ISIS continues destruction of Syria’s historic monuments

Sunday 29/01/2017
An April 2016 file picture shows the Palmyra citadel in the background as Syrian families load their belongings onto a bus. (AP)

Beirut - Islamic State (ISIS) militants have destroyed parts of the second-century Roman am­phitheatre and an iconic monument known as the Tetrapylon in Syria’s historic town of Palmyra, the government and experts said.

It was the extremist group’s lat­est attack on world heritage, an act that the UN cultural agency called a “war crime”. A Syrian govern­ment official said he feared for the remaining antiquities in Palmyra, which ISIS recaptured in Decem­ber.

After suffering several setbacks in Syria, ISIS has gone on the offen­sive, reclaiming ancient Palmyra and attacking a government-held city and military air base in Deir ez- Zor in eastern Syria.

However, ISIS remains under pressure in northern Syria from Turkey and US-backed Kurdish forces, as well as in neighbouring Iraq where Iraqi troops backed by the US-led coalition are fighting to retake the city of Mosul from the militants.

Palmyra, a UNESCO world her­itage site that once linked Persia, India and China with the Roman empire and the Mediterranean area, has already seen destruction at the hands of ISIS militants. The ancient town first fell to ISIS in May 2015 and the terror group held it for ten months. During that time, ISIS damaged a number of Palmyra’s relics and emptied it of most of its residents, causing an international outcry.

Palmyra fell again to the group only nine months after a Russian-backed Syrian government offen­sive was hailed as a significant vic­tory for Damascus.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, director-general of Syria’s antiquities de­partment, said reports of the recent destruction trickled out of the ISIS-held town in late December. Satel­lite images of the damage became available January 19th, confirming the destruction.

Abdulkarim said militants de­stroyed the façade of the second-century theatre along with the Roman-era Tetrapylon — a set of four monuments with four col­umns each standing at the centre of the colonnaded road leading to the theatre.

Satellite imagery obtained by the Boston-based American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) shows extensive damage to the Tetrapy­lon. DigitalGlobe satellite imagery also shows damage to the theatre façade.

ASOR said the damage was likely caused by intentional destruction from ISIS but the organisation was unable to verify the exact cause.

ISIS extremists have destroyed ancient sites across their self-styled Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, perceiving them as monuments to idolatry.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said the recent destruc­tion in Palmyra amounted to a war crime.

“The Tetrapylon was an architec­tural symbol of the spirit of the en­counter and openness of Palmyra and this is also one of the reasons why it has been destroyed,” she said in a statement.

Abdulkarim said only two of the 16 columns of the Tetrapylon re­main standing.

The Palmyra Tetrapylon, charac­terised by its four plinths that are not connected overhead, had only one original ancient column, said Abdulkarim. The 15 other columns were modelled after the ancient one and installed by Palmyra’s 81-year-old distinguished antiqui­ties scholar Khaled al-Asaad, who was killed by ISIS militants when they were controlling the town the last time. The militants hung his body from a Roman column.

It was not clear if the original column survived the destruction, Abdulkarim said.

During its first occupation of Pal­myra, ISIS destroyed ancient tem­ples, including the Temple of Bel, which dated 32AD, and the Temple of Baalshamin, a structure of stone blocks several storeys high and fronted by six towering columns. The group also used the theatre for public killings and posted chilling videos of the slayings.

The militants also blew up the Arch of Triumph, built 193-211AD.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Russian government, said Syr­ian troops were continuing their efforts to take back Palmyra. He called the new destruction “bar­baric”, saying that it is a “real trag­edy for the historic heritage”.

Syria’s state news agency re­ported that government forces and allied troops recently clashed with ISIS militants south of Palmyra, part of a new offensive to reclaim the city.

Abdulkarim said he fears for what remains of the city’s ancient relics.

“When Palmyra fell for the sec­ond time, we shed tears because we expected this terror,” he said. “Now we are destined to see more terror if (ISIS control of Palmyra) continues.”

Most Palmyra residents did not return after it was retaken by the government. Activists estimate the city is now home to a few hundred families. Many residents tried to flee as ISIS recaptured the city in December.

Reports emerged January 19th that ISIS killed 12 captives in Pal­myra, some of them beheaded in the Roman theatre.

(The Associated Press)