ISIS May Destroy Palmyra -- Why Is The Islamic State Targeting The Ancient World?

Shelley Hazen

ISIS is closing in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, whose destruction would be a "human catastrophe" if the terrorists are not kept at bay.

Just as critical, ISIS' advancement toward the UNESCO World Heritage Site threatens the lives of 100,000 people in and around Palmyra, including 35,000 Syrians displaced by the ongoing violence in their embattled country, AFP reported.

The Syrian government is trying to drive back ISIS fighters from the site, BBC News reported, but are reportedly less than a mile from the city. Syrian warplanes and troops are targeting them along the city's eastern side.

Soldiers and pro-government militiaman have already been killed in the fighting since the offensive began Tuesday; the tally now stands at 73 soldiers. In villages near Palmyra, which have already been captured, 26 civilians have been executed for collaborating with the government -- 10 of them beheaded, AFP added.

The people who live there are fleeing from the neighborhoods in the north, an antiques shop owner there named Mohammed told the New York Times.

"People are scared, staying home, we're hearing loud noises outside but we don't know what's happening."

But why is ISIS targeting Palmyra in the first place?

Palmyra ISIS2

Capturing it would give the Islamic State a strategic advantage -- Palmyra lies between Syria's capital Damascus and a highly-contested city on Deir al-Zour in the east. It's also close to gas fields and has a major air base, BBC News explained.

But ISIS' hatred for ancient sites goes beyond the practical into the dogmatic and extremist. Syria's antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, called it a "battle between civilization and barbarism," the Independent reported.

"It will be a human catastrophe. If (they) enter the city it will mean destroying the temples, ruins and tombs."

The loss will be great. Palmyra, which emerges from the desert amid an oasis, was an important cultural center and along a caravan route back in the 1st and 2nd centuries. It's known for its Roman architecture and has touches of Greco-Roman and Persian influences.

Destroying ancient cities is par for the course with the terror group. They've already destroyed Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian site in Iraq, and flattened ruins in Hatra.

For one thing, they like to loot the precious artifacts and sell them to fund their operation. For another, ISIS is trying to rid Iraq and Syria of all sites that pre-date its Islamic caliphate. They also consider the statues, figures, and monuments in sites like Palmyra to be idolatrous and un-Islamic.

[Photos Courtesy YouTube Screengrab, Hulton Achive/Getty Images]