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Barbaric killing of Syrian Archaeologist!

The news that a prominent Syrian scholar has been brutally murdered by Islamic State terrorists has hit the arts community hard — and has been condemned by Syria's antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdul Karim, as a "cowardly and criminal act of appalling brutality."

But the beheading of the 82-year-old Khaled Asaad , an archaeologist and researcher who for half a century has served as guardian of the exquisite ancient ruins at Palmyra, also demonstrates the great uncertainty facing the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site, Los Angeles Times reported.

Asaad's barbaric killing is not a good omen for the future of this singular ancient city, an important Silk Road hub that bears Greco-Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese and other influences — some of which date back more than two millennia. Scholars around the world have been on edge about its future since May, when Islamic State militants invaded the area, killing hundreds of local residents. The terrorists are known as much for their violence against humans as for their destruction of historic sites — from pre-Islamic pagan temples to Muslim shrines — under the pretense that they are idolatrous.

While the terrorists largely left the ruins alone in the weeks following the invasion, by July, they had gotten around to destroying some of its statuary, including an important 2,000-year-old statue of a lion. At the time, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova described the destruction as being on an "industrial scale."

But the city — with its grand colonnade and its impressive Roman amphitheater — has remained intact. Though, that may not be for much longer. The independent watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that militants have threaded the site with bombs and landmines.

If the ruins at Palmyra were to be destroyed, the loss wouldn't just be a Syrian one. Palmyra was a place where East met West — tied as much to Classical European civilizations as it was to the cultures of the Middle East and Asia. According to UNESCO, their destruction would be "an enormous loss to humanity."

The death of Asaad, in the meantime, represents the silencing of one of the ruins' most vaunted defenders. Asaad, who was born in Palmyra, had been director of the UNESCO heritage site for 50 years, from 1963 to 2003. Even after his retirement, he still worked as an expert with the antiquities and museum department.

Asaad had helped with the removal of many of the on-site museum's greatest treasures in anticipation of the invasion by Islamic State, and some experts theorize that is why he was killed. One Syrian source told the Guardian that the archaeologist had been interrogated by militants for about a month before his murder, likely about the location of Palmyra's treasures. But Asaad had refused to cooperate.

His death is a tremendous loss. Asaad was intimately identified with Palmyra — having been responsible for some of its most significant finds, including an intact third-century mosaic depicting a battle between human beings and mythical animals. Moreover, he had written countless texts on the history of the site.

"It's like you can't talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter," one Syrian antiquities expert told the Guardian, in reference to the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun's tomb. "You can't write about Palmyra's history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad."

Asaad had refused to leave the city when Islamic State militants invaded this spring. As Abdul Karim recounted to the Daily Mail: "He told us, 'I am from Palmyra and I will stay here even if they kill me.'"

Sadly, that has now come to pass.

Asaad had been held prisoner by ISIS for the past month, according to various reports, including detailed stories in The Guardian and The New York Times. The public beheading reportedly took place Tuesday August 18.

Asaad's murder is the latest atrocity perpetrated by the militant group, which has now taken over a third of both Syria and neighboring Iraq, having declared its own strict version of Islamic rule or "caliphate" on the territory it's controlling.

ISIS views artifacts as idolatrous but has also been selling looted antiquities in order to fund its activities.

Syrian state antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told the Guardian that Asaad's family informed him of the beheading. Asaad had worked for more than five decades as head of antiquities in Palmyra, a city northeast of Syria's capital, Damascus with antiquities dating back to the neolithic period.

The report said ISIS supporters used social media to circulate a gruesome but unverified image of Asaad's beheaded body, tied to a pole on a street in the city.

"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," said Abdulkarim. "The continued presence of these criminals in the city is a curse and bad omen on the city and every archaeological piece in it."

Asaad is survived by six sons and five daughters.

Speaking by phone from the Syrian capital, Damascus, Abdulkarim said relatives of Asaad had told him that the retired antiquities director, a father of 11 described as gentle but fiercely determined, had been held by the militants for about a month. Unlike many others, Asaad had rejected opportunities to flee after the Islamic State takeover of Palmyra in May, perhaps thinking that his advanced age — given by various sources as between 81 and 83 — and fame in his field might shield him from the militants' wrath.

The terrorists interrogated him in what might have been an effort to recover treasures from the site that had been spirited away for safekeeping or caches of gold rumored to have been buried in the ruins, according to Abdulkarim.

"They didn't care that this was an old man, that he was an important figure in the city who spent 40 years protecting and preserving its ruins," he said.

A renowned specialist and the author and co-author of many scholarly books about the Syrian site, such as "Palmyra: History, Monuments & Museum," Asaad was a prominent translator of Palmyric Aramaic texts and a frequent collaborator with European archaeological missions. The Palmyra native, who had retired in 2003 after 40 years at the helm of the antiquities department, was often photographed in the ruins, smiling as he gestured toward some priceless find.

During his tenure, Asaad oversaw much of the excavation and restoration at Palmyra, an oasis deep in the desert. He was the widely respected curator of majestic ruins, including the massive Temple of Bel, consecrated to the Semitic god. Asaad was personally responsible for several major archaeological discoveries in the ancient city, which was also the home of Zenobia, a third-century queen who led a revolt against the Roman Empire.

The terrorists invaded Palmyra and embarked on a wave of summary executions, killing suspected government collaborators. They even staged one mass execution in the restored remains of a second-century theater in the ancient city, which before the 2011 outbreak of Syria's civil war had been the venue for performances by many world-famous artists and entertainers.

Residents of the fallen city have been forced to live under the oppressive strictures of Islamic State. Men are obliged to pray five times daily; women who were already wearing veils are forced to fully cover up their hands and faces. An act such as smoking a cigarette can lead to severe retribution.

Although Palmyra's main complex of ruins has so far escaped relatively unscathed, Islamic State has destroyed a number of tombs located nearby and planted land mines amid some larger monuments and historic buildings, according to Abdul Karim.

Asaad's son-in-law Khalil Hariri, who also worked in Palmyra's archaeological department before fleeing to Homs, 90 miles to the west, told The Associated Press that his father-in-law was "a treasure for Syria and the world."

"Why did they kill him?" he asked.

Other tributes poured in from around the globe. On Twitter, author and art historian William Dalrymple called him "a hero of our time." In a statement, the United Nations cultural agency, which had listed Palmyra as a World Heritage site, denounced Asaad's "horrific" murder.

According to SANA, Culture Minister Issam Khalil affirmed that beheading of former Director of Palmyra branch of the department Khaled al-Asaad by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria "ISIS" reflects inherent hatred of humanity and human values.

The minister said in a statement to SANA that the Culture Ministry denounces in the strongest terms this horrible crime, calling on international organizations to shoulder their responsibilities towards Syrian bloodshed by terrorist organizations which are supported by well-known regional and international countries.

He expressed sincere condolences to al-Asaad family and all Syrian people over the irreparable loss of a world-renowned antiquities scholar.

Director of the General Department of Antiquities and Museums condemns the crime.

Director of the General Department of Antiquities and Museums Maamoun Abdul-Karim condemned the beheading of al-Asaad byISIS.

Quoting local sources in Palmyra city, located in the central Homs province, Abdul-Karim told SANA that ISIS terrorists beheaded in cold blood the 80-year old archeologist in the National Museum Square in the city and later crucified his body and hung him on colonnades in central Palmyra.

He added that ISIS had repeatedly interrogated al- Asaad to try to force him to give information about the places of specific archeological treasures in Palmyra but to no avail, and then they killed him.

Abdul-Karim described al-Asaad as one of the most prominent Syrian pioneer archeologists in the 20th century.

Speaking of the course of his career, Abdul-Karim said al-Asaad headed the Department of Palmyra Antiquities and Museums between 1963 and 2003. After retirement, he worked as an expert at the General Department where he participated in developing scientific archeology strategies.

The late archeologist accomplished great achievements in terms of restoring a large number of archeological pieces and artifacts as well as participating in scores of national and joint excavation expeditions, mainly in Palmyra.

Born in Palmyra, al-Asaad participated in Palmyra Development Project between 1962 and 1966, as he unearthed the largest part of the Great Colonnade and the Great Tetrapylon of Palmyra and some of the Byzantine cemeteries, caves and tombs.

Al-Asaad worked at a number of Arab, regional and international institutions like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the European Commission and EU in the framework of projects related to Palmyra and the Syrian ruins.

ISIS took over Tadmur city and the archeological site of Palmyra-a UNESCO World Heritage Site- in May, killing hundreds of the locals and putting in jeopardy a most treasured part of Syria's archeological heritage.

Last July, ISIS terrorists destroyed the 1,900- year-old Lion of Al-Lat statue, one of the most important archeological statues in Palmyra.

ISIS also killed many antiquities and archaeology workers, whose number has reached 13 in various Syrian provinces.

According to CNN, Khaled al-As'ad spent his life on the painstaking task of preserving antiquities, saving the relics of our ancestors for generations yet to come.

He was working in Palmyra, a Syrian city full of ancient monuments and temples — a city that was, in the second millennium B.C., a caravan stop for people making their way across the desert.

But over the past month al-As'ad, 82, ran into a very modern menace — ISIS, the most brutal terrorist group in recent memory.

And on Tuesday, he was beheaded in the public square of the city whose heritage he had worked so hard to save, said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Al-As'ad, a university professor and the former general manager for antiquities and museums in Palmyra, was decapitated as militants watched, Abdulrahman said, citing al-As'ad's relatives in the city.

His crime? Refusing to pledge allegiance to ISIS — and refusing, under ISIS interrogation, to reveal the location of archaeological treasures and two chests of gold the terrorists thought were in the city, Syria's director of the General Department of Antiquities and Museums, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told CNN on Wednesday.

For protecting the antiquities he had spent decades preserving, al-As'ad paid with his life.

When ISIS entered Palmyra in May, Abdulkarim, certain that the terrorists would kill al-As'ad, pleaded with him to leave the city.

"He refused," Abdulkarim said. "He said, 'Whatever happens, happens. I cannot go against my conscience.' He had a very strong personality and refused to yield to anyone."

Instead, he died in the city where he was born.

ISIS posted a photo of his body on social media sites Wednesday. It was tied to a pole, with the head between the legs.

Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, is known as the "bride of the desert" for its exquisite collection of ruins along a historical trade route that once linked Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire.

British historian and novelist Tom Holland described Palmyra as "an extraordinary fusion of classical and Iranian influences intermixed with various Arab influence as well."

ISIS seized the city — a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating to the Neolithic era — in May. ISIS fighters destroyed two ancient Muslim shrines and posted photos of the destruction on Facebook, the Syrian government said.

One of the tombs destroyed was that of Mohammed bin Ali, a descendent of Ali bin Abi Taleb, the Prophet Mohammed's cousin, according to Syria's Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums website. It lies in a hilly area 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) north of Palmyra.

"ISIS militants also blew up the shrine of Shagaf, known as Abu Behaeddine, a religious figure from Palmyra, dated to 500 years ago. The shrine is located in the oasis 500 meters away from the Ancient City's Arch of Triumph," read a statement emailed in June on behalf of Syria's antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim.

Images posted on the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums website showed dust and debris flying into the air as the shrines were destroyed.

Other monuments, temples and historic buildings have been mined, and a statue of a lion at the entrance to Palmyra's museum has been destroyed.

As it has conquered territory, ISIS has destroyed archaeological sites, claiming that it considers religious shrines idolatrous.

Now, another defender of those sites has been killed.

"The Syrian people are shocked because he represented Syria's culture and history," Abdulkarim said. "Regardless of our differences we cannot differ on the character of Khaled al-As'ad."

UNESCO condemns killing of Palmyra's antiquities chief

UNESCO has condemned the killing of the historic city Palmyra's chief archaeologist Khaled Asaad by Islamic State (IS) militants, AFP reported.

The Islamic State group beheaded the 82-year-old retired chief archaeologist of Palmyra after he refused to leave the ancient city, Syria's antiquities chief said.

A UNESCO World Heritage site famed for well-preserved Greco-Roman ruins, Palmyra was seized from government forces in May, fuelling fears the IS jihadists might destroy its priceless heritage as it had done in other parts of Syria and Iraq.

Syrian antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said he had urged Khaled Asaad to leave Palmyra, but he had refused.

"He told us: 'I am from Palmyra and I will stay here even if they kill me'."

Mr Abdulkarim said Asaad was murdered execution-style on Tuesday afternoon in Palmyra, in central Homs province.

"Daesh [IS] has executed one of Syria's most important antiquities experts," he said.

The killing is one of hundreds that have been carried out by IS in and around Palmyra since they took the city. The United States, France and UNESCO voiced outrage over Asaad's death.

"He was the head of antiquities in Palmyra for 50 years and had been retired for 13 years," Mr Abdulkarim said.

He hailed Asaad as a leading expert on the ancient history of the city, which grew from a caravan oasis first mentioned in the second millennium BC.

"He spoke and read Palmyrene, and we would turn to him when we received stolen statues from the police and he would determine if they were real or fake."

'They'll never silence history'

Mr Abdulkarim said Asaad's body had been hung in the city's ancient ruins after being beheaded.

But the photo circulating online showed a body on a median strip of a main road, tied to what appeared to be a lamp post.

A sign attached to the body identified it as that of Asaad.

It accused him of being an apostate and a regime loyalist for representing Syria in conferences abroad with "infidels", as well as being director of Palmyra's "idols".

It also claimed he had been in contact with regime officials.

Mr Abdulkarim said Asaad had been detained by IS last month along with his son Walid, the current antiquities director for Palmyra, who was later released.

He said the jihadists were looking for "stores of gold" in the city.

"I deny wholeheartedly that these stores exist," Mr Abdulkarim said.

"The whole family is truly remarkable. [Asaad's] other son Mohammed and his son-in-law Khalil actively participated in the rescue of 400 antiquities as the town was being taken over by the jihadists," he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, also reported the death, saying Asaad had been killed in a "public square in Palmyra in front of dozens of people".

UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said she was "both saddened and outraged to learn of the brutal murder", adding that "they killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra".

"His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history."

The killing also prompted condemnation from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said Asaad had worked with numerous French archaeological missions over the years.

"This barbaric murder joins a long list of crimes committed over the past four years in Syria," he said in a statement, calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.

Fate of city's antiquities uncertain after mass killings

In the United States, State Department spokesman John Kirby decried the "brutal, gruesome murder".

IS militants captured Palmyra on May 21, prompting international concern about the fate of the city's antiquities.

The IS group's harsh vision of Islam considers statues and grave markers to be idolatrous, and the group has destroyed antiquities and heritage sites in other territory under its control in Syria and Iraq.

"These attempts to erase Syria's rich history will ultimately fail," Mr Kirby said.

So far, Palmyra's most famous sites have been left intact, though there are reports IS has mined them, and the group reportedly destroyed a famous statue of a lion outside the city's museum in June.

Most of the pieces in the museum were evacuated by antiquities staff before IS arrived, though the group has blown up several historic Muslim graves.

IS has also executed hundreds of people in the city and surrounding area, many of them government employees.

The group also infamously used child members to shoot dead 25 Syrian government soldiers in Palmyra's ancient amphitheatre.

[Source: The Syria Times, Damascus, 20Aug15]

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