Syria: Russian orchestra holds concert in Palmyra ruins

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By Alasdair Sandford  with Denis Loctier, Catherine Hardy, Reuters
Syria: Russian orchestra holds concert in Palmyra ruins

Playing for Syria, in Syria: Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra has staged a surprise classical music concert in the Roman amphitheatre in Palmyra.

Many of the exhibits were able to be smuggled out. The militants could have been bombed into the ground in an instant, but they weren't. Well our guys weren't there back then!

It took place just over a month after Russian air strikes helped force militants from the self-styled Islamic State out of the ancient city.

Much of the UNESCO World Heritage site was destroyed by ISIL during its occupation.

Conducted by Valery Gergiev, a prominent supporter of President Vladimir Putin, the concert was billed on the Mariinsky Theatre’s website as “With a prayer about Palmyra. Music revives the ancient walls”.

Gergiev described the concert as a protest against the barbarism and violence exhibited by ISIL militants.

The Kremlin said the event, featuring works by Bach and Prokofiev among others, was a brilliant way of showing solidarity with Russian forces fighting in Syria as well as the Syrian army.

There were tributes to Khaled al-Asaad, the site’s long-standing archaeologist who was beheaded by the extremists. The 81-year-old had been held captive by ISIL which reportedly demanded information on where artefacts from the site were hidden.

His photo appeared at the front of the amphitheatre, which was used by ISIL as a venue to conduct public executions.

The head of St Petersburg’s State Hermitage museum told the audience that Palmyra’s heritage could have been saved.

Without naming names he appeared to criticise the US-led coalition.

“Look at its geographical situation. The battle for Palmyra went on for so long and many of the exhibits were able to be smuggled out. (The militants) approaching Palmyra could have been bombed into the ground in an instant, but they weren’t. Well our guys weren’t there back then!” said Mikhail Piotrovsky, the museum’s director.

Vladimir Putin also addressed the audience, by video link from Sochi in Russia.

“Thank you for this wonderful humanitarian action – the concert in Palmyra, liberated from terrorists. I consider it as an expression of gratitude, memory and hope,” the Russian president told the assembly of artists, scientists, Palmyra citizens, as well as Russian and Syrian military personnel.

“The gratitude to everyone, who fights against terrorism without spearing their own lives. The memory of all the victims of the terror regarless of place and time when the crimes against humanity have been committed,” Putin added.

The cellist Sergei Roldugin, a friend of Putin named in the Panama Paper leaks as owning a network of offshore firms that have handled billions of dollars, also performed at the concert. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Backed by militias and the Russian air force, the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra from ISIL on March 27, nearly a year after the extremists had taken hold of the city.

Russian engineers later de-mined its historic neighbourhoods.

Moscow also says its experts are ready to help restore Palmyra. According to preliminary estimates, some 20 percent of the ancient city was destroyed, while many exhibits were looted from museums. Experts say it could take around five years to restore Palmyra.

The Kremlin has been much criticised over its Syrian policy: for its intervention in the conflict in support of Damascus, and its alleged failure to rein in the excesses of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Many in the West remain suspicious of its intentions.

Moscow will be hoping that the images of the concert – depicting a renewal of cultural expression in the very amphitheatre which for a while became the scene of barbarous murder – will project Russia as a force for good in Syria.

Euronews correspondent Denis Loctier reported from the event in Palmyra: “A symphonic concert in the amphitheatre was impossible until very recently. The ancient city was under ISIL control, its monuments were deliberately destroyed. Now, Valery Gergiev’s orchestra is leading calls for international solidarity to restore Palmyra,” he said.

Euronews is on a media facility in Syria provided by the Russian Ministry of Defence and our reporting is not subject to any military control.