Obituary: Khaled al-Asaad
Al-Asaad's heroism is a rebuke to the zealots and despots, says Dan Snow, historian and TV presenter
Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30
When Isil snatched control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the man who had devoted his life to protecting its treasures refused to leave. Khaled al-Asaad, who was killed last Monday, rebuffed appeals from friends and family concerned about his safety.
"Whatever happens," he told his friend, Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's minister of antiquities, "I cannot go against my conscience."
Al-Asaad ended up paying for his devotion to the ruins of Palmyra with his life. Isil operatives had arrested him twice. The second time, they held him for a month and tried to force him to disclose where the city's treasures were hidden. He steadfastly refused, and was executed with the brutality that has made Isil so globally notorious. They dragged him into a public square before a masked man beheaded him.
Isil did not disclose that al-Asaad had thwarted their attempts at thievery. Instead, they put up signs over his dead body, accusing him of having been the "director of idolatory" and an "apostate" who "attended infidel conferences".
His nephew, Khaled al-Homsi, said the family had tried to convince Asaad to leave Palmyra when Isis seized the site.
"We knew they would not leave him alone," he said. "We used to stand together and watch the trenches and the barricades go up … he couldn't stop his tears."
Al-Asaad, who had recently celebrated his 81st birthday, was born in Palmyra in 1934. His name became synonymous with the ruins that were deemed a Unesco World Heritage site in the 1980s; some knew him simply as "Mr Palmyra".
He left the city, a desert oasis north-east of Damascus, to study in the Syrian capital and gained degrees in history and education, but most of his knowledge of his native city's antiquities was self-taught.
"He was a fixture, you can't write about Palmyra's history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled al-Asaad," said Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who knew him. "It's like you can't talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter."
Like many Syrian professionals of his generation, al-Asaad (no relation to Syria's rulers) was a member of the Ba'ath party, and his political affiliations helped him secure the two jobs he coveted: Director of the Palmyra site and of the city's museum.
Yasser Tabbaa, a specialist on Islamic art and architecture in Syria and Iraq, said of him, "He was a very important authority on possibly the most important archaeological site in Syria."
Propelled by his enthusiasm for the 4,000-year-old history of his birthplace he acquired a familiarity with the ancient Aramaic language and could translate all the inscriptions contained the vast theatre, temples, graveyards, and living quarters.
Palmyra is said to represent the high point of the construction work of its era, around 2,000 BC. Over the centuries, the site had undergone gentle adjustments according to prevailing fashions, and there were traces of Greco-Roman and Persian influence.
Al-Asaad was the one person visitors and researchers turned to in order learn more, and he generously shared the knowledge he had amassed over decades of careful work. "It looks like a palace," he can be heard, excitedly exclaiming to the BBC's Malcolm Billings in footage filmed in 1997. "You see the decoration, half-colonnade, with Corinthian capitals."
Escorting his guest to an underground ancient tomb, he points out examples of the Aramaic language, pronouncing the names of the people buried there. He then asks Billings to join him in beholding "the magnificent display of sculpture".
He had become the principal custodian of the Palmyra site in 1963, and was instrumental in having it recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage site.
The director-general of the organisation, Irina Bukova, a former Bulgarian politician, said he maintained regular contact with her.
In 2003, he was part of a Syrian-Polish team that uncovered a third-century mosaic which portrayed a struggle between a human and a winged animal. He described it as "one of the most precious discoveries ever made in Palmyra".
In 2001 he announced the discovery of 700 7th-Century silver coins bearing images of Kings Khosru I and Khosru II, part of the Sassanid dynasty that ruled Persia before the Arab conquest.
He was a much sought-after speaker at conferences, presenting the fruits of his vigorous and extensive research. Leading academics and researchers spoke warmly of his affection for Palmyra and his mastery of its history. Among his publications were the book, written in French, New Archaeological Discoveries In Syria (1980), as well as The Palmyra Sculptures and Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra And The Orient.
Al-Asaad shared his enthusiasms with his 11 children, and when he retired in 2003 he passed on his roles to two of his sons, offering each of them one of the two positions he held.
Nepotism of this sort was described as his only concession to the practices of the Ba'ath party - but his motives were pure.
When I visited Palmyra in 2009 we were all told of Khaled al-Asaad, a man who had given his life to the city. They were talking figuratively. Not any more. The 81-year-old man was arrested, tortured, killed, mutilated and displayed by the savage nihilists of Isil.
His crime was a refusal to say where he had hidden the site's movable precious artefacts. It turns out these so-called holy warriors were just looters.
Just as the savagery of Isil seems to be from another age, so is Mr Asaad's heroism. In an era of hyper mobility, he stayed behind. In a world that celebrates individual advancement, he died for the rest of us. His was an unshakeable belief in the importance of protecting the treasures left by our ancestors.
Al-Asaad joins an elite group of men and women who have ensured the transmission of all that is best to future generations: the custodians of the Bayeux Tapestry who stored it away from the terrible destruction of the battle for Normandy; the librarians of Timbuktu who smuggled countless precious documents to safety; the curators in Baghdad who hid objects behind false walls when the city collapsed into anarchy.
Our lives are of little consequence. It is the ideas, songs, works of art, poems, theories, equations and solutions we produce that endure. They allow future generations to build on our endeavours, they ensure that we as a species develop a wider and deeper understanding of our own humanity.
Al-Asaad knew that his ruined city could help to heal a shattered country, bringing tourist dollars again. Its presence in the desert is a lasting rebuke to religious zealots and political despots, bursting with a misplaced certainty of their place in history.