ISIS Militants Destroy Temple at Palmyra

Temple at Palmyra

Photo Youssef Badawi

ISIS Militants Destroy Temple at Palmyra
| published August 24, 2015 |

By Keith H. RobertsThursday Review contributor

Palmyra, a Roman-era city with archaeological relics dating back more than 2,000 years and with still-standing architecture built during the lifetime of Christ, is one of Syria’s greatest marvels. Once a popular tourist attraction, the city has for centuries also been a magnet for researchers, historians and scholars.

Now, Palmyra is being systematically destroyed, and archeological marvels which have remained intact for two millennia are being smashed as Islamic State extremists seek to purge the city of any vestiges of what the radicals regard as sacrilege.

The ancient Baalshamin Temple at Palmyra, built in the First Century, was destroyed this past weekend by high-impact explosives. The explosives were planted deliberately by ISIS bomb experts. The blast was so powerful, according to scores of people who witnessed the demolition, that it also damaged or toppled nearby Roman-era pillars and arches dating to before the birth of Christ.

Along with the destruction of the temple and the theft of its antiquities and some ruins—which ISIS says it will sell on the open market, using the cash to enhance its military operations—ISIS militants killed a local archaeological scholar, Khaled al-Asaad, according the UNESCO. Al-Asaad was 81 years old, and was considered one of the world’s preeminent experts on the antiquities and Roman-era ruins found in Palmyra and its surrounding areas. Humanitarian observers and witnesses say that ISIS militants, after giving al-Asaad a cursory “trial,” cut off his head, posting it on a column near the city center and hanging his decapitated body from a street light pole.

ISIS won control of Palmyra after a brutal and bloody fight with Syrian forces back in May. The loss of Palmyra was seen as just one of many setbacks for the regime of President Bashir al-Assad, whose grip on the country has now shrunk to a very small coastal area and the area around Damascus, the capital. ISIS militants killed hundreds of Syrian troops, but captured more than 20 soldiers alive. Witnesses who have later reported the incident to humanitarian workers say that the militants later beheaded all 20 of the soldiers in a mass execution held in the ancient amphitheater, another of Palmyra’s treasured archeological sites.

Islamic State militants regard the religious relics and the archeological wonders of other faiths—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Greek and Roman, even competing strains of Islam—to be elements of idolatry and wickedness. Under the harsh rules adopted by the Islamic State, all such archeological elements must be destroyed. Earlier in August, ISIS destroyed the St. Elian Monastery, a pilgrimage site and a place of study built more than 1500 years ago. ISIS has previously destroyed antiquity sites in Iraq and Syria which predate Islam itself, including ancient Phoenician, Roman and Greek structures, as well as ancient Christian churches, Coptic Christian chapels, and Jewish temples.

Last year, ISIS forces killed thousands of Yezidi minorities in communities in northwestern Iraq near the border with Syria. The Yezidi are a religious minority whose faith is formed from overlapping elements of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Islamic State declared the Yezidi to be devil-worshippers and attacked a dozen small towns where the Yezidi live, forcing a humanitarian crisis as some ten thousand families sought to escape the wrath of ISIS militants. Many fled onto Mount Sinjar. ISIS forces destroyed several religious sites and sacred shrines in its efforts to exterminate the Yezidi.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Turkey Gets Tough (Finally) on ISIS; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 25, 2015.

ISIS-Linked Attacks Indicate Success of Militant Outreach; Thursday Review; June 29, 2015.