ISIS blows up ancient temple in Syria's Palmyra

Destruction marks first such case in terrorist-occupied part of the country

A picture taken on Nov 12, 2010, shows the general view of the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria. According to media reports, the temple of Baal Shamin, built in AD17, was blown up by ISIS militants.
A picture taken on Nov 12, 2010, shows the general view of the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria. According to media reports, the temple of Baal Shamin, built in AD17, was blown up by ISIS militants. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
1,500-year-old Buddha statues
1,500-year-old Buddha statuesPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

DAMASCUS • Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants have blown up the temple of Baal Shamin, one of the most important sites in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra.

The temple bombing on Sunday, confirmed by the country's antiquities chief, Professor Maamoun Abdul Karim, would be the first time the insurgents, who control swathes of Syria and Iraq and captured Palmyra in May, damaged monumental Roman-era ruins.


Until Sunday, most of Palmyra's famous sites had been left intact, though there were reports ISIS had mined them and the group reportedly destroyed a famous statue of a lion outside the city's museum.

"Daesh placed a large quantity of explosives in the temple of Baal Shamin today and then blew it up, causing much damage to the temple," Prof Abdul Karim said, using another name for ISIS.

"The cella (inner area of the temple) was destroyed and the columns around collapsed," he said.


  • Iraq

    The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has carried out a campaign of "cultural cleansing", razing part of ancient Mesopotamia's relics and looting others to sell valued artefacts on the black market.

    A video released by ISIS in February shows militants smashing statues with sledgehammers in Mosul.

    According to antiquities officials, around 90 objects were destroyed or damaged.

    Most of them were originals.

    Thousands of books and rare manuscripts were also burned in February in Mosul's library.

    In July last year, ISIS rigged the Nabi Yunus shrine in Mosul with explosives and blew it up. The shrine was revered by Muslims and Christians as the tomb of the prophet Jonah.

    According to the Iraqi government, ISIS militants bulldozed and blew up Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city south of Mosul, on March 5.

  • Libya

    Several mausoleums have been destroyed by Islamic extremists . In August 2012, the hardliners bulldozed part of the mausoleum of Al-Shaab Al-Dahman, close to the centre of the Libyan capital.

    The demolition came a day after extremists blew up the mausoleum of Sheikh Abdessalem al-Asmar in the western city of Zliten.

  • Mali

    The fabled desert city of Timbuktu, known as the "City of 333 Saints" and listed by Unesco, was subjected for months to brutal Islamic law.

    In June 2012, Al-Qaeda-linked militants destroyed 15 of the city's mausoleums, important buildings that date back to the golden age of Timbuktu as an economic, intellectual and spiritual centre in the 15th and 16th centuries.

  • Afghanistan

    In March 2001, Taleban leader Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of two 1,500-year-old Buddha statues in the eastern town of Bamiyan .

    Hundreds of members of the Taleban spent more than three weeks demolishing the gigantic statues carved into the side of a cliff .


Most of the pieces in the museum were evacuated by antiquities staff before ISIS arrived, though the group has blown up several historic Muslim graves.

Baal Shamin was built in AD17 and it was expanded under the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian in AD130. Known as the "Pearl of the desert", Palmyra, which means City of Palms, is a well-preserved oasis 210km north-east of Damascus.

Its name first appeared on a tablet in the 19th century BC as a stopping point for caravans travelling on the Silk Road and between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.

ISIS' version of Islam considers statues and grave markers to be idolatrous, and the group has destroyed antiquities and heritage sites in territory under its control in Syria and Iraq. In June, ISIS blew up two ancient shrines in Palmyra that were not part of its Roman-era structures but which the militants regarded as pagan and sacrilegious.

And, a week after ISIS militants beheaded Mr Khaled Asaad, an 82-year-old scholar who worked for over 50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra, it was revealed that they mutilated his body. The militants tied his corpse to a post before hanging it in the city's ruins.

"Residents of Palmyra told me that ISIS had cut up my father's body into pieces," Mr Mohammad al-Assaad, one of Mr Asaad's sons, said at a wake held on Sunday at Damascus National Museum.

He added that despite threats from ISIS, his father had refused to leave Palmyra.

"My father used to say, 'I'll die standing up, like the palm tree of Palmyra'."

Syria's national antiquities chief Abdul Karim gave a similar account. He said: "Khaled's cousins, who also work in antiquities, told me that the group removed his body from the pole and mutilated it." REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline 'ISIS blows up ancient temple in Syria's Palmyra'. Subscribe