UNESCO is warning that cultural treasures in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra are at great risk following reports that Islamic State forces have taken over the World Heritage site famous for architectural ruins believed to be thousands of years old.
The head of the cultural, scientific and educational division of the United Nations said Wednesday that fighting is endangering one of the most significant sites in the Middle East. "I [call] on the international community to do everything in its power to protect the affected civilian population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage of Palmyra," said Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, in a news release.
On Wednesday, reports from multiple news outlets said that ISIS forces have taken over most if not all of Palmyra -- located in central Syria, northeast of the capital Damascus -- after spending the past few days closing in on the site.
In recent months, ISIS forces are believed to have destroyed numerous cultural sites throughout Syria. UNESCO published a report in December that counted 24 cultural heritage locations in the country as having been destroyed.
Palmyra is particularly noted for its architectural colonnades that are believed to date back to the height of the Roman Empire. The city was a major cultural crossroads, bringing together Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures during and 1st and 2nd centuries.
UNESCO is charged with overseeing cultural heritage sites around the world. Palmyra was designated a World Heritage site by the U.N. organization in 1980.
"It is imperative that all parties respect international obligations to protect cultural heritage during conflict, by avoiding direct targeting, as well as use for military purposes," said Bokova on Wednesday.