuments and antiquities have been razed.

Just days ago, Russia’s Defense Ministry warned that “an upsurge in truck movement” in Palmyra indicated that ISIS is planning on using “explosives to deal maximum damage to the remaining architectural relics before they leave.”

Risky salvage operation

Faced with losing more precious artifacts at the ancient site, the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums of Damascus has undertaken a risky salvage operation with the help of Rutelli in Italy.

“It is the mobilization the world needs to defend and save cultural heritage against the fundamentalist ideas of ISIS,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, director-general of antiquities and museums of Syria.

“Our work in Syria as archeologists is scientific and not political, because the war in Syria will finish and the politics will change, but the heritage must remain as a memory of all Syrian people, this is a project of peace.”

Having completed their mission in this particular case, Rutelli said the plan is to one day return the salvaged sculptures to their rightful places in Palmyra.

“The sculptures will be brought back to Damascus, eventually, they will return to Palmyra when it is safe,” he said.

“These are the only pieces of art that have left the conflict areas of Syria and Iraq legally,” he said. “But they left with the purpose to be restored and then returned to their origin.”