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Will ISIS destroy the ancient Roman city of Palmyra?

May 16, 2015
Palmyra. Click on image to enlarge.

Palmyra. Image: NBC News. Click on image to enlarge.

With ISIS extremists within two kilometers of Palmyra, Syria, there are well-founded fears the remains of this great 1st-2nd-century AD Roman city and UNESCO World Heritage Site could be destroyed, just as sites in neighboring “Iraq [were] recently [flattened by ISIS members who] used heavy equipment and explosives to destroy antiquities at the Mosul Museum and the sites of Nineveh, Hatra and Nimrud,” according the Art Newspaper.

NBC News reports archaeologists and other specialists have gathered in Cairo, Egypt, for a conference to determine ways to prevent widespread destruction of archaeological sites and other cultural patrimony.  But the reporting is sickening:

Syria is experiencing looting “on an industrial scale” in ISIS-controlled territory, according to Michael Danti, Boston University archaeology professor.

“They are really looting sites into oblivion,” said Danti, who is co-director of the ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative, a team of scholars documenting destruction of Syrian and Iraqi sites with the U.S. Department of State.

Danti’s findings are based on high-resolution satellite imagery and information from experts and residents on the ground.

“The sites look like the surface of the moon… They’re coming in with bulldozers and actually removing entire chunks of archaeological mounds,” he said. “They take the antiquities out and use the soil as fertilizer or fill for new constructions.”

He said the destruction benefits ISIS — which makes money from selling licenses, imposing taxes and taking a cut of looting profits. The tax — normally of around 20 percent — is based on Islamic jurisprudence, which deems treasures found in the ground and spoils of war to be taxable items, Danti explained.

The illicit sale of antiquities is ISIS’ third-largest source of revenue, according to Danti’s fellow conference attendee Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan who specializes in antiquities trafficking and terror financing.

ISIS has also raided and destroyed priceless antiquities in the parts of neighboring Iraq that it controls. In March it laid waste to the 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud and smashed relics in a museum in Mosul.

Satellite imagery from March 7, 2015 and April 17 shows the progression of damage to the Northwest Palace at Nimrud in Iraq.

Satellite imagery from March 7, 2015 and April 17 shows the progression of damage to the Northwest Palace at Nimrud in Iraq.

“We call this cultural cleansing because unfortunately, we see an acceleration of this destruction of heritage as deliberate warfare,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova told The Associated Press at the time.

Danti said that while sites in areas controlled by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad were also being looted and destroyed, the damage was dramatically worse in territory captured by ISIS. Twenty percent of the country’s archaeological sites have been looted or destroyed to some extent, he said.

Some of the region’s stolen heritage may eventually end up in the hands of U.S. citizens and museums, conference attendees warned. The U.S. is the world’s biggest end purchaser of antiquities and has not, unlike Europe and Switzerland, enacted a ban on the the import of looted Syrian artifacts.

The warnings came amid reports that ISIS was advancing on the Syrian site of Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritages site and one of the most significant archaeological sites of the ancient world.

On Thursday, the country’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said the fighting was about a mile the city and warned that if the militants seized the area they would “destroy everything that exists there.”

UNESCO this week also expressed “deep concern” over the “imminent threat” to the site.

The Great Colonnade at Palmyra. Image: The Art Newspaper.

The Great Colonnade at Palmyra. Image: The Art Newspaper.

According to the Art Newspaper:

Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Syrian government antiquities service, says that the world “must mobilise before, not after, the destruction of the artefacts”. However, the international community is in a difficult situation. There is very little sympathy for the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, but even less support for the IS militia. Outsiders can now do little to prevent the IS advance.

Palmyra lies in the desert 250 kilometres north-east of Damascus. During the first and second centuries AD it developed as an important Roman city with strong Persian ties and trading links with China and India. Its paved colonnaded street, just over one kilometre long, linked the Temple of Ba’al with Diocletian’s Camp. These ruins still survive, along with other important remains, including the agora (central assembly square) and theatre. The modern town of Tadmur abuts the site to the north east. Until the recent civil war Tadmur’s economy was dependent on tourism, since Palmyra is Syria’s main attraction outside Damascus and Aleppo.

Palmyra’s greatest artworks are sculpted limestone busts on funerary monuments. Although many have gone to international museums, others remain in tombs and in the local museum, which opened in 1961. It is unclear whether the underground tombs have been securely sealed and the museum objects removed to a secure store.

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