In 2009 or 2010, three looted sculptures were taken from the ancient city of Palmyra. Several years later, customs officers in Switzerland seized them at a Geneva freeport. At last, they’re heading home to Syria, the Art Newspaper reports.
The three sculptures date back to the second and third centuries B.C.E., when Palmyra was still a nexus of trade, possibly during the rule of Queen Zenobia. One of the sculptures is a bust of a priest wearing a ceremonial headpiece. The sculpture was badly damaged by the looters when they removed it from the site, as the head once had a body as well. Experts have developed some hypotheses about which statue the head belongs to, but there has not been any confirmation. The other two sculptures are funerary reliefs, one of a woman and one of a man, both flanked by an animal holding a ring in its mouth.
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The sculptures were looted before the start of the Civil War in Syria. Looted objects from ancient sites like Palmyra were known to be major sources of funds for terrorist groups. Artifacts stolen by ISIS flooded the antiquities market during the height of the group’s power. Along with looting, ISIS made a concerted effort to destroy pre-Islamic artifacts, as well as much of Palmyra, in what has been called cultural genocide. The return of these artifacts from Palmyra represents one of the first steps toward healing the wounds of these enormous losses.
In 2017, the looted artifacts were displayed at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva to raise awareness about the harm of looting. In 2020, the United Nations held a tribunal and it is there that Syrian authorities claimed the pieces and asked that they be restituted. The statues were held at the Musée d’art et d’histoire for safekeeping until the hand off.
When the artifacts were discovered in Geneva, authorities learned that they had been shipped from Qatar. The sculptures were found along with other looted artifacts from Libya and Yemen. The statues were handed over to Syria’s permanent mission at the United Nations last week.