Islamic State releases images said to show destruction of Palmyra temple
Historians and archaeologists have expressed anger and growing despair after Islamic State released propaganda images purporting to show militants in the historic Syrian city of Palmyra.
The images posted on social media on Tuesday by supporters of the group and reported by Associated Press showed the temple reduced to a pile of rocks. One caption read: “The complete destruction of the pagan Baal Shamin temple.”
The Guardian could not independently verify the images. However, they were released like other group propaganda and carried a logo Isis often uses in , in Syria’s central Homs province.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, likened the destruction to a “wound in my heart”. “All of my memories were torn to shreds; I lost a part of my being. It felt like my family home had been burned down,” he said. “I felt insulted before this criminal act and our powerlessness and the powerlessness of the international community to stop it.”
Abdulkarim, a university professor in Damascus who has worked pro bono for three years as director of antiquities and museums to preserve Syrian heritage through the war, described the day of the temple’s destruction as “dark, sad and frightening”, saying the loss of Palmyra was robbing his work of meaning.
“I felt weak before the bleeding of Palmyra, under these people who do not believe in promises, or in international laws and resolutions,” he said. “We can never accept this from these savages and ignorant people in the 21st century.”
The demolition of Baal Shamin, which was confirmed by activists and condemned as a war crime by the head of Unesco, is the first major incident of destruction in Palmyra since it was in May. The group took the city after troops loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, suddenly withdrew, smuggling out large numbers of statues from the museum.
The regime’s withdrawal left Palmyra entirely in the militants’ control, but Isis pledged to destroy only what it deemed idolatrous. Isis considers grave markers and statues symbols of paganism that ought to be destroyed, according to its puritanical version of Islam.
Ancient ruins are far from its only targets. The militants last week , 82, the keeper of Palmyra.
The temple of Baal Shamin was built in the first century AD, a house of worship dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and the sky, who evolved into a major deity worshipped during the time of Queen Zenobia and her husband Septimius Odaenathus, the King of Kings of Palmyra.
Its columns carried Greek and Palmyrian inscriptions and it once contained statues of the rich and wealthy patrons of the city.
“How are we going to restore this temple? It’s a deep wound,” said Abdulkarim. “You feel saddened when you are too weak to save it, when it deserves to live beyond its life of 2,000 years.”
He said his only cause for optimism was that 1,500 staff members working to preserve Syria’s heritage continued to operate around the country in both government and opposition-held areas, rescuing 600,000 artefacts so far from loss or destruction.
“The politics change, interests change, but the heritage of the people remains,” he said. But he said he believed the worst was yet to come for Palmyra and the historic treasures of the ancient city. “We will see more tragic episodes in this city,” he said.
“I ask God and every free person in the world to find a solution to this tragedy.”
Historian Tom Holland told the Guardian the destruction made him “incredibly sad”. “[For] something like a millennium and a half, Baal has had no worshippers – his temple served first as a church, then as an antiquity, desacralised seemingly for good,” he said. “But that Isis were offended enough by his shrine to destroy it gave back to him, paradoxically, a measure of his old qualities of majesty and dread. In the moment of the temple’s death, Baal – however fleetingly – was restored to life. Obviously, in essence, I just feel incredibly sad.”
Lynda Albertson, the chief executive of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, said the images of the destruction constituted a brazen example of a calculated strategy by Isis to destroy people by denying and obliterating their own understanding of their history.
“It is easy enough to view the damage to these heritage sites as something that can be rebuilt, if all we see is the physical; it is far more difficult to grasp the effects of cultural cleansing in the longer term, and to truly absorb its impact on a country’s people,” she said. “Each time Isis chips away at history, blowing up this, bulldozing that, there are statements from and heritage professionals condemning the acts, but little more. People need to realise that this war, and Isis’s part in it, is chipping away at Syria’s cultural continuity.”
Baal Shamin destruction
Five photos were distributed on social media showing explosives being carried inside and planted around the walls of the temple, followed by a large blast and then rubble.