If you visit the Colosseum in the next few weeks, look out for the winged bull. This gigantic, human-headed bull is an impressive, full-scale replica of a statue that once stood in Nimrud, Iraq. Nearby is a reproduction half the roof of the Temple of Bel from Palmyra. Sadly, the originals no longer exist – they are “victims of ISIS”, having been destroyed by the terrorists, along with countless other archaeological treasures. While the human suffering caused by ISIS has rightly attracted the majority of the world’s attention and condemnation, many are also concerned about the damage being inflicted on archaeological sites. The Middle East’s cultural heritage is under attack, and Palmyra has suffered the most. In 2015 terrorists destroyed ancient temples and a triumphal arch before beheading Khaled al-Assad, the archaeologist who heroically refused to reveal the hiding place of other ancient artifacts.
The current temporary exhibition at the Colosseum, “Rising from Destruction”, brings the archaeological casualties of Palmyra back to life. These reconstructions were created by a team of expert restorers, using a combination of 3D printing and plastic mixed with stone powder, finished by hand with meticulous attention to detail. One restorer even replicated the scratches on the surface of the statue, in order to be as faithful to the original as possible. Once individual pieces had been completed, the giant bull and the temple ceiling were assembled inside the Colosseum. This immense project was made possible in part thanks to American military officers in Syria (who took high-definition photos of the archaeological sites), and in part due to the effort of restorers across Italy, from Florence to Ferrara. The recreation of the state archive hall in Ebla was made by a company in Rome, which usually works on film sets and props. In addition to the replicas, you can also see two survivors — marble busts from a museum in Palmyra, which were badly damaged during the ISIS occupation. The former mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, who has been closely involved in the exhibition, has dubbed them “the war-wounded of Palmyra”. Although it is rare for artworks and artifacts to be sent abroad during times of intense conflict, cultural officials in Damascus made an exception for Syrian sculptures, knowing that they would be safe in Rome.
Visiting the exhibition is a moving experience, forcing us to reflect on the cultural casualties of war, and the importance of protecting our shared cultural heritage. As one of the most visited cultural sites in Italy, the Colosseum is the ideal venue for the exhibition. Several thousand visitors from all over the world enter the Colosseum every day, and those who visit over the following weeks will be confronted with the symbols of the Middle East’s plight. As well as filling us with pity for Syria and Iraq, the exhibition should make us grateful for the Roman remains that have endured over the centuries. It’s easy to take Rome’s wealth of ruins for granted, but a twist of fate might have easily led to the destruction of a temple, aqueduct, or even the Colosseum itself. The “eternal” nature of the Eternal City is partly down to luck, in addition to the continued efforts of archaeologists and restorers to save precious remnants of the past.
In the words of Francesco Prosperetti, one of Rome’s senior cultural officials, the exhibition at the Colosseum gives a “global message on the importance of cultural heritage and its value as part of national identity, on the need to protect it, preserve it, restore it and in some cases rebuild it.”
The Palmyra exhibition runs until 11 December 2016, and will be included as part of our Colosseum tour.