A replica of an ancient triumphal arch destroyed by Islamic State (Isis) in Syria has been put up in central London but the initiative has sparked a fierce debate on its political and archaeological implications. The scale model of Palmyra's Arch of Triumph erected in Trafalgar Square was unveiled by London Mayor Boris Johnson on Tuesday 19 April as part of World Heritage Week.

A 5.5-meter (20ft) recreation of the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, is seen at Trafalgar Square in London
A 5.5-meter (20ft) recreation of the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, is seen at Trafalgar Square in London © Reuters


After Palmyra was recaptured by government forces in March, Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director of the Syrian antiquities department, said the government planned to employ the same 3D technique used by IDA to return the city its earlier splendour.

"The IDA's Arch of Triumph of Palmyra serves as a model for how, together, we will bring life back to Palmyra and restore the site as a message of peace against terrorism," Abdulkarim said. The process would take only five years, he said.

Leading experts on near-east archaeology have however criticised the approach, wary of the creation of a 'Disneyland' of archaeology with brand new monuments on ancient grounds. Polish archaeologist Michal Gawlikowski who, as head of the University of Warsaw's Polish Mission at Palmyra, worked at the site from 1965-2011, said he supported the IDA's replica as long as it remained a temporary installation.

"Generally speaking I am rather against making copies out of contest because of the so-called Disneyland effect, but I suppose in this case it might be justified," he told IBTimes UK. "It draws attention to the problem that we have there making the public aware of it and in this aspect it can be useful."

The veteran archaeologist however warned against applying the same 3D method to rebuild all of Palmyra, noting that historic accuracy demands only original stones are used to salvage a monument. "If as a result the ruin is more ruined than it was before it will simply remind us of the history of the place. Because sometimes from now this episode of Isis will also be part of history," he said.

Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology (Apsa) went further, alleging that a quick and complete reconstruction of Palmyra would also be "unethical", serving as indirect rehabilitation for a regime widely accused of massacring its own people.

"What we are witnessing is a propaganda stint organized by both the Assad regime and the Russians, using Maamoun Abdulkarim as their spokesperson to add archaeological legitimacy to what is going on [in Syria]," he said.

Makinson argued that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is trying to portray himself as the protector of Syrian heritage but his forces have also been accused of overseeing looting and damaging heritage sites with indiscriminate bombings.

"The restoration of Palmyra as programmed by the Syrian government, Russian and Syrian executives, and people such as Boris Johnson is both unscientific and unethical and amounts to nothing more than transforming Palmyra into a pro-Bashar theme park," he said. A peaceful environment allowing the involvement of international experts would be required to properly restore the city, he added.