Thursday 19 April 2018

Isil destroys another 2,000-year-old temple at ancient Syrian site

A general view shows the Temple of Bel in the historical city of Palmyra, Syria.
A general view shows the Temple of Bel in the historical city of Palmyra, Syria.

Louise Loveluck in Beirut

Violent jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) have partially destroyed the most famous landmark in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

The Temple of Bel was damaged on Sunday, according to messages posted on the Twitter account of a local activist group, the Palmyra Co-ordination Council.

Although the extent of the destruction was unclear, a Palmyra resident, Nasser al Thaer, said that a huge blast had echoed through the area on Sunday afternoon.

"The bricks and the columns are on the ground," he told reporters.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the antiquities and museums department in Damascus, said yesterday that "undoubtedly" a large explosion took place near the 2,000-year-old temple, which lies in a sprawling Roman-era complex.

An Isil operative speaking over Skype claimed that the temple had been destroyed, without elaborating. He spoke on condition of anonymity as members of the group are not allowed to speak to journalists.

Activists had reported the temple sustained extensive damage in the explosion. The extremists have destroyed another smaller temple in the city last week.

It is the second Palmyra temple targeted by Isil in the space of a week. The group detonated explosives in the ancient Baal Shamin temple on August 25, an act that cultural agency Unesco has called a war crime aimed at wiping out a symbol of Syria's diverse heritage.

Isil seized Palmya's Roman-era ruins and the modern town of the same name in May, raising fears of their imminent destruction. Instead, the site remained relatively untouched until last week, repurposed instead as an arena for the jihadist group's public executions.

Named after a Babylonian god of war, the Temple of Bel was one of the best preserved structures in a city that withstood the rise and fall of the empires of the ancient world.

Whether Palmyra can survive the maelstrom of Syria's war remains to be seen. As the conflict drags into its fifth year, at least 250,000 people have been killed and the lights across the country have all but gone out.

Isil has already murdered Palmyra's custodian, Khaled al-Asaad. The elderly archaeologist was beheaded earlier this month, after being abducted by the group and interrogated over the whereabouts of Palmyra's ancient treasures. Many were removed from the site as Isil advanced.

Since declaring a caliphate across swaths of Syria and Iraq last year, Isil has embarked on a highly publicised programme of cultural cleansing, destroying ancient sites that the group regards as idolatrous.

Heritage sites in Isil-controlled territory have been extensively looted. The extremist group has even set up a ministry of antiquities to maximise profits from its pillage. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

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