Islamic State beheads antiquities scholar for protecting ancient Palmyra

The extremist group held the scholar for about a month before murdering him in front of dozens in a courtyard in Palmyra.

In this undated photo released Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, one of Syria's most prominent antiquities scholars, Khaled al-Asaad, speaks in Syria.

Islamic State (IS) militants beheaded renowned antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad in the ancient town of Palmyra Tuesday after he refused to reveal the location of treasures in the site.

The extremist group held the 81-year old scholar for about a month before murdering him in front of dozens in a square outside the town’s museums, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Militants then took Mr. al-Asaad’s body to Palmyra’s archaeological site and hung him from one of the Roman columns, Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, told SANA.

Born in Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old Roman-era city and UNESCO World Heritage site, Asaad led the town’s Antiquities and Museums Department for forty years. He continued to work as an expert on the archeological site after retiring in 2003, SANA reports.

Mr. Abdulkarim described Asaad as "one of the most important pioneers in Syrian archaeology in the 20th century."

“Just imagine that such a scholar who gave such memorable services to the place and to history would be beheaded ... and his corpse still hanging from one of the ancient columns in the centre of a square in Palmyra,” Abdulkarim said.

“The continued presence of these criminals in this city is a curse and bad omen on (Palmyra) and every column and every archaeological piece in it.”

An unverified, chilling photo circulating on social media shows Asaad’s body tied to a pole on a street in Palmyra. A board resting on his head in front of his body lays out the charges against him, accusing him of loyalty to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, maintaining contact with senior regime intelligence and security officials and managing Palmyra’s collection of “idols,” the Guardian Reports.

The historian had been a member of President al-Assad's ruling Baath party since 1954, Khalil Hariri, Asaad's son-in-law, told The Associated Press. He studied Aramaic, the lingua franca of the area before the rise of Islam in the 7th century, wrote several books and texts, and discovered several ancient cemeteries and caves in Palmyra.

Yet his accomplishments would only provoke IS. The group has seized a third of Syria’s territory since it established itself as a caliphate last summer. Under their violent interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah, extremist militants claim ancient artifacts and archeological sites “promote idolatry” and should be obliterated.

Before the group captured Palmyra from government forces in May, Syrian officials said they relocated hundreds of ancient statues to safe locations out of fear they would be demolished, Reuters reports. 

Yet many still fear the extremists would sabotage the town’s ancient ruins as they continue to destroy its artifacts seen as idolatrous, including a lion statue dating back to the 2nd century.

Several historical sites are now under threat from IS. Last week, a mortar attack killed another archeologist working at the fortified Citadel of Damascus, according to Syria’s Culture Ministry. And on Wednesday, images surfaced online of IS “religious police” destroying ancient artifacts in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, the BBC reports.

"Al-Asaad was a treasure for Syria and the world," Mr. Hariri, al-Asaad's son-in-law told the AP. "Their systematic campaign seeks to take us back into pre-history," he added.

“But they will not succeed."

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