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Paris exhibit celebrates UNESCO heritage site of Palmyra

Associated Press logo Associated Press 12/13/2016 By THOMAS ADAMSON
A bassin made for a sultan by Syrian coppersmiths is displayed at the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori) © The Associated Press A bassin made for a sultan by Syrian coppersmiths is displayed at the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

PARIS (AP) — Days after the Islamic State group seized back control of the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra, a prescient exhibit was inaugurated in Paris on Tuesday that aims to educate the public on the wounded wonder that Syrians affectionately call the "Bride of the Desert."

Visitors look on in the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori) © The Associated Press Visitors look on in the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Its organizers said the display opening Wednesday is designed to be an "emotional" experience that takes visitors to Palmyra and other endangered world heritage sites in the Middle East. It's also meant to show how much of the Syrian site's heritage so far has been spared.

FILE -- This file photo released March 28, 2016, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows destroyed statues at the damaged Palmyra Museum, in Palmyra city, central Syria. Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Islamic State fighters retook Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, from Syrian troops is a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, and a UNESCO world heritage site, that boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. It is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. (SANA via AP, File) © The Associated Press FILE -- This file photo released March 28, 2016, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows destroyed statues at the damaged Palmyra Museum, in Palmyra city, central Syria. Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Islamic State fighters retook Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, from Syrian troops is a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, and a UNESCO world heritage site, that boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. It is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. (SANA via AP, File)

The exhibit at the Grand Palais plunges visitors into a three-dimensional, 360-degree projection using never-before-seen images of Palmyra. They were taken by a drone in April days after the city was liberated from Islamic State group fighters.

FILE -- In this April 8, 2016 file photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry press service, a Russian deminer checks for mines in the Palmyra ancient ruins, Syria. Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Islamic State fighters retook Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, from Syrian troops, is a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, and a UNESCO world heritage site, that boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. It is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service Photo via AP, File) © The Associated Press FILE -- In this April 8, 2016 file photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry press service, a Russian deminer checks for mines in the Palmyra ancient ruins, Syria. Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Islamic State fighters retook Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, from Syrian troops, is a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, and a UNESCO world heritage site, that boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. It is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service Photo via AP, File)

Last year, the militants destroyed the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin, a stone block structure fronted by six towering columns — viewing them as monuments to idolatry. They also blew up a non-religious ancient monument, the Arch of Triumph.

View of the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori) © The Associated Press View of the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Despite the loss of such archaeological treasures, the researcher behind the 3-D imagery, Yves Ubelmann, called the previously unseen photos he collated "positive" because they illustrate how much of Palmyra remains intact. Experts estimate that some 80 percent of the city's ancient ruins are still unharmed, for now.

FILE - This file photo released March 27, 2016, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows a destroyed statue outside the damaged Palmyra Museum, in Palmyra city, central Syria. Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Islamic State fighters retook Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, from Syrian troops, is a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, and a UNESCO world heritage site, that boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. It is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. (SANA via AP, File) © The Associated Press FILE - This file photo released March 27, 2016, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows a destroyed statue outside the damaged Palmyra Museum, in Palmyra city, central Syria. Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Islamic State fighters retook Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, from Syrian troops, is a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, and a UNESCO world heritage site, that boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. It is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. (SANA via AP, File)

A UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra boasts 2,000-year-old Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. Before the war, it was Syria's top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

A third century funerary banquet of Palmyre from the Louvre collection is displayed the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori) © The Associated Press A third century funerary banquet of Palmyre from the Louvre collection is displayed the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Just as the exhibit opens, the threat to the city it honors is ratcheting up.

FILE -- In this April 14, 2016 file photo, Russian soldiers stand on a road as smoke rises from a controlled land mine detonation by Russian experts inside the ancient town of Palmyra, Syria in the central Homs province. Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Islamic State fighters retook Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, from Syrian troops, is a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, and a UNESCO world heritage site, that boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. It is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File) © The Associated Press FILE -- In this April 14, 2016 file photo, Russian soldiers stand on a road as smoke rises from a controlled land mine detonation by Russian experts inside the ancient town of Palmyra, Syria in the central Homs province. Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Islamic State fighters retook Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, from Syrian troops, is a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, and a UNESCO world heritage site, that boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. It is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Islamic State group militants on Sunday re-occupied the site, from which they had been expelled earlier this year, in a surprise attack that took advantage of the Russian and Syrian governments' preoccupation with the front in Aleppo.

It's unclear whether President Bashar al-Assad will prioritize retaking Palmyra, with what's left of its archaeological treasure.

Ubelmann said he was "scared... because we don't know what they'll destroy."

"At least we have these photos in April that can be an archive for the memory of humanity," he added.

Ubelmann founded the France-based organization Iconem whose state-of-the art technology is showcased in the exhibit and maps out with arresting realism every nook and cranny of the sites that are found among the Middle East's most hostile places.

As well as Palmyra, they include Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Khorsabad in Iraq, the Umayyad Mosque in Syria and Kerak Castle in Jordan.

Marielle Pic, the curator of the exhibit and director of the Oriental Antiquities Department in the Louvre Museum, expressed remarkable sangfroid at the prospect of the Palmyra's further destruction at the hands of militants.

Archaeologists, she said, must simply "accept it."

"We fight with our minds, and not with arms. We know that each era can be a new chapter for a site. Now, Palmyra has entered a dark period," Pic said. "But for us the destruction is part of the story of an archaeological site. We need to accept it."

French President Francois Hollande and UNESCO chief Irina Bokova inaugurated the exhibit, "Eternal Sites, From Bamiyan to Palmyra," on Tuesday in collaboration with the Louvre. It runs until Jan. 9.

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Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP

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