The Senseless Death of Mr. Palmyra

The war on culture unfolding in Syria, and the 83-year-old archaeologist who became its latest casualty.


When the self-proclaimed Islamic State took the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in May, many waited for the smashing to begin. “ISIS has vowed to destroy these vast temples. Are they capable of doing that?” one television journalist asked a former British Museum curator, expectantly. Another news anchor declared: “We’ve failed to save the humans in this disaster. What likelihood is there that we will be able to save the stones?”

Except there are still people in Palmyra, along with the vast Roman-era ruins. One of those people, who spent his life studying, excavating, and preserving the stones in his hometown, was murdered this week at the hands of the Islamic State. Instead of lining Palmyra’s triumphal arch with dynamite or bulldozing the Temple of Bel, like so many imagined they would, the criminals killed an 83-year-old archaeologist. For 40 years, Khaled al-Asaad was the director of antiquities in Palmyra and ran its museum. “Mr. Palmyra,” as another Syrian archaeologist remembered him, was beheaded in public in the center of town by the jihadis, who then strung up his body with his head at his feet. His glasses were still on.

“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, said in a statement. The Islamic State reportedly held Asaad for weeks, trying to get him to reveal where artifacts had been stashed away when the group stormed the ancient caravan city, whose monumental ruins sit in an oasis in the desert halfway between Damascus and the Euphrates. Asaad was not the first archaeologist to die in Syria’s civil war, and he likely won’t be the last. Just last week, Qasem Abdullah Yehiya, the assistant director of laboratories at the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, the Syrian government’s antiquities agency, was killed in a mortar attack on the Damascus citadel. His death received scant international attention, since it wasn’t at the hands of the Islamic State.

By murdering Asaad, a revered figure in Syria’s cultural community, the Islamic State showed another shade of its brutality, and also its criminal disdain for Syria’s vast heritage. For all the focus on the group’s declared intent to destroy artifacts it considers at odds with its distorted view of Islam, its public justification for killing Asaad — that he was an “apostate” and served as the “director of idolatry” in Palmyra, among other explanations — was propaganda masking the real reason: He wouldn’t help them loot. The horrifying cost of that refusal makes Asaad the latest victim of a war on culture enfolding within Syria’s brutal civil war.

Sometimes this war comes in the form of collateral damage to historic monuments and sites. When in March I spoke to Amr Al-Azm, the Syrian archaeologist who remembered Asaad as “Mr. Palmyra,” he warned about “violations where the monuments are casualties of the actual war itself, where the building or site is in the crossfire between two sides or being used for military purposes.” He mentioned Aleppo’s medieval citadel; regime snipers were using it as a base. “If the regime is using that as a military position, then essentially the citadel itself as a monument becomes a target.”

But other times, cultural destruction is a deliberate tactic. And the Islamic State is not alone. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has targeted historic architecture, including symbolic mosques and revered archaeological sites, as its own terror and propaganda tool. The regime does so to destroy symbols of the uprising and opposition, pin damage on rebels, and pursue its scorched-earth strategy. The minaret of the ancient Omari mosque in Daraa, where the uprising began in 2011, was one such target, along with parts of the Old City of Aleppo and the Roman-era ruins of Bosra in southern Syria, which were barrel-bombed. Some might consider damage to a splendid mosaic museum near Idlib, bombed in June, to be akin to culture caught in the crossfire, but when the regime is dropping barrel bombs, it’s hard to distinguish.

Palmyra is one of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites; five of them have been severely damaged by the war, from airstrikes, mortar attacks, and extensive looting. The Old City of Aleppo is largely in ruins. Only the Old City of Damascus has been spared, but fierce fighting rages not far beyond its walls and mortar shells occasionally fall within them. Regime airstrikes have turned many of Damascus’s suburbs, once a short microbus ride from the Old City’s Roman-era eastern gate, into rubble.

The regime doesn’t publicize attacks on culture like the Islamic State does. But there are signs of the strategy behind it, like the ubiquitous graffiti that regime forces scrawl on damaged buildings across Syria, including the now minaret-less Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo: “Assad, or we will burn it.

The jihadis of the Islamic State have their own way of doing things. They have documented the use of bulldozers and explosives for maximum shock value, toppling statues of Assyrian lions and blowing up Byzantine mosaics in Raqqa last year, well before their heavily publicized rampage earlier this year in northern Iraq, through the Mosul Museum and the nearby archaeological sites of Hatra and Nimrud.

Iconoclasm is at play. But the ideology driving the Islamic State’s destruction of heritage only seems to go so far, since it overlooks a more basic and criminal motivation. As Mark Vlasic, a Georgetown University law professor who studies the group’s looting, told U.S. News & World Report in March: “They destroy antiquities for effect, and they likely use the smokescreen of destruction to cover themselves while they move more transportable items for profit.” He added, “It is, after all, a criminal organization.”

All the attention on Palmyra’s threatened ruins since the Islamic State took the site, and once again with Asaad’s death, has an undertone of putting heritage above people — above Syrians and what the war has cost them. The Islamic State killed dozens of civilians on its march to Palmyra, but after seizing the site, the group told a Syrian radio station it would preserve the ruins, minus the shrines and statues. Then it used Queen Zenobia’s amphitheater as a set to film the execution of 25 Syrian soldiers.

While his murder has made him a symbol of the war’s destruction of cultural heritage, Asaad in life was another Syrian whose choices were dictated by the fighting. Asaad refused to leave his hometown when the criminals took over Palmyra. He reportedly assumed he would be left alone, since he wasn’t a threat. Instead, the image of his body strung up near the ruins is another staggering contrast between what Syria was before the uprising-turned-civil-war, and what it has become.

The first time I visited Palmyra, in 2009, I got there on a bus from Damascus and stayed with a friend in a cold hostel in Tadmur, the modern part of town, near where the Islamic State hung Asaad’s body. We were up before dawn, since you had to see Palmyra at first light, steeling yourself against the chilly desert and waiting for the sun. One other tourist was there. The Zenobia Cham Palace Hotel, built in 1900 and once host to Agatha Christie, was the closest place to stay near the ruins. It was right among them, a single-story hotel of faded grandeur. Its owner, Cham, Syria’s luxury-hotel chain, had recently renovated it, expecting more tourists. Today, it is burned out. Zenobia was the queen of Palmyra who rebelled against Rome in the third century. Asaad named his daughter after her.

Photo credit: Marc DEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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