Revival of Palmyra's Triumphal Arch

Фото предоставлено Институтом истории материальной культуры РАН

The Triumphal Arch, erected in the 3rd century by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, adorned Palmyra for almost two thousand years. However, the grandiose structure did not survive the military storm of the beginning of the 21st century. In the fall of 2015, the footage of the explosion of the arch by the terrorists who captured Palmyra spread around the world. The consequences of this crime against the heritage of human civilization are being eliminated today by Russian and Syrian scientists.

On May 25, 2022, Russian scientists lead by the Rescue Archaeology Department of the Institute of History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences, together with Syrian specialists, completed the next stage of the restoration of the arch. The project is carried out under the auspices of the RGS.

The project participants face a very difficult task: they need to restore a unique, richly decorated with stone carvings structure, which today is a pile of rubble. What the Arch looked like is known to everyone who in the 5th grade studied the history of the ancient world using Korovkin's textbook – it is its image that is on the cover.

Built at the beginning of the 3rd century under Emperor Septimius Severus, the Arch connected parts of the Great Colonnade with the Temple of Baal, hiding the bend of the main street. The central arch, 11 meters wide, towered over the main road. The side parts, decorated with statues, overshadowed pedestrian passages.

After the explosion, only the outside pillars of the side passages remained from the arch. The main arch collapsed, the central passage was completely destroyed. The stone blocks were seriously damaged; some elements were irretrievably lost. However, most of the masonry has been preserved, which allows us to hope for the possibility of restoring the symbol of Palmyra.


Так выглядели руины до начала работ. Фото предоставлено Институтом истории материальной культуры РАН

“The project for the complete restoration of the arch is designed for three years,” says the project manager, director of the Rescue Archaeology Department of the Institute of History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences Natalia Solovyova. “Now we are at a preparatory stage – the so-called post-traumatic response. According to UNESCO rules, if a World Heritage Site has suffered from an explosion, earthquake or for any other reason it is necessary to take a set of measures to preserve it. The sequence of these measures is fundamental, and it is necessary to start with documenting the current state of the monument. We have already completed this stage, so now we are starting to clear the blockage that had formed from the explosion of the Arch. It is necessary to examine in detail each collapsed block, number it, perform all the necessary analyses. Then we will start scanning, as a result of which digital duplicates of blocks will be created. Then, in St. Petersburg, we will virtually assemble the Arch and only after that, based on the calculations, we will be able to proceed with field restoration.”

In addition to the RGS, the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian Embassy in Syria, the National Defense Management Center, the Topographic Service of the Russian Armed Forces, and the Syrian Trust Fund provide great assistance to the scientists.

The first stage of restoration took place in the winter of 2021/22. Russian specialists assessed the condition of the structure in a short time and created two detailed 3D models – before and after the explosion. Blockages of blocks formed as a result of damage are reflected in them. Scientists have collected samples of the original stone from which all the architectural objects of Palmyra are built, as well as materials that were used for the restoration of the structure in the middle of the last century.

We have preserved the designations of the pillars of the arch that were used by Robert Amy, a French architect who led the restoration in the 1930s. The whole world learned about the arch after his restoration,” Natalia Solovyova comments.

The original samples will be compared with samples of marmorized limestone from a modern quarry. This will allow to accurately select the material for the manufacture of the lost elements. It took almost five years to develop 3D models. The work was completed in 2020, after which the results were handed over to UNESCO representatives and Syrian scientists.


А так выглядит Арка после проведённых работ по разбору завалов. Фото предоставлено Институтом истории материальной культуры РАН

“Now there is a bunch of stones on the site of the Arch,” says Roman Malai, an expedition member. “We need to determine the initial location of each one. All our skills, understanding of the structural features of this stone, décor will be useful here. Based on this, we can assume their location. We understand the position of some stones simply by analyzing photos. In the future, when a 3D model of each stone and block is created, we will restore the Arch in a computer program, where each stone will be in its place.”

This year, the experts managed to clear the blockage that formed after the explosion. The experts scanned all the fragments. The resulting 3D models will later be used in the virtual reconstruction of the structure using computer technology. This procedure helps to "get to know" each block, find its original position in the arch and assess the extent of the damage.

The scientific report on the results of the work in Palmyra and the proposals of specialists on the restoration methodology will form the basis of the project, which will be sent to UNESCO. Each stage of the work is coordinated with the International Scientific Committee on Palmyra. Two conferences are planned for a detailed discussion of the project in St. Petersburg and Damascus, where experts will discuss various approaches to the restoration of the arch.

Scientific archaeological work at the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra will continue in the fall of 2022. In addition, there will be a new stage that will allow us to understand whether it is possible to return all the elements to the historical place.