On August 18th, the militant group know as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS—known for its public executions, destruction of priceless artworks, and brutal oppression of a region that has seen its fare share of, well, brutal oppression—has dealt a blow to the archaeology community by publicly beheading 82-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, revered as a premier Syrian archaeologist.
The beheading was spectated by dozens of people in front of a museum in Palmyra, Syria, an ancient Roman city and gem of archaeology, which Khaled al-Asaad called home. ISIS overran the city in May 2015, raising international alarm about potential damage to the relics there.
In death, the Syrian archaeologist protected his country’s antiquities as he had in life. ISIS had kidnapped and interrogated Khaled al-Asaad for over a month, asking him where the museum had relocated its valuable artifacts for safekeeping. He refused to tell them. So ISIS militants beheaded him and tied his body to a Roman column.
For Syrian Archaeologist, A Lifetime Excavating and Protecting Antiquities
Khaled al-Asaad had dedicated his life to the research, excavation, and preservation of antiquities in Syria, particularly of the 2000-year-old Roman ruins in Palmyra, about which he wrote two books and many articles published in international journals. During his tenure, Palmyra became an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded in the ancient Roman plaza whose excavation he oversaw decades before, in front of the museum where he served as Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities for over half a century.
Two millennia ago, Palmyra looked quite different: it was controlled by the Roman Empire and flourished as a major trading hub along the Silk Road. Its people most commonly worshipped either Roman deities or their own gods, depicted in many of the artifacts discovered by the late Syrian archaeologist, including many Roman tombs and the Temple of Bel. Jews were oppressed, Jesus Christ was still a teenager, and Islam wouldn’t exist for another 600 years. This period of history fascinated Khaled al-Asaad, as he believed it had great impact on the kind of country Syria would later become.
Why ISIS Makes Archaeologists Lose Sleep
The Islamic State, however, has a very different way of looking at history. ISIS adheres to an extreme, puritanical (and some would call inauthentic) form of Sunni Islam that harshly condemns polytheism, idol worship, and artistic representation as a whole. They believed the Syrian archaeologist to be a defender of idolatry, and a loyalist to Syria’s Shi’a president, Bashar al-Assad (no relation).
It has destroyed artifacts in other museums and sites throughout northern Iraq and southeastern Syria, most notoriously by bulldozing the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. It has destroyed several ancient polytheistic shrines near Palmyra, but it has yet to damage the site where Khaled al-Asaad was killed. All this is advertised on its website and social media, including a video showing its June killing of 25 government soldiers in Palmyra’s Roman amphitheatre.
Less advertised are its lootings of ancient artifacts, which it would rather sell for big bucks through the black market than smash with a sledgehammer. These tend to be portable, unregistered artifacts—the kind that Khaled al-Asaad spent his life protecting, until his last breath.