Is­lamic State be­heads lead­ing Syr­ian scholar of an­tiq­ui­ties in old Palmyra

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY AL­BERT AJI AND BASSEM MROUE

Is­lamic State mil­i­tants be­headed one of Syria’s most prom­i­nent an­tiq­ui­ties scholars in the an­cient town of Palmyra, then hanged his body from one of the town’s Ro­man col­umns, Syr­ian state media and an ac­tivist group said Wed­nes­day.

The killing of 81-year-old Khaled al-Asaad was the latest atroc­ity per­pe­trated by the mil­i­tant group, which has cap­tured a third of both Syria and neigh­bor­ing Iraq and de­clared a self-styled “caliphate” on the ter­ri­tory it con­trols.

Since IS over­ran Palmyra in May, there have been fears the ex­trem­ists, who have de­stroyed famed ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in Iraq, would de­mol­ish the 2,000-year-old Ro­man-era city at the edge of the town — a UNESCO world her­itage site and one of the Mideast’s most spec­tac­u­lar ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites.

The Sunni ex­trem­ist group, which has im­posed a vi­o­lent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lamic law, or Shariah, be­lieves an­cient relics pro­mote idol­a­try. IS mil­i­tants claim they are de­stroy­ing an­cient ar­ti­facts and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures as part of their purge of pa­gan­ism. The de­struc­tion IS has wreaked adds to the wider, ex­ten­sive dam­age it has in­flicted on an­cient sites, in­clud­ing mosques and churches across Syria and Iraq.

Ac­cord­ing to Syr­ian state news agency SANA and the UK-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, al-As­sad was be­headed on Tues­day in a square out­side the town’s mu­seum. The Ob­ser­va­tory, which has a net­work of ac­tivists on the ground in Syria, said dozens of peo­ple gath­ered to wit­ness the killing. Al-Asaad had been held by the IS for about a month, it added.

His body was then taken to Palmyra’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site and hanged from one of the Ro­man col­umns, Maamoun Ab­dulka­rim, the head of the An­tiq­ui­ties and Mu­se­ums Depart­ment in Damascus, told SANA.

Al-Asaad was “one of the most im­por­tant pioneers in Syr­ian ar­chae­ol­ogy in the 20th cen­tury,” Ab­dulka­rim said. IS had tried to ex­tract in­for­ma­tion from him about where some of the town’s trea­sures had been hid­den to save them from the mil­i­tants, the an­tiq­ui­ties chief also said.

SANA said al-Asaad had been in charge of Palmyra’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site for four decades un­til 2003, when he re­tired. Af­ter re­tir­ing, alAsaad worked as an ex­pert with the An­tiq­ui­ties and Mu­se­ums Depart­ment.

Al-Asaad, who held a diploma in history and ed­u­ca­tion from the Univer­sity of Damascus, wrote many books and sci­en­tific texts ei­ther in­di­vid­u­ally or in co­op­er­a­tion with other Syr­ian or for­eign arche­ol­o­gists, SANA said. Among his ti­tles are “The Palmyra sculp­tures,” and “Zeno­bia, the Queen of Palmyra and the Ori­ent.”

He also dis­cov­ered sev­eral an­cient ceme­ter­ies, caves and the Byzan­tine ceme­tery in the gar­den of the Mu­seum of Palmyra, the agency added.

“Al-Asaad was a trea­sure for Syria and the world,” Khalil Hariri, al-Asaad’s son-in-law who works at the Palmyra’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal depart­ment told The As­so­ci­ated Press, speak­ing over the phone from the cen­tral Syr­ian city of Homs. “Why did they kill him?”

“Their sys­tem­atic cam­paign seeks to take us back into pre­his­tory,” he added. “But they will not suc­ceed.”

Hariri, who is mar­ried to alAsaad’s daugh­ter, Zeno­bia, said his fa­ther-in-law had been a mem­ber of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s rul­ing Baath party since 1954. Hariri added that al-Asaad is sur­vived by six sons and five daugh­ters.

Since fall­ing to IS, Palmyra’s an­cient site has re­mained in­tact but the mil­i­tants de­stroyed a lion statue in the town dat­ing back to the 2nd cen­tury. The statue, dis­cov­ered in 1975, had stood at the gates of the town mu­seum, and had been placed in­side a me­tal box to pro­tect it from dam­age.

AP

In this un­dated photo re­leased Tues­day, Aug. 18, by the Syr­ian of­fi­cial news agency SANA, one of Syria’s most prom­i­nent an­tiq­ui­ties scholars, Khaled al-Asaad, speaks in Syria.

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