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Polish experts in Palmyra restore the beloved Lion of Al Lat destroyed by ISIS

Ian Harvey

In their first trip to Palmyra in 2005, two polish heritage experts on the restoration of one of the most celebrated relics from an ancient civilization. At the time, they absolutely had no inkling of the upcoming civil war and impending doom to wreck havoc on the Palmyra site.

In 2005 the project assigned to the polish restorers was to work on the famous Lion of Al Lat. While speaking to the reporters one of the restorers Bartosz Markowski expressed their deep connection with the Al Lat Lion. Sharing his experience of the project in 2005, Mr Murkowski said that after their work finished in 2005, he thought the lion would not need another retouch for at least two or three centuries at least, and that he could not be more wrong; they were back on the site within ten years to witness their worst nightmare.

The Lion of Al-lāt, 2010 source

The Lion of Al-lāt, 2010 source

The ‘Pearl of the Dessert’ known to the wider world simply as Palmyra went under the control of one of the most brutal terrorist regimes of the world ‘ ISIS’ in May last year. Driven by the twisted ideology and ultra-fundamentalism, ISIS fighters vowed to raze Palmyra to ground. So called Islamic State deemed the relics and statues in the Palmyra museum as pagan symbols and totally unislamic. Although Islamic State’s control over Palmyra was short lived-10 months to be more precise- it was long enough for them to brutally execute hundreds of innocent people in the courtyard of ancient temple, and destroying some of the most precious relics of the site.

 Ruins of Palmyra source

Ruins of Palmyra source

Scattered at the door of the museum, the fragments of the lion of Al Lat were a fraction of the havoc Islamic State’s fighters wrecked inside the museum. They took their time to literally obliterate some of the most celebrated artefacts in the museum to unrecoverable levels.

Syrian army retook the Palmyra city and its surrounding regions with the help of intense Russian bombing on ISIS key locations, after fierce fighting in and around the ancient city. The archaeologists from all over the world immediately started seeking Syrian government’s permission to assess the destruction and help start the restoration process.

The first archaeologist at the site after the Syrian army’s victory in Palmyra was Markowski from the University of Warsaw. Accompanied by his colleague Robert Zurowski from Polish Academy of Sciences, Murkowski arrived in Syria Mid April with an aim to help restore Al Lat. The initial task was to fully evaluate the level of damage and then later to formulate the strategy to restore the lion as close to its original condition as possible.

The pre Islamic goddess Al Lat was worshipped by the pagans of the Makah where Prophet Mohammed founded the religion of Islam denouncing the idol worshipping including Al Lat. This is precisely the reason why Islamic State fighters thought appropriate to destroy Al Lat Lion along with some other ancient deities’ statues at Palmyra. Discovered in 1977, the lion was painstakingly restored by Markowski and Zarkowski in 2005, where the two restorers struck a very unusual bond with the relic. Markowski even lied to his wife about travelling to Syria since he knew his wife would never consent to his presence in the war torn country, but he had to come as both friends and explorer considered the Lion of Al Lat their ‘baby’ and vowed to help restore it with all their potential and energies.