“I am seeing Palmyra being destroyed in front of my eyes. God help us in the days to come.” – Maamoun Abdul Karim, Syrian antiquities chief
After a month of violent interrogation, this week Khaled al-Asaad, renowned antiquities chief in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, was executed by Islamic State militants. His torso was subsequently hung from one of the ancient Roman pillars at the main archeological site in Palmyra, to which Asaad had devoted much of his life and work. Many of his colleagues and close friends confirm that Asaad’s knowledge and affection for Palmyra was unparalleled: he spent much of his working life heavily involved in excavations, as well as in research and restoring parts of the ancient city.
An elderly antiquities scholar seems like an unlikely threat to a ruthless terrorist organisation that controls much of Syria’s landmass. The charges against him? Refusing to reveal the location of valuable artefacts removed from Palmyra. It is believed that archaeologists - Asaad included - arranged for the transportation of numerous important statues from Palmyra’s museum to various safe locations prior to ISIS’s capture of the city in May.
The latest in a long list of atrocities carried out by the extremist group, Asaad’s execution for refusing to divulge the location of Palmyra’s valuables is yet another reminder of the regime’s brutality. The human cost of their ideology - as evidenced by ISIS’s enormous death toll, which now counts Asaad amongst its numbers - is obviously horrific. However, as we witness the destruction of more and more important cultural artefacts, much like the ones Asaad died to protect, it is clear that civilisation itself is also paying a tremendous price.
While ISIS makes sure that the world knows whenever it has destroyed any pre-Islamic sites - the widely disseminated video taken at the Mosul museum in May comes to mind - the systematic disassembly of archaeological sites for commercial, rather than religious, reasons receives far less media attention. The portable artefacts removed from Palmyra by Asaad and his colleagues are exactly the type that ISIS meticulously seeks out with the aim of selling them to wealthy buyers. In fact, the money made from selling looted antiquities - known as blood antiquities in archeological circles - finances much of ISIS’s activities.
ISIS’s looting of these archaeological sites has brought them to the forefront of the illegal antiquities trade: they employ their own machinery and engage many of their own to dig, unavoidably damaging invaluable archaeological sites in the process. One only needs to look at Dura Europos, a site located in eastern Syria: at the time of its discovery, it was an intact Hellenistic town, home to the best-preserved ancient synagogue uncovered from the ancient world. Now archaeologists estimate that looting has destroyed over 70 per cent of it. Despite ISIS’s impassioned assertions that such sites are blasphemous and must be eradicated, they are clearly not above using them for profit.
Decimating “idolatrous” sites of pre-Islamic archaeological significance has become a central part of the ISIS regime. Palmyra, known as the Pearl of the Desert, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site considered to hold outstanding historical value. ISIS has previously claimed that they don’t intend to destroy the ruins of Palmyra. However, this week brought us the devastating news that ISIS has blown up the ancient temple of Baal Shamin, a crucial component of the site. The iconic statue of the Lion of al-Lat, an important part of Palmyra’s heritage, has also been destroyed, while recently released photographs depict the wrecked Palmyra shrines of Muhammed Bin Ali, a descendant of Prophet Mohammed’s cousin, and a Sufi Scholar.
Meanwhile, videos depicting the killing of government supporters in Palmyra’s ancient Roman theatre have so far been released on two occasions. This is yet another example of the next-level propaganda assimilated by the ISIS regime: a form of psychological and cultural combat that capitalises on the power of social media to ensure that the damage is viewed worldwide for maximum impact.
In May this year, the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, implored Syrian troops and ISIS to spare Palmyra, saying that it “represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and the world.” However, in addition to the loss of Baal Shamin, recent reports from earlier this summer indicate that ISIS has surrounded the entirety of the ancient site with Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s). While the specific motivations for placing the IED’s around the ruins of Palmyra are unconfirmed, Michael Danti, co-director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research informed National Geographic that the pattern of IED placement around Palmyra is ideal for “filmed destruction”. In any case, their actions and the images and videos used to propagate them carry a clear message for the world to see; one that Asaad’s death exemplifies to an unprecedented and terrifying extent.
It is natural for Asaad’s death and the death of many, many other civilians at the hands of ISIS to generate indignant reactions in us. People are continually robbed of their lives in increasingly more horrifying ways, and yet the destruction of artefacts and material objects generates similar outrage. It all begs the question: why? Some might point to a misguided set of values that prioritises the destruction of material objects over human loss, but this is neither fair nor true.
Rather, antiquities are a physical representation of the development of human identity and the diverse experiences of communities as they flourished and fell. The monuments and artefacts these people left behind are a crucial window into their glories, failures, and beliefs. At the end of the day, ISIS's trail of archaeological damage generates such a visceral reaction because, what it ultimately represents, is an irreversible severance of our collective connection to the past; a connection that Asaad spent his life trying to enhance and preserve.
70 kilometres northeast of the Iranian city of Shiraz lies Persepolis, the ancient city of Parsa, and one of the most important and magnificent sites of the ancient world. After the 1979 revolution, clerics were prepared to demolish it completely in their similar aim to wipe out the pre-Islamic heritage of Iran. The historical significance of the site ultimately led to it being left intact. While this may be an overly optimistic comparison, it’s all we can do to hope that the remaining ruins of Palmyra will be so lucky and that Asaad’s sacrifice will not have been in vain.
Words: Catherine Karellis
Image Source: The Times of Israel