Unesco condemns destruction of ancient temple in Palmyra - Museums Association

Unesco condemns destruction of ancient temple in Palmyra

New statement suggests that Isis may avoid razing Palmyra to the ground
Islamic State militants (Isis) have claimed responsibility for blowing up ancient shrines in Palmyra, a Unesco world heritage site in Syria.

The group has destroyed the 2,000-year-old Baalshamin Temple in Palmyra. Built in AD17, the temple contained invaluable pre-Islamic history.

But in an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Amr Al-Azm, the former director of conservation at Syria’s ministry of antiquities and museums, said that “there are better things for Isis to do with Palmyra”.

A member of Isis reportedly told Al-Azm that Palmyra makes an excellent safe-haven from coalition air-strikes. “If that’s the case it would not be in Isis’s interest to destroy the whole site,” Al-Azm said.

The bombing of Baalshamin follows the beheading of 82-year-old Khaled al-Assaad, the archaeologist who cared for Palmyra's ruins for more than four decades.

Described by Maamoun Abdul Karim, Syria's director of antiquities, as "one of the most important pioneers in Syrian archaeology in the 20th century”, al-Assaad did not reveal the location of the ancient Syrian temples, and as a result was beheaded and posthumously mutilated by Isis.  

Unesco’s director-general Irina Bokova condemned the actions of Isis: “The systematic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intent of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity and history. One week after the killing of al-Assaad… this destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.”

Commentators have speculated that the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, built in 32BC, could be Isis’s next target.

Hassan Hassan, a Middle East analyst, told the Observer in June: “The ruins at Palmyra would not normally qualify for destruction by Isis, but the attention drawn to the site might tempt the group to destroy them as a way to inflict psychological pain.”

Al-Azm said that Isis doesn’t tend to commit atrocities in such a clockwork fashion: “[Attacks are] timed and very specifically crafted, so in the long-run one can assume if Isis is in charge of a site like Palmyra for long enough, and [they think] there is enough need for these atrocities, then yes, they will eventually destroy what’s left at Palmyra. That’s not to say that they won’t destroy the occasional monument, temple or building there – they can do that and still keep the rest of it – it is a very big site, a major city.”

In June, Isis militants stated they would begin "removing the landmarks of polytheism" before they destroyed the tomb of Sheikh Mohammed Ali, near Palmyra. 

A spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: "The government will be implementing a Cultural Protection Fund to support and expand existing efforts to build and develop the cultural capacity of countries affected by cultural destruction as well as inspire new programmes."

Timeline of Isis 2015 cultural destruction

January: Isis ransacks the central library in the Iraqi city of Mosul, burning thousands of books. Reports emerge that Isis has blown up part of the ancient Nineveh Wall in Mosul.

February: Isis releases a video depicting members using sledgehammers to smash ancient artefacts at Mosul Museum. The video also shows militants using a masonry drill to destroy a sculpture of an Assyrian bull, thought to date back to the seventh century BC at the nearby Nergal Gate.

March: The ancient city of Hatra is destroyed. Unverified reports suggest that Isis is also using bulldozers to destroy the Assyrian city of Nimrud.

April: Isis posts videos online purporting to show its members destroying Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud with explosives.

June: Isis destroys the tomb of Sheikh Mohammed Ali, near Palmyra, after announcing it would begin “removing the landmarks of polytheism” in the area. 

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