Music echoes through the ruins of Palmyra once again

Published May 8th, 2016 - 12:31 GMT
Mariinsky orchestra played at the ancient city of Palmyra this week for the first time since ISIS were defeated. (Twitter)
Mariinsky orchestra played at the ancient city of Palmyra this week for the first time since ISIS were defeated. (Twitter)

The Syrian regime put on a patriotic celebration at the ancient city of Palmyra, with flag-waving and military music in a place where just last year jihadists carried out mass executions.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces were able to display its control over the world heritage site six weeks after the army, with Russian help, recaptured it from ISIS.  

The event, held yesterday, marked the centenary of Martyrs' Day, when Syrian nationalists were executed in Damascus by the Ottoman occupiers in 1916.

The event's presenter said: 'We are here to celebrate those who died to save our homeland. We salute the martyrs of Syria and among them the heroes who died in this very theatre.'

Last July ISIS released a video showing the mass execution of 25 Syrian soldiers in the theatre. Bullet holes remain visible on one wall.

In a symbol of Moscow's role in the recapture of Palmyra, 20 Russian soldiers marched onto the stage waving Russian and Syrian flags. 

On Thursday a Russian orchestra also performed in the arena watched by countrymen in their military. 

Russian maestro Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky orchestra in what is the first performance since the theatre was used by ISIS to hold public executions.

Despite the scorching afternoon heat, the St Petersburg-based orchestra played a range of music including Bach and Prokofiev, in front of a packed crowd.

The concert, dubbed 'With a Prayer for Palmyra,' included Bach's Chaconne for solo Violin, a cello piece by Rodion Shchedrin and Sergei Prokofiev's First Symphony.

Cellist Sergei Roldugin, who was named in the Panama Papers scandal, was the star soloist in the performance which was well received by the audience. 

The ancient amphitheatre seats were mainly filled with Russian servicemen, including those who have been working to remove old ISIS landmines in Palmyra.

The city was retaken by Syrian government troops with the help of Russian airstrikes earlier this year.

The ISIS militants badly damaged the world famous archaeological site of Palmyra, destroying two ancient temples and damaging other artefacts.

In opening remarks, Gergiev said that with the concert, 'we protest against the barbarians who destroyed monuments of world culture.'

There was also a video linkup in which Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the audience.

Putin said he regards the concert 'as a sign of gratitude, remembrance and hope - of gratitude to all those who fight terrorism without sparing one's own life; of remembrance for all victims of terror, regardless of the place and time of crimes against humanity; and of course hope not just for the revival of Palmyra as a cultural asset of all humanity but for the deliverance of modern civilization from this terrible ill, from international terrorism.'

Syrian troops backed by Russian air strikes and special forces on the ground recaptured the UNESCO world heritage site Palmyra from Islamic State group fighters in late March, delivering a major propaganda coup for both Damascus and Moscow.

Russian army sappers said last month that they had demined the ancient site -- known as the 'Pearl of the Desert' -- where jihadist fighters blew up ancient temples and looted relics.

Russian maestro Valery Gergiev is one of the world's best known conductors but has faced some criticism in the West for his strongly pro-Kremlin views, with his tours sometimes interrupted by protesters.

The concert in Palmyra will not be the first he has conducted in a place where the Russian military has carried out controversial operations.

In 2008 the Ossetian-native conducted a concert in Tskhinvali, the main city in separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia that was heavily damaged in the short Russian-Georgian war that year.

Gergiev also conducted a charity concert in Tokyo for victims of the Fukushima tragedy in 2012 and led a charity concert tour to raise funds for victims of Russia's Beslan school massacre in 2004.

Gergiev is often seen as an instrument of soft power of the Kremlin. He endorsed President Vladimir Putin in his election to the third term in 2012.  

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile told journalists that Gergiev's Syria concert 'deserves to be valued most highly' as a gesture of solidarity and 'refusal to accept violence and terrorism.'

By MATT HUNTER and TOM WYKE


© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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