ISIS Destroys Ancient Ruins of Palmyra


The Temple of Bel at the site of Palmyra, shown here in 2011, was destroyed by ISIS in August 2015.

The extremist terror group commonly called the Islamic State, or ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), has looted and destroyed major archaeological sites in the ancient city of Palmyra. The Mesopotamian temples of Bel and Baalshamin, the Roman Arch of Triumph, and several Syrian tower tombs have all been destroyed, according to multiple sources and confirmed by satellite imagery.

Palmyra, located near a desert oasis northeast of Damascus, Syria, was an important cultural center during Roman times. The city stood at the crossroads between East and West, along the so-called Silk Road. Its art and architecture—a blend of Greco-Roman, Persian, and local traditions—were recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1980. ISIS forces took control of Palmyra in May 2015. In August ISIS members began placing explosives among some of Palmyra’s most important temples and other archaeological ruins. They then detonated the bombs and posted photos of the destruction on social media sites, drawing outrage from around the world.

ISIS has targeted ancient sites like Palmyra for multiple reasons. Its ideology claims that such sites encourage the worship of idols, which is forbidden according to its interpretation of Islam. And because archaeological sites like Palmyra are part of the collective cultural heritage and legacy not only of Syria and Iraq but of the entire world, destroying them attracts global publicity and media attention, which ISIS then tries to use to spread its message. (ISIS is sometimes also referred to as ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant; and as Daesh.)

While the destruction of Palmyra is a permanent loss, there is one bit of positive news amid the wreckage. Before the site was destroyed, a group from the Institute for Digital Archaeology was able to visit Palmyra. They used high-resolution 3-D cameras to photograph and scan the city’s monuments. In the future, their work may allow some monuments to be rebuilt in the same location where they stood for centuries.

Image credit: © Xinhua/eyevine/Redux

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