ISIS beheads scholar for not giving up sacred artefacts

THE beheading by Isis jihadists of an ''irreplaceable'' antiquities scholar, who had spent decades protecting the archaeological treasures in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, sparked an international outcry.

Khaled al-Asaad, 82, was killed by the group after being held for about a month. The militants had apparently tried to extract the locations of valuable artefacts from Mr al-Asaad, but he refused to divulge the information.

Many treasures from the city had been moved to keep them out of the clutches of Isis - whose members would seek to destroy or profit from them as they have with sites in Iraq - since the group seized the city in May.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, told Syria's Sana news agency that Mr al-Asaad was murdered in front of dozens of people on Tuesday in a square outside the town's museum, and that his body was taken to Palmyra's archaeological site and hung from one of the Roman columns - although some have said he was hung from a pole.

The ancient city of Palmyra
The ancient city of Palmyra

Mr al-Asaad was said to have been accused by Isis of being the ''director of idols'', and of once representing Syria ''at infidel conferences''.

Amr al-Azm, a former antiquities official who ran Syria's science and conservation laboratories and is now associate professor of Middle Eastern history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, US, told The Independent that in many ways Mr al-Asaad ''was Mr Palmyra''.

''You couldn't really do anything in Palmyra unless you went through him,'' Professor al-Azm said. ''He was dedicated to the site and the city and the history of it all... it made him an obvious target for Isis.''

There never seemed any danger of Mr al-Asaad leaving, even after Isis swept in, because he saw the Palmyra archaeological site as his ''life'', according to an opposition activist from the town who uses the name Khaled al-Homsi and said he was a nephew of Mr al-Asaad.

Even when he grew older and could no longer go to the Roman ruins, Mr al-Asaad ''lived close to the site and he could see the archaeological site from his house,'' Mr al-Homsi added.

Isis believes that ancient relics promote idolatry and claim they are destroying such artefacts and archaeological treasures as part of this doctrine. There are fears that they will completely destroy or loot the 2,000-year-old Roman-era city, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Unesco director-general, Irina Bokova, said yesterday that she was ''outraged to learn of the brutal murder'' of Mr al-Asaad.

''They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,'' she said. ''His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.''

Professor al-Azm said that Mr al-Asaad had been involved in the conservation of the site at Palmyra since the 1950s and was in charge of it for four decades until he retired in 2003.

He then worked as an expert with the Syrian government's antiquities and museums department.

Mr al-Azm said that Mr al-Asaad had ''acquired a vast corpus of information'' about Palmyra, ''the kind of information that you get through being there and working with your hands''.

''It is different to what you might get from a book or a lecture... so it is irreplaceable,'' he said, adding that Mr al-Asaad was always ''very charming and welcoming'' and willing to share his knowledge.

He said: ''I think at some point there may be a statute, or a roundabout named after him in Palmyra. He would be up there in the pantheon of those who have protected the country's cultural heritage - and in some cases gave their lives for it.''

Mr al-Asaad's son-in-law Khalil Hariri, who worked at Palmyra's archaeological department, said: ''Al-Asaad was a treasure for Syria and the world. Why did they kill him?''

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