Russian bombs and fighter jets have destroyed Syrian towns and terrorized civilians for more than four years. Russian military brass, political leaders and diplomats are regular visitors to Syria. Mikhail Piotrovsky doesn’t fall into any of those categories, even though he’s Russian.
And yet in November, the director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace found himself in Damascus. He was in town to oversee an event of major importance in global historical heritage circles: the signing of an agreement to see Russian experts restore the ancient city of Palmyra.
Syria is home to some of the world’s most important ancient cultural collections. Its seven UNESCO World Heritage sites rank it alongside Egypt and put it ahead of Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. It is home to sprawling Crusader castles and unique cityscapes as well as archaeological finds dating back to the Neolithic period. But Palmyra, whose Temple of Bel and Arch of Triumph were destroyed when Islamic State extremists occupied the area in 2015 and again in 2017, takes center stage.
It was there that a highly choreographed and much-criticized concert by the St. Petersburg-based Mariinsky Theater Orchestra was held, to the surprise of the wider world, in May 2016. Since last year, a pair of Russian tour operators named Miracle and Kilimanjaro have begun bringing Russian tourists to Palmyra and other historical sites around Syria. Separately, the famed and heavily damaged Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque in Homs reopened last spring after pro-Kremlin Chechen leaders paid for its reconstruction.
It would be naive to dismiss Russia’s growing interest in Syria’s ancient sites as merely a way of opening them to tourism with the aim of helping the Syrian government repay its war debt to Moscow, many experts suggest. Nine years of unrest means that for the average Syrian, there’s little money left to spend on tourism, says Jihad Yazigi, editor of the Syria Report, a business portal. “You also have the Western sanctions making it difficult to use the financial system for banking transactions,” he says.
Instead, experts believe Russia’s plan may be to use ancient cultural sites as a way to ingratiate itself into postwar Syria, while simultaneously serving as a route to normalize ties with the West away from the still-caustic political sphere.
“Palmyra is very important for the Russians. It is constantly being used by the media in its depictions of the war in Syria,” says Gertjan Plets of Utrecht University, who has been writing about the politics of heritage reconstruction for a decade. Plets’ research has found that since 2017, RIA Novosti, Russia’s state-owned domestic news agency, has published 31 feature articles on Syrian heritage alone as part of a broader effort to legitimize Moscow’s involvement and troops in Syria to the Russian public.
While most international archaeological teams from countries whose governments oppose the regime of President Bashar Assad have seen their Syria credentials expire, Russian teams and archaeologists have been allowed to work at some sites, at least in Palmyra and Aleppo. Work by the U.N. Development Program and others to reconstruct sites such as Homs’ Old City market — an area dripping with symbolism for the regime since it ousted anti-government rebels from the area in 2014 — has been thwarted by member states. Their governments, opponents of Assad, fear that spending funds on such projects could be seen as implicit endorsement of the regime.
It’s not just a straightforward race between Russia and the West over Syria’s culture, though. Plets says Russia is trying, through UNESCO, to get international teams involved in Syrian projects supported by the U.N. cultural agency. Its goal? “If you have Russia and Western nations working together through UNESCO, it’s basically an acknowledgment [by the West] of the Assad regime,” he says.
It helps that ties between Russian cultural historians and the Kremlin are close. Russia’s minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, is the president of the Russian Geographical Society, which has funded the State Hermitage Museum’s work. Shoigu has met with Assad several times in Damascus. And the chair of the society’s board of trustees? A certain Vladimir Putin.
Still, there are limits to what Russia can gain from its control of historic sites, say some experts. Syrian anthropologist Amr al-Azm, a lecturer at Shawnee State University in Ohio, believes that if the Russians were to go in and, for example, reconstruct Palmyra’s Temple of Bel, UNESCO would immediately withdraw its World Heritage Site designation. “There are rules about these kinds of things,” he says.
Russia says its interest in Syria, a country that holds a significant place in its historical connection with the Middle East, is legitimate. “For us, Palmyra is a great image — a parallel to St. Petersburg for beauty. It appears on the covers of [Russian school] textbooks,” Piotrovsky wrote in 2015. “Many Russians have their children baptized in Syrian monasteries. It is our heritage too.”
Plets notes that Russia’s efforts may point to a wider plan to wield influence beyond Syria and into the broader Middle East, its biggest arms market. “We should never forget that [Russian state energy conglomerate] Gazprom are involved in projects in the Middle East,” he adds.
The war for Syria may have mostly ended. But the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East, through control of ancient bricks and mortar, looks set to rumble on. And there too Russia now has the edge.