Barbarians

The Ancient Treasure in ISIS’s Crosshairs

Antiquities officials sound the alarm as militants come within a mile of the Syrian UNESCO site. Could this “irreplaceable treasure” become the next Nimrud?

05.15.15 3:44 PM ET

ISTANBUL — Palmyra, one of the world’s most complete Roman archaeological sites, is at risk of being overrun by ISIS fighters in Syria, stoking fears for the fate of the honey-colored ruins that date back to the first and second centuries.

In the spring in neighboring Iraq, militants with the self-proclaimed Islamic State severely damaged ancient Assyrian sites at Nimrud and Hatra, an act of vandalism that prompted worldwide condemnation. As far as the militants are concerned, they are engaged in “idol destruction” and in a recent article in the terror army’s online magazine Dabiq, sites like Palmyra should not be excavated and restored, but viewed with “disgust and hatred.”

After a lightning offensive across the desert, the Islamic militants are now battling Syrian forces barely a mile from Palmyra, a World Heritage Site described by UNESCO as of “outstanding universal value.” The site “represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said Thursday. “I appeal to all parties to protect Palmyra and make every effort to prevent its destruction.”

The move on Palmyra comes as ISIS fighters are reported to have seized the main government building early Friday in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, in a counteroffensive launched a few weeks after ISIS lost the town of Tikrit to Iraqi government forces spearheaded by Shia militias. Militants deployed six suicide car bombs in an assault on a compound housing the main police station and governor’s office. More than 50 Iraqi security personnel are reported to have been seized.

Back in Syria, the director of the antiquities and museums directorate, Mamoun Abdulkarim, told the AFP news agency that he was in frequent touch with colleagues still in Palmyra, some 200 miles northeast of Damascus. “ISIS has not entered the city yet, and we hope these barbarians will never enter,” he said.

“Palmyra is under threat,” says Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a network of political opposition activists opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The London-based group gathers information from activists inside Syria and it says at least 110 combatants have died in fighting as ISIS fighters advanced toward Palmyra and the adjacent modern town of Tadmur, where there is also a notorious prison that may still hold some Assad opponents.

The threat to Palmyra (known as the City of Palms) coincides with an international conference being held in Cairo to address the damage already wreaked by ISIS on the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra. Antiquities officials and scholars from nearly a dozen Arab countries are in the Egyptian capital to condemn the jihadis’ campaign to erase Iraq’s pre-Islamic sites. In April, ISIS propagandists released a seven-minute video recording the destruction of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud of Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II. The palace was built in the ninth century BC.

But alarm is turning now to Palmyra, a site stretching across 50 hectares and which for centuries was buried under desert sands until mainly British archaeologists started to excavate it in the 1920s. “It is lovely and fantastic and unbelievable,” was the reaction on first seeing Palmyra by thriller writer Agatha Christie, who accompanied her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, on excavations in Syria and Iraq. His main focus was on Nimrud.

And among the ruins at Palmyra inscribed on a plaque are some comments on the oasis site taken from T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Nothing in this scorching, desolate land could look so refreshing.”

A major halting-point for merchants’ caravans on the old Silk Road, the fabled trade route linking China and the Mediterranean, Palmyra grew so rich levying tolls on traders passing through with spices and silks and slaves that it became known as the Bride of the Desert. An apt name for a city that broke away from the Roman Empire under Queen Zenobia, who is thought to have murdered her monarch-husband. She defeated a Roman army dispatched to topple her and subsequently invaded Egypt, grabbing parts of Palestine for good measure and declaring independence until an enraged Roman emperor, Aurelian, eventually vanquished her in battle at Antioch, bringing her to Rome in chains.

Among the greatest architectural monuments at the Palmyra site now are a grand, colonnaded street over half a mile long and the Temple of Baal, as well as a theater and the Agora. A Roman aqueduct and a huge necropolises are on the outskirts. “From the first to the second century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences,” according to the UNESCO description of the site.

Palmyra has escaped (so far) the worst of the fighting in Syria’s four-year civil war. Even so, there have been reports of damage and looting. Western journalists who visited last year saw damaged columns and pockmarked walls and plundered graves and sawn-off funeral friezes. The Hotel Zenobia, built in 1900 (and where Agatha Christie stayed when she visited), is now a burnt-out shell. Syrian army forces have been using a nearby 16th-century castle and dug trenches, according to a UNESCO report a year ago. 

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The site and its modern concrete neighbor of Tadmur are strategically located on a highway linking Damascus and the city of Deir al-Zour. Syrian officials admitted this week that a northeast town, al-Sukhanah, was captured by ISIS, prompting hundreds of its inhabitants to flee to Tadmur.

Antiquities director Abdulkarim told new agencies that if the militants make it to Palmyra “It will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra, and Mosul.” On Twitter feeds, ISIS claimed it had seized parts of northern and eastern Tadmur and that it had shot down a Syrian air force MiG warplane.

According to a propaganda article in the group’s Dabiq magazine celebrating the destruction of statues and artifacts at the Mosul museum in the spring: “The [unbelievers] had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Iraq should embrace and be proud of.” The article goes on to say that pre-Islamic sites represent nations of idolaters that should be destroyed “for disbelieving in Allah and His messengers.”

As part of its campaign to wipe out anything the group claims could promote apostasy, Islamic militants blew up the Mosque of the Prophet Younis (Jonah) and the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis—two ancient Muslim shrines in Mosul.