Read AC Grayling on why we grieve for IS’s destroyed buildings
What is Palmyra?
Palmyra, an ancient city in the heart of Syria, is a UNESCO world heritage site whose 2,000-year-old Roman ruins and other artefacts are widely considered to be among the Middle East’s most important archeological treasures. It is known as the “Pearl of the Desert.” Located in contested territory, observers have feared damage to the city throughout the Syrian civil war, with the site’s plight first coming to international attention in 2013 as amateur footage showed that the “Temple of Bel” had sustained damage from mortar fire. This May, Islamic State (IS) captured the town, sparking fears they would destroy it as they have other ancient sites across Syria.
Why is it in the news today?
Syria’s antiquities chief this weekend said that IS fighters had destroyed the Baalshamin temple, one of the city’s most important artefacts. “Our darkest predictions are unfortunately taking place,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, who was awarded UNESCO’s cultural heritage rescue prize last year. Detailed reports about the city’s welfare have been limited but IS have already destroyed a 2000-year-old statue of a lion outside the city’s museum and conducted executions in its Roman amphitheatre. Most tragically, last week IS killed the city’s former chief archaeologist Khaled al-Assaad, who reportedly refused to abandon the city and the artefacts to which he had dedicated his life when IS invaded.
Why is Palmyra so important?
Much like Italy’s Pompeii and Herculaneum, Palmyra became famous as a place where tourists could walk freely among ancient buildings. The capture and destruction of such a place, famed in Roman times for its cosmopolitanism and international population, by the destructive and exclusionary IS will resonate around the world. More practically, according to Al Jazeera, the city is strategically important as its capture afford IS a base from which to advance on Syria’s capital, Damascus, and the city of Homs. Every time such an act of vandalism hits the headlines, IS’s enemies are reminded of its position.
What hope is there for the city?
In July and August the army of the Syrian regime launched a counter-attack, succeeding in coming close to the city and recapturing some territory on its…