Palmyra of the North resurrects its ancient counterpart

Volunteers at the Hermitage State Museum are laying the ground for the reconstruction of Palmyra. 

Palmyra was one of the richest and the most culturally-fertile cities of ancient Syria. Located on the crossroads linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Far East, this multicultural city was known as “the pearl of the desert”.  In 1980 the ancient ruins of Palmyra entered the UNESCO world heritage.

In the summer of 2015, Palmyra was captured and deliberately damaged by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. Outstanding monuments that had survived centuries were flattened with little effort by the Jihadists. In March 2016, the Syrian army liberated Palmyra from the control of ISIS with the support of Russian Air Forces. Now the scarred city awaits its reconstruction.

Since the 18th century St. Petersburg has often been compared to the ancient Syrian city, deserving perhaps the unofficial title of “Palmyra of the North”. Both cities were funded in inhospitable, harsh settings and they both became centers of great beauty and cultural flourish. Parallelisms were drawn between Empress Catherine the Great and the queen of Palmyra, Zenobia, both well-known for their enlightened governance.

So it should come with no surprise that the cultural capital of Russia is playing a major role in bringing back its southern sister to its ancient splendor. The State Hermitage of St Petersburg will be one of the leading institutions engaged in the restoration of Palmyra. As M. Piotrovsky, director of the museum said in an interview to TV Kultura earlier: “I had a phone call with the director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, and we’ve already agreed on a plan for our participation in an international campaign aimed at the reconstruction of Palmyra”.

St Petersburg can showcase its notable experience in reconstructing monuments of beauty and culture. Historical locations like Tsarskoe Selo, Peterhof, and Pavlosk were completely rebuilt after the siege of Leningrad.

“We are currently conducting research on Palmyra monuments. When everything calms down, we will get the chance to start restoring the monuments as we did with the ruined suburbs of St. Petersburg,” says Michail Piotrovsky in the interview with RBTH.

While restoration preparations are being done, the Hermitage Volunteer Service is engaged in reviving the image of Palmyra. Art lovers from all over the world are joining their expertise to realize the projects devoted to the ancient city. Luca Ottonello is an Italian archaeologist who is working as a volunteer in the Hermitage. Using his knowledge of digital technology, he has created a holographic version of the main Palmyra temples before the barbaric destruction.

“This project is a unique opportunity. Other European museums would hardly give me the same chance.  Russians seem to be visibly more attached to the concept of cultural heritage than elsewhere,” Luca emphasizes.

State Hermitage Museum. Source:
State Hermitage Museum. Source:

The hologram will be presented during the “Night of Museums” in St Petersburg and it will also represent the Hermitage officially during the “Intermusey” international event that will take place in Moscow.

“My next step will be to reconstruct the whole city in 3D as it was during the ancient times. I will ask for access to Hermitage’s exclusive materials in order to accomplish this task,” states Luca.

The volunteer service of the Hermitage is working on other related projects aimed at younger generations. Most of these projects will also be presented during “Night of Museums” and “Intermusey”. Ottavia, an Italian graduate of art management, has been researching Palmyra food culture and traditional clothing. The information collected will be used to create interactive shows for children. “In order to keep the image of Palmyra alive, we are not only recreating its architecture, but also its ancient habits and traditions,” says Ottavia.

Kirill who studies at the Faculty of Cultural Studies in Berlin, is drawing comic stripes depicting an imaginary meeting between Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and Empress Catherine the Great. “Children will have to fill in the empty speech balloons imagining conversations between the two historical characters,” he explains.

Maria who is a student at the Faculty of Architecture in St Petersburg is helping with the construction of the miniaturized version of the Temple of Bel which will be made out of cardboard and plastic. “Our team has been searching for sketches, videos, and articles in order to recreate the temple in the most accurate way possible”. She is also building a few small reproductions of the Lion of Al-Lat statue which was also destroyed by ISIS. “The original colors of the Lion of Al-Lat are unknown to us. During the exhibition kids will be painting reproductions of the ancient sculpture using their imagination.”

After the liberation of Palmyra most of the media attention has been focused on the political implications of the victory. Russia can now boast the rescue of the precious UNESCO heritage site in order to justify its controversial military actions.

However, the Hermitage experts and volunteers do not concern themselves with politics. Their efforts stem from a genuine love for culture and history which doesn’t depend on nationality. “We haven’t been thinking about politics. Our only aim is to make people aware of the importance of cultural heritage,” states Michail Kozhuhovsky, junior researcher and founder of the Volunteer Service. “The destiny of Palmyra shouldn’t concern just Syrian or Russian people, but humanity as a whole.”


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