ISIS has continued its crime against civilization, blowing up a 2,000-year-old arch in the city of Palmyra in Syria.
The Arch of Triumph was a gem of the ancient world, holding a place of honor in Palmyra as one of its most recognizable sites, CBS News reported. Witnesses reported seeing ISIS digging holes with bulldozers around the arch and placing explosives inside; the arch itself sat atop columns that line Palmyra’s streets. The columns are still intact, ABC News added.
Those same witnesses reported that ISIS was placing explosives all over sites in Palmyra. Syria’s antiquities director, Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, called the act “shameful.”
“They’re destroying building by building, within three to six months, at this pace, we’re going to lose Palmyra.”
Nicknamed the “Bridge of the Desert,” the arch stood at the entrance to Palmyra’s famous colonnaded streets, which in the ancient world linked the Roman Empire to Persia and the East. The arch was built by the Roman Emporer Septimius Severus to celebrate a victory over the Persians, the New York Times added. It connected the eastern and central sections of the colonnade and was a popular site for tourists, BuzzFeed noted.
It’s just one of many ancient sites in the city destroyed by ISIS. The latest victims in recent weeks, before the arch was destroyed, were two temples — Baalshamin and Bel. Palmyra’s sprawling ruins include many temples to local gods and goddesses.
Dedicated to a god of storm and rain, 2,000-year-old Baalshamin was several stories high and fronted by six huge columns; the name means “Lord of the Heavens.” Bel is even older, dating to 32 A.D., and was one of the most important religious buildings of the first century. Dedicated to the Semitic god Bel, it combined Near Eastern and Greco-Roman architecture; the temple had a shrine, courtyard, amphitheater, and tombs.
Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was once a top tourist attraction in the entire Middle East. The director general of UNESCO called Palmyra’s destruction at the hands of ISIS a “new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.”
As ISIS has expanded into Iraq and Syria, it has made a habit of turning the region’s ancient treasures into rubble. As Palmyra’s modern-day residents have fled from ISIS and the government has tried to fight the extremist group, archaeological sites have ended up in the crosshairs. The toll in September, per the Palmyra branch of the Local Coordination Committees, stands at 97 deaths and 239 houses, and three ancient structures destroyed.
So why is ISIS continuing its campaign against the ancient world? The reasons are two-fold — religious and financial. Destroying sites like those in Palmyra translates into plenty of cash for ISIS, which sells the antiquities it loots for significant sums.
But this destruction is also an attempt to rid the world of idolatry and paganism, based on the group’s very strict and violent interpretation of Islamic law under their self-declared “caliphate.”
When ISIS razed the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, another UNESCO World Heritage Site dating to the 13th century B.C. in March, Newsweek turned to the words of a fighter in a video released by ISIS, which also featured the group obliterating artifacts in a Mosul museum.
“The remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah… The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own hands, when he conquered Mecca… This is what his companions did later when they conquered lands. Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols and remains, it is easy for us to obey.”
So what is the world to do? Professor Abdulkarim said the Syrian army — with international support — should march in and retake the city. Or the world can watch as Palmyra disappears.
[Photos Courtesy Spencer Arnold, Hulton Archive / Getty Images, seb001 / Shutterstock]