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Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad. (Fair Use) Palmyra, Temple of Bel. (Arian Zwegers/CC BY 2.0)

Khaled Al-Asaad: Hero of Palmyra Slaughtered for Protecting the Ancient Treasures of Syria

On August 18, 2015, ISIS insurgents executed one of the world’s foremost experts on the ancient city of Palmyra, Khaled al-Asaad. Khaled al-Asaad, director of the archaeological site located at Palmyra, was accused of supporting the current Syrian regime and promoting idolatry, among other alleged crimes. Khaled al-Asaad was very much associated with the city of Palmyra, an ancient metropolis which grew up around an oasis. This ancient site lost its foremost scholar and advocate that day.

Becoming a Hero of Palmyra

Khaled al-Asaad was born in the modern town of Palmyra, less than a kilometer away from the ancient Roman city. While living there, he developed a strong interest in the past, particularly the history of his home town.

In 1960, Khaled al-Asaad attended the University of Damascus, where he received a bachelor’s degree in history and education. By 1963, the young al-Asaad was chosen to be the director of the archaeological activities at Palmyra and curator of the museum.

Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad. (Fair Use)

Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad. ( Fair Use )

Over the next 50 years, al-Asaad worked tirelessly as director to facilitate the uncovering of the secrets of the ancient city. In 1974, al-Asaad began to help organize museum exhibitions on antiquities from Palmyra. He also wrote many books on the history of the city and its culture.

In addition to being good with the public, al-Asaad was also a brilliant scholar in his own right and regularly translated Aramaic texts until 2011. Khaled al-Asaad retired in 2003, but still remained active in the archaeology of Palmyra. He felt that he had a duty to the city.

His son, Walid al-Asaad, took over his role as director. It was Khaled al-Asaad’s life-mission to uncover and protect the secrets of the ancient city. This is one of the reasons that he chose to stay when ISIS took over his city from the Syrian regime.

Palmyra, Syria. (James Gordon/CC BY 2.0)

Palmyra, Syria. (James Gordon/ CC BY 2.0 )

Takeover of Palmyra by ISIS

As a government official, Khaled al-Asaad was a member of the ruling Ba’ath party, a secular nationalist party in Syria. He was, however, retired by the time that ISIS Jihadists took his home city in May 2015. His relatives urged him to leave the city, but he refused. It was his city and he was not going to desert it. He also figured that they would ignore him. He was retired and an old man, harmless to them.

This plan appeared to work at first. In May 2015, he was arrested for a few days and then released by the occupiers of the city. In August, however, he and his son, Walid, were arrested and tortured for information. It appears that ISIS was interested in determining the whereabouts of Palmyrene artifacts. The numerous statues dating to the Roman period of the city, for example, are in violation of the strict interpretation of Islam practiced by ISIS. It is also likely that they wanted to sell the artifacts for a profit. One of the primary ways that ISIS has made an income is through selling Middle Eastern antiquities; to the chagrin of the international historical and archaeological scholarly community.

Funerary bust of Aqmat, daughter of Hagagu, descendant of Zebida, descendant of Ma'an, with Palmyrenian inscription. Stone, late 2nd century AD. From Palmyra, Syria. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Funerary bust of Aqmat, daughter of Hagagu, descendant of Zebida, descendant of Ma'an, with Palmyrenian inscription. Stone, late 2nd century AD. From Palmyra, Syria. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Khaled al-Asaad, however, was apparently willing to die defending these artifacts from abuse. Since Khaled al-Asaad refused to tell his torturers what they wanted to hear, he was publicly executed. Purportedly, his body was hung from a lamp post with his severed head placed beneath the dangling feet of his corpse. His glasses were still on his face. Over his chest was hung a sign recording all his alleged crimes.

The Legacy of Palmyra

Palmyra, the ancient site that al-Asaad died defending and helped make a UNESCO World Heritage site, was once a sprawling ancient metropolis made possible by a local oasis. The earliest literary reference to the city is a text from the city of Mari in the 2nd millennium BC. Palmyra was already part of a trade route connecting the Mediterranean world to the east. In the mid-1st century AD, it was occupied by the Romans.

Remains of the Camp of Diocletian (foreground) at Palmyra. (Ulrich Waack/CC BY SA 3.0)

Remains of the Camp of Diocletian (foreground) at Palmyra. (Ulrich Waack/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

During the Roman period, the city reached its height and was adorned with numerous monumental structures including the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, and the Great Colonnade decorating the main street of the city. Outside the city there was also an extensive necropolis.

The city was a connection point between several civilizations, including Rome, Persia, China, and Arabia during the Roman period. After the 3rd century AD, the city declined until it was eventually reduced to a small village amidst ancient ruins. After the 17th and 18th centuries, the significance of the ruins of Palmyra were rediscovered, leading to archaeological excavations in the 20th century that made the city famous again.

Both academia and the general public owe much to Khaled al-Asaad for what is currently known of Palmyrene civilization. Many parts of the Palmyra archaeological site have experienced destruction and looting at the hands of ISIS, including its once prominent temple ruins. It appears that the archaeological site of Palmyra has been in danger of suffering the same fate as its 20th century guardian and advocate.

By Caleb Strom

Top Image: Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad. ( Fair Use ) Palmyra, Temple of Bel. (Arian Zwegers/ CC BY 2.0 )

References

BBC News. 2015.“Syrian archaeologist 'killed in Palmyra' by IS militants.” BBC News . Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-33984006

Derfler, S. 2018. “Scholar Made the Ultimate Sacrifice to Save Ancient Palmyra Treasures from the Hands of ISIS.” Ancient Origins. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/scholar-made-ultimate-sacrifice-save-ancient-palmyra-treasures-hands-isis-021866

Hubbard, B. 2015. “Syrian Expert Who Shielded Palmyra Antiquities Meets a Grisly Death at ISIS’ Hands.” The New York Times . Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/world/middleeast/isis-palmyra-syria-antiquities-scholar-beheaded.html

Leriche, P. 2015. “Khaled al-Asaad, the martyr of Palmyra.” The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/khaled-al-asaad-the-martyr-of-palmyra-46787

Stoneman, R. 1994. Palmyra and its Empire: Zenobia's revolt against Rome . University of Michigan Press.

UNESCO. n.d. “Palmyra.” UNESCO World Heritage List #23 . Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/23

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