The Site of Palmyra, Syria

By Sehee Liz Lee

Palmyra, located north-east of Damascus, in the Syrian Desert, was a caravan oasis on a trade route that linked the Mediterranean world with lands to the south and east such as India and China. In that sense, Palmyra was the crossroads of different ancient civilizations and cultures.

The site of Palmyra has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980 and was also designated a national monument by Syria for its cultural and historical value. Thus, Palmyra has been receiving worldwide attention because it contains numerous important ancient ruins, which are now endangered due to numerous rounds of military presence and destruction by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

History of Palmyra

Palmyra, also known as its pre-Semitic name Tadmor, is firstly mentioned in the Mari tablets in the 2nd millennium BC. Palmyra became prosperous as an oasis on the caravan trade routes that linked the Persian Gulf and the Eurasian continent to the Far East, India and China. Profiting from its strategic location, Palmyra remained autonomous for over half a century, primarily populated by Aramaeans and Arabs. When it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD, Palmyra was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Roman emperor Tiberius (14-37 A.D).

Palmyra lost its influence over the trade routes due to the foundation of the Sasanian Empire of Iran in 224 A.D. Odaenathus, had been appointed by governor by Valerian, (253-260 A.D.) He drove the Sassanian’s out of Syria. After his assassination, his second wife, Zenobia ruled the city and expanded the border to Egypt and much of Asia Minor, or Anatolia. Although the city declared its independence from Rome under the rule of Zenobia, the Roman emperor Aurelian reconquered Palmyra in 272 A.D.

In 634, Palmyra was conquered by the Muslim general Khalid Ibnal-Walid in the name of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr. Afterwards, it had been ruled as part of Muslim caliphates until it became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516.9 In 1678, the ancient ruins of Palmyra were rediscovered by English travelers.

Inscription in Greek and Aramaic in honor of Julius Aurelius Zenobius, the father of Queen Zenobia. Photo by MyOlmec.

Inscription in Greek and Aramaic in honor of Julius Aurelius Zenobius, the father of Queen Zenobia. Photo by MyOlmec.

The artistic & architectural significance of Palmyra

The site of Palmyra bears witness to the mixture of these ancient cultures. Nasser Rabbat, a Syrian art historian, explained that the Palmyrene culture was “Arab in origin, but then classical in influence and in temperament and inclination” and thus, Palmyra is “a mark of how cultures can come together creatively”. Art found on a number of public monuments including the Temple of Ba’al, Diocletian’s Camp, the Agora, Theatre, and other temples exhibits the Greco-Roman art integrated with local traditions and Persian influences.

Specifically, architectural ornaments including distinctive funerary reliefs demonstrate that Palmyra produced a unique artistic style based on its multicultural landscape. While the funerary monuments contain Aramaic inscriptions, they “provide some of the best evidence of jewelry in the Greco-Roman world.“ According to Maura Heyn, an Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of North Carolina, monuments “provide us with an abundance of evidence for cultural change and negotiation.”

This Palmyrene artistic style placed its emphasis on the delicate details of clothing of deities and the frontal representation of the person depicted, and is considered a forerunner of Byzantine art.

The design of the temples is also distinctive, although the basic style is closely related to Greek temples; the roofs are decorated with stone triangles known as merlons, of which the edges look like rows of pointy teeth. The grand colonnade that stands along a street of 1100 meters’ in length also represents a major artistic development. The discovery of the ruins of Palmyra by Western travelers in the 17th and 18th century greatly influenced subsequent architectural styles and urban design in the West.

Palmyra as a Sacred Place

Palmyra is also considered a sacred place with its numerous temples such as the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Nabu and the Temple of Bel.

The temples were dedicated to multiple deities, and as Nasser Rabbat explained, “Inside you have to turn either right or left because the temple had two altars.”

Among those temples, the temple of Ba’al was dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel, or Ba’al. The temple is considered “one of the most important religious buildings of the 1st century AD in the East and of unique design.” The temple is a symbol of religious tolerance since the temple, originally dedicated to local deities and Mesopotamian and Arab gods, later became a Christian church during the Byzantine era and then was used as a mosque until 1920s after the Muslim conquest.

Stuart W. Manning, chairman of the Department of Classics at Cornell University, said the temple of Ba’al was “a tolerant home to different faiths and ethnic groups where Greco-Roman and local cultures merged.”

While, its religious and cultural value is recognized by all humankind in the world, Palmyra is a source of national pride for Syrians. Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist and visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, explained, “Syrians consider Palmyra so special, because it’s a source of pride for them. They feel very faithful to this past history and the monuments and art that signify it.” Rabbat, recalling his childhood memory of listening stories about Palmyra, also said, “This is the meaning of heritage – it’s not only architecture or artifacts that are representing history, it’s these memories and ancestral connection to the place.”

Temple of Bel 2005 before destruction by ISIL, by Zeledi. Courtesy of

Temple of Bel 2005 before destruction by ISIL, by Zeledi. Courtesy of

Threats due to Syrian Civil War and Destruction by ISIL

Palmyra, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, because it was a significant cultural site of incalculable value. It has been gravely threatened due to the Syrian Civil War that erupted in 2012 and the following destruction by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

As the violence spread across the Syria in 2012, the Syrian Army set up its military camp in Palmyra; a resident who escaped, described the chaos, “Palmyra is surrounded by the army from all fronts. Machine gun fire rains down from the citadel at anything that moves in the ruins because they think it is rebels.”

Temple of Bel before and after destruction by ISIL in 2015

Temple of Bel before and after destruction by ISIL in 2015

In the face of devastation from warring factions, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, repeatedly expressed her grave concern about further damage to Palmyra by saying “To date, three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers, and Aleppo including the Aleppo Citadel – are being used for military purpose and this raises the risk of imminent and irreversible destruction, in addition to that which these sites have already suffered.” And, “Damage to the heritage of the country is damage to the soul of its people and its identity.” She also called on the Syrian authorities for fulfilling their obligation codified in the 1954 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict.

In May 2015, the armed extremist group, also known as ISIL, took control of Palmyra, and in August, blew-up of the temple of Baalshamin, one of the best-preserved buildings in Palymra. According to UNESCO, “Its cella, or inner area, was severely damaged, …followed by the collapse of the surrounding columns.” UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova strongly condemned the successive destruction of Palmyrene ancient ruins, saying “The systematic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intent of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity and history. Daesh [ISIL] is killing people and destroying sites, but cannot silence history and will ultimately fail to erase this great culture from the memory of the world.”

Despite the international condemnation, the extremist group continued the destruction of cultural sites for three reasons, the first of which is that ISIL justifies its destruction in terms of iconoclasm. ISIL considers representative art depicted on the ancient temples as a form of idolatry based on the Muslim monotheism, the belief that there exists only one god. Therefore, pre-Islamic religious heritage, specifically the temples dedicated to multiple deities at Palmyra, is regarded as blasphemous for the group. Another reason behind the destruction is publicity. Destroying the culturally significant temples is the easiest way to attract media attention for ISIL, allowing the group to propagate its message all over the world. In this respect, Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at John Jay College, said, “They are using, essentially, the media to convey to potential recruits this idea that the West is powerless to defend against ISIS’ destruction of things that are so important to us.” In addition, ISIL has been looting the valuable antiquities from Palmyra, which became a source of funding for its activities, thus, meaning the group will continue the destruction of cultural sites such as Palmyra.

The efforts for preservation and protection

Prior to the capture of Palmyra by ISIL, UNESCO had been offering training courses for conservation experts from Syria and hosting meetings in order to create a team of observers to monitor and safeguard the site.

In May 2014, UNESCO held the meeting entitled ‘Rallying the International Community to Safeguard Syria’s Cultural Heritage’ in which more than 120 experts discussed the need to prevent the site from further illicit trafficking and looting of objects and to demilitarize the endangered site. At this meeting, the decision was made by the observers to assess the state of endangered cultural sites within Syria. In December 2014, UNESCO jointly organized a three-week training course for

In December 2014, UNESCO jointly organized a three-week training course for conservation experts from across Syria with the ICCROM-ATHAR, (The International Center for the Study and Restoration of Cultural Property and the Architectural and Archaeological Tangible Heritage in the Arab Region, and the ARC-WH (Arab Regional Center for World Heritage in Bahrain.) Its objective was “to secure the endangered cultural sites and take the appropriate preparatory procedures for the post-conflict recovery phase,” by improving technical skills of conservation architects, engineers and archaeologists.

While Palmyra was under the control of ISIL, the international community condemned ISIL’s destruction of the site and UNESCO also called for cooperation of all the partners and relevant parties to ensure safeguarding of Palmyra. Some experts even sacrificed their lives to protect the endangered sites. Khaled al-As’ad, who spent more than 50 years on the task of overseeing and preserving antiquities at the site of Palmyra, was murdered by ISIL since he refused to reveal the location of valuable antiquities.

After the Syrian army, backed by Russian warplanes, retook the site of Palmyra in March 2016, experts sent by UNESCO have been in the process of assessing the state of ancient buildings damaged in the wake of the conflicts. Specific emergency safeguarding measures to be undertaken are being discussed at the 40th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, held in June and July of 2016.

Now the site of Palmyra needs more worldwide attention and help than ever to rehabilitate the destroyed buildings and the glorious historical, religious, and cultural values instilled in them; the Syrian government and UNESCO need to collaborate in establishing policy to organize a team of experts who are able to conduct a systematic survey and restoration of the site. We also, need to avoid purchasing cultural artifacts of uncertain provenance in order to prevent further illicit trafficking and destruction of cultural heritage caused by ISIL.

Libya Remains on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Danger

All five of Libya’s World Heritage Sites were put on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2016 and they remain there. The reason is the high level of instability in Libya and damage due to looting and armed conflucts in and around the sites. These include: the Rock Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus, the archaological sites of Leptis Magna, Cyrene and Sabratha and the Old Town of Ghadamès.

The Rock Art of Tadrart Acacus

These sites are found in the Acacus Mountains, a rocky compact mountain range that is part of the Sahara Desert. The rock art found here exhibits a variety of styles dating from 12,000 BCE to 100 C.E. (See photo below by Roberto D’Angelo). The various rock art within the site suffered under Muammar Gaddafi and the endangered status of the site encompassed this era of neglect and included past looting along with vandalism that continues.

Picture of a cave painting

The Archaeological Site of Sabratha

Sabratha was a Phoenician trading post eventually rebuilt by the Romans during the 2nd and 3rd C.E. It is notable for its numerous temples, including one dedicated to the goddess Isis, who was considered to be the protector of ships and sailors. The Mausoleum of Bes is another notable sacred site within the ancient city. There is an excellent gallery of phots on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Archeaological Site of Cyrene

picture of Cyrene and a crumbling edifice

Cyrene, founded in the 7th C BCE, was one of the prominent Greek cities of the Hellenic world. Later, it became Romanized until a large earthquake destroyed it in 365 c BCE. O

ver a thousand years of history can be found at this site (Photo above, The Temple of Zeus, by Giovanni Boccardi). The Temple of Zeu is almost as large as the Parthenon in Athens.



The Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna

picture of Leptis Magna and crumbling edifices

Leptus Magna, founded by Septimius Severus, the first Emperor from Libya, was an important city in the Roman Republic from about 111 BCE. The emperor used his wealth to erect elegant buildings, including temples (See photo below of the Severan Basilica by Sasha Coachman), throughout the city. Statues of Medusa, a fertility goddess, were found in public squares all over the city.



Nan Madol – Sacred City of Micronesia

Nan Madol

The Site:

Nan Madol, The Federated States of Micronesia.

The Location:

Offshore along the eastern coast of Pohnpei Island.


Nan Madol is a series of more than 100 human constructed islets made of artificual basalt and coral boulders. The islets are home to the megalithic ruins of temples, tombs, palaces and residences built between 1200 and 1600 CE. It was the sacred ceremonial center of the Saudeleur dynasty. It represents a dynamic manifestation of the chiefly structure of this Pacific Island culture that continues today under the control of the traditional management of the Nahnmwarki.

The Threat:

Siltation of the seawater is causing overgrowth of mangroves, which are engulfing the structures and some are threatening the integrity of the monuments.

Why is it Sacred?

The very fact that this complex of temple structures and their sheer number exist is a testament to the elaborate religious practices that have been and continue to be practiced at these sites.

What is its Status?

The site is listed, according to the Kaselehile Press in July of 2016, on the U.S. Registry of Historical Sites. The Federated States of Micronesia legally protected the site, as did the Pohnpei Historic Preservation Office. The site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 and places on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

Editor’s Note: Sacred Sites International first learned of this site in 1992 and covered it in our newsletter, Site Saver, because it was endangered. 

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Bears Ears National Monument

The Site:

Bears Ears National Monument

Map of Bears Ears location in Utah

The Location:

Utah, U.S.A., in San Juan Country in Southeastern Utah on public land. The Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, oversees the sites.

 The Threat:

President Donald Trump approved the U.S. Secretary of the Interior recommendation for a significant downsizing of the land included in this National Monument in October of 2017. As reported in the Washington Post, Trump plans to reduce the monument to two or three small places. Such a reduction of the monument’s land leaves vast areas open to oil and mineral drilling and cattle grazing. This has the potential of destroying the sacred qualities of the place along with sacred sites and artifacts.

Who Considers It Sacred?

The major American Indian groups in Utah: Diné Nation (Navajo), Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Unitah & Ouray Ute Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni.

In addition there are numerous tribes and pueblos who have cultureal ties to the land in and around Bears Ears: the White Mountain Tribe, the San Juan Kaibab & Utah Paiute Tribes, Hualapai Tribe, and the Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Isletta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambé, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Ysleta Del Sur and Zia.

Why is it Sacred?

The Indian tribes who regard Bears Ears as sacred have oral histories about the ears of a bear, manifest as two prominent towering forms looming above the mesa.

It is estimated that there are over 100,000 significant cultural and sacred sites which can be found throughout the extensive monument. These include ancestral cliff structures, ancient surface structures built from rock and ancient Diné Hogans. There are also hunting and gathering territories used to gather sacred plants for ceremonies, and incised rock sites that tell the history of the Native Peoples who have inhabited the lands included in the Bears Ears National Monument.

The Inter-Tribal Coalition website has information about the various regions of Bears Ears and photo slideshows.

What is its Status?

In mid-September 2017, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, delivered his “Final Report Summarizing Findings of the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act.”

Zinke’s report states, “It appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining and timber production, rather than to protect specific objects.”


West Berkeley Shellmound, Village & Burial Site

Picture of West Berkeley Shellmound

The Site:

West Berkeley Shellmound & Ceremonial & Burial site, CA-ALA-307, USA.


Corrina Gould, Sogorea Té Land Trust

The Location:

1990 Fourth Street, Alameda County, Berkeley, CA, opposite Spenger’s Fish Grotto. It is located on private land.

The Threat:

A mixed-use development of shops, apartments and an underground parking garage that would destroy what remains of the West Berkeley Shellmound and its associated burials.

Who Considers the Site Sacred?

Descendants of the Chochenyo Ohlone people.

Why is it Sacred?

The Chochenyo Ohlone people lived here from 3700 B.F.C to 800 C.E. Where people lived, they buried their dead and conducted ceremonies. It is considered to be the oldest of more than 425 shellmounds that once ringed the shore of the San Francisco Bay.

It evolved over centuries of use, spanning hundreds of generations, around the mouth of Strawberry Creek where it flowed to the Bay. The Ohlone, principally ate shellfish and they discarded the shells and added soil until the site become a mound. The mound or midden eventually grew to approximately 20 feet in height and several football fields long.

What is its Status?

It was chosen to be a Berkeley City Landmark in 2002. In 2003, it was found to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The following year, it was deemed eligible for the California State Register of Historic Places.


Pahne Maritime Village, California

picture of a body of water in a marsh

Part of the Pahne Village Complex, a Traditional Cultural Property and Sacred Site, is known by its designation as CA-SDI-13325. It is currently endangered by US Marine Corps military operations that are degrading the site.

Who Considers the Site Sacred?

Descendants of Pechanga and Juaneño Acjachemen tribes. Pachanga and Juaneño Acjachemen tribal representatives made an inspection of the site in May of 2017. Even though the Sierra Training Program had not begun, heavy track vehicles had made deep ruts throughout the site, displacing the decomposed granite and the underlying geocloth and exposing the cultural midden.

The mitigation is not sufficient to protect the site from vehicles weighing in excess of 30,000 lbs. The Marines have promised to put more decomposed granite on the site after each use. However, each time they use the site, they will have  grade and compact it.

This will eventually cause impacting erosion on the site and the destruction of the intact cultural deposits, including possible human remains.

“Military training operations by the U.S. Marine Corps

degrade parts of the Pahne Village Site – a significant

ceremonial and burial site.”

picture of a part of the Pahne Village Site which has been damaged by U.S. Marine Corps' machinery

Damage to part of Pahne Village Site by U.S. Marine Corps

Why is it Sacred?

 It is considered to be culturally significant and a sacred site. As such, it has ceremonial significance and as a village site it may contain burials.

What is its Status?

 It was listed as eligible on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. It is    also listed on the California Native American Heritage Commission’s Sacred Lands Inventory.

The Location

Located in San Mateo Valley, this U.S. Marine Corps Installations West Marine Corps Base is known as Camp Pendelton, CA. It is on Federal land owned by the Marines.


The Threat

Part of the Pahne Village Complex is used for heavy track vehicles by the U.S. Marine Corps in a program known as the Sierra Training Program. The top 50 cm has been disturbed by heavy track vehicles and sites plowed in this manner contain significant cultural materials. The Marine Corps mitigation of decomposed granite is not sufficient protection.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia

Uluru's Iconic Red Rock - Copyright - Yifei Wu

Uluru’s Iconic Red Rock – Copyright,  Yifei Wu


Uluru is one of the world’s most iconic natural sacred sites. It has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List of Sites. The site is sacred to the Anangu people of Australia who also co-manage the site and give guided tours of areas accessible to visitors. Uluru is central to the Anangu’s Creation Time or Tjukurpa. It is a place that embodies core values of their culture and is associated with numerous totemic ancestors.

Uluru Pictographs -- Copyright Yifei Wu

Uluru Pictographs — Copyright, Yifei Wu


These pictographs are used to teach values and history to children by women. The concentric circles refer to places and the “C” shaped pictograph – on the right site of the panel – refers to a person. The hand-prints were made by ancestors.

The pictographs used to be in better condition, but, early visitors to the site would splash water on them in order to see them more clearly and this has eroded the images.

Anangu believe all of Uluru’s natural features were made by their ancestors.

Uluru Cave -- Copyright -- Yifei Wu

Uluru Cave — Copyright, Yifei Wu


Uluru at Sunrise -- Copyright -- Yifei Wu

Uluru At Sunrise– Copyright, Yifei Wu