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Islamic State reported to destroy historic tombs in ancient city of Palmyra, Syria

Syrian antiquities director reports the destruction of two historic mausoleums in Palmyra by Islamic State

A top Syrian antiquities official announced today that Islamic State militants have destroyed a pair of important historic tombs at the ancient city of Palmyra, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The destroyed sites include the grave of the Shiite saint Muhammad Bin Ali and the Sufi scholar Nizar Abu Bahaa Eddine. Images released by a militant website, and consistent with reporting from the Associated Press, show militants carrying explosives, then explosions and piles of rubble. Islamic State militants are Sunni and view Shiites as heretics and the followers of Sufi orders as deviants. Moreover, they view tombs and religious shrines as on par with idol worshiping.

Since Islamic State took control of the Palmyra area late last month, there has been international concern over the fate of its ancient ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that once served as an important Silk Road way station and maintains some of the finest Roman-era ruins in existence. These include a graceful Roman theater, a dramatic 3,600-foot colonnade and various pagan temples. The architecture is a singular combination of Greek, Roman, Semitic and Persian styles.

This comes in the wake of other iconoclastic destruction by Islamic State. In February, the militants damaged ancient winged bulls at the entrance to the ancient site of Nineveh, near Mosul, in Iraq. Shortly thereafter, they released video of destruction to the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra, also near Mosul.

Likewise, Islamic State has shown a taste for destroying medieval sites — some of which haven't been as well recorded by scholars.

"Among the most tragic losses of the many antiquities destroyed in Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been the destruction of Iraq's seriously understudied medieval architecture," writes Christopher Jones, a Near East scholar, in Hyperallergic this week. "The demolitions of the mausoleum of Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim and the tomb of Imam Ibn Hassan Aoun al-Din wiped out two of Mosul's prominent medieval landmarks. When another explosion obliterated the Imam Dur mausoleum in Samarra, it wiped out the earliest example of a muqarnas dome in the world."

A muqarnas dome is a type of honeycombed dome unique to Islamic architecture.

Also wiped out was Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah, southeast of Mosul, an important site that blended Christian and Islamic art and featured a rare Uighur inscription. It operated as a monastery until this spring, when it was levelled by Islamic State.

In Palmyra, in the meantime, the destruction may just be beginning, since its numerous pagan temples — such as the Temple of Bel — may prove irresistible to Islamic State and its austere vision of a purified Islam.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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