19 Aug 2015

Palmyra: archaeologist ‘killed by Islamic State’

Syrian antiquities scholar Khaled Asaad is reported to have been beheaded by Islamic State militants in the ancient city of Palmyra.

Above: Images posted online by Islamic State in July appear to show the destruction of statues from Palmyra

The country’s head of antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, said Asaad’s family had told him the 82-year-old had been killed, with his body hung on a column in a main square of the historic site.

IS fighters control swathes of Syria and Iraq and captured Palmyra in central Syria from government forces in May.

Despite their reputation for destroying artefacts they view as idolatrous, they are not known to have damaged its Roman-era monuments and ruins.

But the militant group posted pictures online in July purportedly showing the destruction of statues from Palmyra. The previous month, Islamic State said it had destroyed two shrines.

Asaad, who worked as over 50 years as head of antiquities at Palmyra, had been detained and interrogated for over a month by Islamic State fighters.

‘Bad omen’

Mr Abdulkarim said: “Just imagine that such a scholar who gave such memorable services to the place and to history would be beheaded…and his corpse still hanging from one of the ancient columns in the centre of a square in Palmyra.

“The continued presence of these criminals in this city is a curse and bad omen on (Palmyra) and every column and every archaeological piece in it.”

He said Asaad was known for several scholarly works published in international archaeological journals on Palmyra, which in antiquity flourished as an important trading hub along the Silk Road.

He also worked over the past few decades with US, French, German and Swiss archeological missions on excavations and research in Palmyra’s famed 2,000-year-old ruins, a Unesco world heritage site.

Before the city’s capture by Islamic State, Syrian officials said they moved hundreds of ancient statues to safe locations because they were concerned they would be destroyed.

‘Hundreds killed’

In May, Syrian state television said Islamic State had killed at least 400 people in Palmyra, most of them women and children.

At the time, it was not possible to verify this, but it was consistent with reports by activists that the Islamist fighters had carried out executions since capturing the city.

Antiquities in Iraq have also been targeted by Islamic State. In March, the Iraqi government said militants had looted and bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in the north of the country (watch video above).