Palmyra - the story
of a cultural heritage

In the collections of Medelhavsmuseet (The Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquites) there are two ancient tomb sculptures from the city of Palmyra in Syria. In view of the current situation in the area, the sculptures are now on display in the museum, where we tell about Palmyra's history and unique culture.

Palmyra (Tadmor) lies in the Syrian desert, halfway between the Mediterranean and the River Euphrates. The oasis has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Over the course of a few hundred years around the year 0 CE, Palmyra grew as a trading hub for the caravan routes between the Far East and the Mediterranean coast.

Ancient Palmyra sprawled over 400 hectares, but today's remains cover an area of 40 hectares. The population is estimated to have been between 150 000 and 200 000. Amongst the best preserved remains include a theater and an avenue that served as the main caravan road, which was lined with more than 375 limestone columns. Another famous structure is the temple dedicated to Bel - the god of fertility and thunder - Palmyra's most important deity.

South-west of the city walls lie burials. The most prominent ones are 13 meter tall towers, family graves with as many as 300 burial spots. There are also so called burial temples of white limestone as well as underground chambers, sometimes richly decorated with wall paintings.

Cultural heritage in Syria under threat

War rages next to historical remains. Syria's six World Heritage Sites have been damaged or are under threat and Islamic State (IS) has carried out politically motivated destruction. Before IS was driven out of Palmyra at the end of March 2016, they had murdered and desecrated the body of the 82 year old former head of antiquities of Palmyra, Khaled Al-Asa'ad. IS had also blown up many ancient monuments, amongst others the Baalshamin temple, one of the most well preserved sanctuaries from the ancient period. The museum authorities have removed objects from the museum in Palmyra to Damascus but many remaining objects were destroyed or stolen. UNESCO is planning the future administration of the World Heritage Site Palmyra together with the Syrian authorities. Ten Syrian sites that are awaiting World Heritage status have been damaged.

Illegal excavations and trade with stolen cultural relics have increased greatly in Iraq since 2003 and in Syria since 2011. This often follows in the wake of war. Chaos and poverty make it easier for criminal networks to act. UNESCO has reported that IS is also engaging in illicit trade in antiquities.

The World Heritage Sites are made up of the cultural and natural environments in the world that are considered to be of singular importance to humanity. What is and how an object becomes world heritage is decided by the World Heritage Convention of 1972.

The world's cultural heritage is protected by international conventions within UNESCO's (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) framework. In 1954 the convention protecting cultural heritage during war was signed.

In March this year UNESCO launched a global campaign: #Unite4Heritage. The campaign aims to protect cultural heritage and cultural diversity threatened by violence and extremism. UNESCO uses social media to create a movement that supports the protection of cultural heritage. Read more about #Unite4Heritage here.

Read more about Palmyra on UNESCO:s World Heritage List.