Palmyra is latest in long list of cultural gems threatened by Islamic State


With Islamic State’s capture of the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra on Wednesday, there is renewed fear that the extremist group will continue its campaign of destruction against some of the world’s most precious antiquities and cultural heritage sites.

Palmyra is considered one of the world’s most precious architectural treasures, and is known for the Roman colonnades that line its streets and an ancient burial site. Looters had previously broken into the tombs in the city’s necropolis, stealing statues and using heavy machinery to excavate the site.

Palmyra Necropolis

A new road, as well as man-made dirt barriers, have affected multiple tombs and disturbed the necropolis' archaeological soils, according to the UNITAR image analysis.

The ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syria, has been seized by militants of Islamic State, putting the UNESCO World Heritage site at risk of destruction.

Before Islamic State fighters took control this week, Syrian officials had moved hundreds of statues and other prized antiquities to safety, they said, but they fear the fate of larger objects and architectural features that couldn’t be moved.

That fear is well-founded: The Islamic State is believed to have razed entire ancient sites in Iraq, and at least 24 of Syria’s cultural heritages sites have been destroyed since its civil war began. All six of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage properties are in danger, according to the U.N. cultural agency.

Nearly 200 other sites have been damaged, according to a December report from the U.N. Institute for Training and Research, which analyzed satellite images of various sites and found severe damage to many of them.

Islamic State and other radical Islamic groups have said they are destroying the ancient works because they represent idolatry. They are also suspected of selling the looted treasures to finance their campaigns.

Some of the most devastating damage to the region’s cultural heritage sites includes:

Aleppo, Syria

The U.N. says Aleppo could be “one of the worst affected metropolitan areas” in Syria, with 22 cultural heritage locations destroyed in the ancient city, which archaeologists say is about 7,000 years old. Among the damaged sites are the Carlton Hotel, the Aleppo National Museum and the Great Umayyad Mosque, founded in AD 715 and believed to be one of the oldest mosques in the world.


Historic sites such as the Carlton Citadel Hotel (upper left) have been destroyed. The Umayyad Mosque (lower right) has also been damaged, according to the report.

Images and video also appeared to show damage to the Aleppo Citadel.

Ancient city of Bosra, Syria

Bosra is a major archaeological site, according to the U.N., and contains ruins from the Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim periods. It survived inhabited and nearly intact for about 2,500 years and became a major frontier market during Byzantine times.

Portions of the Omari mosque have been damaged, and a number of sites have been illegally excavated, burned or destroyed in the fighting.

Part of the ancient city’s wall has been bulldozed and locals have built illegal buildings there.

Crac Des Chevaliers, Crusader castles in Syria

These two castles were built by the Hospitallers between the 12th and 13th centuries, and were among the best-preserved examples of Crusader castles, according to the U.N.

Large parts of the castles’ stonework has been severely damaged, and some walls have partially collapsed.

Nimrud, Iraq

The city was founded more than 3,300 years ago and was one of the capitals of the Assyrian empire, according to UNESCO. Three royal tombs, packed with frescoes and other treasures, were discovered in the 1980s.

Islamic State extremists razed the ancient site with bulldozers, according to officials, destroying ruins that date to the 13th century BC. An entire section of one of the palaces, dating to 879 BC, was also destroyed, along with stone sculptures, according to officials.

(AFP/Getty Images)

This image, taken from a video on April 11, allegedly shows members of Islamic State destroying a stone slab with a sledgehammer at what they said was the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq. (AFP/Getty Images)

In a statement, the UNESCO’s director-general called the acts a “war crime,” and said it was part of the “cultural cleansing underway” in Iraq.

Video released in April allegedly shows members of the Islamic State destroying a stone slab with sledgehammers and smoke billowing from the site after it was wired with explosives.

Mosul, Iraq

A video released in February appears to show militants destroying centuries-old artifacts at the national museum in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

In the video, a bearded man explains that the artifacts represent “pagan gods” that “were worshiped instead of Allah.”

The militants kicked statues off their pedestals, smashing them with sledgehammers and drills, and burned thousands of books and ancient poetry anthologies, according to videos released at the time.

At least some of the destroyed sculptures were believed to be replicas, according to some reports.

Hatra, Iraq

Hatra was a large, fortified city dating to the 3rd century BC, UNESCO says, and served as a major staging post on the Silk Road and the capital of the first Arab kingdom.

A militant hammers away at a face on a wall in Hatra, a large fortified city recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site southwest of Mosul, Iraq. (Associated Press)

(Associated Press)

A militant fires his weapon at faces on a wall in Hatra. (Associated Press)

Its high walls, reinforced by towers, had protected the city against Roman invasions in AD 116 and 198. Sculptures paying homage to Apollo, Poseidon, Eros and Hermes have been discovered at the site.

Hatra was destroyed by Islamic State militants in March, according to the U.N., which called it a “turning point” in the group’s campaign against cultural history.

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