DAMASCUS, Syria — The aging antiquities scholar dedicated his life to exploring and overseeing Syria’s ancient ruins of Palmyra, one of the Middle East’s most spectacular archaeological sites. He even named his daughter after Zenobia, the queen that ruled from the city some 1,700 years ago.
Islamic State militants who now control the city beheaded him in a main square and hung his body on a pole, witnesses and relatives said Wednesday.
The killing of 81-year-old Khaled al-Assad stunned Syria’s archaeologists and underscored fears that the extremist group will destroy or loot the 2,000-year-old Roman-era city on the edge of the modern town of the same name, as they have other major archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq.
The Sunni extremists, who have imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across the territory they control in the two countries, believe ancient relics promote idolatry. IS militants claim they are destroying ancient artifacts and archaeological treasures as part of their purge of paganism — though they are also believed to sell off looted antiquities as a significant income earner.
Al-Asaad had been the government director of the Palmyra site for decades, and both his years of study and his iron administrative grip over the ruins earned him the nickname “Mr. Palmyra” among Syrian antiquities experts. Even after IS militants captured the town and the neighbouring ruins in May, he remained his home town.
The Palmyra archaeological site was al-Assad’s “life,” an opposition activist from the town who uses the name Khaled al-Homsi and who identified himself also as a nephew of al-Asaad, told The Associated Press. Even when he grew old and could no longer go to the Roman ruins, al-Asaad “lived close to the site and he could see the archaeological site from his house,” al-Homsi said.
The militants detained the scholar around three weeks ago, al-Homsi said, speaking to the AP on condition his real name not be used.
On Tuesday, they brought him in a van to a main square packed with shoppers. A militant read out five accusations against al-Asaad, including that he was the “director of idols,” represented Syria “at infidel conferences” and visited Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Then, another militant pulled out a knife, at which point al-Homsi said he left the square, unable to watch. Al-Asaad’s body was later hung from a pole on a main street.
Syria’s state news agency SANA confirmed the beheading.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, had earlier told SANA that al-Asaad’s body was taken to Palmyra’s archaeological site and hung from one of the Roman columns. But several activists denied that was the case.
Al-Asaad was “one of the most important pioneers in Syrian archaeology in the 20th century,” Abdulkarim said. IS had tried to extract information from him about where some of the town’s treasures had been hidden to save them from the militants, the antiquities chief said.
Palmyra was the capital of an ancient Arab client state of the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century, its Queen Zenobia led a revolt against Rome that briefly succeeded in holding much of the Levant until it was crushed. The remains of the cities, including temples and dramatic colonnades, are a UNESCO world heritage site.
SANA said al-Asaad had been in charge of Palmyra’s archaeological site for four decades until 2003, when he retired. After retiring, al-Asaad worked as an expert with the Antiquities and Museums Department.
Al-Asaad, who held a diploma in history and education from the University of Damascus, wrote many books and scientific texts either individually or in co-operation with other Syrian or foreign archeologists, SANA said. Among his titles are “The Palmyra sculptures,” and “Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra and the Orient.”
He also discovered several ancient cemeteries, caves and the Byzantine cemetery in the garden of the Museum of Palmyra, the agency added.
“Al-Asaad was a treasure for Syria and the world,” Khalil Hariri, al-Asaad’s son-in-law who works at Palmyra’s archaeological department, told The Associated Press, speaking over the phone from the central Syrian city of Homs. “Why did they kill him?”
“Their systematic campaign seeks to take us back into pre-history,” he added. “But they will not succeed.”
Hariri, who is married to al-Asaad’s daughter, Zenobia, said his father-in-law had been a member of President Bashar Assad’s ruling Baath party since 1954. Hariri added that al-Asaad is survived by six sons and five daughters. Al-Asaad is not related to President Assad.
Since falling to IS, Palmyra’s ancient site has remained intact but the militants destroyed a lion statue in the town dating back to the 2nd century. The statue, discovered in 1975, had stood at the gates of the town museum, and had been placed inside a metal box to protect it from damage.
In early July, IS released a video showing the killing of some 20 captured government soldiers in Palmyra’s amphitheatre. They were shot dead by young IS members armed with pistols. Hundreds of people were seen watching the killings.
Also Wednesday, an IS suicide bomber targeted a predominantly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria, killing at least 13 people, SANA said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the explosion happened outside a local Kurdish police station in the town of Qamishli. It said more than 40 people were wounded in the blast.
The IS claimed responsibility for the blast. The group has been battling Kurdish fighters in Syria since last year and the extremists have carried out dozens of suicide attacks against the Kurds. The Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S.-led airstrikes, have also captured significant territory from IS in northern Syria.