Archaeologists were rushing to the ancient city of Palmyra on Monday to assess the damage wreaked by the Islamic State group, after it was ousted by the Syrian army in a bloody battle.
President Bashar al-Assad hailed the victory as “important” as Damascus reportedly dispatched experts to check the damage wreaked by the jihadists on the UNESCO world heritage site.
An AFP correspondent inside Palmyra said some monuments, including the iconic Temple of Bel, lay in pieces almost a year after jihadists seized the site, but much of the ancient city was intact.
Residential neighbourhoods in the adjacent modern town, where 70,000 people lived before the war, were deserted and damage there was widespread, the correspondent said.
Syrian soldiers, pro-government militiamen and Russian fighters strolled among the ruins in awe after seizing the city on Sunday, while regime troops kicked around a football in the middle of a street.
The Islamic State group sparked a global outcry when they started destroying Palmyra’s treasured monuments, which they consider idolatrous, after taking the city in May 2015.
Syria’s antiquities chief said the priceless artefacts had survived better than feared from a campaign of destruction UNESCO described as a “war crime”.
“We were expecting the worst. But the landscape, in general, is in good shape,” Maamoun Abdulkarim told AFP from Damascus.
“We could have completely lost Palmyra... The joy I feel is indescribable.”
Historian of the ancient world Maurice Sartre told AFP that Abdulkarim was already on his way from Damascus to begin a survey of the ruins.